At least once a year, I teach American Literature for a state university in Louisiana. I like it. The history nerd in me, born in a desk at 2pm in the first row and fourth seat of Roxanne Quinn’s 4th-grade History class, enjoys visiting old friends in the American experience. Emerson always rambles, Fitzgerald always pines for what he will never have, and Abigail Adams is perpetually perturbed with her potbellied husband, John. There is a generalized familiarity to the Canon of American writers whose works range from religious treatises masquerading as “true historical accounts” of the first settlers to imaginative fiction to personal letters. Other instructors orient their American Lit classes around themes – colonial and narratives, women writers, popular fiction – but my classes take a chronological approach. Readers in America, I would offer, lack the abilities (plural) to differentiate between fact and fiction. Each semester, I am braced and ready for the bi-weekly raised hand asking, “But is this real? Like, I mean, did it really happen?”
To ground our readings in American Literature, there is a constant assignment to read relevant laws, amendments, historical summaries, and headnotes. Stories should, I believe, be read with their context. Just last week, the assigned reading was the Constitution. We had been camped at a “pre-America America” for the first few weeks of the semester and now, thrillingly, we had arrived at the Revolutionary War and the framing of the founding documents.
I’ve taught American Literature for seven years as I write this. During this time, teaching AmLit at least once each year and sometimes every semester, compounded with multiple semesters where I have taught more than one section of the class, there has not been a single student who has read the Constitution. Not one. Every student arrives in my class confident that they know what the Constitution says, having never read it.
When I point this out, some will coyly admit that they memorized the Preamble to the Constitution in grade school. Some were exposed to the Bill of Rights. But not once has a student actually read the Constitution. Last week, a forty-two-year-old returning student brought a tattered and chipped paperback of the Founding Documents to class, proud that she had “been reading it” after she found a copy at Goodwill. “And what do you think? What has stood out to you?” I asked. Oh no, she hadn’t read it, she said. “I just thought it was neat and have been flipping through it.” In-class discussions revealed that one student thought the Emancipation Proclamation and the Constitution were the same things. One person stopped to ask which part was written by “that liberal communist guy… what’s his name? Jeff Thomas?” He meant Thomas Jefferson, it turns out. Jefferson was a Humanist.
This is not shared to shame anyone or to lament the state of American Education. Important discussions, of course. But not the focus of today’s sermon. Rather, it speaks to sustained ignorance, generation after generation.
Turn your attention to Article 1, Section 9, and Amendments 13, and 14 of the United States Constitution, passed in 1868.
Article 1, 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.The United States Constitution, Article 1, Section 9
Read by someone alive during the Civil Rights Era or Black Lives Matter Movement, read by someone who witnessed migrant children indefinitely detained (and indeed still detained) at the American Border, read by someone who has witnessed the “roundup” of illegal immigrants on the streets of New Orleans or Chicago or New York or Dallas, Article 1, Section 9 seems to read as the acknowledgment and support of slavery. After all, slavery was so well established by the time the Founders signed the Declaration of Independence that it begs the question who was being declared independent when the Founders wrote that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men were created equal” even as they pen an implicit endorsement and protection for enslavement. What does independence actually mean in practice? Slavery was so well established by the time the first amendment to the Constitution was written that we need only look at the amendment itself to recognize our Founding Fathers, these Framers of the Constitution, were removing restrictions to migration (perhaps a good thing?) and the importation (slavery) of human chattel. There is no other way to read it – the Constitution implies a knowledge of the time and context. Slavery isn’t just the future of the country, it is something to be protected. Nothing should prevent it during their lifetimes. The gains of entrepreneurs and profiteers rest upon protecting the migration and importation of humans – explicitly, slaves.
Maybe this is a bad reading of the Constitution. Maybe it is a one-off, a turn of phrase unintentionally left vague and undefined but which the Amendments will correct. Indeed, it seemingly does this very thing. Nothing should inhibit the “migration or important” of people to the American shore until 1808. Perhaps, the Founders suggest, this issue may be revisited.
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.Amendment 13 to the U.S. Constitution
Oh, thank God! Thank God there was a process by which we the people could circle back to the Constitution and correct some of the generalities and mistakes by amending our previous statements! Slavery was abolished with the 13th Amendment in 1865. Finally, America would become a nation of free people – well, except for “except.” Except for criminals. Removing their freedom(s) is important for the rest of us. This may be a nation of lawlessness, but by god we’ll get work out of those who violate our way of life, who bring disorder and chaos, who see through the charade.
Reading the 13th Amendment, we see a wrinkle in the fabric. Some part of the brain pauses, trying to reconcile what we are reading with what we know about the history of America. Recalling our grammar lessons from grade school, we know a sentence including “neither” must also include “nor” in the same way that “either” necessitates an “or.” Any sentence including both neither and nor can be turned around and read more affirmatively with either and or. The human brain tries to move the words around, clarifying them like so.
EITHER slavery OR involuntary servitude, WHEN as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, SHALL NOT exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
But that’s not how we live, is it? Mass incarceration has been allowed to become an industry unto itself, a legalized form of slavery brought about by severe punishment for people of color and the exploitation of their lives for federal profit. The justice system has expanded, particularly since the 13th Amendment was passed to meet the demand for Slavery By Another Name. Here also, the brain trembles to reconcile what we are reading with what we know about the present state of America.
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.Amendment 14 to the U.S. Constitution
This amendment is commonly understood to refer to equal protections for all Americans. If it has appeared on your political radar at all, it has probably done so in connection to the Equal Rights Act, abortion, physician-assisted suicide, due process, taxes, or… well… I mean, the 14th Amendment covers a lot of ground, right? If you haven’t heard it pinging your radar, then it’s safe to assume you have not been watching most of the news outlets along the political spectrum for the last few years. Needless to say though, it affects the orbit of most Americans whether they recognize it or not. But what does it actually mean when it is not being used as a political football or philosophical springboard?
Noah Hawley, the creator of the FX series Fargo, reframed the Amendment for a new audience. In his novel Anthem, Hawley drops the reader into a prison cell where one prisoner, Fat Eddy, explains the amendment to another prisoner, Avon.
Sovereignty, Fat Eddy explained to Avoid one afternoon while they were standing with their faces to the bars of their cell, waiting for the guards to finish rifling through their shit, is the natural state of all free-born men. “We are all,” he told Avon, “creatures of autonomy, masters of our own domain. That’s in the Declaration of Independence.”… After the cellsearch came the cavity search, and whale they were pulling up their prison trou, Fat Eddy laid out in minute detail the truth of our enslavement. “The Founding Fathers of American government,” he said, “believed that the sole purpose of government was for the benefit of protecting the rights of its citizens, not the right of the rulers. They also believed that the doctrine of the divine right of kings was an oppressive, moral transgression against humanity and that no government, man – or woman, for that matter – had the right to rule over his fellow man without their consent.”Noah Hawley, Anthem (2023)
Here, Hawley picks up several threads and tries to connect them for his readers. The conversation is focused more Fat Eddy’s belief that one can simply exit the United States government and collect on a debt owed to them. In parallel, it would be like recognizing that the agency securing all banks in the United States, the FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation) owes all Americans a certain amount of money they were never aware was owed to them. If the average American were aware of this, they could walk into a bank and “cash out” the money that the government has been using on their behalf and collecting interest on – an inheritance, of sorts. An American would not be entitled to the interest since the bank was the one profiting, but the original deposit, the principal, is still owed.
“What if I told you the federal government of the United States, Incorporated, owned you half a million bucks?”
This stopped Avon. He laid the potboiler on the sink and turned around. “For real?”
“I shit you negative. See, you’re a slave, my friend, and you don’t even know it.ibid.
It’s a laughable claim, one easily dismissed as the idle chatter of two prisoners. While Hawley uses this siderail of a comedy to juxtapose with the more heavy and dramatic events of the novel (those of you who have watched Fargo know Hawley excels at this), there is a question at the core of it.
Eddy proceeded to lay out how at one time there was an American utopia governed by English common law. A paradise in which every citizen was a sovereign. Back then there were no taxes, no regulations or court orders. In this perfect union, a man was a citizen of the Republic of Ohio or Pennsylvania, or whatever state he claimed as home.
“There was no such thing as a US Citizen,” Fat Eddy told him. “But then a conspiracy of bankers introduced the Fourteenth Amendment, purportedly to create a citizenship for the freed negro.”ibid.
Remember, reader, that the Fourteenth Amendment was passed in 1868, three years after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in 1865. Except technically it didn’t abolish slavery. It used sleight of hand to transfer slavery (bad!) into a prison system (excellent!). Prisoners became slaves to the government, not the individual. Slavery, it was argued, is only possible on a human level. Note the sleight of hand here and how it hinges on word choice.
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.Amendment 14 to the U.S. Constitution
If we assume that the government is above such things as slavery and enslavement, then we need only turn our attention to the high number of black people punished for crimes and, having been duly convicted, are transferred into the possession of the government as unpaid employees. This, America reasoned, was legal.
Hawley continues his story of one prisoner educating another on the 14th Amendment.
“Listen to the fast one they pulled, hidden right there in plain sight. Quote: ‘All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.’”
Fat Eddy looked at Avon over his readers. He was in his midfifties, still with the metabolism of a seventeen-year-old boy.
“You see what they did there?”
“They used the goddamn slave amendment to define all Americans… Keep listening. See, before the Fourteenth, we had what you call de jure common law. A man was subject to the rule of nature, the bonds of common sense. But then, a year after the Fourteenth Amendment, these sons of bitches cook up an obscure fucking passage in the United States Code – purportedly to govern the goddamn District of Columbia – that contains the following sentence: For the purposes of this Code, the phrase ‘United States’ means a Federal Corporation.”Noah Hawley, Anthem (2023)
Bear with this scene for a moment. This is the conspiratorial assertion of a fictional prisoner. It is not a real assertion put forward by a legal scholar or even a practicing attorney. Hawley, an American writing about the state of America at this time, is highlighting the United States Reorganization Act of 1871 with this code Fat Eddy is unpacking. Although fictional, Eddy’s historical step-by-step discourse deserves attention. This is the magic trick explained.
Continued in part II