As the House GOP began the 112th Congress by having the Constitution read aloud on the floor today, the right-wing media have been quick to attack any criticism of the move as unpatriotic and un-American. Today's freakout targeted the New York Times for observing that the original Constitution contains, well, some unsavory provisions that later generations saw fit to change; specifically, counting "African-Americans ... as three-fifths of a person." Here are the paragraphs from the Times editorial in question:
The empty gestures are officially intended to set a new tone in Washington, to demonstrate -- presumably to the Republicans' Tea Party supporters -- that things are about to be done very differently. But it is far from clear what message is being sent by, for instance, reading aloud the nation's foundational document. Is this group of Republicans really trying to suggest that they care more deeply about the Constitution than anyone else and will follow it more closely?
In any case, it is a presumptuous and self-righteous act, suggesting that they alone understand the true meaning of a text that the founders wisely left open to generations of reinterpretation. Certainly the Republican leadership is not trying to suggest that African-Americans still be counted as three-fifths of a person. [The New York Times, 1/4/11]
The right-wing media seized on the last sentence to wail, "They're playing the race card!" Big Journalism kicked off the whining this morning with a post claiming that the Times was "attempt[ing] to label the Constitution as irrelevant." The post later stated:
Certainly the next part of the Times editorial shows that they haven't read the Constitution in a while. The Editorial goes on to label the reading of the constitution as a self-righteous act and suggesting that it has possible racial overtones.
That's just the usual attempt of the progressives to label the GOP as racist. Anybody who ever studied the United States Constitution would also know that the three-fifths clause was not a measurement of human worth; it was an attempt to reduce the number of pro-slavery proponents in Congress. By including only three-fifths of the total numbers of slaves into the congressional calculations, Southern states were actually being denied additional pro-slavery representatives in Congress and electoral votes for selecting the president. Beyond that, maybe the NY Times should read up on the 13th and 14th amendments which outlawed slavery and made the three-fifths compromise null and void. They should know about it--it was in all of the newspapers. Maybe it wasn't covered in the NY Times, after all Lincoln was a Republican. [Big Journalism, 1/6/11, emphasis original]
NewsBusters also gave its readers a little history lesson on the three-fifths compromise in an attempt to somehow prove the Times wrong. Heavily echoing Big Journalism (including an even clumsier attempt to pretend Republicans and Democrats of the 19th century are the exact same Republicans and Democrats of today), the post said:
Showing the originality of a rap artist skimming through the Rhino music catalog, in search of a 70's hit of which to lift an eight-bar hook, the New York Times reached into the liberal playbook and rather clumsily interjected the race card into the discussion.
Just because Republicans want to make sure any legislation they pass meets Constitutional muster doesn't mean they believe blacks be counted as three-fifths of a person, but maybe by using this example as part of their rebuttal the New York Times believes three-fifths of their readership are functionally ignorant of history.
[The three-fifths compromise] had NOTHING to do with the worth of a person and EVERYTHING to do with diminishing the power of Southern racists, like those progressives at the New York Times today who continue to distort the history of an entire people purely for political gain. [NewsBusters.org, 1/6/11]
Fox & Friends covered the story twice this morning, too. The show's first segment on the Constitution reading began with co-host Gretchen Carlson saying:
CARLSON: And yet, some people are having a problem with this whole thing, which is hard to believe that any American would have a problem with reading the Constitution. But The New York Times, in an editorial, hints that this -- what they call "an unusual pomposity before the Republicans actually find time for governing" -- they're hinting at racism involved in this? Here's what they say. [Fox News' Fox & Friends, 1/6/11]
After Carlson read an excerpt from the editorial, co-host Steve Doocy continued:
DOOCY: Yeah, so it only took, I think, four paragraphs for The New York Times to throw down the race card, and, you know, talking about the three-fifths compromise. That was something that was made moot by the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery, and then by the 14th Amendment that said that people should be counted as whole people. Not as three-fifths people. [Fox & Friends, 1/6/11]
During the segment, on-screen text read, "Attacking the Constitution; NY Times Suggests Document Is Racist."
The co-hosts later had another segment in which they invited Fox News contributor Michelle Malkin to join in, with Malkin at one point saying, "My copy of the Constitution shows that they will read that the 14th Amendment's three-fifths clause is repealed." I'll give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she meant "that the 14th Amendment repeals the three-fifths clause."
So, to review, right-wing media are arguing:
1. The New York Times is just playing the race card by bringing up the three-fifths compromise.
2. They don't really understand the three-fifths compromise, which was all about representation and completely unrelated to a person's worth.
3. That whole three-fifths thing isn't even in there anymore, thanks to the 13th and 14th Amendments.
4. In conclusion, The New York Times is "attacking the Constitution" and calling it "irrelevant."
No, no, not quite, and definitely no.
First of all, it's pretty absurd to argue that the three-fifths compromise "has NOTHING to do with the worth of a person." Indeed, the compromise came about to structure congressional representation. But it was also "a measurement of human worth," because the humans in question were treated as property. So, yes, one could argue that by today's definition of what we believe about human worth regardless of race, this original provision of the Constitution could be considered, well, racist.
The three-fifths compromise is just one example of several -- 27, in fact -- alluding to how the Constitution has changed over time. By choosing the three-fifths compromise, the Times isn't pretending that the 13th and 14th Amendments don't exist, but simply pointing out that the Founders clearly intended to allow the Constitution to change over time, and that we as Americans should celebrate that they did so.
The Times' concern -- a very reasonable one -- is that by insisting on an out-loud reading of the Constitution, House Republicans may be "suggesting that they alone understand the true meaning of a text that the founders wisely left open to generations of reinterpretation."
Indeed, the floor reading of the Constitution today, in contrast to Malkin's prediction, expressly excluded any part of the Constitution that was later changed -- including the three-fifths compromise. As The Daily Caller noted:
Instead of reading the Constitution in its entirety, House members will read an "amended version" that only includes the sections and amendments that were not changed at a later date. The decision in part will allow members to avoid reading less pleasant sections, like the clause in Article 1, Section 2, which counted black slaves as three-fifths of a person. [The Daily Caller, 1/6/11]
Just to be clear, this writer, for one, is neither endorsing nor rejecting the idea of reading of the Constitution on the House floor. I am also not endorsing or rejecting every word of the Times editorial.
But the three-fifths clause is part of the original Constitution, and it's not a slur or anti-American to observe what our founding document originally said. Trying to hide that or calling its mention "throw[ing] down the race card" is essentially to say: "We -- at Big Journalism/Newsbusters/Fox -- are the ones with the good Constitution. We know it better and love it more. Some Americans are just more American than others."
In other words, on this subject, the Times was right.