05 April 2010

What Forrest Sees that Some Don't See

A few weeks ago, I had some time to write about the history found at Tennessee's state capitol, namely the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a man who fought against the United States and preferred to see Republicans hung.

I didn't have time to point out the greatest irony of Forrest's statue. It is the fact that it looks unwaveringly upon this bronze relief, commemorating Tennessee's ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution. The primary figures in this relief are of African origin, freed slaves, now legislators and citizens under the newly ratified rights. There is no Nathan Bedford Forrest shown here.

Let's review for a moment these key amendments, which established rights for former slaves and finally brought the Constitution into line with the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and reiterated in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

The 13th Amendment abolishes slavery throughout the United States.

The 14th Amendment establishes the rights of all men, regardless of race or prior state of servitude to vote or be counted in a census, correcting a clause originally written in the Constitution that identified slaves as being 3/5ths of a person for the purpose of citizenship and census. It also bars folks like Forrest, who had served under America's enemies, from holding federal office.

The 15th Amendment states that "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."

These amendments marked a fundamental change in American governance--a change bought with the blood and sacrifice of tens of thousands of Union soldiers. Yet they are at the key of misunderstandings that plague Southern states like Tennessee to this day. A large number of Americans remain willfully ignorant of their meaning--or at least fail to apply that knowledge in political discourse today.

Nathan Bedford Forrest would understand. He would know that the legislatures that ratified these amendments in Tennessee and throughout the South were made up of Republican imposters--transplanted Northern "carpetbaggers," freed slaves, and craven Southern "scalawag" sympathizers to the Union cause. He would recognize that Southern states were forced to ratify these amendments as a condition for returning to the Union and removing occupying federal soldiers.

But as Forrest's Klu Klux Klan riders stormed through the South, restoring the dominance of the conservative Democrats, these three key amendments became ever more entrenched as law. Many key provisions--voting rights for African Americans, for example--would be delayed in the South for another 90 years, but they would come. Inexorably, they would come.

One of the key provisions of the 14th Amendment states:
No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Can you hear the ghost of Thomas Jefferson in those lines? When the United States had been just an idea, written on paper as a declaration to the King of England, Jefferson had written that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator to certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

When the time had come to ratify the Constitution twelve years later, these sentiments were left on the cutting room floor. The states were not unified. There was much opposition. Compromises needed to be made.

Certain citizens needed to remain "alienable," namely enslaved persons whose unrequited toil and hardships drove the economy of southern states. To live in the "Land of the Free," especially in the proximity of enslaved people, one needed "alienable rights," too. In fact, to make sure that the federal government didn't overstretch its bounds, the founders inserted the 10th Amendment into the Bill of Rights, stating that "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

I have heard a lot about the 10th Amendment in recent weeks, especially in the wake of the historic Health Care Reform passed by Congress just three weeks ago. As Nathan Bedford Forrest's political heirs came to terms with their outrage over this expansion of federal power, many advocated the 10th Amendment as their bulwark against this legislation. Indeed it is the basis of a possible suit by a group of state attorneys general to block the implementation of the bill.

Yes, it's totally bogus.

Read the 14th Amendment again--the one that fixed the Constitution and banished forever the "peculiar institutions" preserved by the 10th Amendment. It gives the federal government huge leverage over the states to enforce laws--particularly those relating to the "privileges or immunities of citizens." Where did the federal government get this power? On the battlefields of Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia, that's where.

Jenny and I have been watching the PBS Documentary, "Eyes on the Prize," this week. It's a gripping look at the civil rights movement that established the 14th Amendment as the law of the land. It's mind boggling--to us--to see the opposition that such simple acts as seeing a 1st-grader walk to school or enrolling in the University of Mississippi could have been met with riots and outrage.

Yet when I see President Eisenhower sending the 101st Airborne to Central High School in Little Rock, or when President Kennedy sends US Marshals to Oxford, Mississippi, I am seeing the 14th Amendment in action. Those who opposed integration in the 1950s and 60s--just as those who oppose health care or national standards for education today--belong to a pre-14th mindset. They have not come to terms with a federal government that has claimed these rights for 140 years.

Now this is not to say that there is no place for conservatism in American politics. President Eisenhower was a conservative who acted more out of a concern for the breakdown in law and order in Little Rock than any liberal utopianism. There needs to be accountability in government and good management--and true conservatives are well equipped to bring this.

But it is to say that when inequalities exist, We the People can and will step in to stop them. America's health care system is broken, it is a problem too big for individual states to solve. On the horizon, climate change is too big a problem to attach piecemeal, state by state. A poor education system isn't just Tennessee's problem or Indiana's problem, it is a national problem, and the 14th Amendment gives We the People the right to step in and make it right.

That's what I see, anyway. And that's what Nathan Bedford Forrest sees in Tennessee's capitol, whether he likes it...or not.

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