2/20/2013 6:00:00 AM PERRY/Constitutional symbolism
By BRIAN PERRY
This year Mississippi officially ratified the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting slavery.
When the state first considered the amendment on December 4, 1865, seven months after the end of the Civil War, the Legislature specifically rejected it. But two days later, through approval by the State of Georgia, the amendment received the necessary three-fourths majority of states to end slavery under the United States Constitution.
In 1995, mainly as a symbolic gesture, the Mississippi Legislature approved - without opposition - the 13th Amendment.
But in what former Secretary of State Dick Molpus calls a filing error, the proper paperwork was never submitted.
Investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell recently shared the story of how Mississippian Ken Sullivan, inspired by the movie "Lincoln," contacted the current Mississippi Secretary of State, Delbert Hosemann, whose office sent the paper work to the Federal Register last month and received notification this month that the ratification is now official.
I've not seen the movie yet, but I understand its plot revolves around seeking approval by the House of Representatives of the 13th Amendment to prohibit slavery, so it is fitting it would inspire such a conclusion to Mississippi's role in its political history.
History could have been very different.
In 1861, before the inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln and before South Carolina secession and war, the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives approved, and President James Buchanan signed, what could have been a very different 13th Amendment: "No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State."
Rather than prohibiting slavery, the Constitution could have protected slavery.
Lincoln, seeking any opportunity to keep the country united, specifically addressed that potential amendment in his first inaugural address saying, "I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable." Only Ohio and Maryland ratified that potential amendment.
Today we no longer seek actual war to determine the great issues that divide us as a country. In fact, we no longer seek actual amendments to the Constitution.
Thirteen states on the left or the right can block any amendment. In "A Price Too High: The Judiciary in Jeopardy," former U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Justice Charles Pickering of Laurel, Mississippi wrote, "The Constitution is not too sacred to amend, for the Founders created a process to do so. From the time the Constitution was adopted in 1788 until 1971, the Constitution was amended twenty-six times...The twenty-six amendments adopted between 1789 and 1971, constitute an average of one amendment every seven years. From 1933 until 1971, we amended the Constitution seven times, an average of one amendment every five years. No amendment proposed since 1971-during the thirty-five years since the living mystery Constitution became a prevailing legal theory-has been adopted."
Of the fifteen amendments proposed or ratified since Mississippi statehood in 1817, the state has ratified nine.
It was the first state to ratify the 18th Amendment creating prohibition but never ratified the 21st Amendment repealing prohibition.
Mississippi approved the 19th Amendment ensuring the right of women to vote in 1984: sixty-four years after its ratification in 1920 when Mississippi specifically rejected it.
Itta Bena, Miss., native Marion Barry, who led Washington, D.C. as mayor for 15 years and on the city councilman for another dozen years, is surely disappointed his birth state has never ratified the 23rd Amendment granting his city electoral votes.
Mississippi never ratified the 17th, 24th or 26th Amendments creating popular election (rather than state selection) of U.S. Senators; protecting voting from a poll tax; and creating the federal voting age at age 18, respectively. The state specifically rejected the poll tax amendment by vote in 1962 (it was ratified by the requisite number of states in 1964).
The 27th Amendment was first proposed along with the 10 amendments that became the Bill of Rights in 1789, but was not ratified by the necessary majority of states until 1992. It restricts a congressional pay raise from taking effect until the following congress. Mississippi has not ratified it.
Civics teachers looking for a class project might propose students pushing for formal ratification of the most recent six amendments not yet approved by the Mississippi legislature: voting age at 18, guarding against poll taxes, direct election of Senators, D.C. voting rights, congressional pay raise limitations and repealing prohibition. They might find allies with groups like the NAACP, the ACLU or even Raise Your Pints to make a symbolic impact on history.
While such action would have no actual impact on law and policy, symbolism can be important. Symbolism can educate and make statements about how we view the past and who we aspire to be today.
Brian Perry is a columnist for the Madison County Journal and a partner in Capstone Public Affairs, LLC. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @CapstonePerry on Twitter.