by Robert Morrison
January 15, 2010
Hes probably the worlds funniest vegan. Fred Grandy is known to millions of Americans as Gopher from the hit 70s comedy series, The Love Boat. The Harvard-educated Grandy is the former four-term Republican Congressman from Iowa. He narrowly lost the GOP nomination for Governor in 1994 and went on to serve ably as president of Goodwill Industries. Since 2003, he had had a better platform to reach workers in the nations capital as co-host of the drive-time Grandy and Andy [Parks] Morning Show on radio station WMAL. Ill confess that when I should be listening to books-on-disk, I often give an ear to Fred Grandys offbeat humor and generally smart conservative chatter. Hes not reflexively right wing. Few Iowans are. But, in addition to some side-splitting jokes, he brings some Midwest common sense to a capital badly in need of somebodys common sense.
Thats why it matters when a good man like Fred Grandy launches into a shtick that includes this: Oh, the Founders, they thought black people were just three-fifths of a person. Maybe Fred was joking. Maybe he was pulling everyones leg. But it didnt sound like it.
Political theorists can get pretty heavy duty. Which is why morning drive time includes very few of them as talk show hosts. Bill Bennett is one of the few who can pull it off successfully. But political theorists talk about ideological hegemony. That means you get the other guy—your opponent—to think in categories that youve determined in advance. Another phrase would be setting the terms of the debate.
If even conservatives seriously think that the Founders were so racist as to deny the full humanity of black people, then, Houston, weve got a problem. Grandys three-fifths crack echoes Al Gores infamous rants during the 2000 campaign. Gore demagogically whipped up crowds in Pennsylvania saying that those who favored original intent in constitutional interpretation wanted to deprive black people of their civil rights. They thought you were only three-fifths of a person, Gore suggested.
The Founders thought no such thing. The much-misunderstood Three-Fifths Compromise was just that, a compromise. Northern, anti-slavery delegates to the Constitutional Convention would have preferred not to count slaves at all for purposes of representation in Congress. This would have penalized slaveholding states and given them lesser influence in the House of Representatives. Just as important, it would have penalized them in the Electoral College that chooses our Presidents. Delegates from slaveholding states would have preferred to count slaves fully for purposes of representation, but they didnt want to be taxed fully for slaves.
So the Founders compromised. Its important to point out that such a compromise also existed in the Articles of Confederation, prior to the Constitution, when all taxation was by state.
A little-noted feature of the Three-Fifths Compromise is that it gave a reward—an electoral bump, if you will—to all states that emancipated their slaves. Free the black people of your state, and you get to count them fully for Congress. Then, American you can increase your numbers in the House and in the Electoral College.
Seven of the original Thirteen States got that reward. Tragically, six of the original thirteen failed to free their slaves. And other slaveholding states were later admitted to the Union.
The Founders were anti-slavery. They took pains never to use the words slave, Negro, African, etc, in the great charter of freedom they gave us.
Abraham Lincolns Midwest common sense exceeded even that of Fred Grandy. Lincoln said the Founders hid away in the Constitution the fact that we had slavery, just as a man who has a tumor or wen or other defect tries to hide it from view. Frederick Douglass hailed the Founders Constitution and said not of word of it would have to be changed if the states would only agree to free their slaves. They were both right.
Why does any of this matter today? Because President Barack Obama is using the tragedy of American slavery in 1787 as a pretext for casting aspersions on the Founders great work. Why should we listen to the authors of the Constitution? They allowed slavery to exist. They thought black people were only three-fifths of a person. So goes the liberal take on the Constitution.
It wasnt true then. Its not true now. Lincoln knew that if the Founders had tried to ban slavery outright in 1787, the liberty-promoting Constitution would never have been adopted. But the principles of the Declaration of Independence as embodied in the Constitution were, Lincoln said, like apples of gold in pictures of silver. Lincoln used the words of Scripture to speak of his awe and reverence for the Founders work. Should we have less?