Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority,
it is time to pause and reflect.
One of the more entertaining articles I’ve read recently appeared in the New York Times Magazine last October; written by Ruth Padawer and entitled “When Women Become Men At Wellesley,” it’s about how the newest “challenge,” as the terminology goes, facing American women’s colleges these days is the rise of students “born female who identified as men, some of whom had begun taking testosterone to change their bodies.” The beginning of the piece tells the story of “Timothy” Boatwright, a woman who’d decided she felt more like a man, and how Boatwright had decided to run for the post of “multicultural affairs coordinator” at the school, with the responsibility of “promoting a ‘culture of diversity’ among students and staff and faculty members.” After three “women of color” dropped out of the race for various unrelated reasons, that meant that Boatwright would be the only candidate still in the race—which meant that Wellesley, a woman’s college remember, would have as its next “diversity” official a white man. Yet according to Padawer this result wasn’t necessarily as ridiculous as it might seem: “After all,” the Times reporter said, “at Wellesley, masculine-of-center students are cultural minorities.” In the race to produce more and “better” minorities, then, Wellesley has produced a win for the ages—a result that, one might think, would cause reasonable people to stop and consider: just what is it about American society that is causing Americans constantly to redescribe themselves as one kind of “minority” or another? Although the easy answer is “because Americans are crazy,” the real answer might be that Americans are rationally responding to the incentives created by their political system: a system originally designed, as many historians have begun to realize, to protect a certain minority at the expense of the majority.
That, after all, is a constitutional truism, often repeated like a mantra by college students and other species of cretin: the United States Constitution, goes the zombie-like repetition, was designed to protect against the “tyranny of the majority”—even though that exact phrase was only first used by John Adams in 1788, a year after the Constitutional Convention. It is however true that Number 10 of the Federalist Papers does mention “the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority”—yet what those who discuss the supposed threat of the majority never seem to mention is that, while it is true that the United States Constitution is constructed with many, and indeed nearly a bewildering, variety of protections for the “minority,” the minority that was being protected at the moment of the Constitution’s writing was not some vague and theoretical interest: the authors of the Constitution were not professors of political philosophy sitting around a seminar room. Instead, the United States Constitution was, as political scientist Michael Parenti has put it, “a practical response to immediate material conditions”—in other words, the product of political horse-trading that resulted in a document that protected a very particular, and real, minority; one with names and families and, more significantly, a certain sort of property.
That property, as historians today are increasingly recognizing, was slavery. It isn’t for nothing that, as historian William Lee Miller has observed, not only was it that “for fifty of [the nation’s] first sixty four [years], the nation’s president was a slaveholder,” but also that the “powerful office of the Speaker of the House was held by a slaveholder for twenty-eight of the nation’s first thirty-five years,” and that the president pro tem of the Senate—one of the more obscure, yet still powerful, federal offices—“was virtually always a slaveholder.” Both Chief Justices of the Supreme Court through the first five decades of the nineteenth century, John Marshall and Roger Taney, were slaveholders, as were very many federal judges and other, lesser, federal office holders. As historian Garry Wills, author of Lincoln At Gettysburg among other volumes, has written, “the management of the government was disproportionately controlled by the South.” The reason why all of this was so was, as it happens, very ably explained at the time by none other than … Abraham Lincoln.
What Lincoln knew was that there was a kind of “thumb on the scale” when Northerners like the two Adams’, John and John Quincy, were weighed in national elections—a not-so-mysterious force that denied those Northern, anti-slavery men second terms as president. Lincoln himself explained what that force was in the speech he gave at Peoria, Illinois that signaled his return to politics in 1854. There, Lincoln observed that
South Carolina has six representatives, and so has Maine; South Carolina has eight presidential electors, and so has Maine. This is precise equality so far; and, of course they are equal in Senators, each having two. Thus in the control of the government, the two States are equals precisely. But how are they in the number of their white people? Maine has 581,813—while South Carolina has 274,567. Maine has twice as many as South Carolina, and 32,679 over. Thus each white man in South Carolina is more than the double of any man in Maine.
What Lincoln is talking about here is the notorious “Three-Fifths Compromise”: Article I, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the United States Constitution. According to that proviso, slave states were entitled to representation in Congress according to the ratio of “three fifths of all other persons”—those being counted by that ratio being, of course, Southern slaves. And what the future president—the first president, it might be added, to be elected without the assistance of that ratio (a fact that would have, as I shall show, its own consequences)—was driving at was the effect this mathematical ratio was having on the political landscape of the country.
As Lincoln remarked in the same Peoria speech, the Three-Fifths Compromise meant that “five slaves are counted as being equal to three whites,” which meant that, as a practical matter, “it is an absolute truth, without an exception, that there is no voter in any slave State, but who has more legal power in the government, than any voter in any free State.” To put it more plainly, Lincoln said that the three-fifths clause “in the aggregate, gives the slave States, in the present Congress, twenty additional representatives.” Since the Constitution gave the same advantage in the Electoral College as it gave in the Congress, the reason for results like, say, the Adams’ lack of presidential staying power isn’t that hard to discern.
“One of those who particularly resented the role of the three-fifths clause in warping electoral college votes,” notes Miller, “was John Adams, who would probably have been reelected president over Thomas Jefferson in 1800 if the three-fifths ratio had not augmented the votes of the Southern states.” John Quincy himself had part of two national elections, 1824 and 1828, that had been skewed by what was termed at the time the “federal ratio”—which is to say that the reason why both Adams’ were one-term presidents likely had rather more with the form of the American government than with the content of their character, despite the representations of many historians after the fact.
Adams himself was quite aware of the effect of the “federal ratio.” The Hartford Convention of 1815, led by New Englanders like Adams, had recommended ending the advantage of the Southern states within the Congress, and in 1843 John Quincy’s son Charles Francis Adams caused the Massachusetts’ legislature to pass a measure that John Quincy would himself introduce to the U.S. Congress, “a resolution proposing that the Constitution be amended to eliminate the three-fifths ratio,” as Miller has noted. There were three more such attempts in 1844, three years before Lincoln’s arrival, all of which were soundly defeated, as Miller observes, by totals “skewed by the feature the proposed amendment would abolish.” The three-fifths ratio was not simply a bete noir of the Adams’ personally; all of New England was aware of that the three-fifths ratio protected the interests of the South in the national government—it’s one reason why, prior to the Civil War, “states’ rights” was often thought of as a Northern issue rather than a Southern one.
That the South itself recognized the advantages the United States Constitution gave them, specifically by that document’s protections of “minority”—in other words, slaveowner—interests, can be seen by reference to the reasons the South gave for starting the Civil War. South Carolina’s late 1860 declaration of secession, for example (the first such declaration) outright said that the state’s act of secession was provoked by the election of Abraham Lincoln—in other words, by the fact of the election of a presidential candidate who did not need the electoral votes of the South.
Hence, South Carolina’s declaration said that a “geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.” The election had been enabled, the document went on to say, “by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens, and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South.” Presumably, this is a veiled reference to the population gained by the Northern states over the course of the nineteenth century—a trend that was not only steadily weakening the advantage the South had initially enjoyed at the expense of the North at the time the Constitution had been enacted, but had only accelerated during the 1850s.
As one Northern newspaper observed in 1860, in response to the early figures being released by the United States Census Bureau at that time, the “difference in the relative standing of the slave states and the free, between 1850 and 1860, inevitably shows where the future greatness of our country is to be.” To Southerners the data had a different meaning: as Adam Goodheart noted in a piece for the New York Times’ series on the Civil War, Disunion, “the editor of the New Orleans Picayune noted that states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois would each be gaining multiple seats in Congress” while Southern states like Virginia, South Carolina and Tennessee would be losing seats. To the Southern slaveowners who would drive the road to secession during the winter of 1860, the fact that they were on the losing end of a demographic war could not have been far from mind.
Historian Leonard L. Richards of the University of Massachusetts, for example, has noted that when Alexis de Tocqueville traveled the American South in the early 1830s, he discovered that Southern leaders were “noticeably ‘irritated and alarmed’ by their declining influence in the House [of Representatives].” By the 1850s, those population trends were only accelerating: concerning the gains in population the Northern states were realizing by foreign immigration—presumably the subject of South Carolina’s complaint about persons “incapable of becoming citizens”—Richards cites Senator Stephen Adams of Mississippi, who “blamed the South’s plight”—that is, its declining population relative to the North—“on foreign immigration.” As Richards says, it was obvious to anyone paying attention to the facts that if “this trend continued, the North would in fifteen years have a two to one majority in the House and probably a similar majority in the Senate.” It seems unlikely to think that the most intelligent of Southern leaders could not have been cognizant of these primordial facts.
Their intellectual leaders, above all John Calhoun, had after all designed a political theory to justify the Southern, i.e. “minority,” dominance of the federal government. In Calhoun’s A Disquisition on Government, the South Carolinian Senator argued that a government “under the control of the numerical majority” would tend toward “oppression and abuse of power”—it was to correct this tendency, he writes, that the constitution of the United States made its different branches “the organs of the distinct interests or portions of the community; and to clothe each with a negative on the others.” It is, in other words, a fair description of the constitutional doctrine known as the “separation of powers,” a doctrine that Calhoun barely dresses up as something other than what it is: a brief for the protection of the right to own slaves. Every time, in other words, anyone utters the phrase “protecting minority rights” they are, wittingly or not, invoking the ideas of John Calhoun.
In any case, such a history could explain just why it is that Americans are so eager to describe themselves as a “minority,” of whatever kind. After all, it was the purpose of the American government initially to protect a particular minority, and so in political terms it makes sense to describe oneself as such in order to enjoy the protections that, initially built into the system, have become so endemic to American government: for example, the practice of racial gerrymandering, which has the perhaps-beneficial effect of protecting a particular minority—at the probable expense of the interests of the majority. Such a theory might perhaps also explain something else: just how it is, as professor Walter Benn Michaels of the University of Illinois at Chicago has remarked, that after “half a century of anti-racism and feminism, the U.S. today is a less equal society than was the racist, sexist society of Jim Crow.” Or, perhaps, how the election of—to use that favorite tool of American academics, quote marks to signal irony—a “white man” at a women’s college can, somehow, be a “victory” for whatever the American “left” is now. The real irony, of course, is that, in seeking to protect African-Americans and other minorities, that supposed left is merely reinforcing a system originally designed to protect slavery.