NewsBusters associate editor Noel Sheppard did a fine job of analyzing today's Associated Press story "Poll: Racial misgivings of whites an Obama issue." I found this passage from the AP story particularly provocative:
Such numbers are a harsh dose of reality in a campaign for the history books. Obama, the first black candidate with a serious shot at the presidency, accepted the Democratic nomination on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, a seminal moment for a nation that enshrined slavery in its Constitution.Did the United States, as the piece contends, enshrine slavery in its Constitution?
According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, "enshrine" means "to enclose in or as if in a shrine" or "to preserve or cherish as sacred." Over at thesaurus.com, synonyms for the word are "cherish, consecrate, idolize, sanctify."
In a 2002 Heritage Foundation article, Dr. Matthew Spaulding writes:
In 1987, former aide to President Johnson, Jack Valenti penned a commentary for The New York Times. His purpose was to challenge comments on the Constitution made by Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, a man placed on the court by Valenti's boss. Writing about the Constitutional Convention, Valenti noted:
John Adams opposed slavery his entire life as a "foul contagion in the human character" and "an evil of colossal magnitude." James Madison called it "the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man."
Nevertheless, white-haired old George Mason of Virginia was openly and passionately abolitionist. He wanted all slaves freed. Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania, stumping heavily on his wooden leg, vented his anger. His words rang through the hall. ''The curse of heaven on the states where it [ slavery ] prevailed,'' he thundered.That doesn't sound as though slavery were cherished or santified by at least some of the Founding Fathers. Rather, it was acknowledged as an evil, an issue that needed to be avoided to ensure the building of a nation.
As Valenti observed:
By first building a nation, the Founders, though they did not know it at the time, conspired to form a general public spirit that 70 years later imploded. When the debris had been cleared, there was no more slavery. A metastasis - ancient, mean, ugly -had finally, providentially, been cut from the heart of the country.
And the document that had tolerated the omission in the first place was the life-giving sustenance for a political and social contract that had endured. Survival of an idea, a governing process, is not an inconsiderable triumph.
Frederick Douglass, in an 1852 speech, intoned:
Fellow-citizens! there is no matter in respect to which, the people of the North have allowed themselves to be so ruinously imposed upon, as that of the pro-slavery character of the Constitution. In that instrument I hold there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing; but, interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gateway? or is it in the temple? It is neither.And later he told his audience:
Now, take the constitution according to its plain reading, and I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it. On the other hand it will be found to contain principles and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.The point of all this is that, contrary to the AP article, our Constitution did not enshrine slavery. The practice was in no way cherished or sanctified. Acknowledging that it was reluctantly tolerated so that the nation could be formed is closer to the truth.