In declaring Trump’s presidency illegitimate, Representative John Lewis opened a discussion that may go beyond what he had in mind. Lewis based his statement on the supposed role of Russian hacking in determining the outcome of the election. To those who use external intervention as the standard of legitimacy, the very existence of the United States of America should be problematic, since the French navy and fleet played a decisive role at the Battle of Yorktown, the last battle of the War of Independence. Let that pass.
It has been widely accepted that, as stated in the Declaration of Independence, “governments derive their powers [and by implication their legitimacy] from the consent of the governed.” In relation to the indigenous people, the newly formed U.S.A. got around that logical difficulty by declaring them independent nations not subject to its authority—an obvious fiction. As for the slaves, it took a Civil War and a movement a century later to resolve that problem, for the time being. Lewis’s presence in Congress is the result.
When the Constitution of 1787 was revealed to the public, after months of secret deliberations by its writers, who acted on their own initiative without authorization from anyone, many people denounced it as a conspiracy of plantation owners and wealthy merchants to steal the fruits of the revolution made by farmers, mechanics and laborers. As every schoolchild knows (or used to know before they stopped teaching history in the public schools) the first ten amendments (the Bill of Rights) were added to the Constitution to appease its opponents and make possible its ratification (by a minority of the population, property-owning men).
Among its other accomplishments, the Constitution made it legal for one human being to own another—without using the terms “slavery” or “slave.” (A free copy of Hard Crackers to whoever identifies at least three clauses that refer directly to slavery.) And for the next fourscore and seven years every election held under its auspices and every Fourth of July celebration reinforced the legitimacy of the union based on it.
The Abolitionists would have none of it. The Liberator carried on its masthead the slogan “No Union with Slaveholders.” Garrison denounced the Constitution as a “covenant with death and an agreement with hell,” and burned a copy at a public rally. According to him, it was “the most bloody and heaven-daring arrangement ever made by men for the continuance and protection of a system of the most atrocious villainy ever exhibited on earth,” adding that those who wrote it “had no lawful power to bind themselves, or their posterity, for one hour—for one moment—by such an unholy alliance. It was not valid then—it is not valid now.”
In short, Garrison and Phillips denied the legitimacy of the federal government—not all government but that one in particular. Against opponents of slavery who advocated working within the system, they held that the Constitution was a proslavery document. Not merely a debate over the meaning of a text, the dispute reflected the difference between the reformer and the revolutionary. (If ever there was a controversy one would think resolved by history, it should be that one, but not so—there are still those who maintain, in spite of Gettysburg, Antietam and Shiloh, that slavery was abolished by constitutional means.)
As a means of waging war, the secessionists created something they called a government and gave themselves official-sounding titles. They even had a flag (not, by the way, the flag people fight about today, which was their battle-flag, but another, now largely forgotten). The slaves referred to them as “the secesh.” Lincoln followed the slaves’ example, never referring to the secessionist power or its officials by the titles they gave themselves. History has born him out. But suppose the secessionists won the war and used their victory to realize their goal of a hemispheric slave republic, modeled on ancient Rome, extending from the Potomac through the Caribbean to northeastern Brazil—would people today be speaking of the Confederate States of America and President Jefferson Davis?
If the Confederacy was a slaveholders’ conspiracy aimed at imposing the southern system on the entire country, what are we to make of the United States of America now that it has expanded its reach from a narrow strip of territory in 1787 to every corner of the globe, with something like nine hundred military bases in one hundred fifty countries? Can we be as honest as Garrison and those who denounced the Constitution of 1787?
The king is the king because people treat him that way. So is the president, and so are all officials elected by a system everyone knows is rigged. Their legitimacy is reinforced by repeated rituals, including referring to them by the titles their predecessors assigned them, in the case of the U.S., two hundred thirty years ago. And if the rituals don’t work, there is always force: an aircraft carrier is named after John Lewis. Without it, would he still be Representative John Lewis?
I have refrained here from the use of ironic quotation marks because I find them tiresome. I invite readers to place them around “USA,” “President,” “Representative,” “elected” and wherever else appropriate.