Skip to main content

Kevin Baker, the Harper's contributing editor and writer of both historical fiction and some straight history, gets enough right in his current "Easy Chair" column that it's too easy to miss where he goes wrong.

White Supremacy and the Constitution

Baker argues that we've been locked in a slow-moving constitutional crisis since the disputed 2000 presidential election, to the point that what we have no is a kind of "Potemkin village democracy" in which we pretend to have democratically elected leaders but in fact have a completely corrupted system in which a conservative minority maintains power by means of massive levels of voter suppression and partisan gerrymandering. Baker makes all of the obvious points to back this up, citing the voter restrictions imposed in 24 GOP-controlled states since 2010, ongoing felon disenfranchisement, etc.

Turning to the longer arc of anti-democratic policy and planning, Baker cites the undemocratic and unaccountable nature of the Electoral College system and the hugely disproportionate power exercised by the residents of lightly-populated rural states by virtue of equal representation in the Senate.

So far, so good. Where Baker goes wrong is in his overall framing. He wants both to critique but also to defend the work of the so-called Founding Fathers. Thus, he's willing to call the Constitution a "wretched compromise" between the mercantile interests of the Northeast and the agrarian slave empire of the South. He mentions the specific abominations of the three-fifths clause and the fugitive slave provision. But he also seems to be a fan of the Philadelphia set's efforts to write "democratic safeguards" into the country's basic law, and he concludes that "for all their good intentions" the Founders gave us a system in which "their own worst nightmares" have come to pass.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

Although he quotes Hamilton and Madison on their fear of "tumult and disorder" and their contempt for the "fickleness and passion" of the common people, Baker does not seem to grasp just how anti-democratic these periwigged white men really were.

Really? Their worst nightmares? I'm glad that Baker can acknowledge that the Constitution arose from a "wary alliance among white men of property, intent on spreading their power over a continent." But although he quotes Hamilton and Madison on their fear of "tumult and disorder" and their contempt for the "fickleness and passion" of the common people, Baker does not seem to grasp just how anti-democratic these periwigged white men really were. Methinks that, were they to drop in to review our current situation, they would not be nearly as appalled by the naked rule of wealth as Baker seems to think they would be.

And on the slavery question, Baker gives these "natural aristocrats" far too much credit for deploring the slave system and for "hoping that slavery would just die out." Let's be clear about this. Some twenty-five of the fifty-five delegates who approved the original Constitution in 1787 owned slaves. Many brought their "servants" with them to Philadelphia. They all understood that slavery was destabilizing and possibly unsustainable, but many profited individually from slavery and almost all could see plainly how the new nation would profit collectively from the unpaid labor of a rapidly growing workforce of kidnapped and brutalized people. This is why, to use Baker's phrase, they "had no good solution" to the question of human bondage.

Jefferson, who wrote more on the subject than any of the other founding luminaries, may have expressed the most apprehension about how badly this would probably end ("fire bell in the night," etc.). But Jefferson was also the most obscenely calculating writer imaginable on the subject of the profits to be had not just by owning slaves but by breeding slaves to be sold away from the Tidewater region to the emerging cotton kingdom to the south and west. And he didn't just write about it; he did it.

No good solution? The Founders, with some notable exceptions, weren't motivated to find one. They even extended the slave trade for a leisurely 20 years to make sure the young republic wouldn't fall short of the "hands" needed to keep the unbelievable wealth flowing in.

Thus, what Baker generously calls a "system failure" today could better be understood as the logical extension of the system's original design. Our constitutional system may be grotesquely undemocratic. It may be shot through with racism. It may be grossly unfair to poor whites. It may be increasingly dysfunctional. It may even be threatening to future of the planet. But it's still doing a good job of preserving power for white men of property, which is what really matters.

peter laarman 2018

Peter Laarman