Mr. Madison, Meet Mr. Twain

Whitewashing America’s past doesn’t honor it, burnish it, or repair it. All it accomplishes is making present-day Americans ignorant, naive, cocky and shallow. American society deserves respect for recognizing its ethical and moral errors and misconceptions, debating them, and remarkably often, fixing them. This is another reason why the new volume of Mark Twain masterpieces omitting his pointed use of the word “nigger” does damage to history and culture. It is also the reason why the Republican-led reading of the Constitution should have included all of the Constitution, including the document’s initial support of slavery.

It didn’t. As Republicans have demonstrated before and will again, they really don’t understand the document they claim to revere. The fact that the Constitution was imperfect at its origin and will always be imperfect, even as American society learns and grows wiser, naturally causing the meaning of the  document to refine itself, is something to be celebrated and embraced. America is about growth, change, and self-improvement. There is nothing in the Constitution to be ashamed of, nothing that should not be read with the rest.

The Democrats think the Constitution is an archaic relic, and the Republicans think it needs to be censored like a Henry Miller novel.

Great. It is a testimony to the brilliance of the Founders that they could create a government that can survive being run by individuals so narrow-minded and fearful.

3 thoughts on “Mr. Madison, Meet Mr. Twain

  1. A (possibly philosophical) question:
    When an amendment removes a provision from the Constitution, is that original provision still a part of the Constitution? Put another way, is the Constitution the entire text or the resulting law from the text, understanding that some amendments change or remove earlier parts of it?

    If I were to say “The three-fifths compromise is not in the Constitution.”, am I correct or not?
    If I were to say “In the Constitution it says that Senators are elected by their State legislatures.”, am I correct or not?

    I have to say that I come down on the side of thinking that amended provisions are NOT part of the Constitution because they are not law. And without some way to read the original passage with a clear contextual clue* that “this part no longer applies”, I’d think that the sensible thing to do in a verbal reading of the Constitution is to leave the passage out.

    Did they read the 18th amendment (Prohibition)?


    * For example: I recall in Junior High that I had a text book with the complete text of the Constitution in an appendix. In those passages that were no longer valid due to subsequent amendments, it had light-blue lines surrounding them and a pair of red lines forming an “X” across them. It was done in a way that the text was still perfectly easy to read, but clearly different. I guess that memory stays with me as the “right” way to present the Constitution because it was VERY helpful in my understanding of what I was reading.

  2. I deal extensively with treaties and other international agreements in my work. These agreements are frequently amended by protocols.

    Since the original, signed-in-ink treaties and protocols are kept under lock and key at the State Department, I have to rely on commercial publishers for the texts. (The government prints them too, but it usually takes them a while.) These publishers are always careful to print the original treaty, as signed, and then each protocol, as signed. They don’t (except in rare cases, and even then covered with warning bells) publish a “current” version of the treaty that “incorporates” the protocols.

    Why not? Because they’re publishers, and they’re smart. They are very, very good at reproducing a text they are given. They have no expertise in deciding the exact legal effect that a subsequent protocol has on the original treaty. So they print everything, as published, and leave it to experts to figure out what the amended treaty actually says.

    I think they are doing the right thing. Amendments to the Constituition aren’t like taking off Mr. Potato Head’s ears and replacing them with his eyebrows. Many of them (take, for example, the Bill of Rights) don’t “amend” anything. They add things. If the addition affects some earlier provision, that’ll get worked out eventually. But trying to foresee all such effects in advance is an impossible task.

    The Constitution is the original text and the text of each Amendment. You can rely on light blue lines and red crosses if you like. If you do, you’re trusting that the anonymous editor — whoever decided where the lines and crosses go — managed to get it right.

    The danger of doing that is well illustrated by the January 6 arguments over what to read and what not to read. Everybody wanted to decide personally where the X’s and lines should go. But legislators have transitory political agendas, questionable grammatical and historical competence, and mind-sets that tend to discourage looking back at what other lawmakers did before them. (Or, in some cases, what they themselves did, months or minutes ago.) These people are singularly ill-equipped to decide matters that (according to the terms of the very document they are reading) they’re supposed to keep their hands off of anyhow.

    Read the original text. Read the amendments. Trust our children to understand how the tradition works, and to carry it on. With any luck, they’ll do a better job of it than we are doing today.

  3. I need to point out that, in its original test, the Constitution makes no mention of slavery or involuntary servitude. The 3/5 of a man edict came about as a result of some early legislating-from-the-bench by the Supreme Court in order to effect a compromise between North and South. Predictably, it only acerbated the situation. I submit that the Republican Congress edited nothing. A number of people- myself included- question whether any amendment beyond the Bill of Rights has much in the way of a positive purpose today. The last former slave died many years ago. The direct election of senators only politicized a body intended to be the state’s direct representatives and advisors to the President. And the establishment of the voting age at 18 was a political move that only made young people into easy dupes for corrupt, emotion-based interests.

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