Screwtape’s Constitution: The Demonic 1901 Alabama Convention

The_Screwtape_Letters_(2004)
In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis takes on the persona of a demon writing to his nephew. Part of the fun of the book is that it is so well-written. Screwtape is not a cartoon villain or an Exorcist horror-show devil. He is a sophisticated gentleman. He’s able to wrap his evil in beautiful language.

Screwtape is who I think of when I read the arguments of John Knox, president of the Alabama Constitutional Convention of 1901, on the cause of the Civil War, his assessment of race hypocrisy in the North, and his justifications for literacy tests and poll taxes.

John KnoxHe was a smart guy, well versed both in law and in the Bible. He was also a white supremacist, and if you read his words, you will recognize much of the same rhetoric used today by pundits on Fox News, in the alt-right, and from politicians in Alabama and elsewhere. There have always been ways to engineer racist policy in a way that does not directly mention race (like the “War on Drugs,” and the “Crime Bill” and reform that vilifies “welfare queens“). White supremacists still try to maintain plausible deniability when charged with racism.

The transcripts for the 1901 Alabama Constitutional Convention are available online (here is a link). They should be required reading for every concerned citizen of Alabama. Here are a few choice quotations:

In my judgment, the people of Alabama have been called upon to face no more important situation than now confronts us, unless it be when they, in 1861, stirred by the momentous issue of impending conflict between the North and the South, were forced to decide whether they would remain in or withdraw from the Union. Then, as now, the negro was the prominent factor in the issue.

Mr. Knox demonstrates that it was well known, thirty-five years after the war, that the war was over slavery. He goes on to decry both the hypocrisy of Northern attitudes toward black people and their “interference” in the (white) self-government of the South. What Alabama is doing, he says, is only what every other state in the union wants to do to black people:

…One has studied the history of recent events to very little purpose who has failed to discover that race prejudice exists at the North in as pronounced a form as at the South, and that the question of negro domination, when brought home, will arouse the same opposition in either section. And what is it that we want to do? Why it is within the limits imposed by the Federal Constitution, to establish white supremacy in this State.

Mr. Knox goes on to praise the idea of poll taxes as a way to prevent black people from voting yet still maintain the facade that this is not racial discrimination. He makes it clear that he believes this is justified because black folks are more likely to be criminal, are not as intelligent, and that the right to vote should not be universal:

These provisions are justified in law and in morals, because it is said that the negro is not discriminated against on account of his race, but on account of his intellectual and moral condition. There is a difference, it is claimed with great force, between the uneducated white man and the ignorant negro. There is in the white man an inherited capacity for government, which is wholly wanting in the negro. Before the art of reading and writing was known, the ancestors of the Anglo-Saxon had established an orderly system of government, the basis in fact of the one under which we now live. That the negro on the other hand, is descended from a race lowest in intelligence and moral preceptitions of all the races of men.

Knox asserts that white Anglo-Saxon European civilization is historically and inherently superior to African ones. Sound familiar?

Check out these other arguments he makes for voter disenfranchisement. The first is from a Supreme Court case (Williams vs. Mississippi), and the second is an interesting example of proof texting from the Bible:

As stated by Judge Cooley, the right of suffrage is not a natural right, because it exists where it is allowed to be exercised only for the good of the State–to say that those whose participation in the affairs of the State would endanger and imperil the good of the State have nevertheless, the right to participate, is not only folly in itself, but it is to set the individual above the State.

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The principle of inherited capacity is recognized even by the inspired Apostle, for you remember that Paul, in his epistle to Timothy, whom he was preparing to preach the glorious Gospel, refers to it even in the matter of faith, for he says: “I am persuaded that the unfeigned faith which dwelt in they grandmother Lois and in thy mother Eunice dwells also in thee.”

(There is a wonderful documentary called Open Secret which uses the transcripts of the 1901 Convention to tell its story. Another documentary, It’s a Thick Book, addresses some of the sordid history and its consequences.)

Besides disenfranchising black people, there were two other goals of the 1901 Constitution. The first was to preserve the inherited wealth and power of the “Big Mules” by keeping property taxes (and all taxes) low for the wealthy, and instead fund the government on the backs of the poor through sales taxes. The second was to abolish home rule, so that all important local decisions would have to go through the racist and classist legislature.

The resulting system of government was a century-long train wreck. The Alabama Constitution has been amended so often it is the longest in the world. Although Knox claimed that it was important to establish white supremacy “not by force or fraud,” its ratification was obviously fraudulent. Corruption is woven into its very fabric. It’s no wonder that Alabama is plagued by bribery and corruption at every single level of government.

The Constitution of Alabama is illegitimate. The government it upholds is illegitimate, from its governor to its legislature to its supreme court to its local officials. The only justification for its continued existence is the fact that anarchy is only slightly less desirable. In truth, anarchy might be an improvement: the 1901 Constitution is why Alabama’s quality of life measures are the same as many developing world countries. It is why Alabama is a failed state.  The underlying structure of the 1901 Constitution is not only racist, it is demonic.

Screwtape would be so proud.