American revolutionaries had given up on the British model. They dreamed of a republic —literally, “the public thing” — where the common good overruled selfish demands and private interests. After the American Revolution, the U.S. Constitution of 1787 seemed to fulfil these hopes by rejecting aristocratic titles and naming “the People” as the basis of authority.
Yet this same Constitution protected both slave-holders and bond-owners. It prohibited all kinds of popular interventions into the economy. And it arranged the federal government so that the general will of the population was divided, filtered and ultimately restrained.
In this sense, it simply updated British constitutional forms for American conditions, in which land was plentiful, labour was scarce and white skin rather than high birth conferred status.
Creative transformations rolled back
During periods of democratic renewal, such as Reconstruction, the New Deal and the Civil Rights era, American politics pushed the Constitution beyond its original intentions. In these creative moments, active citizens shaped a more just society.
But over the last 50 years, another alliance of old and new has taken up arms (sometimes literally) behind constitutional bulwarks, rolling back much of that progress.
This alliance includes white voters who keep their traditional supremacy through gerrymandered districts, restrictive voting laws and mass incarceration of non-white people.