Learning from history
September 28, 2007
Sept. 17 is a date that is mostly lost to American history, yet in some ways it is as important as July Fourth Exactly 22 decades ago today, George Washington, James Madison, Ben Franklin, and 36 other revolutionary leaders, signed their names to our first U.S. Constitution.
That Constitution did many great things; not among them the formal endorsement of slavery; our first and most repulsive governmentally endorsed economic underclass. While avoiding use of the term itself, Section 2, Clause 3 of that document provided that each slave be counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of representation for those states in which slavery was practiced.
Many Northern-state representatives saw slavery as an evil necessary to secure their primary objective of a stronger national government. They assuaged their guilt by rationalizing that Section 9 of the Constitution would end the reprehensible practice in 20 years (it did not). Southern states simply saw slavery as a cornerstone of their economic strength, and through the convention, used that economic strength to gain the political advantage of disproportionate representation based upon the number of their human “property.” It took over half a million deaths between 1860 and 1865, and the near decimation of the Union to bring an end to slavery in the United States.
Flash forward 220 years. Very soon our current Congress, the 110th of our history, will reconvene. Almost certainly they will consider the opportunity to further endorse by law another economic underclass, the millions of illegal immigrants mostly living in poverty and working for below market wages.
Illegal immigration is not the modern equivalent of slavery (which continues to be practiced around the world), and the necessary efforts of our current elected officials to address this critical and complex policy issue are in no way the equal to the Faustian bargain of 1787.
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Illegal immigration and slavery are, however, economic and political cousins. Both require a work force compensated at a rate lower than the value of their work. Both are integral to an economy where said value flows to those who endorse the need for an economic underclass with phrases like “we need them to do jobs that Americans don’t want.” And both create a social caste system, where opportunity is restricted by law as well as circumstance, and workers are treated as less human than those who benefit most from their work.
Current leaders should consider their moral compass and their principals in addition to the economic value such workers bring to their constituencies. History proves, the long-term consequences of prioritizing short term economic gain over principled policy can be devastating.