Two transformational political leaders, speaking some fifty years apart, showed how differently modern historians have come to view the U.S. Constitution.
On June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy made a nationwide television address on civil rights. He felt compelled to announce his historic Civil Rights Bill after federalized army troops were required to force the admission of the first black student to the University of Alabama. In a dramatic moment played out on live television earlier in the day, Alabama Governor George Wallace had stood in the doorway of the college proclaiming his belief in segregation.
Kennedy began his speech by noting that “this nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”
A minute later, he went on to state that “We are confronted with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution.”
Most 21st century history books now acknowledge that the Constitution was not written by “men of many nations.” The 55 members of the Constitutional Convention were all white males of Anglo-Saxon background. They were all men with substantial property and almost half were slave-owners.
Far from being “clear” on slavery, the Constitution was written in opaque and deceptive language. While the world “slave” was never mentioned, several provisions in the document specifically authorized slavery. Pressured by the Southern delegates, the delegates added a hideous new dimension to the existing institution with the “Fugitive Slave Clause.” Officials in Northern states would now be required to assist in tracking down and returning black men and women who had risked their lives to escape captivity.
It is possible that President Kennedy knew, at some level, of this dark side of the original Constitution. He was a highly educated man from a very wealthy family. We would say today that he was “privileged.” An Irish-American and a Catholic, he attended exclusive all-white private schools and showed great bravery in the Navy, an institution that was highly segregated during World War II.
Kennedy, like all educated white men of his generation, had been taught that the founders intended that the Constitution protect equal rights for all, but under political pressure and deadlines made a few mistakes. President Kennedy was a gifted politician with a good understanding of his national TV audience. He probably realized that in 1963 he could not make a major criticism of a document most Americans believed to be at the core of the national identity.
Fast-forward 45 years to March 18, 2008.
Illinois Senator Barack Obama made a nationally televised speech at the Constitution Center, across from Independence Hall in Philadelphia. He had some under fire for being associated with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, a black minister known for making highly critical remarks about racism in the United States.
While President Kennedy spoke of a “moral crisis,” Senator Obama said his campaign was continuing “the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal…America.” The Senator called attention to his ancestry, “the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas…”
President Kennedy, of course, did not need to call attention to his Irish American ancestry, it had become a part of his campaign.
When Obama referred to the constitution in his speech, he called it a document “stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery (italics added), a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years and leave any final resolution to future generations…”
No previous presidential candidate had spoken so candidly about the Founding Fathers.
Senator Obama later pointed to “the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through – a part of our union we have yet to perfect…It is a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years.”
How did the nation receive Obama’s history lesson? He was elected by a wide margin and became the 44th President of the United States on January 20, 2009 and re-elected four years later.
Unfortunately, the nation continues to be stuck in the “racial stalemate” Senator Obama identified in his Philadelphia speech.