U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights’ Meeting, November 1, 2019

Here is a summary of the November 1, 2019, meeting of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights featuring  presentations by Cass Sunstein, the Robert Walmaly University Professor at Harvard Law School, and Orlando Paterson, the John Cowles Professor of Sociology at Harvard University.  [1]

Chair May Ann Glendon’s Introduction

Chair Glendon “explained that the Commission is still in the very beginning stages of its task, which is to advise the Secretary of State on the role human rights play in foreign policy, with that advice grounded in America’s founding principles, as well as the international commitments the United States made after World War II. Glendon emphasized the Commission’s independence: Commissioners are obliged to give the Secretary their best advice, to be non-partisan, and to consult broadly with experts from Department of State (for example, in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL)), but also with outside activists and academic specialists. Glendon praised the speakers who participated in the Commission’s previous meeting in October.”

Commissioner’s Comments

“Each commissioner explained his/her professional background and reflected on the speakers from the last session.” Of particular note is the following comments by Commissioner  Dr. Jacqueline Rivers, who “voiced a sentiment, shared by others, that bridged the different topics and time periods the Commission will consider in its work. For Rivers, one crucial question is how to avoid repeating a ‘major failing’ at the time of the Founding, when there was a great articulation of rights (for example, in the Declaration of Independence) but also, because of the prevalence of chattel slavery and the political subordination of large segments of society, a graphic failure to live up to those principles. As she contemplates how the United States can prevent that same failure from re-occurring internationally, one focus for Rivers will be on achieving consistency in forcefully stating, and then implementing protections for, human rights.”

Professor Cass Sunstein’s Presentation

Sunstein opened by saying he would make two major points:

  • First, . . .the U.S. conception of rights [in 1776] was a historical outgrowth of a sustained attack on monarchical legacy and the notion that some people rank above others by birth. Rights, [ however,] reflected a belief in human  dignity and citizenship.
  • Second, ”’freedom from desperate conditionshad widespread support at the Founding. Although it was not constitutionalized in any sense, . . . the articulation of, and public support for, this freedom later culminated in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights. Thus, . . . there is a degree of continuity between newer, twentieth century conceptions of rights and freedoms and those from the founding era.” (Emphases added.)

Rights and citizenship: the “American Revolution is often considered to be ‘conservative,’ relatively speaking – or at least cautious and milder than the French and Russian revolutions. But, . . . that characterization is misleading, given the major break with British legacy that occurred in the American colonies in the decades leading up to the revolution. During that time period, cultural notions of republicanism were popular, which led to fresh thinking about what governments ‘do’ and the purposes for which they exist. In America, ‘radical’ republicanism entailed self-government and eliminated social class-based hierarchies of various kinds. [The] so-called ‘down look’ of the poor – a sign they ‘knew their place’ and had resigned themselves to their lowliness. This down look changed as the explosive new ideas of liberty and equality took hold on society. John Adams wrote with amazement that ‘Idolatry to Monarchs, and servility to Aristocratical Pride, was never so totally eradicated from so many Minds in so short a time.’ . . . [This] quote is significant because Adams’s surprise is palpable – he did not express such obvious ‘shock’ in any of his other writings. The transformation upon which Adams was remarking involved people who once regarded themselves as subjects coming to regard themselves instead as citizens, who possess sovereignty. This is a major development, . . . and to lament on what the revolution did not accomplish is to miss the remarkable social and political restructuring that it set into motion.”

Citizenship as unifying theme in Bill of Rights. Shifting to the U.S. Bill of Rights, . . . the American Founders sought, above all, to guarantee the preconditions of effective self-government. (. . .We fail to understand the Bill of Rights if we see it as based solely on opposition to government, or on a kind of laissez-faire individualism.) “

“[Among the writings [of the Founders] is a convergence of several intellectual traditions, both theological and otherwise.”

“Turning to individual provisions of the Bill of Rights, . . . the jury trial protected by the Sixth and Seventh Amendments . . .  should be thought of not only in terms of the individual legal right created. The jury trial also allows for the participation of citizens – ones, who, prior to the Revolution, may have borne the ‘down look’ – in American civil and criminal justice systems. In deciding individual cases, jurors can modify the harsh edges of law by finding defendants innocent in close cases. And in carrying out these [duties?]. jurors also receive an education in the law itself.”

“In the same regard, . . . the right to private property, which creates a [sense?] of individual control (by protecting people’s holdings against government taking without compensation) but is also necessary for the status of citizenship. Since private property provides a means for people to live and support themselves, citizens possessing it are not solely dependent on the good will of government.”

“As for the Second Amendment, . . .  it is controversial in modern times. . . .[It] is a political right, which, at a minimum, prevents the federal government from outlawing state militias. These militias perform important democratic functions – by providing a training ground for the cultivation of virtue, and a constraint on potentially tyrannical government.”

The “Bill of Rights is not only about creating a sphere of individual liberty, free of government control, but also about creating conditions that would allow for the robust practice of citizenship.”

Social and economic rights: . . . [The] Founders gave no serious thought to including social and economic guarantees in the Bill of Rights. But . . . some of the founders’ writing, while not at the constitutional level, shows a surprisingly strong commitment to such guarantees. James Madison, for example, wrote of ‘withholding unnecessary opportunities from a few, to increase the inequality of property, by an immoderate, and especially unmerited, accumulation of riches.’ Madison also appeared in favor of ‘rais[ing] extreme indigence toward a state of comfort.’ Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson, while not a framer of the Constitution, exerted a strong influence during the founding period and wrote of ‘lessening the inequality of property’ by ‘exempt[ing] all from taxation below a certain point, and . . . tax[ing] the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise.’ . . . [S]ocial theorists Montesquieu, John Locke, and Thomas Paine, all of whom were read by the American founders,. . . [in their writings] similarly suggest a commitment to social and economic rights. [D]uring the constitutional framing period, there was widespread support in America for legislation that would provide poor people with the basic necessities of life and that, unlike in England, where so-called ‘outdoor relief’ to able-bodied poor people was restricted, nearly all U.S. states allowed that form of assistance.“

“FDR and the Second Bill of Rights: . . . In 1944, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) delivered a State of the Union address to Congress, which connected the war against tyranny with the Great Depression and the subsequent effort to combat economic distress domestically. The speech characterized ‘the one supreme objective for the future’ as ‘security,’ a term with multiple meanings. For FDR, security entailed not only ‘freedom from fear’ but also ‘freedom from want.’ . . . FDR explicitly used the, threat from Germany and Japan as an occasion for a renewed emphasis on providing protection against the most serious forms of human vulnerability at home.”

“In his speech, FDR looked back to the framing of the Constitution and argued that the unalienable rights at the Founding had proved inadequate, since it had become obvious that ‘true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.’ That provided the justification for FDR laying out his ‘Second Bill of Rights,’ which included the right to employment, to a dwelling place, to medical care, and to a good education, among other rights. . . . Roosevelt did not mean for these rights to be judicially enforceable, and indeed . . . FDR would have ‘deplored’ this idea. In his speech, however, FDR did call on Congress to ‘explore the means for implementing the economic bill of rights-for it is definitely the responsibility of Congress to do so.’”

“FDR’s speech is significant for marking the collapse of the idea, prominent in the period before the New Deal, that freedom comes from an absence of government. It was also important because the Second Bill of Rights went on to influence the content of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and dozens of foreign constitutions.”

Sunstein’s Responses to Commissioners’ Questions

The Commission’s Executive Director, Peter Berkowitz: Heagreed that the jury trial right is essential to citizenship in a liberal democracy, . . . [but] that few would contend the jury right to be appropriately labeled as a ‘human’ and/or ‘unalienable’ right. Is a jury trial, Berkowitz wondered, essential to human flourishing in non-democratic regimes?“

  • Sunstein responded: “[C]ertain protections in the [original] Bill of Rights are properly characterized as unalienable; off the top of his head, he . . . [said] that free speech and property rights, for example, qualify. . . . [He] was ‘hoping and gambling that many cultures have a ‘Locke-type’ figure that provides the philosophical founding for these rights in non-Anglo American traditions. When it comes to social and economic rights, Sunstein said the situation is somewhat different. Were those rights to qualify as unalienable, what is necessary would be ‘a theory about how, if people are living in desperate conditions, a universal right is being violated.’ He said that, in some sense, the destitute living on the street without food or shelter suffer from their humanity being ‘annihilated,’ but also said he was ‘groping for right verbal formulation’ to express this notion in terms of rights.“

Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik, the Director of the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University and rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel, said that “the founders often stressed that certain rights are pre-political – like the free exercise of religion. He asked . . . if some of the other rights contained inside the Bill of Rights are also pre-political. . . . Soloveichik also asked whether the promotion of social and economic rights at the hands of government, . . .will inevitably clash with individual liberty. (By way of example, Soloveichik noted that expanding health care coverage at times has been in tension with individual religious liberty claims.)”

  • Sunstein said the following: “[T]ension between different rights is inevitable, regardless of whether social and economic rights (rather than other kinds) are involved. Citing the U.S. Supreme Court decision Wisconsin v. Yoder, Sunstein said that it is clear that certain kinds of rights—for example. the right to religious free exercise – prevail over others in legal disputes, and that, in order to decide, courts sometimes will look at the severity with which a right is being infringed, a question over which reasonable people may disagree. He said that clashes are an occasional but not devastating consequence of a regime recognizing multiple rights. . . . Sunstein [also] said that the majority of the rights contained in the Bill of Rights are pre-political, but that that is not at odds with acknowledging the Bill of Rights as being fundamentally ‘about’ citizenship.”

Professor Paolo Carozza, Professor of Law and Concurrent Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, where he also directs the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, asked Sunstein to elaborate on the nature of social and economic rights, and his rationale for saying that they are judicially unenforceable. . . .”

  • Sunstein “said that he had a ‘mundane’ account of why they are not judicially enforceable, and that is because allocative decisions are not well suited, institutionally, for judicial oversight. He cited the example of judges in South Africa facing severe challenges when attempting to enforce social and economic rights in that country.”

Dr. Christopher Tollefsen, Distinguished Professor and Chair of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina,“brought up the right to a jury trial, saying that he would have thought that the notion underlying it is not citizenship, . . ., but rather fairness. Tollefsen asked if there was a more pluralistic set of directions that the notion of dignity ‘can go in’ that does not need to get ‘filtered through’ citizenship.

  • Sunstein “agreed that the jury right is most fundamentally about fairness, but he pushed back against Tollefsen’s labeling citizenship as just a ‘bonus’ in the Bill of Rights. Sunstein said that it was more like a by-product of notions central to our constitutional system. Sunstein further explained that it is hard to understand the Bill of Rights outside the context of a revolution recently fought for republican self-government. In his view, modern observers tend to read it in a way that is de-historicized.”

Dr. David Tse-Chien Pan, Professor of German at the University of California, Irvine, “wondered if, in U.S. foreign policy, any defense of human rights necessarily entailed creating republican self-government everywhere. He asked Sunstein if, in his view, there could be a . . . [more] modest role for human rights that does not necessitate regime change.”

  • Sunstein “answered that yes, the U.S. can hold republican self-government up as ideal while still working with other types of regimes. In Sunstein’s view, the writings of the American founders speak deeply to nations and peoples that are ambivalent about republican self-government, and part of the reason may be the writings’ emphasis, though never quite expressed in these terms, on human dignity.”

Dr. Russell A Berman, the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and current Senior Advisor in Policy Planning at the Department of State, “asked why FDR would have, in Sunstein’s words, ‘deplored’ the judicial enforcement of social and economic rights.”

  • Sunstein “said that FDR was not a fan of judicial ‘aggressiveness’ generally and would have been attuned to tradeoffs and difficulties inherent in economic allocation. That FDR nonetheless was insistent that social and economic guarantees be labeled as ‘rights,’ in Sunstein’s view, speaks to the president’s view that they have some sort of moral foundation. Furthermore, that FDR was willing to embrace the rights in a presidential speech, but would probably not have elected for [them to] be extensions to the Bill of Rights, may have had something to with his belief – shared by James Madison in his own day – in ‘infusing the culture’ with ideas that eventually become part of the national fabric. Sunstein pointed out that the right to education, and bans on monopolistic corporations, still widely embraced in the 21st century, show that Roosevelt really did play an enduring role in shaping our national consciousness.”

Professor Hamza Yusuf Hanson, the President of Zaytuna College, the first accredited Muslim liberal arts college in the United States, and Dr. Jacqueline Rivers, Lecturer in Sociology at Harvard University, exchanged ideas regarding private property. Hanson said that scholar Richard Weaver once described it as the ‘last metaphysical right’ that people agree upon, but that, in the 20th and 21st centuries, it has not received as much attention as it did in the time of Locke and the American revolutionaries.”

  • Sunstein “said that, in Western countries, the perceived need to fight for property rights is not acutely felt, because property is relatively secure in these places. But in other countries where those rights are most needed, the idea of private property is under attack.

Rivers “segued into consideration of other types of property. She noted that the American welfare system is still weaker than in some other Western countries. Could that be, she wondered, because America has become overcommitted to protecting private property?”

  • Sunstein “described himself as a proponent of private property and saw no conflict between endorsing private property rights alongside social welfare benefits. Sunstein brought up President Ronald Reagan, for whom he once worked, saying that Reagan was on record for endorsing a right to education and other rights conventionally associated with more socially progressive advocates.” 

Chair Mary Ann Glendon thanked Sunstein for being helpful in achieving one of the most challenging parts of the Commission’s overarching task – showing a degree of continuity between the Founding and the New Deal, and from New Deal to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). She asked if the Bill of Rights leaving out social and economic guarantees could be thought of as an instance in which the founders took for granted the local associations and arrangements that would care for indigent persons.

  • Sunstein “answered affirmatively, saying that the Constitution contemplated institutional pluralism. He noted that, in the early years of the republic, the national government had a limited role and the Bill of Rights did not apply to states.”

Professor Orlando Patterson’s Presentation

“Patterson’s first main point was that the idea of rights and the idea of freedom overlap but are not interchangeable.”

“The United States has long seen itself as the ‘Land of the Free,’ and, as the global leader of the free world, its “mission” has been to ensure freedom of its citizens to a degree not enjoyed in many other countries. But Patterson said that another concept has come to compete with this notion. Especially since World War II, U.S. has come to embrace individual rights in fits and starts.”

“Patterson expanded on the distinction (freedom vs. rights) by clarifying what, in his mind, ‘freedom’’means. He referred to it as a tripartite idea.”

  • First, human persons are free, at least to the degree they are not under power of others, to make choices, to do what they want, and to achieve the desires they set for themselves.”
  • Second, they are free to exercise power to influence the world. (Patterson called this “empowerment” and cited Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen.) For long periods of human history, Patterson argued, this type of freedom was associated with power over other people. This is important to recognize because, for him, freedom is not the opposite of power, even though it is commonly held to be.”
    • “To support his argument.Patterson mentioned “the Southern slaveholding conception of freedom” in the United States, which entailed the freedom of wealthy landowners to control the bodies and labor of African-Americans and was famously discussed by Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in their debates.”
    • “Even though slavery has been abolished in America for many years, Patterson said that freedom as ‘power over others’ continues in the 21st century – in the form of some people controlling large amounts of property.”
  • Third, people are free, according to Patterson, to share in the collective power of groups. He referred to this as civic freedom, and as best realized through democracy.”

“Patterson called tripartite freedom quintessentially Western in origin, rather than universal. He explained that, although English philosopher John Locke held freedom to be ‘written on the heart of man’ (Patterson’s words), freedom actually involves an ancient, culturally specific, way of looking at the world. What is uniquely Western is not only the tripartite nature of freedom, but also its relative status – in other words, that freedom is valorized as one of the pinnacle values of civilization. Contributing to this prioritization, . . [was].the religion that fashioned the West, Christianity (which emphasizes redemption, sacrifice as the way to free one’s self from spiritual slavery), as well as earlier, Roman notions of liberty. Patterson compared the spread of freedom across the world to Christian missionary work, arguing that freedom became more universal over time. This, in his view, has not always been without negative consequences. Military interventions in Iraq have shown that assuming all people (and especially non-Westerners) to desire freedom can be wrong and even dangerous.”

“‘Rights’ are distinguishable from freedom. For Patterson, they represent a set of claims concerning our condition as human beings. The claims are moral in nature, and their protection is necessary to preserve our most fundamental sense of what it means to be human. Rights are inherently egalitarian, whereas with ‘freedom,’ Patterson argued, there is no such assumption of equality.”

“Patterson then commented on America’s complex relationship between rights and freedom, stressing that the American tradition differs from the European one. In Britain, Patterson said, there frequently has been skepticism about rights. The English jurist and social reformer Jeremy Bentham, for example, called natural rights “nonsense upon stilts.” In the United States, there has been a stronger embrace of rights, but also a lingering uneasiness about them, according to Patterson. He mentioned that the Bill of Rights was a compromise measure that, at its adoption, few if any thought was perfect. Patterson noted that, throughout American history, there has been elite opposition to rights held by ‘the masses.’ He also mentioned the passage of the 14th Amendment and the Slaughterhouse cases as important rights milestones.”

“Patterson quoted an intellectual descendant of Jeremy Bentham, the philosopher Alasdair McIntyre, who once described rights as a ‘fiction,’ writing that ‘belief in them is one with belief in witches and unicorns.’”

“Then Patterson shifted gears to discuss the U.S. ‘Rights Revolution,’ which he believes stands in stark contrast with the history preceding it. His view is that it is anachronistic to posit that rights are the most critical element of America’s founding documents. That is because, in Patterson’s view, rights did not gain currency until much later – specifically, when the horrors of Nazism during World War II shocked the world’s conscience, triggering people’s shared moral instincts that there must be some baseline that all people are owed, inhering their basic humanity. The war’s atrocities combined with anti-imperial movements across the world and other developments: Black Americans fighting for freedom and returning home, wondering what their status would be in American politics, and what they held in common with others fighting for freedom; a shift in decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court; and the social movements waged by women and other groups. These trend lines converged and culminated in the 1970s, a decade which Patterson called quite extraordinary, even though, in his view, America in many respects is still (in the year 2019) in the midst of the lingering rights revolution.”

“Patterson held that the next phase of the rights revolution, almost as important as War II in terms of focusing attention on the deprivation of human rights, began to occur in the 1980s, with the emergence of the fight against modern slavery and human trafficking. Patterson emphasized that trafficking is normally spoken about as a violation of rights, more than it is a violation of freedom. He mentioned sex trafficking, the widespread condemnation of which has led to an alliance of strange bedfellows – the evangelical right and feminist left. He also mentioned labor trafficking, and employers being unable to say ‘stay out of our business’ as various forms of on-the-job inequity are now challenged and subject to outside scrutiny.”

“Patterson gave a tip of the hat to the U.S. Department of State for publishing its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, and said that, when it comes to condemning trafficking, the Department is better off using the language of rights than it is using the language of freedom. Each year, more and more people are able to make rights claims – for example, women in forced marriages, who have been newly defined as ‘slaves.’ Patterson described the language of rights as infinitely expandable to accommodate new kinds of claims. He saw this largely as a good thing: America is leading by example, expanding rights for an ever increasing number of people. As intimated at other points during his remarks, Patterson said that although he retains great love and respect for the concept of freedom, he thinks it is a mistake for the West to proclaim it to the world and try to convert others into showing similar reverence. Rhetorically speaking, rights are more effective tools to achieve similar ends.”

Patterson’s Responses to Questions

Executive Director Berkowitz “thanked Patterson for his thoughtful talk and then explained that the Commission has heard some criticisms of rights that are very similar to ones Patterson made about ‘freedom’ – that rights are exclusively Western, for example. Berkowitz said he welcomed Patterson’s thoughts on whether criticisms are equally applicable to both concepts.”

  • Patterson “said that, in his view, the [assertion that] rights are Western’ claims are shallower than those waged against freedom. Rights have origins that go at least as far back as the Middle Ages and Reformation. Admitting that there is a complicated story of how the concept of rights evolved and influenced public discourse, Patterson said that ‘rights talk’ – while Western in origin – was, from very beginning, seen as applying to all human beings, unlike freedom. Fundamental rights, thus, were extra-territorial and extra-political.”

Tollefsen “expressed some sympathy for the distinction Patterson drew between freedom and rights. Nothing that there are articulations of freedom that can come into tension with rights, Tollefsen cited the ‘freedom to consume,’ which, when enjoyed, can sometimes mean disregarding the rights of those whose exploited labor produced goods consumers enjoy. But Tollefsen also worried that any moral concern over modern-day slavery must involve an appeal to some notion of freedom.”

  • Patterson “responded that the concepts in question (rights, freedom) definitely overlap. But he said that, when it comes to international advocacy, work on behalf of freedom does not always have the same force or effect that rights-based advocacy does. Patterson mentioned Freedom House, which honors  countries on their honoring of civil and political rights, and contrasted its work with Department’s TIP report. Patterson discussed the TIP report’s 3-tier methodology, a provided the example of Japan, where there was great consternation when the U.S. did it in its TIP report. In response to the demotion, Japan made important reforms. Patterson’s basic point was that the United States can promote liberal democracy (and thus-freedom) abroad but must remember that democracy requires preconditions in order to function successfully. He argued that, when it comes to making rights claims, those preconditions are not as necessary because people have rights regardless of what political system is in place.”

Soloveichik “acknowledged that the concept of freedom has been misused and perverted at times throughout America’s history. But then he cited the abolitionist movement, during which the concepts of freedom and rights appeared to go hand in hand. Soloveichik also mentioned Martin Luther King, Jr., one of whose most famous lines is “let freedom ring.” Soloveichik’s question was whether freedom and rights enhance one another.”

  • Patterson “responded that, yes, at America’s best moments – in some of President Abraham Lincoln’s writings, for example, during the struggle for women’s suffrage and equality, etc. – rights and freedom complement each other ‘sublimely.’ But during our country’s worst moments, the two concepts are twinned in perverted ways – for example, during the Confederacy, when southern liberty was held up as an ideal while African American slaves’ rights were openly and appallingly violated.“

Katrina Swett, the President of the Tom Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice,  said “that she had always thought of freedom and human rights as inextricably connected, but that Patterson’s writings and lecture were very challenging to her past understandings. She wondered as a practical matter if free and democratic societies do the best job of protecting rights.”

  • Patterson “said that, absolutely, they do. But then he mentioned that somewhere on the order of 70% of the world’s chocolate is (or previously was) produced by child labor. In recent years, thousands of NGOs have pressured chocolate manufacturers, farmers, and governments to change this situation. Patterson’s point was that, when it comes to protecting human rights, advocates can achieve progress even in non-democracies. (Democracies are ideal, but they are not the only regimes where rights can be protected.) In another example, he said that China has cut poverty in half. People are no longer starving – because China, though far from a democracy, in certain respects has honored the ‘right to food’ and the ‘right to life.’”

Chair Glendon concluded by thanking Patterson for helping the Commission with a problem it will have to confront – the difficulties and confusion inherent in using terms and concepts to which different groups impute various meanings and connotations.”

Public Comments

Several members of the public made comments. Here is a summary of the more substantive ones.

“A representative from the Center for Family and Human Rights spoke of the unintended consequences of rights expansion: Sometimes people have to give up certain rights in order to accommodate new definitions of rights – thus promoting a ‘competition of rights’ [and?] growing skepticism regarding the United Nations (UN) approach to protecting human [rights. The representative stressed that now is a prime opportunity for basic issues to be [reframed?]”

“Fr. Mark Hodges, an Orthodox priest. spoke about the Christian conception of rights, framework which involves concepts like universal dignity and free will. He urged the Commission to prioritize religious freedom and the right to life.”

“A representative from the Heritage Foundation said that when international bodies like the UN consider all rights on equal footing, it is worth asking whether they are confusing certain ‘desirable ends’ with human rights. He asked how long internal conflicts can persist within the global human rights movement before we reach a point of human rights paralysis, and he wondered whether the proliferation of rights does violence to the notion of unalienable rights. Commissioner Paola Carozza responded that, in international human rights law, there actually is a hierarchy of rights – some are non-derogable, and some achieve status of jus cogens, while others do not.”

“A law professor from the University of Oklahoma then asked whether the comments submitted to the Commission by various civil society groups will be made public, and suggested the Commission publish specific questions, and set specific deadlines, so that outside groups can contribute more efficiently.”

“Representatives from Human Rights Watch urged the Commission to invite ‘grassroots’ human rights defenders to come testify, saying their work is crucial but does not enter into ‘esoteric academic debates.’”

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[1] Update on U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 19, 2020).   

[2] Comm’n Unalienable Rts, Agenda (Nov. 1, 2019); Comm’n Unalienable Rts., Minutes (Nov. 1, 2019).

 

U.S. First Congress: Debates Slavery, 1790

Anyone who has studied any American history knows that slavery existed at the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1788 and that the Constitution’s original Article I, Section 2 apportioned representatives in the House of Representatives “according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians no taxed, three fifths of all other Persons [i.e., slaves].” (Emphasis added.)[1]

In addition, the First Congress in 1789 implicitly recognizing slavery when it enacted statues for an U.S. census and U.S. naturalization citizenship requirements. [2]

As the First Congress prepared to commence operations, emancipation advocates were seeking regulation of the slave trade or abolition of slavery while defenders of the “peculiar institution” contemplated secession if that happened. The latter’s House representation, of course, was bolstered by having their population increased by 60% (3/5th) of the number of their slaves.[3]

The emancipation advocates were led by Quakers who starting in early February 1790 “way-laid” and “assailed” Senators and Congressmen with pamphlets and diagrams of overcrowded slaves ships while urging support of anti-slavery petitions. One such petition asked Congress “with a sense of religious duty” to end “the gross national iniquity of trafficking in the persons of fellow men” and “the inhuman tyranny and blood guiltiness inseparable from it.” Another petition that was signed by Benjamin Franklin called for use of “all justifiable measures to loosen the bonds of Slavery & promote a general enjoyment of the blessings of Freedom.”

Southern reaction to these petitions was “explosive.” They accused the Quakers of “intemperate and unwarrantable meddling,” of “an intolerant spirit of persecution” against the slave states, of disloyalty and cowardice during the Revolutionary War (because on religious principles they did not bear arms) and the promotion of “Insurrections & bloodshed & persecution.” A Georgia Congressman said religion “from Genesis to Revelations” had approved of slavery.

The three petitions were referred to a House select committee, which later reported that Congress had no power to emancipate slaves or interfere with the slave trade before 1808. On the other hand, the committee said, Congress had the power to put a tax on imported slaves and thereby motivate slave-owners and slave states to improve their treatment of slaves.

Thereafter the pro-slavery forces went on the attack. Their leader quoted Scripture, suggested that nothing could be done about it, that the new country needed exports to Africa and that slaves were incapable of mastering freedom. Some of the nation’s leaders personally opposed slavery—George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison-even though they were slave owners, but remained quiet in Congress because they feared loss of Southern support for other measures or a breakup of the new country.

The result? The House concluded that all power to end slavery and tax imported slaves rested with the states. In short, it was an endorsement of the status quo and the protection of slavery.

Fergus Bordewich, the author of a leading book on the First Congress, concludes that the “most consequential failure of the First Congress was its evasion of the corrosive problem of slavery. . . . Even members who loathed slavery feared that the new government could not risk an open debate on the subject without splintering . . . . [Thus,] for the next seven decades this evasion encouraged southerners to bully any northern politicians who challenged slavery by threatening secession and war, as the number of enslaved Americans swelled from 323,000 in 1790 to almost 4 million in 1861, and the moral problem of slavery became ever more deeply enmeshed with the politics of states’ rights.”[4]

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[1] The above provision of the original Constitution was deleted by Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment thereto, which was adopted after the Civil War in 1868 and which states: “Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.”

[2] U.S. First Congress: Establishment of Racial Categories for the U.S. Census and U.S. Citizenship Naturalization, 1790, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 20, 2017).

[3] Bordewich, the First Congress at 3,6, 75-77, 104, 112, 124-25, 149, 151-52, 172, 178, 183, 195-96, 198-220, 223-24, 230, 244-45, 249, 276, 279-80 (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2016). http://www.simonandschuster.com/books/The-First-Congress/Fergus-M-Bordewich/9781451691931

[4] Id. at 304.