Constitutions as governing documents or plans represent many characteristics of a society primarily as an expression of the civic and political culture of the period of creation or adoption. Too, they are often aspirational in tone for the prospects of the future generations subject to their terms. The Preamble to the United States Constitution promises to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” Most states of the union have a preamble which, in the majority, also contain an aspiration about “blessings” upon the state and/or its people. Virginia has no preamble of aspirational statement in its constitution.
Liberty, of course, at the time of the enactment of the US Constitution, was not secured for many years to come for slaves who were, in fact, deemed only 3/5 of a person until after a bloody civil war.
The Virginia census of 1790 enumerated an African-American population of 292,000 (39%) of the state’s total and, 110 years later, by 1900, that figure had more than doubled to 661,651 (35%), continuing to reflect a substantial political bloc in the Commonwealth. On June 26, 1902, a body of 100 white males concluded a year-long series of meetings to produce a new constitution for the state to replace the Reconstruction-era document of 1869 which, among other elements, granted suffrage to all males over the age of 21. The 1869 document was a product of a Republican-led effort; Democrats, who dominated the Virginia political sphere following the Civil War, bristled at it.
The purpose of the new constitution was boldly announced by a convention leader, Carter Glass, later a US Senator and Secretary of the Treasury:
Discrimination! Why that is precisely what we propose; that exactly is what this Convention was elected for—to discriminate with a view to the elimination of every negro voter who can be gotten rid of, legally, without materially impairing the numerical strength of the white electorate.
The raw honesty of Glass may be the reason Virginia’s constitution has no preamble or wish for blessings of liberty upon future generations. Through control of the electoral registration process and implementation of a poll tax and literacy test, the Jim Crow provisions of the 1902 document defined a nostalgic civic and political culture, one perhaps anesthetizing the pain of the demise of the Confederacy and resurrecting a plantation fantasy. Ignoring the immorality of slavery and crafting a governing plan designed to prescribe and proscribe the participation of so many is a formula for strife and friction: in short, a constitutional curse upon future generations to undergo the traumas of struggles from political bondage of poll taxes, literacy tests, anti-miscegenation statutes, and segregated and unequal school systems.
Jim Crow legislation transformed the unwritten rules of slavery into a concrete governing document ensuring an aristocratic regime, which Ira Berlin, the noted University of Maryland historian, described as “slave societies” where:
slavery stood at the center of economic production, and the master-slave relationship provided the model for all social relations; husband and wife, parent and child, employer and employee, teacher and student. [in Many Thousands Gone]
Essentially and functionally, the Jim Crow 1902 constitution of Virginia reflected a nullification strategy that had escaped southern states in the military conflict over slavery.
The census of 1860 enumerated over 4 million freed and slave blacks in the United States, with the overwhelming majority in the southern states. In Virginia, 26% of families were counted as slave-owning of nearly 500,000 slaves (31% of the state’s total population). In several states, the number exceeded 50%, and in others was greater than Virginia’s by double digits.
Between the end of the Civil War from 1865 to 1870, the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the US Constitution banned slavery, nullified the 3/5 compromise, and enfranchised the former slave populations with voting rights—a potent potential replacement for a vastly different future, especially among governing elites. Slaves were not immigrants but were suddenly now citizens with voting power and, some feared, a need to avenge past injustices. This is the core of the contemporary resurgence of populism in the US and Europe, the Great Replacement fear of white rule and an identity ideology to eliminate all but white immigration to this nation.
Carter Glass’s morbid phobia concerning replacement is certainly not a bygone fear in the Commonwealth, as witnessed by the chants of “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville last year. Main line white supremacists do not consider Jews to be white, and employ attacks upon Jews and Judaism as avatars of the grand conspiracy to replace whites. This Great Replacement conspiracy theme has resonated deeply in a number of European nations and underlies, in large part, the anti-immigration and refugee policies of the current US President, as was so vividly portrayed in the announcement of his candidacy.
Some observers trace the white supremacy movement and its virulent antipathy to all immigration and refugee laws and policies as well as fantasies of creating white homelands to an affinity for all things Russian, including the notion of forgiving and forgetting its annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Ukraine. After all, the President is alleged to have said, residents of the Crimea speak Russian. Any distinction between current populist movements and white supremacy have merged. They represent the same absence of aspirations for blessings upon future generations and the continued presence of a curse upon newcomers and any who welcome newcomers.