Class and Race in the United States Constitution
Professor Timothy Burns of Baylor University will give a talk to celebrate Constitution Day (which is actually September 17). Recent debates over the United States Constitution center on the intention of the founders with regard to class and race. This talk unearths a neglected aspect of these matters in the debates over the proposed constitution. It shows how and why John Adams (in his Constitutions of the United States) insisted that the American state constitutions correctly represented three “permanent” natural classes (democrats, aristocrats, monarchists) in their three branches of government.
On the basis of Adams’s arguments many Anti-Federalists came to view the constitution proposed in 1787 as maintaining a class-based system favoring an aristocratic class, including the slave owners of the American South. They argued against it, in favor of a constitution that would favor an allegedly virtuous, democratic yeoman class.
The authors of the Federalist Papers proposed a radically different understanding of the Constitution. They presented the three branches of government as not at all class based, but as based on specific institutional functions. They saw economic classes as both fluid and capable of competing coalitions of interests. And they saw the potential for modern commerce to abolish classes and the many problematic passions that come with them in a modern liberal, tolerant regime. The Federalists won.
UNLV students, faculty, staff, and the public
Jack Miller Center