history: older than it looks

If you’re reading this blog, you probably have already seen Rick Perlstein’s posts on Box 722. If you haven’t, they’re fascinating and you should go read them. I was struck by this statement in the second post:

One thing to observe: over and over again, the Chicago Southwest Siders protesting open housing repeat a variant of the resident on 71st Street who averred that Congress “cannot legislate morals or love.” The reason this is fascinating was that this was one of Barry Goldwater’s constant refrains on the campaign trail in 1964 for why he didn’t vote for the civil rghts act. Like most everywhere else, not many people on the Southwest Side of Chicago voted for Barry Goldwater. But clearly they heard what they had to say, and took it to heart, and repeated it verbatim two years later. It’s a fascinating lesson in the mysterious ways political messages take hold.

But while the letter-writers might have been influenced by Goldwater, the message itself has a longer history. My guess is that the general claim that it’s not possible to legislate morality could be traced to some dead political theorist; in the context of segregation it shows up in the majority opinion in Plessy vs. Ferguson:

The argument also assumes that social prejudices may be overcome by legislation, and that equal rights cannot be secured to the negro except by an enforced commingling of the two races. We cannot accept this proposition. If the two races are to meet upon terms of social equality, it must be the result of natural affinities, a mutual appreciation of each other’s merits and a voluntary consent of individuals…. Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based upon physical differences, and the attempt to do so can only result in accentuating the difficulties of the present situation.

[Quoted in Charles Payne, “”The Whole United States Is Southern!”: Brown v. Board and the Mystification of Race”, which is worth reading, here.]

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