Professor of Law and Values at the University of Toledo College of Law, Rebecca Zietlow, spoke at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center during the fall term, delivering the Roger S. Aaron ’64 Lecture. She invoked values and constitutional inspiration, discussing the antislavery movement, reconstruction and individual rights.
Looking back on her career, she said her interest began after she started looking into cases on Congress’s power to enforce the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, issues of freedom, sovereign immunity, equality and citizenship rights.
“I’m really writing about Congress and about politics,” Zietlow said. “The court – especially these days – seems more and more political. It always has been somewhat political, but the politics of the court are behind closed doors, in the confirmation process, in conference. It is coded in the ways they use doctrine. But when it happens on the streets, everyone is very open about it and people are debating some of the most fundamental values of our society.”
At the lecture, Zietlow noted that the process by which antislavery constitutionalists argued against slavery was “more legitimate” because they transparently combined politics and morality. Presenting a historical analysis of constitutional and individual rights, she positioned the lecture in 1787 and moved forward in time.
She described the transition from implicit and direct protections for slavery at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 to the suspension of the Articles of the Confederation in 1789. The evolution of the document detailed the structure of Congress and other compromises to ensure all states voted to ratify the document. However, shortly thereafter, the political antislavery movement began, touting values of liberty, free soil and free labor.
Zietlow spoke about Salmon Chase, Dartmouth Class of 1826, who argued that slavery was immoral and unconstitutional based on the theory of national rights and structural protections in the Constitution. Chase touted the privileges and immunities clause as well as Article IV’s Guaranty Clause. The argument that the Constitution protects all persons followed a textualism reading, promising rights to all.
Zietlow also highlighted the ways in which antislavery constitutionalist Thaddeus Stevens, Class of 1814, was also influential in the Reconstruction Congress, which enacted the Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery. The Reconstruction Congress enshrined their theories of individual rights into the Constitution, for which the ideological origins are rooted in history. “The Thirteenth Amendment is a source of rights,” Zietlow added.
Zietlow drew connections between the antislavery constitutionalists’ theories of rights and their contemporary application. Citizenship, due process, equal protection and freedom are the issues of today, she said.
Arguing in constitutional terms carries a distinct value and weight that validates constitutional movements, Zietlow said, citing the strength of the gun rights movement’s invocation of the Second Amendment.
“In our country, we really revere the Constitution,” she added. “When we are convinced that a right is based in the Constitution, we will respect it more.”
Written by Alexa Green ’19, Rockefeller Center Student Program Assistant for Public Programs
The views and opinions expressed, and any materials presented during a public program are the speaker’s own and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Rockefeller Center or constitute an endorsement by the Center.