The U.S. Constitution and Civil Rights

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When the constitution of the United States of America was drafted, the original framers debated relentlessly over macro level issues such as size, scale and power of the federal government. The dynamic and adaptable nature of this document is very telling of the framers original intentions. After a long standing period of discourse between Federalists and Anti-Federalists, the Constitution was ratified and earned a legacy of being timeless in terms of the operating guidelines and principles of authority. Consequently, the allocation of Amendments and due process of passing legislation has allowed for previously oppressed and deprived groups like African Americans to make substantial gains in terms of personal freedom. The core infrastructure of the United States government helped facilitate a major change of life for African Americans and other minorities because the system was not as rigid as some early framers wanted. In fact, the civil rights movement not only epitomized the protective and versatile nature of the Constitution, but also the incredible foresight that framers like James Madison had in the early ratification process. 

Framers like James Madison strongly supported a large government body because of the wicked nature of man, factions and the potential for injustice. Clearly, while racial tensions were not as severe during the framing period compared to the 1950’s, Madison applied foresight and general principles of human dynamic in determining that a small government allowed for oppression. Firstly, rather than attempting to eradicate the factious nature of men, Madison understood that “the latent causes of faction are sown into the nature of man” (“Federalist Papers No. 10”).  That is, it was inevitable to avoid this pitfall. Ultimately, Madison found that “controlling its effects” to serve the interest of the public was the best remedy (“Federalist Papers No. 10”). This meant that if the structure of the government was large enough to protect not only the citizens from the government, but also the citizens from each other, it would protect the best interest of the people.  Any undue influence through factions would still form, but their overall power and migration into legislative actions would thus be limited. Likewise, any positive changes made in unison with the best interest would have an ecosystem in which it was possible, despite some disagreements. 

This government structure also ensured that all groups would have an active voice. Originally, anti-federalists were made up of businessmen and wealthy merchants who had their interest in economics, but for the general public. Unfortunately, this presented a major problem as it was not a system designed to protect the weak. Instead of focusing on a government that aids economic growth, Madison concluded that “justice is the end of government” (“Federalist Papers No. 51”). This meant that doing the right thing by the people was the main priority, even if it meant changing strong cultural attitudes and socially constructed notions of equality. Indeed, when Article XIII of the Amendments stated that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude…shall exist in the United States,” the impact on the way of life changed for many Americans (“Article XIII” USG). While this decision was unpopular by some and there were factions against it, it was nonetheless passed and survived to serve the best interest of the American way of life and legacy of freedom. Indeed, this example illustrates Madison’s argument a hundred years ago that a large government is needed to serve “where the weaker is not secured against the violence of the stronger” (“Federalist Papers No. 51”). Because of his foresight, this major pitfall in terms of social and legislative change was avoided. Progress for African Americans and their way of life would further change because of the inherent versatility of a large federal government. 

By the 1950’s and 60’s, African Americans were able to make serious improvements to their civil liberties, despite intense opposition. At this point, it is evident that the American experience for blacks was dramatically different than one hundred years prior, but it was still an oppressive environment compared to whites. Because blacks were able to rally together and have a voice, “[their] initiatives increasingly led to important Federal action” (PN 764). The reason it was able to pass eventually was largely due to the important foundation that Madison supported within the framing of the Constitution. The opposing factions who committed murder and injustice against blacks were not successful in enforcing their will. Indeed, Madison’s prediction that a large government would define, and limit negative factions worked: “any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union” (“Federalist Papers No. 10”). As history played out, these competing factions regarding the context of racial equality and discrimination played out in favor of the ultimate good of the people of the United States. As African Americans were able to influence policy despite opposition, they dramatically redefined their own status and experience within society. For the first time, they were seen equally under the law and had the same rights and privileges of all citizens.

These changes and improvements came in the form of amendments and were possibly solely because of the large and versatile nature of the federal government. While the Anti-Federalists argued that a large federal government and a defined set of rights would be intrusive and problematic to the longevity of a stable republican union, their paradigm of a small government would not have permitted radical changes. Instead, the government was able to pass controversial legislation like Amendment XV which stated clearly that “the rights of citizens 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” (“Article XV” USG). This radical transition into a new era of social equality and structure was available largely because of the context of the duty of government and pernicious nature of men that Madison previously discussed. Luckily, the proper balance of checks and balances within a large and correctly structured government body was in place. This is also significant because it was a catalyst for the inclusion of other legislation like “antilynching and antisegregation” (PN 773). Again, the emphasis largely rests on the fact that while framers did not have the same social experiences as those in the future, they utilized foresight in order to ensure that the federal government would operate based on general principles that were timeless. Clearly, liberty and equality permeated into future generations. 

The African American experience within a short period of one hundred years therefore not only exemplified the versatile nature of the federal government, but also the theme that America cannot be clearly defined within a single context. As African Americans worked for and earned civil liberties with the help of federal legislation, their way of life dramatically changed in terms of the economic and social opportunity that they could exercise. Consequently, America cannot be solely labeled with generalized terms like democracy, republic or anything else; instead; the nation is most properly analyzed and interpreted within the context of a government that provides an ecosystem of change, adaptation and discourse. However, that being said, the inherent properties of freedom and justice for all are still a shared phenomenon as part of the American experience. It is these guiding principles that not only define America within this context but also allow it to change and adapt to future generations and circumstances regarding a wide variety of issues that the original framers did not deal with directly. 

In conclusion, as framers like James Madison vehemently supported a large government body with the vicious and factious nature of men in mind, the government that we see today reflects an environment that enjoyed longevity and change because of it. The African American experience offered historical credibility into both Madison’s foresight as well as the inherent success of the American legislative system. As checks and balances were essential in mitigating the effects of factions, a large government was able to have both authority and self-control. The legislation resulting from the civil rights movement epitomized this interplay and aftermath of this government structure with two powerful and opposing viewpoints of racial equality. Ultimately, it was the perseverance of the general good that resulted in the changed African American experience. From this, the American legacy rests on both timeless principles of justice as well as the versatile nature of its laws the govern it.

Works Cited

Madison, James. "The Federalist No. 10." Constitution. United States Government, 22 Nov. 1787. Web. 25 Sept. 2011. <http://www.constitution.org/fed/federa10.htm>.

Madison, James. "The Federalist No. 51." Constitution. United States Government, 6 Feb. 1788. Web. 25 Sept. 2011. <http://www.constitution.org/fed/federa51.htm>.

Norton, Mary, and David Katzman et al. "America at Mid Century." A People and a Nation: A History of the United States. Eight Edition ed. Boston: Cengage Learning, 2008. 762-792. Print.

United States Government. "Amendments to the Constitution." Constitution. United States Government, 1 Jan. 2003. Web. 25 Sept. 2011. <http://www.house.gov/house/Constitution/Amend.html>.