Even Ben Franklin Agreed — The Constitution Isn’t All That, But We Are

benjamin_franklinThe other day, after finally finishing a string of blog posts and needing to chill out and catch up on videos over the wifi at Dunkin Donuts, I caught an interview of Colin Quinn on The Daily Show. Quinn, a comic and former Saturday Night Live Weekend Update host, was on the show to promote his one man show, “Unconstitutional.” There was one particular scene from TDS temp host (and Brit) John Oliver that made me guffaw and almost spill my cheap coffee:

Americans are very defensive of the Constitution, but the founders didn’t see it that way… Ben Franklin… said, “There are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them.” But he said he’d accept this constitution, “Because I expect no better, and because I’m not sure that it’s not the best.”

Oliver adds in his chirpily ironic way, “What a ringing endorsement!

Imagine any statesperson with a similar blasé attitude nowadays. A McCarthyesque/Bachmann-ish Witch Hunt would ensue. “Mr. Mayor, are you now or have you ever been a member of the ‘Does Not at Present Approve‘ Contingent?” Fox News would spend Benghazi-like hours and energy on the subject, opining if the Chief Executive questions the perfection of the Most Holy and Perfect Constitution while in the shower and declaring, without hesitation, that he hates it along with your mother and apple pie.

The Tea Party tends to look at the Constitution and the Founders as having come directly from God’s own womb. However, the US Constitution is a flawed, errant document hobbled together by compromise and imperfect and worried rich white men who were, in many cases, looking for ways to protect and improve upon their riches. It should not be read as an infallible text nor as a holy text, as if it came from Jesus’ very own ink-stained fingers. Both approaches are united and tied together and both are extremely destructive. Like the closely related Literal Biblicism, Sacred Constitutionism selectively reads and interprets parts of the text favorable to certain entrenched populations (usually white, male, conservative) at the detriment of pretty much anybody else, with varying levels of protection due to faithfulness of honor. (“Honor” in the conservative US political sense meaning you’re considered patriotic enough by a combination of identity and unquestioning loyalty to a brand of American Exceptionalism.) The text that is presented as perfect and holy is always used to control the audience and marginalize the targeted. There is no way to read such divergent and conflicting pieces of patched-together works as the Bible or the Constitution without favoring certain sections over others; if the text is proofed for selective passages, and those passages are read as if they are The Word of God from Upon Most High, then the interpreter/priest’s word Shall Not Be Questioned.

This is a very problematic and troubling way of looking at the Constitution (or any text, really). It causes us to accept the bad along with the good, to sow without restraint the seeds of our destruction along with the seeds of our deliverance. Which is not to say that the US Constitution should be scrapped, but it’s an imperfect, troubling document in need of re-envisioning. When we consider that the Framers owned human beings, we can both see the serious problems built into its foundation and we can see why Tea Party a-historical revisionists are trying to omit that pesky fact from textbooks (along with any reference of genocide or existing civilizations prior to white colonists).

It’s not just in today’s Tea Party-influenzaed days that the Constitution has been considered so holy, sacrosanct, and above reproach – though it surely has taken an odd emphasis the last five years (hmmm… Can’t imagine why). It does make sense that the Constitution is held in high regard, of course: It is the the legal blueprint of this country and as such has generally been held religiously by the political powers and, throughout, by most citizens. Military personnel, presidents, and naturalized citizens swear oaths to protect and obey it, and like the stars and stripes, the very idea of it is considered so far above criticism that it’s hard to imagine a mythological American figure burning it on public platforms. That is what radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison did, however, on July 4th, 1854, calling the US Constitution and its slavery compromises “a Covenant with Death, an Agreement with Hell.” Even among other radical abolitionists like Frederick Douglass (remember his “What to the slave is your Fourth of July?“), this was shattering to the point of a split between the two.

Maybe we shouldn’t all go around burning letters, but should we hold the Constitution in unquestioning regard? Even its best parts (say the 1st and 14th Amendments, guaranteeing the rights to assembly and petition the government, free speech and forever ending  slavery and manumission- at least in the Constitution if not on-the-ground) have been turned against us. So now corporations are people and thus have the rights to free speech. And having more money than us, they have more speech rights. Yet I don’t recall Bank of America, Wal-Mart, or the Koch Foundation being beaten by a baton or cut by gas canisters for exercising their free speech in a public realm.

I guess the pigs were telling the truth when they said we’re all created equal, just some are more equal than others.

So we have on the one hand these attacks on what should be guaranteed human rights. Workers’ rights being denied due to “Right to Work” laws, the right to not be hunted and shot down due to “Stand Your Ground” laws, the right for all to vote without harassment, the right to a public education and public services being taken via laws that are favorable to privatization forces. And we look at why these hard-fought rights are being taken from us. Some will say that they are not rights because they are not in the Constitution. That may be a valid point; we do need a guaranteed Second Bill of Rights. In the meantime, corporations have an apparently Constitutional right to entreat the government to pass these laws through SuperPACs, Koch-funded conservative Think Tanks, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organism so Cthulu-ly evil in its melding of corporate and legislative entities that it defies categorization.

ALEC has been secretly working from tobacco-and-sulfur-filled rooms to make over 800 “model” bills in order to make a more “perfect” union. This year alone, they have introduced 466 bills – in each state and in the District of Columbia – against the rights of voters and workers, against public education, against the environment, against public safety and public good.

ALEC is celebrating its 40th evil birthday in my hometown of Chicago this weekend, where we see the effects of its privatizing forces firsthand as Mayor Rahm Emanuel (in case one thinks selling out Americans is purely a Republican phenomenon) has preemptively shut down 49 elementary schools in mostly black and disinvested neighborhoods and is drastically reducing the budgets of remaining schools by some 20% – while raising the budget of for-profit charter schools. Meanwhile, the billionaires who invest in these charter schools get a double ROI in as little as seven years. To help ALEC celebrate, Chicago is throwing a party where, for their entertainment value, the corporate-legislative cthuluites get to watch police shove and beat down protesters outside their windows.

Can anything be done against this kind of sprawling, degenerate, and anti-people influence upon the law of the land? Maybe not directly. Monetarily at least there is no way to compete with SuperPACs. Yet, ultimately, there are more of us than there are of them and we have power in solidarity, numbers, and will that all the money in the world cannot buy. Just as the corporate class isn’t direct about their assaults upon us, we must use a multi-front approach to limit their tactics while pushing forward a more assertive, progressive agenda that protects all of us, that privileges people over profits, that promotes peace and undermines aggressive inequality and violence. Where they have lobbyists in fancy suits roaming the halls of power, we have millions of citizens to roam the streets; where they have disinvestment schemes, we have general strikes; where they have grinning, secret handshakes, we have tight grips; where they enjoy quiet conversations, we can drown them out with phone calls and office visits; where they have fancy and scary commercials to affect our votes, it is we who have the votes.

They are afraid of us. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t try to limit our rights. This Constitution of these United States of America may have never been perfect, but we, united, are better. What we need is within us.


When he’s not riding both his city’s public transit system and evil mayor, Jasdye teaches at a community college and writes about the intersection of equality and faith - with an occasional focus on Chicago - at the Left Cheek blog and on the Left Cheek: the Blog Facebook page. Check out more from Jasdye in his archives as well!


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