Klarman to examine civil rights and the Constitution

Emma Morehart | Staff Writer

Near the beginning of the Declaration of Independence, there are seven words that all Americans probably know by heart — “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”

The theme for this week’s Interfaith Lecture Series, which takes a modern-day look at civil rights, is exactly these seven words. But the week opens with a discussion of Constitutional history and how this document, like the Declaration of Independence, provides historical context for present-day problems.

In Michael Klarman’s lecture “Slavery and the Constitution” at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy, he will discuss the role slavery played in the events before the Civil War, and how the Constitution fit into the debate.

Klarman, a law professor at Harvard University, has been studying the Constitution in one way or another since he was a political theory major at the University of Pennsylvania. From there, Klarman went to law school, developed an interest in legal history while studying in England and received a teaching job at the University of Virginia, where he taught Constitutional law.

This path led relatively smoothly to a career teaching and writing about Constitutional history. But this study is not simply a retroactive look at civil rights, slavery and the Constitution. The country is divided today, even geographically in some cases, on issues like taxation, health care and others.

“The debates over slavery and the Constitution in the 1850s were not so dissimilar to the debates about same-sex marriage today,” Klarman said. “The specific substantive topic changes, but the debate is the same.”

For example, many of the criticisms hurled at the Massachusetts Supreme Court when it legalized same-sex marriage in 2004 are similar in nature to criticisms people made of the U.S. Supreme Court after its decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford in 1857.

These similarities have different implications, though. In one sense, the controversy surrounding same-sex marriage may dissipate in the next 10 to 12 years, just as the decision to abolish slavery would be a no-brainer today. But this is not the case for all debates.

“I think it’s hard to tell, though, because when the Supreme Court decided cases involving abortion and the death penalty in the ’70s, they probably would have predicted that those wouldn’t have been very big issues in 10 to 20 years, and it turns out they are,” Klarman said.

Although there are many similarities between the Constitution and modern-day debates versus those 150 years ago, Klarman said he hopes America’s resolution of these conflicts are more peaceful today than they were during the Civil War.

At Chautauqua, Klarman said, he wants to take this application of the Constitution and apply it to everyday life.

“I hope to convince people that history is interesting and that it’s relevant,” Klarman said. “Constitutional debate is actually just political debate dressed up in slightly different language, and (the Constitution and court decisions) might push the debate in a certain direction, but ultimately, these debates can be resolved through political struggle and ordinary people participating in the political process.”