In today’s Washington Post, cartoonist Tom Toles argues that the tea party movement reveals itself to be racist by “want[ing] to go back to the Constitution as it was written,” despite the document’s acquiescence in the continuation of slavery. Toles’s cartoon is a particularly hateful variant of a misleading, but all too common, argument that tries to vilify critics of a “living Constitution” and justify judicial activism by pointing out that the Constitution was written in a different and less tolerant time.
Whether ignorant or intentionally misleading, this line of argument ignores the fact that 1) the Founding Fathers provided for constitutional evolution through the democratic process of constitutional amendment, and 2) what conservatives, libertarians, and the tea party movement favors is a strict constructionist or originalist interpretation of the Constitution and its amendments, not “go[ing] back to the Constitution as it was written” sans amendments.
Toles and other critics of strict construction would benefit from reviewing the Constitution and the history of the civil rights movement. They would learn that constitutional amendments and legislation, rather than a “living Constitution,” are responsible for the greatest advances in civil rights, including the elimination of slavery and the enfranchisement of African Americans and women.