Monday, March 19, 2012

Santorum and Statehood: Curious Constitutional Principles

Rick Santorum recently demonstrated both his casual racism and his constitutional ineptitude this week weighing in on the subject of Puerto Rican statehood, claiming that “English must be the main language” before the territory could achieve statehood. His remarks, backpedalling notwithstanding, are telling. This election cycle’s iteration of conservatives can’t get enough of the constitution, the founding fathers, and their original intent. Tea Party republicans, who Santorum is trying to court as the only “true conservative,” continually invoke the founders (as if they were of one mind), while the House of Representatives read the Constitution aloud last year (minus all those passages that dealt with slavery). But how is it that a man who claims such fealty to all things founding can be so very, VERY, wrong?

I suppose we should give Santorum a bit of leeway here. The constitution and the founders are not the same thing (though to hear these guys talk about it you wouldn’t know). But, given the radical right’s love affair with the founding fathers, we can certainly understand the discriminatory and imperialistic undertone of Santorum’s remarks. Indeed, he would be right at home with, say, someone like Benjamin Franklin. He felt the same way … about the Germans

Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion. 

Why was Franklin so nervous about the obviously-not-white Germans? In the next paragraph he continues:

the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased. 

So, it’s obvious. Let the Germans run roughshod over Pennsylvania and we run the risk of ruining the white race, in general. Now, to us in the twenty-first century the notion that Germans are somehow not white seems absurd, but what shouldn’t be absurd is the American quest for racial purity. I don’t think it’s going to far to say that that quest is part of our political DNA, built into the system of laws that held up the institution of slavery and then Jim Crow segregation which followed. This quest for racial purity dominated the first 200 years of American constitutional law. It’s a legacy that the nation is now trying in good conscience to undo. Well, the nation except Rick Santorum. 

Ironically, that quest for purity is not explicitly built into American expansion. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 (one of the only laws written during the Articles of Confederation to have lasting importance after the adoption of the federal constitution) established the precedence for the federal government acquiring territory beyond the original 13 colonies and the creation of new states from that territory. There were three stages of government for new territories, leading to statehood. First, Congress would appoint a governor, secretary and three judges. Once the territory had at least 5,000 inhabitants, those residents could elect a territorial assembly and send one non-voting member to congress. Finally, with 60,000, the residents could petition Congress for statehood, draft a constitution, and then become a state. 

Simple, right? So what were the requirements for the state constitution? That “the constitution and government so to be formed, shall be republican, and in conformity to the principles contained in these articles; and, so far as it can be consistent with the general interest of the confederacy.” Also, for the Northwest territories, that there be freedom of religion, the right to a writ of habeas corpus, the benefit of trial by jury, and no slavery. This had founders written all over it. Well, Thomas Jefferson at least. 

No language requirement. At all. What’s more, there is still no federal law mandating an official language of the United States. How could Rick Santorum, former federal lawmaker and candidate to be the nation’s chief executive, not know this basic lesson in history and civics? How can someone who claims to know the original intent of the founders, and who is in Puerto Rico on a campaign stop not know the basic laws governing the entry of states into the union?

This is a frightening story on a number of levels. It’s frightening that Santorum lacks such a basic understanding of the constitution. It’s all the worse that he would fill that gap so quickly with racist pandering.