Sunday, June 19, 2022

Constitutional Republic

Juneteenth engraving by Thomas Nast. ca. 1865, via American Civil War Museum.

Just thinking about the degree to which the Juneteenth celebration might be, now that it's a national holiday, a commemoration of what historian Eric Foner called the Second Founding, following on the Civil War, in which the Republic of 1787 was replaced by the Democracy of Abraham Lincoln's intentions as expressed in the Gettysburg Address (that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish) and as spelled out in the explicit constitutional changes of the 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th, and 19th Amendments (respectively abolishing chattel slavery in 1865, defining citizenship and offering equal protection under the law to all citizens in 1866. guaranteeing voting rights regardless of race in 1870, establishing the income tax in 1913, establishing direct election of senators in 1913, and guaranteeing the right to vote regardless of sex in 1920).

This really is what we're arguing about when conservatives say that the United States was not founded as a democracy but as a "constitutional republic"—feel perfectly free to say that, guys, and fight over the finer details, but the point is that it's not that any more: it was that, and we fixed it, to some extent, in the course of eradicating slavery, by changing the Constitution. Now, it's something different, and more democratic, as a consequence of each of those changes, though much work remains to be done.

Nathan Newman is making practically the same statement, with a slightly different terminology (to him the signing of the Articles of Confederation created the Second Republic and the 1787 Constitution the Third) and a reduced list of Amendments:

Juneteenth, celebrating the final word of the end of the Slave Constitution reaching the last slaves in Texas, marks the foundation of the Fourth Republic of our Nation, the one where the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments fundamentally reshaped the nation into a new constitutional order. As the southern states were readmitted only under conditions set by the US Congress, the new Republic’s principle was one of firm subordination of state authority to national power. Enforcement Acts would send troops to the South to enforce new civil rights laws, creating voting rights for all (male) Americans, a Freedmen’s Bureau would establish federally-run schools in the South, and other laws would ban segregation and build public works throughout the nation, most notably an Intercontinental Railroad. This is the nation most liberals recognize as our modern nation's core source and model.

I like how he emphasizes the Whiggishness of the new country, its commitment to an enormously more powerful central government engaged in infrastructure and education and the promotion of equity. The 20th-century amendments in my list further the same project—the income tax following up on an idea first implemented by the Lincoln Administration in the Revenue Act of 1861 (which also levied a federal tax on land, an idea to which I and my friends Professors Piketty, Saez, Zucman, and Warren remain deeply attached) to allow the federal government to raise a lot of money for its plans on a progressive basis, the direct election of senators remedying a ridiculously old-fashioned method of nominating them, and women suffrage repairing a hole that was becoming a scandal.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party of Texas has chosen the Juneteenth holiday to release its 2022 "platform":

You can't make it much clearer than that. Oh, wait, yes you can:

  • If approved, the new party platform would include declaring homosexuality “an abnormal lifestyle choice," repealing the 16th Amendment that created the federal income tax, and mandating that Texas students "learn about the humanity of the preborn child,” in part by forcing students to listen to ultrasounds of gestating fetuses.

They're basically asking to reverse the results of the Civil War.

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