Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Obama First Reacts

I missed Obama’s speech--I’m just finishing a conference in Indiana on (snore, snore) climate change--and now I have to dash to the airport to increase my carbon footprint, but from the brief news accounts just out it seems to me that Obama hit a home run. This comment in particular stands out:

"The answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution -- a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time."

This is not too far removed from Lincoln’s language in his speech attacking the Dred Scott decision. This contrasts rather sharply with Thurgood Marshall’s deprecations of the Constitution in the 1980s, when he said he wouldn’t celebrate the Constitution’s bicentennial because, as a black, it wasn’t his Constitution, or Jesse Jackson, who got the meaning of the three-fifths clause exactly backwards.

We’ll want to read the whole thing, of course, and especially watch for the reaction among blacks who have been fed the Marshall-Jackson line for along time now. Perhaps Obama can get them to change course at long last.

Discussions - 12 Comments

This was the Frederick Douglass theory, updated.

Yes, a home run. More later. . .

A) You guys are cheap dates if you'll swoon for a few phrases you want to hear.

B) The quoted statement is poppycock. The Constitution did not have at it's very core "the ideal of equal citizenship under the law". In fact the opposite is the case. But since Jaffaism is simply an offshoot from mainline liberalism I suppose it's hopeless to expect you to cast a skeptical eye on what, for you people, is akin to religious faith.

C) Let's cut to the chase here. Jaffa and his overwhelmingly Jewish followers did not work up this obsession of theirs with a thowaway phrase in the preamble to the DI in the post WWII period because they suddenly were concerned about slavery. Jaffaism is an emotionally understandable but intellectally vacuous reaction to the Holocaust. Why is it intellectually vacuous? Spend five seconds considering whether or not the people living within the borders of Israel enjoy "equal citizenship under the law". The principles you think will save you will in fact destroy you. Unless you think they will only be applied when, where, and how you wish it.

Whoa, somebody forgot to take their anti-inflammatory meds this morning!

I won't dilate this long-running argument here, except to note the curious thing that during my five years in Claremont studying with Jaffa, I don't recall a single Jewish student among us. We were all Catholics, Prots, Anglicans, Episcopalians, athiests (several of those). . . I'm probably forgetting someone who actually was Jewish, but isn't that rather the point? One ought to be more careful about throwing around phrases like "overwhelmingly Jewish followers" when it is so manifestly untrue.

If the Constitution does not presume the ideas of the Declaration why was it ratified by conventions, rather than state legislatures?

If it was a treaty, it would have been ratified by the legislatures.

It is no coincidence that the first state to let the people ratify its constitution was Massachusetts, and that the state Supreme Court ruled shortly thereafter that slavery was incompatible with that constitution.

Yes, a home-run and a half...this is the Democrat they've been longing for years to see, really which the country has been longing for years to see.

It's wonderful, beautiful, moving, and yet...

Well, there are a lot of "and yets," policy-wise(are we to simply expect helpful WORDS about conservative anger about current affirmative action policies?), and pyschodrama-wise, (is Shelby Steele right?, but the biggest "and yet" concerns the yawning length of those twenty years associating with Jeremiah Wright, about whom we will be quite legitimately learning much more. It may turn out to be a distance too far for even a home-run and a half.

You missed Obama's speech, and I see that you probably missed Marshall's Bicentennial Speech as well. He was advocating the idea of an evolving constitution over a fixed one:

"I cannot accept this invitation, for I do not believe that the meaning of the Constitution was forever "fixed" at the Philadelphia Convention. Nor do I find the wisdom, foresight, and sense of justice exhibited by the Framers particularly profound. To the contrary, the government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today. When contemporary Americans cite 'The Constitution,' they invoke a concept that is vastly different from what the Framers barely began to construct two centuries ago.
For a sense of the evolving nature of the Constitution we need look no further than the first three words of the document's preamble: 'We the People."

The Obama speech is SPIN, people. We will need to defeat this dangerous man. Therefore, why give him so many points, at such length, for his undoubted skill? I assure you that Obama will not be spending time and political capital educating his fellow Americans, black or white, about the Constitution. There is no back door to the White House for Professor Jaffa's teachings here. Sorry, but there isn't. Western Straussianism has a certain amount in common with the rhetoric of Obama's current speech. Fine. What does that mean? Virtually nothing.

John, let me second, and update, Steve Hayward's recollections: Jaffa's followers are certainly not "overwhelmingly Jewish," nor are they predominantly Jewish. You accuse Western Straussianism of being "intellectually vacuous" though "emotionally understandable." Your equating it with ethnic "reaction to the Holocaust" is intellectually vacuous -- without being emotionally understandable.

Conservatives can take no comfort in Obama's willingness to say a few vaguely good things about the Constitution. That is simply smart politics. It makes Obama more dangerous than a denigrator of the Constitution like Thurgood Marshall.
His political positions and the various influences on his life, Pastor Wright included, are far more important than the constitutional rhetoric he trots out at moments (like today) that call for intellection.

This is a serious question: when did Thurgood Marshall become a villain on the right? Surely the idea of a "living constitution" - hardly distinctively his - is not enough.

Serious answer: I think "villain" is too strong a word, but there are multiple grounds for being deeply disappointed with the course Marshall took late in his career on the Court. The element of bitterness, and his criticisms of the Constitution he made in the 1980s, seemed a repudiation of the very approach he took in the long march to Brown. Then, too, there are the accounts of him telling colleagues (I recall this from general memory--someone may wish to check into this) that affirmative action quotas should last 100 years because "it's our turn"--a reparationist view that also differs sharply with his own previously expressed views up to and including Brown. It seemed a sad, and counterproductive, degeneration.

Steve, you should consider giving your next talk on climate change (and how it's either not happening or not a big deal) among DC's cherry blossoms. That'd be a funny display of chutzpah, eh?

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