• August 2, 2012
    For Liberty and Equality
    The Life and Times of the Declaration of Independence
    Alexander Tsesis

    By Alexander Tsesis, a professor at Loyola University, Chicago, School of Law

    Constitutional scholars often treat the Declaration of Independence as a relic of a bygone era. My recent book, For Liberty and Equality: The Life and Times of the Declaration of Independence (Oxford University Press 2012), shows how out of step that thinking is with social movements. Some of the most progressive groups in this country’s history based their demands for change, justice, and equality on the grand statements of the nation’s manifesto. Unlike constitutional scholars, manhood suffragists, abolitionists, woman suffragists, labor organizers, and a host of other progressives turned to the Declaration to condemn the hypocrisies of the Constitution.

    From the earliest days of the Republic, anti-slavery activists decried the incompatibility of adopting the universal sounding language of the Declaration of Independence while providing constitutional protections for the institution of slavery. In 1783, New Jersey Quaker leader David Cooper underscored the contradictions between Revolutionary principles of equality and the institution of slavery in two, side-by-side columns. He quoted from the Declaration in the left-hand column and in the right-hand column condemned those signatories of the document who were slaveholders, speaking of the blessings of liberty while securing it only for white men. Even that characterization of American democracy was too generous given the endemic racism that spilled over far beyond the boundaries of slave plantations.

    The manhood suffrage movement of the early nineteenth century turned to the Declaration’s principles of equality to vindicate the right of propertiless white men to vote. Laborers complained that in a country committed to liberty, equality, and the pursuit of happiness an aristocratic democracy had been erected on the backs of the workingman. Writing about political equality in 1800, Thomas Paine’s biographer, James Cheetham, interpreted the Declaration of Independence’s words that “all men are created equal” to include “the political equality of man.” From this followed the principle that “the right of suffrage cannot . . . belong to a part without belonging to the whole.”

  • July 5, 2012
    The Catonsville Nine
    A Story of Faith and Resistance in the Vietnam Era
    Shawn Francis Peters

    By Shawn F. Peters, who teaches writing and U.S. history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

    Reverend Daniel Berrigan is still at it. Though slowed a bit by age and infirmity – he’s 91 years old now and in failing health – the firebrand Jesuit priest recently appeared in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan to speak out against Trinity Church. The Episcopal parish was backing the criminal prosecution of several protesters who had occupied one of its empty lots – a move that, in Berrigan’s view, seemed equal parts petty and pointless. In characteristically poetic fashion, he prodded the reporters and supporters who had assembled around him in the park, asking, “What is real about real estate, and what is unreal about real estate?”

    For many of those who have participated in Occupy movement protests over the past year, Dan Berrigan is a kind of patron saint. With a commitment to peace and social justice stretching back more than half a century, he repeatedly has placed himself on the front lines of protests against racial discrimination, income inequality, and war. Few public figures in our time – religious or secular – have matched either the breadth or the depth of his devotion to such causes.

    This dedication often has put the indefatigable Berrigan at odds with all manner of local, state, and federal legal authorities. His protest activities have resulted in numerous arrests and several stints in prison. Berrigan has been branded a “holy outlaw,” and not without reason. Whenever the letter or spirit of secular laws or public policies have conflicted with his understanding of the Christian scriptures, he has held true to his religious principles – often at enormous personal cost.

    My new book, The Catonsville Nine: A Story of Faith and Resistance in the Vietnam Era (Oxford University Press), chronicles what might be regarded as the apex of Berrigan’s fabled career as an activist: his participation in a raid on a military draft board in suburban Baltimore on May 17, 1968. In a bold demonstration, Berrigan and eight other Catholics (including his brother Philip) seized and burned more than 350 draft files from the Selective Service office in Catonsville, Md. Their subsequent trial in federal court (at which they all were found guilty on all counts) was so singularly dramatic and intense that a play and film later were based on it. 

    I am a native of Catonsville, and as I grew up there in the 1970s I heard many stories about what Berrigan and his compatriots had perpetrated at the town’s draft office. In piecing together their fascinating story for my book, I realized that a lot of what I heard was incomplete, or simply wrong.

  • June 7, 2012
    So Rich, So Poor
    Why It's So Hard to End Poverty in the United States
    Peter Edelman

    By Peter Edelman a law professor at Georgetown University, co-director of the University’s Joint Degree in Law and Public Policy, and Faculty Director for the school’s Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy. Edelman is also the chair of the American Constitution Society’s Board of Directors, and will be signing copies of his book at the ACS National Convention next week.

    It’s never hard to find a policy hook to discuss poverty in the United States, but one we have just now is the recent budget for FY 2013 proposed by Paul Ryan and the House Republicans which proposes to slash virtually every program that helps low-income people in our country.  My new book is called So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in the United States. Paul Ryan and colleagues are definitely a policy hook for talking about my book.

    I could just say that people like Paul Ryan and the House Republicans are the reason why it’s so hard to end poverty in our nation. That’s not wrong, but the story is much more complicated than that. We have a long list of successful programs without which we’d have 40 million additional people in poverty over and above the 46 million we have now. Don’t let anybody tell you that nothing works. Paul Ryan’s line is that if we have 46 million people in poverty now, it’s because the programs are a failure – because social security, food stamps, the earned income tax credit, housing vouchers, and Medicare and Medicaid are failures. And some people – all too many -- take him seriously.    

    No, we have 46 million people in poverty and tens of millions more struggling every day to make ends meet for other reasons. There are two problems here, actually: the millions who work as hard as they can and can’t get out of poverty or near-poverty, and the smaller (but not small) group who are virtually destitute, with incomes below half the poverty line, or below $9,000 for a family of three. The first group – whose basic problem is the huge number of low-wage jobs now extant in our economy – now constitutes a third of the population, 103 million people who have incomes below twice the poverty line (below $36,000 for a family of three). The second – those in deep poverty – now number 20.5 million, up by almost 8 million since 2000. Both numbers are staggering, each in its own way.

  • May 31, 2012
    The U.S. Supreme Court
    A Very Short Introduction
    Linda Greenhouse

    By Linda Greenhouse, the Knight Distinguished Journalist-in-Residence, a Senior Research Scholar in Law and Joseph Goldstein Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School. Greenhouse, a member of the American Constitution Society's Board of Directors, will be signing copies of her new book at the 2012 ACS National Convention.

    Has there been a time recently when public understanding of the Supreme Court was so important – and so lacking?

    In a Pew poll two summers ago, only 28 percent of the respondents could identify John Roberts as chief justice (a position he had then held for nearly five years) from among a list of four names. The other options, all of which some people selected, were Thurgood Marshall, who had died 17 years earlier; John Paul Stevens, who was in the news for retiring; and Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader. Just imagine what people don’t know about how the court sets its agenda or construes statutes, or about the powers of the chief justice or the debate over constitutional interpretation.

    With a court of conservative activists substituting their policy judgments for those of Congress; using the First Amendment as a deregulatory tool; and proposing to unsettle long-settled understandings of affirmative action and voting rights, it’s essential that we become a nation of knowledgeable, or at least better-informed, court-watchers. That’s the big ambition of my new little book – and I use the word “little” as an accurate physical description (7 by 4.5 inches in dimension, 117 pages of text), not as false modesty.

  • May 24, 2012
    Willie Mays Aikens
    Safe at Home
    Gregory Jordan

    By Gregory Jordan, an author and journalist

    I remember standing with Willie Mays Aikens outside his halfway house in a hardscrabbled  corner of Kansas City as night fell in June 2009. I was there to write a book about his life; he was merely trying to make sorts of his life. He would be late for sign-in in two minutes, but showed no urge to rush. He never rushed - his innate cool and Southern style made rushing inconceivable. But that night he seemed unnerved. Not nervous – never that, either. But unnerved at how he would provide for the woman who would soon be his wife, for a daughter at an expensive college, and for her younger sister who had her eyes set on other expensive colleges.

    He was an ex-con, a month out of the slammer after learning the hard way what mandatory minimum sentencing is, and he had been offered a job on a road crew fixing potholes. He had two bad hips, two bad knees, an empty bank account, and a used car that broke down every other day. But he also had something he hadn’t had in over 14 years: freedom. And one more thing: spiritual cleanliness. He was not only drug free, not only did he have that cursed addiction tucked in under his hat where it belonged, but he also had what he called “a spiritual life.” He correlated it with God and churchgoing; I equated it with his boundless hope and joy. 

    As I walked him up the steps of the big brick building that night, I looked at my watch. He walked through the swinging doors, signed in, and the second hand on my wristwatch hit twelve as he put down the pen. 9 p.m. on the nose, and Mr. Cool Faith Hope Joy was heading to his bunk bed.

    I walked to my rental car, and thought: if I were a betting man, I’d bet on him. He wants it. He can taste it. Even though they set him up and locked him up and came close to throwing away the key, he had somehow corrected himself. Not cured himself, but set a right and steady course, destination pending.