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Commentary & Opinion

Minorities at the convention

In this period when prejudices are being revived even as we celebrated the announcement of freedom on Juneteenth, it may be useful or comforting to see how the Founding Fathers handled diversity.

I was struck by an entry in George Washngton’s Diary for Monday, June 18, 1787 that he “Dined at the Quarterly meeting of the Sons of St. Patrick—held at the City Tavn.”[1] That’s ordinary today but Protestants and Catholics had only recently emerged from centuries of religious wars. Prejudice against Catholics remained strong. That didn’t trouble George, who had several Catholic colleagues and friends at the Convention, especially from nearby Maryland.

Franklin, trying to get the last holdouts to sign the Constitution, told a story that “in their opinions of the certainty of their doctrines … the Church of Rome is infallible and the Church of England is never in the wrong.”[2] He was most concerned by those faiths which “serv'd principally to divide us, and make us unfriendly to one another” and found the “most acceptable service of God was the doing good to man.”[3]

Significant communities of Jews had been living in Pennsylvania and New York since it was a Dutch colony. During the Convention, Jonas Phillips wrote George Washington and the members of the Convention that Jews asked not to be required to take oaths to a faith not their own.[4] The Convention met that request by prohibiting any religious test for any office under the United States,[5] and neither constitutional oath includes religious language, requiring only that the officer take an “oath or affirmation, to support this constitution.”[6]

References to Islamic people, countries and history are sprinkled throughout their work. To make it easier for Muslims from Morocco, known as Moors, to immigrate, South Carolina passed the Moors Sundry Act in 1790, designating the Moroccan Muslim American community as legally white. Apparently their religion was of little concern.[7] The main concern was to populate the country with people who would do the work needed to develop it. And they strove to avoid anything that would discourage immigration.

Both free and enslaved Blacks lived in different states but several delegates to the Constitutional Convention led Anti-slavery societies, beginning the work that culminated in the Thirteenth Amendment seventy-eight years later.

There were eight immigrants at the Constitutional Convention who built successful careers here. Alexander Hamilton, born in the West Indies, wrote many of The Federalist papers. William Paterson, from northern Ireland, presented New Jersey’s proposal, the main alternative to Virginia’s. Robert Morris, from Liverpool, signed the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and financed the Revolution in between. President Washington appointed James Wilson, from Scotland, a distinguished lawyer and lecturer on law, to the Supreme Court. Thomas FitzSimons from Ireland, was active in the Revolution. James McHenry from northern Ireland, played a major role in the Maryland delegation. William Richardson Davie, from England, was at the Convention representing North Carolina. And Pierce Butler, from Ireland, arrived as a soldier in 1768 but resigned his commission to marry a South Carolina girl, and represented that state at the Convention.

For the votes over ratification, Pennsylvania and Maryland ordered printing the Constitution in both German and English. A Dutch version was printed New York.[8]

Let me add that both prejudice and brotherhood are contagious. Lieutenant Cable told us in South Pacific that “You've got to be taught To hate and fear … people whose eyes are oddly made ... whose skin is a diff'rent shade ….”[9] We need to set good examples.

——Notes——
[1] James H. Hutson, Supplement to Max Farrand’s The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, at 93 (Yale Univ. Press 1987, entry of June 18, 1787).

[2] 2 Farrand 642 (Sepr. 17. 1787) and made clear in his Autobiography that he most admired those faiths which

[3] Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, available at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/20203/20203-h/20203-h.htm.

[4] 3 Max Farrand, The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, at 78-80 (Yale Univ. Press 1966, petition of Sept. 7, 1787).

[5] Art. VI, &3

[6] Art. II, '1, &8 and Art. VI, &3.

[7] https://talkingpointsmemo.com/cafe/if-charles-pinckney-1780s-southern-politician-fought-islamophobia-we-can-too

[8] https://prologue.blogs.archives.gov/2021/09/09/constitution-day-translating-the-constitution/

[9] https://rodgersandhammerstein.com/song/south-pacific/youve-got-to-be-carefully-taught/

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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