Most historians view our Constitution as one of the greatest developments in human society. Clearly it was far from perfect in its origins, though it is continually changed – mostly for the better – through amendments and evolving interpretations. But one important aspect is rarely mentioned.
Two acknowledged stains on the original concept were its accommodations to slavery and the lack of a Bill of Rights. Both have been remedied, though the first of these is frequently viewed by black commentators as imperfectly redeemed. Yet there actually was a far worse defect that was so deeply embedded in our psyche that it was never even discussed by the founders. Not once during the Constitutional Conventions or in such basis documents as the Federalist Papers was the idea of equal rights for women even mentioned.
Do you recognize this quote? “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union …” To be more accurate, it should have begun, “We the White Men of the United States …” And so we have this painting of our founders.
Historians agree that there are two aspects of our current political situation that would totally amaze the founders. One of these is the participation of women in having the vote and in holding office. Even the thought of a female President would have had them rolling in the aisles of Independence Hall in 1776. And one can’t help noting that black men achieved the vote, at least nominally, long before we grudgingly granted women’s suffrage. During America’s early history as a nation, women were denied many of the key rights enjoyed by male citizens. For example, married women couldn’t own property and had no legal claim to any money they might earn, and no female had the right to vote in national elections. Women were expected to focus on housework and motherhood, not politics. Don’t you see at least a faint echo of slavery in these views, quite unremarkable at the time?
The second aspect of our political life that would amaze our founders is the power of the Presidency. Nowadays, when we speak of the U.S. government what we usually mean is the executive branch. So, when we are represented to foreign powers, they look to the President as our leader and spokesman. That would astonish and horrify the founders. While we have a balance of powers between the branches of government, it is absolutely clear that the founders gave preeminence to Congress as the true representative of our nation. The President was viewed as a tightly circumscribed manager. And in fact, there was strong consideration given to having him selected by the legislature rather than chosen by popular election. The bastard offspring of this debate is our Electoral College. All things considered, I am not entirely sure that a popularly chosen President has turned out to be the best compromise, given the regal powers now bestowed on this office.