Throughout the caricature of an impeachment trial under way in the Senate, Democrats and the occasional Republican have been urging—begging, actually—Mitch McConnell and his like-minded Republican senators to be fair and/or patriotic and/or honorable when hearing what is a quite damning case of abuse of office, and then to vote their consciences and/or uphold the Constitution and/or save democracy. In other words, they are to vote against their political interests, remove Donald Trump from office, and then face an infuriated Republican electorate. But this is a unique moment in history, the counterargument goes.
Only it isn’t. What is being fought over on the Senate floor is as old as the nation itself. It has little to do with abuse of power, the Bidens, Ukraine, or a president stonewalling Congress. This is a struggle far more fundamental to American governance: the survival of what in recent years has become a cornerstone of the conservative movement—white-minority rule.
At first, the struggle’s focus was slavery, then the political status of freed slaves, then immigrants from countries not thought of as white enough, then women’s suffrage, then voting rights during the civil-rights era. Lately the fight has focused on more subtle areas, such as voter-ID laws, the re-enfranchisement of former felons, and access to voting facilities in black and Latino neighborhoods.
The Framers wrote white-minority government into the Constitution when, in Article I, they granted each white southern voter a slave bonus through the three-fifths clause. At the same time, to ensure dominance in the Senate, the Framers designed the Northwest Ordinance so that it restricted a vast territory to a maximum of five new free states, but they placed no statutory limit on the number of slave states admitted from the Southwest. Control of the Electoral College would thus also flow to slaveholders. Without the three-fifths clause, Thomas Jefferson would have lost to John Adams in 1800.
The Founders, including such titans of liberty as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, were well aware that only by suppressing the majority at the ballot box could white-minority rule be maintained. Although the Constitution would not specifically address voting rights until after the Civil War, the majority of the Founders, including Madison and Hamilton, were on the record favoring that the franchise be limited to white male property holders. The 1790 naturalization law reserved citizenship for immigrants to “free white persons,” a prohibition that would remain largely unchanged until 1952, when the McCarran-Walter Act abolished racial qualifications in applications for citizenship.
In the first half of the 19th century, slave owners fought ferociously to maintain their influence, but eventually they could not save themselves from an appalling and bloody war, which, outnumbered on the battlefield, they decisively lost. After the war, not only was the slave bonus eliminated, but for a few precious years, Reconstruction seemed poised to remake the United States into a genuine majority-based democracy. But white supremacy would not be cast aside so easily. First through terror groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, then through fraud and ballot-box stuffing, black voting was suppressed and so-called Redeemers gained control of the South.
Eventually, however, white sentiment evolved. As an Alabama legislator told his colleagues, “If we would have white supremacy, we must establish it by law—not by force or fraud.” So to encourage honesty and good government, the virtually all-white southern-state conventions, beginning with Mississippi’s in 1890, drafted Jim Crow constitutions specifically to disenfranchise black voters. As James K. Vardaman, who would serve as Mississippi’s governor and later its senator, announced, “There is no use to equivocate or lie about the matter. [There was] no other purpose than to eliminate the nigger from politics … let the world know it just as it is.”
By 1908, every state in the old Confederacy had drafted a new constitution, effectively purging African Americans from the voting rolls. And even better than in the slave era, five-fifths of a state’s black population was counted for apportionment, which coupled with one-party rule gave the Jim Crow South even more power in Congress than it had enjoyed before the Civil War. And so came another era of white-minority rule, which endured even through the progressive policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
In all of this, the Supreme Court was a willing and active participant. In cases such as Williams v. Mississippi, Mills v. Green, and especially Giles v. Harris, the Court chose to ignore white supremacists’ announced intent, as it would later do in Hawaii v. Trump, and refused to overturn state laws clearly at odds with the aim of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.
The fight against race hatred and voter suppression was not confined to African Americans. In the West, Asian immigrants and their descendants also faced the rancor of their white neighbors. As a California congressman put it, “How can any lover of this country ask for free Chinese immigration, which is Chinese citizenship and Chinese suffrage?” When Wong Kim Ark, who had been born in San Francisco but refused reentry into the United States after traveling to China in the mid-1890s, sued to establish his birthright citizenship, a California newspaper wrote, “If this young Chinaman should be declared to be a citizen, then there are several thousand Chinese citizens in this State, and of course they will be entitled to the ballot … it is enough to make one shudder to contemplate.”
The Court once again played its part in 1922. That year, the justices ruled unanimously that Takao Ozawa could not become a naturalized citizen, no matter how light his skin, because science said he was not white. Then in 1923, again unanimously, they declared that Bhagat Singh Thind, a Sikh man who had served in the United States Army, could not become a naturalized citizen no matter what science said, because he did not look white.
As another presidential election nears, with American demographics trending more and more nonwhite, one need only observe the transparent schemes of voter suppression or glance at Fox News or listen to talk radio to realize that the ruling white, conservative minority perceives itself as under dire and imminent threat. It is thus easy to see why Mitch McConnell is so beloved on the right. He and his Republican colleagues are fighting not so much to keep Donald Trump in office as to shore up their reign, which, in their minds, might never be reclaimed once surrendered. They are all-too aware that Vice President Mike Pence simply does not evoke the passion that Donald Trump does, and the risk, if Trump were removed with the help of Republican senators, of that passion turning to rage against their own could easily cost Republicans both the presidency and the Senate. Under these circumstances, asking McConnell and other Republicans to voluntarily cede power because of the inconvenience of a president violating the Constitution is a fantasy. Rather, they will overlook any crime, any abuse of power, lest their rule be lost.
This story is part of the project “The Battle for the Constitution,” in partnership with the National Constitution Center.
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