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'America’s Forgotten Constitutions' Bear Potent Messages for Our Times

What can the ‘failed’ constitutions of American history teach us about building community and galvanizing social movements?

America's Forgotten Constitutions

Publisher: Harvard University Press
Length: 368 pages
Author: Robert L. Tsai
Price: $27.82
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-04

The word ‘constitution’ provokes a range of responses. The politically savvy perk up with interest; the politically partisan grab their pocket copies with militant fervour; the politically-turned-off-and-bored recoil in horror.

Robert Tsai’s new study, America’s Forgotten Constitutions, offers a refreshing and innovative take on a centuries-old topic, and one which might actually interest all the groups above. The book presents case studies (but really they’re just interesting stories) of eight constitution-writing efforts launched by various movements and sub-communities in the United States from the early 19th century to the present day.

As Tsai observes, constitutions are not merely legalistic documents. They serve a variety of functions: they can be a form of protest, a way of mobilizing and unifying a community, a way of proposing and spreading new ideas, a way of debating important issues and working them out collectively.

And, he points out, the type of function a constitution serves can change over time. It might succeed very well at one function, but fail at others. These stories of ‘forgotten constitutions’ offer a tantalizing glimpse into the power of the written word in shaping American political discourse and ideas, both popular and philosophical, about American society.

This is not merely a collection of assorted oddities or constitutional anecdotes from America’s political margins, however. Taken together, they comprise a chronological narrative of some of the key issues galvanizing political activism throughout the past 200 years of American history. The book itself forms a chronological American history of sorts, albeit one that focuses on those efforts to resolve collective crises that did not wind up bearing fruit (or at least, not the fruit their authors thought they were planting).

The book opens in the dying days of frontier sovereignty and revolutionary idealism, exploring efforts to create alternative nations along the margins of the still-growing United States. The tiny Republic of Indian Stream (located in the disputed border between Canada and the US, and which tried to play those two nations off against each other in an effort to retain sovereignty) and the Icarian Nation (formed by French revolutionaries seeking an alternative to the political turmoil of that country) were absorbed by the US and dissolved through internal dispute, respectively. But their dissolution was emblematic of the broader dissolution of founding American ideals – frontier sovereignty and Utopian revolution – at the same time. Their failure beckons to the gradual substitution of such ideals with those of an orderly, law-based nation that increasingly preferred stability to experimental Utopianism (with its extremes of either radical individualism or radical collectivism).

Hot on the heels of this ideological turmoil came the increasingly contentious issue of slavery and the plight of African-Americans in the US. Tsai looks at the riveting account of John Brown’s attempt to launch a large-scale slave revolt and found an autonomous nation of freed slaves; the revolt was rapidly crushed and Brown executed, but some have argued this attempt at sovereignty provoked and inflamed the crises which led to the Civil War soon thereafter. Tsai then explores the efforts of the Confederate South at nation-building, and the fascinating constitutional debates that occurred within the Confederacy even as it was heading toward final defeat.

Tsai also explores the efforts of native Americans to preserve their sovereignty and independence in the face of an aggressively growing US state; efforts which culminated in the Sequoyah Convention and an attempt to found a separate state for native Americans within the Union. These efforts too failed in the face of concerted strategies by the American government to impose mainstream cultural, economic and social models on native Americans, but some of the Sequoyah efforts were absorbed in intriguing ways into mainstream political discourse.

Finally, Tsai looks at two of the key issues facing the 20th century: global governance, and racial equality. He explores the post-World War II efforts to expand on the United Nations model and create a world government, and he also explores state-building efforts by both black and white separatists in the US. While the earlier parts of the book provide a fascinating historical narrative, these last three chapters are among the most fascinating insofar as they engage with issues still potent today.

When faced with the contemporary fears and imperfections of our society, what is the best method of achieving a better social order and surmounting the inequalities, injustices and dangers American society faces today? Should the problem be approached with an emphasis on cultural sovereignty (which black and white extremists have taken to the extreme with initiatives such as the Republic of New Afrika and the Pacific Northwest Homeland)? Or should it be approached through efforts to create a global government that would secure international peace and equality, and pursue an internationalist approach to achieving justice and individual self-determination? Does the solution lie in empowering the local, or does it lie in surrendering local authority and self-determination to more holistic global imperatives?

Tsai does not answer these questions, of course, but he offers us a fascinating history and analysis of the efforts by some of those others who have tried.

His book is, in fact, a much more powerful historical text than might be inferred from the title alone. In fact, there is nothing ‘lost’ about these constitutions at all. While their particulars and the dramatic and often riveting stories of their composition have been forgotten, many of their ideas and proposals linger in the local histories and broader political discourse that have percolated through to the present day. And the social debates and ideological imperatives which inspired them remain as potent as ever. By exploring the efforts of those who went beyond mere intellectual debate, and who actually tried to build alternative nations or states within the US, Tsai offers a unique vantage into the ideological struggles underpinning American history and politics.

One of the interesting points that recurs throughout these very different constitution-writing projects is the frequent appeal to the popular imaginary, through forms of pop culture like fiction. Etienne Cabet’s Icarian Nation garnered widespread mainstream support in Europe as the result of a novel he wrote to express his ideas; the white supremacists seeking a Pacific Northwest Homeland also collectively produce the image of their imagined nation through novels and other fictional devices. Other constitutionalists wrote letters, or published newspapers.

Tapping into the popular imagination through the various pop culture devices of the era was essential for many of them in generating support and working through their ideas; indeed, the constitutions themselves – while articulated as legalistic devices – might equally be seen as expressions of popular culture and collective imagination. Tsai doesn’t go too far down that path, but it’s one of the many thought-provoking considerations his work raises.

The style weaves that delicate balance of accessible yet scholarly language. It’s fine fodder for the pop history or politics buff, as well as a useful background text for more serious scholars. It’s an engaging read: enjoyable and thought-provoking at the same time. And yet it leaves the reader on an uncertain note: both hopeful and pessimistic.

The constitutional projects Tsai explores were all, in some sense or another, ultimately failed projects, and convey a sense of the perhaps hopelessly insurmountable odds faced by those seeking profound change in society. And yet at the same time, there is a certain optimism conveyed through these pages. These constitutional efforts all represent efforts by everyday Americans to take charge of the society immediately surrounding them, express their grievances with the status quo and literally re-write the conditions of their lives.

As Tsai acknowledges in his closing words, these “forgotten” constitutions represent the desire of dissenters and those who felt oppressed in their lives, to re-invent the social conditions around them by means of the written word. They represent an appeal to reason – sometimes misguided, sometimes spot-on – and an appeal to social change through orderly, rational discourse with their fellow human beings.

Sometimes the constitutional projects did dip into violence, but even then there was a sense that armed insurrection must also be located within a framework of constitutionally articulated reason and rationality. If such radically different corners of humanity are willing to articulate their grievances constitutionally, suggests Tsai, then perhaps there is hope for humanity after all.


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