Knowing America’s national story is the only way to preserve liberty, taught Akhil Reed Amar, Yale’s Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science, at Tuesday’s Constitution Day forum.
Observing that Americans don’t have a shared religion, race, geography, language or politics, Amar posited that “what we have in common is a common Constitution and the story behind that Constitution, a Constitution narrative, and without that, there’s no ‘we.’”
Yet, “most of us don’t actually know that story,” Amar said. Drawing on his research as one of the most distinguished living scholars of the American Constitution, Amar delineated the standard “Constitution narratives” that have circulated in American history. He argued that while these stories get some things right about the Constitution, they also get a lot wrong:
Narrative one: The Constitution was divinely ordained and handed down to a chosen people. While there may be much truth to this narrative, it doesn’t account for atrocities like slavery or the dispossession of Native tribes.
Narrative two: The Constitution was a product of elites who foisted an undemocratic document on the public to control the masses and elevate “the one percent.” Although this is the story most people today have been taught, it ignores that the Constitution was voted on by more people than had every been allowed to vote in human history, a radical move for 1787.
Narrative three: The Constitution is a republic, not a democracy, a filtered representative system crafted by James Madison as articulated in “Federalist No. 10.” Amar argued that George Washington was the actual “father of the Constitution” and that the document underscores Washington’s vision of national security.
Narrative four: The Constitution was about preserving slavery. While this is unfortunately somewhat true, immediately after independence, northern states began abolishing slavery, showing that there was never a unified pro-slavery nation.
Instead of adopting any one of these stories, Amar offered his own Constitution narrative. He suggested that under “George Washington’s Constitution,” the national security–focused young country maintained freedom by creating “a geographically unified regime,” which, with easily defensible borders, did not require a large standing army in peacetime to protect.
“You need to know the national narrative so that you can actually address the challenges of your world today,” Amar said. Against this backdrop, Amar explored what we can learn from how the United States geographically expanded during the nineteenth century, including through its adoption of Utah Territory.
He explained that in the antebellum period, as the American North grew economically and as anti-slavery sentiment swept the globe, American Southerners unwisely doubled down in defending slavery instead of adjusting to the times.
During this period, Congress passed the “California” Compromise of 1850. This was a package of bills through which California was admitted to the Union as a slave-free state, while the federal territories of New Mexico and Utah, encompassing most of the current American West, were organized without specifically being designated as free states, even though the climate made slave plantations in the region highly unlikely anyway. Contested land was also taken from slaveholding Texas and given to New Mexico Territory, with Congress assuming some of Texas’ debt as compensation.
In this way, America vastly expanded its free-soil land, while the Southerners, obsessed with honor, saved face. Globally, other nations like Britain had also shown how slavery could be peacefully abolished through compromise, in part by compensating previously slaveholding regions.
Tragically, Americans didn’t adopt this model of compromise on a broader scale.
“Antebellum American slavery was in many ways a national system and a national sin. All regions had been complicit,” Amar explained, as “slavery had fattened the coffers of all sectors,” including in the North. “All regions should now, the argument could have gone, help pay to repair the system, to make amends for the sin.”
If Americans of the time could plan and fund transcontinental railroads and extensive canals, “why weren’t America’s leading statesmen prior to President Lincoln publicly dreaming equally grand schemes about solving the problems of slavery and race?” Amar asked.
“This is a different narrative,” he concluded. “The original Constitution was pro-democracy, pro-slavery and all about geography and national security. It fails. We call that failure the Civil War.” In its aftermath, however, we have “a new birth of freedom,” in which we all, Utah included, play a part.