Faithful readers of Constituting America’s 90-Day Study have followed the story of our constitution through each of our presidential elections. We have seen that the moral foundations of both of our constitutions—the Articles of Confederation and the United States Constitution that replaced it—find their most cogent expression in the Declaration of Independence. There, the Founders held the self-evident truth that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Governments must therefore be framed to secure those unalienable rights. Our God-endowed, or natural, rights—regulated by the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God—find security in our legal or civil rights, defended by a system of government so structured as to channel the ambitions of political men and women toward the guardianship of those rights. This requires a regime designed to empower the government so our rights can be defended effectively against those who threaten them, at home or abroad. At the same time, the powers of that government will check and balance one another, so that no single individual or group of individuals will likely usurp all those powers, setting us on the road to tyranny. America’s early Constitutional conflicts centered on the question of how much power should be placed in the hands of the national government vis-à-vis the states’ governments. But whether Federalists or Anti-Federalists, Hamiltonians or Jeffersonians, all of the principal founders aimed at securing the natural rights of Americans by the means of well-designed constitutional forms.
At the Constitutional Convention of 1787 a Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” to which Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.” The 1996 presidential election cycle and the twenty years hence have demonstrated the fragility of Franklin’s “If.”
How should we understand the laggard steps of the United States towards the legal enforcement of equal civil and political rights for black Americans? A prevailing sense among Americans today is that the end of legal discrimination was the result of historical evolution. That is, beginning from a morally retrograde starting point, the nation grew and gradually shed its impure prejudices. Partial victories opened new opportunities for more victories, until this evolution culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.