By Frank Wessling
As if to confirm the need for honest memory, the new leadership in the House of Representatives last week gave us a whitewashed version of the U.S. Constitution.
As one of its first acts as majority party, Republicans arranged a reading of the full Constitution on the floor of the House. But it was not quite the full document. An embarrassing clause in Article 1, Section 2 was omitted as members took turns in the public reading.
It was the original intent of the men writing the Constitution to count each black slave in the states as only three-fifths of a person when taking the census for political representation. This was done as a compromise between delegates who wanted a larger or smaller percentage. None wanted to count slaves as whole persons. To some degree they had to be considered property. Here is the language:
“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included in this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other Persons.”
That complicated sentence was modified after the Civil War by the 14th Amendment, which dropped the final clause, “three-fifths of all other Persons.” The reading in the House last Thursday skipped the entire section, with the excuse that its meaning was covered in the 14th Amendment, which was read.
But our history cannot skip that original language. This year we are beginning to observe the 150th anniversary of a civil war it helped produce. It will be hard to explain that bloody chapter in our history without connecting it to the moral vision of the document that shaped this nation at the beginning.
We have a better vision of human dignity today, achieved at great cost and very slowly. We only know this by an honest look at where we have been. Let’s be careful about that.