Guest Columns


Understanding Constitution requires more than the sanitized ‘children’s book version’

When writing my Civil War column, I often refer to the terrific opportunity we have to revisit our nation’s history during this sesquicentennial remembrance. Hopefully, we can do so with an eye toward better understanding the complex journey America has taken to get to the present, as well as our responsibility to continue that journey into the future.

In January, the U.S. House of Representatives conducted its own orchestration of interpretive history by reading the U.S. Constitution out loud on the floor. In a general sense, this theatrical exercise reminded me of the Civil War re-enactors (they prefer the term “living historians”) one encounters at various battlefield sites around the country.

Unfortunately, just as re-enactors choose not to use real ammunition or bayonets for their “battles,” Congress chose not to read aloud those sections of the Constitution that established slavery as a legal institution at the time of ratification.

Unlike the re-enactors, our House of Representatives did both itself, and all of us, a disservice by omitting the original incorporation of slavery as our very own Constitutionally protected “peculiar institution.” Because without understanding those beginnings, how can we possibly make any sense of why we fought our Civil War, or the subsequent and ongoing civil rights struggle to make such inspirational words as “All Men are Created Equal” (Thomas Jefferson), “New Birth of Freedom” (Abraham Lincoln), and “I Have a Dream” (Martin Luther King, Jr.) truly applicable to all Americans?

So, just for the sake of disseminating correct historical information, here are some specific passages, which we must acknowledge were incorporated by our Founding Fathers:

Article I, Section 2: “Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”

(While all of us learned at some point about the offensive “3/5 of a person” language, it was not until recently that I understood the nation would have been better off had slaves not been counted at all. It was through census counting of the 3/5 of four million human beings that the slaveholding states were able to ensure a disproportionately large share of Congressional Representatives in Washington, thus extending by decades their stranglehold on our pro-slavery laws.)

Article I, Section 9: “The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.”

(This seemingly innocuous language was a promise embedded in the Constitution that the importation of slaves from Africa could not be prohibited until after 1808, thus allowing the supply chain for slavery to stockpile its victims for another 20 years.)

Article 4, Section 2.3: “No Person held to Service or Labor in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of the Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from Service or Labor, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labor may be due.”

(This is the Constitutional underpinning upon which the notorious fugitive slave laws were based.)

Additionally, following are two different versions of the 13th Amendment to our Constitution. Fortunately the first version, which abolished slavery, is the one actually adopted (December 6, 1865). But please check out the second version, which was approved by Congress in March, 1861, ratified by three states (Ohio, Maryland, and Illinois) and is technically still alive as a proposed amendment today due to the absence of an expiration date. I still find it incredible that a nation could seriously consider both as serious proposals within four years of one another!

Adopted as 13th Amendment: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

Proposed in 1861, and still pending, 13th amendment: “No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.”

(This unsuccessful last-ditch attempt to appease southern slaveholders and avoid war was fortunately never ratified, of course. But it remains interesting in that it also attempted to preclude future constitutional amendments which would alter its intent, and because it remains technically alive, as one of the so-called “zombie amendments” which were never ratified yet never expired).

As a parent of middle school children, I heartily endorse the educational benefits of hearing words read out loud, although I’m hoping my oldest daughter decides to read books for herself before she gets to college. However, I also am well aware that my daughters will both need to learn more detail about who we are as a nation, and how we got here, warts and all.

In closing, maybe next year, the Colorado General Assembly can read our entire state constitution out loud on the floors of the House and Senate, including the entire texts of all of its amendments. (Heh, heh!) Congratulations on sine die, legislators. Have a great summer.

Patrick Teegarden’s columns on the Civil War appear in The Colorado Statesman each week. The author can be contacted at