In “If Slavery Is Not Wrong, Nothing Is Wrong,” I proposed that the Civil War was fought to restore the original unity of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and that the Thirteenth Amendment, adopted in 1865, was the culmination of that colorblind restoration. In the antebellum period, opponents of slavery could not specify what would result once slavery was ended. Would free blacks have equal rights? Vote? Intermarry with whites? Thus did Stephen Douglas mock Abraham Lincoln. The post-bellum answer of universal freedom nonetheless preserved much of the antebellum distinction between being anti-slavery and being anti-black. While Black Codes prevailed…
Could anything be clearer than the Thirteenth Amendment? A model of succinctness, it reads in full:
Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
From its modest yet revolutionary text some contemporary legal commentators have derived governmental power to address every category or practice that involves a form of discrimination or inequality: racial profiling, poverty, migrant workers, pregnant women (for abortion rights), and more. Such a Thirteenth Amendment might devour the rest of the Constitution, marking the demise of constitutional government that protects individual rights, as any means would be justified to attack every ill that might have some relationship to freedom. The fight to end slavery would have become the fight to end freedom.
President Obama may have escaped the widespread carping at his West Point speech by bringing even greater embarrassment upon himself with the Bowe Bergdahl deal, and now the implosion of Iraq, but the recent D-Day celebrations impel us to revisit the offensive speech. There is much more here than the widely-noted hackery: e.g., “Those who argue otherwise—who suggest that America is in decline, or has seen its global leadership slip away—are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics.” The captivating orator had become the whining demagogue many had previously perceived; the admired student body president appeared a petulant schoolyard bully.
“As an initial matter, the Clause probably prohibits Congress from establishing a national religion.” –Justice Clarence Thomas, in his concurring opinion in Greece v. Galloway
“Probably”? As if the May 5, 2014 Town of Greece v. Galloway decision, upholding prayers said at the beginning of legislative meetings, didn’t upset strict separationists enough, Justice Clarence Thomas’s radically originalist concurring opinion was enough to bring on shouts for an exorcism. To the contrary, Thomas’s reasoning about the First Amendment establishment clause is the most rational way to preserve liberty, by recognizing the institutional principle of federalism as well as the individual right of religious free exercise. This becomes clear once we see this opinion in light of his earlier, lengthier establishment opinions.
The firing of New York Times editor Jill Abramson has excited controversies for the wrong reasons. The bicker over sex discrimination ignores the most fundamental issue: her integrity as a journalist.
My Left Foot is a touching film (and novel) about a poor young Irishman, Christy, with cerebral palsy; he can neither walk nor speak. But he has a shrewd mind and uses his left foot, the only limb he controls, to draw, paint, and thereby express his soul.
President Obama’s recent State of the Union Address also told a tale about overcoming disabilities. The disability metaphor extends through the entire speech and culminates at the end, when he introduces his special guest, a severely injured Afghan war veteran:
Which President advocated the following conservative notions in his State of the Union Address? Restoring local government, reviving charities, freeing business from regulation, denouncing the education bureaucracy, tightening the borders, and strengthening “the values of traditional families.”
Contrast this with a more progressive President whose State of the Union Address emphasized raising the salaries of academics and doctors; calling for frank discussion of race relations, declaring a “year of culture,” and increasing trust in the government—while never mentioning God.
Coming just prior to the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the announcement that the U.S. embassy to the Vatican would be moved into the Rome embassy grounds struck many American Catholics as yet another insult by the Obama Administration. In fact, the Vatican Embassy is not being closed—though several former Ambassadors to the Vatican have criticized the change. (Ronald Reagan was the first President who authorized an Ambassador to the Vatican, so the move may be as much anti-Reagan as anti-Catholic.) But in reviewing the Kennedy record, we discover that the only Catholic President had campaigned against having an Ambassador to the Vatican.
You would have thought we were watching a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington ending with the corrupt Senator shooting filibustering good guy Jimmy Stewart.
Whatever good or ill the filibluster has produced in years past, reliance on this and other institutional devices kept conservatives from making more fundamental arguments concerning the Senate’s purpose. Fundamental, philosophic issues were suppressed in favor of “process.” Thus in the leadership slots we get American variants of Anthony Trollope’s parliamentarian Timothy Beeswax when we need men with virtues beyond cunning.
The sesquicentennial of the Gettysburg Address on November 19 requires us to ponder the legacy of the Civil War and Lincoln. This is not some nostalgic romp reenacting Pickett’s charge, but perhaps the decisive political moment of our times. For the best, President Obama will not participate in the official celebration.
This uncharacteristic modesty is appropriate, for Franklin Roosevelt already delivered the Progressive interpretation of Gettysburg and Lincoln’s remarks on the 75th anniversary of the battle, July 3, 1938. FDR’s interpretation of the Address and of the meaning of liberty, equality, and constitutionalism generally have so permeated contemporary thinking that we must confront the original source of these errors in order to free ourselves to understand Lincoln as he thought and acted.