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Jacksonville, Alabama

Darwin in disguise
Natural selection, and the Alabama Constitution of 1901

By Dr. Hardy Jackson
JSU Professor of History

Reprinted from the Mobile Register

Right in the middle of their big rally in Montgomery, Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform got blindsided. They had expected opposition, but figured it would come from "special interests" that feared a rewritten constitution might raise property taxes or allow home rule or increase financial flexibility. They weren’t ready for a group calling itself the Association for Judeo-Christian Values to announce that it opposed reform because it believed that the reformers real purpose was to get "God out of our constitution."

Yessir, that caught 'em by surprise.

Of course the reformers (whose leaders include a preacher or two) quickly denied any such intent. Counterattacking, they suggested that people of faith should ask themselves how much Godliness could there be in a constitution like ours, one filled with "blatant racism and sexism," not to mention some pretty unChristian penalties on the poor.

I see their point. Just because our constitution acknowledges God doesn't mean that the document is "sacred," as at least one of the anti-rewrite coalition claimed. People acknowledge God all the time, then go off and do stuff that God probably would have said “don’t do” if they had asked him.

But on the other hand, we would be wrong to think that the authors of our constitution were not sincere when they invoked “the favor and guidance of Almighty God” on their undertaking. Though I cannot look into the souls of those men long dead, I suspect that most of them were regular church goers who came to the convention convinced that God endorsed what they were doing.

The writers of our constitution believed, as so many believed back then, that God gave certain people authority over, and responsibility for, what the popular English poet, Rudyard Kipling, called the "lesser breeds without the law." And believing, surely, that they were among those “certain people,” our founding fathers gathered in Montgomery in 1901 to draw up a constitution to guarantee that God’s will would be done.

But what convinced these men that God chose them for this task -- or at least that God did not oppose what they were doing?

Well, I can't answer this for sure -- and you better watch out for those who say they can. But in reading the constitution they wrote, I get the nagging feeling that the authors were more influenced by Charles Darwin's Origin of Species than Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount."

Now I’ve stepped in it. If I were to ask members of the Association for Judeo-Christian Values to list of the Top ­10 "all-time enemies of the faith," I betcha Darwin would be right up there behind Satan himself. For me to suggest that by defending the current constitution the Judeo-Christian Values folks are defending a Darwinian document is sure to bring howls of protest.

And why shouldn’t they be upset? What proof do I have that members of the 1901 convention had ever read Darwin? None! Moreover, conventioneers who had heard of Darwin and his theory of evolution, most likely would have denounced man, message, and the horse he rode in on.

So how can I say that there is more Darwin than Deity in the document? I say it because, whether intended or not, the Alabama Constitution of 1901 conforms to one of the key elements of Darwin’s thesis -- "natural selection."

Now how can this be?

Well in the first place, you don't have to read and study something to be influenced by it. By 1901, Darwin's theories had found their way into almost every aspect of American life -- religion, science, society, economics, and, of course, politics. And while the men at the convention would have roundly rejected the religious implications of evolution, and would not have paid much attention to the scientific aspects of the theory, the socio-economic-political elements were downright appealing to them.

What they liked was this. In the Darwinian scheme of things (as most understood it), when a species evolved the strong kept going and the weak fell by the wayside. The strong then passed on that strength to later generations, which overpowered the weak in their turn. Brutal, heartless, maybe. But it was nature's way.

One of Darwin's disciples, Herbert Spencer, applied this scientific theory to human society and its institutions, which he argued, also underwent a natural selection process. He called it the "survival of the fittest."

Soon this concept was used to explain and justify, all sorts of things, like big companies gobbling up small. In the South, however, the theory was used most often to legitimize white supremacy.

In a way, white southerners were Darwinian before Darwin was cool. They had justified slavery by claiming that blacks were inferior to whites, and survival of the superior race depended naturally on the subjugation of the inferior. The end of slavery in no way altered this outlook. Much of the political history of the post-Civil War South is the history of white efforts to restore the old, "natural" order, and make sure that society was not weakened by an inferior infusion. It did not hurt this effort that it occurred at the same time that Darwin's theory of natural selection was becoming so popular.

But natural selection involved struggle, for the superior must prove themselves such, and in Alabama that struggle was not easy. Obviously the state's "better men" -- planters, industrialists, professional people -- had to turn back African-American efforts to gain a measure of political, economic, and social equality. But these superior individuals also had to deal with inferiors of their own race -- lower class whites who were demanding the equality to which they believed their whiteness entitled them.

The solution: a constitution that would reduce blacks and poor whites to the status for which nature intended them, a constitution that would clearly define who was superior, who was inferior, and make it all but impossible for the latter to challenge the former. A constitution that would confirm nature's selection, for obviously only superior men could write such a document!

And that's what they did.

But why didn't Alabama's religious leaders, who you would think would be anti-Darwin, rise in protest over the constitution's Darwinian discrimination?

Possibly because no one made the connection that I am making now. Or perhaps because other issues, like prohibition, were more important to them. Or likely because in almost every white denomination there were preachers who were comfortable with natural selection when it was applied to blacks, and many (especially those from more affluent, urban congregations) who were willing to apply the same criteria to poor whites.

In their minds the distinctions between the races, and between the classes, were God's distinctions, not man's. Therefore the Constitution of 1901 only confirmed and made permanent the order God had ordained. That this also gave constitutional sanction to the theory of natural selection was of apparently no concern to them.

I wonder if this is of any concern to supporters of the old constitution today?

As I mentioned before, judging from their statements on other matters -- displaying the Ten Commandments, school prayer, evolution disclaimers in biology textbooks, etc. -- I think it is safe to assume that many, if not most, members of the Association for Judeo-Christian Values take a dim view of Darwin and his theories. But do they see the Darwinian design in the 1901 constitution?

Over the years many conservative Christians have found natural selection at least as troubling as Darwin's perceived attack on the Biblical literalism. Not the least among them was William Jennings Bryan, evangelical Christianity's champion who defended Tennessee's anti-evolution law at the famous Scopes trial in 1925. To Bryan, natural selection was a "cruel doctrine," part of a "conspiracy" to rob civilization of pity and mercy.

I doubt if Bryan ever read Alabama's constitution, but I wonder what he would have thought of it if he had?

Would he and others like him have declared that our constitution was "ordained and established by the sovereignty of God"? Or would he have seen its true intent and denounced it for what it was -- Darwin in disguise?

I wonder.

Hardy Jackson is professor of history at Jacksonville State University.


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