Toward a Marxist Interpretation of the U.S. Constitution

By Ollman, Bertell | Monthly Review, December 1987 | Go to article overview

Toward a Marxist Interpretation of the U.S. Constitution


Ollman, Bertell, Monthly Review


TOWARD A MARXIST INTERPRETATION OF THE U.S. CONSTITUTION

When Moses invented ten fundamental laws for the Jewish people, he had God write them down on stone tablets. Lycurgus, too, represented the constitution he drew up for ancient Sparta as a divine gift. According to Plato, whose book, The Republic offers another version of the same practice, attributing the origins of a constitution to godly intervention is the most effective way of securing the kind of support needed for it to work. Otherwise, some people are likely to remain skeptical, others passive, and still others critical of whatever biases they perceive in these basic laws and hence less inclined to follow their mandates.

As learned men, the framers of the American Constitution were well aware of the advantages to be gained by enveloping their achievement in religious mystery, but most of the people for whom they labored were religious dissenters who favored a sharp separation between Church and State; and since most of the framers were deists and atheists themselves, this particular tactic could not be used. So they did the next best thing, which was to keep the whole process of their work on the Constitution a closely guarded secret. Most Americans know that the framers met for three months in closed session, but this is generally forgiven on the grounds that the then Congress of the United States had not commissioned them to write a new Constitution, and neither revolutionaries nor counterrevolutionaries can do all their work in the open. What few modern-day Americans realize, however, is that the framers did their best to insure that we would never know the details of their deliberations. All the participants in the convention were sworn to life-long secrecy, and when the debates were over, those who had taken notes were asked to hand them in to George Washington, whose final task as chairman of the convention was to get rid of the evidence. America's first President, it appears, was also its first shredder.

Fortunately, not all the participants kept their vows of silence or handed in all their notes. But it wasn't until 1840, a half century after the Constitution was put into effect, with the posthumous surfacing of James Madison's extensive notes, that the American people could finally read what had happened in those three crucial months in Philadelphia. What was revealed was neither divine nor diabolical, but simply human, an all-too-human exercise in politics. Merchants, bankers, shipowners, planters, slave traders and slave owners, land speculators, and lawyers who made their money working for these groups, voiced their interests and fears in clear, uncluttered language; and, after settling a few, relatively minor disagreements, they drew up plans for a form of government they believed would serve these interests most effectively. But the fifty years of silence had the desired myth-building effect. The human actors were transformed into "Founding Fathers," their political savvy and common sense were now seen as all-surpassing wisdom, and their concern for their own class of property owners (and, to a lesser extent, sections of the country and occupational groups) had been elevated to universal altruism (in the liberal version) or self-sacrificing patriotism (in the preferred conservative view). Nor have we been completely spared the aura of religious mystery so favored by Plato. With the passage of years and the growing religiosity of our citizenry, it has become almost commonplace to hear that the framers were also divinely inspired.

The year 1987 is the bicentennial of the writing of the Constitution, and wherever one turns in the media, in schools and professional associations, in talks by politicians and other public figures, the same myths appear and reappear. The Commission on the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution, which was set up under Chief Justice Burger to coordinate most of these efforts, demonstrated its own commitment to historical truth by initially taking as its slogan "200 Years of Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty. …

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