Members of the U.S. House of Representatives found one, rare point of agreement during today's reading of the Constitution: the amendment that banned slavery.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a leader of the civil rights movement, was given the task of reading the 13th Amendment on the House floor. The amendment bans “slavery [and] involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime.”
Lewis slowly read aloud the text of the amendment’s first and second sections. When he finished, his colleagues on both sides of the aisle began clapping and then rose to their feet in a standing ovation. As he walked back to a seat, Lewis bowed his head several times in acknowledgment of the applause.
Other parts of the reading were not as bipartisan. Only congressmen on the Republican side appeared to clap after the reading of the 10th Amendment, which reserves powers for the states. Only those on the Democratic side appeared to clap after the reading of the 14th Amendment’s privileges or immunities clause, which protects citizenship rights.
The reading lasted about an hour and a half. It was the first of its kind in Congress, and it was organized by House Republicans over objections from some liberal members who called it a stunt.
A member of the public briefly interrupted the reading when a congressman came to Article II, Section 1, which requires that the president be a “natural born Citizen.” “Except Obama! Except Obama! Help us, Jesus!” a woman yelled from the gallery, referring to the belief that Obama was not born in the United States. She was escorted out, and the reading continued.
Immediately before the reading, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) protested that members were not using the Constitution’s original text. That text included, for example, the three-fifths compromise regarding how slaves would be counted. Jackson called the text that would be read a “redacted version” that glossed over later struggles for equality.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who led the reading, dismissed the criticism. “It is an amended document. We’re going to read the document as amended,” he said.
Almost two years ago, the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way hosted another reading of the Constitution at the Newseum, featuring a cast that included politicians, actors, veterans, folk singers and “Obama Girl.” In a statement today, the group’s president, Michael Keegan, said he supports reading the Constitution in the House. But like Jackson, he said members of Congress should read “the entire Constitution,” including later-deleted provisions referencing slavery.
By the end of the event today, the text prepared by Goodlatte still meant the reading of several references to slavery and civil rights, including the 13th Amendment, the initial 25-year protection for the importation of slaves and the 24th Amendment protecting voters from poll taxes.
Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.) got perhaps the most enviable assignment for any politician: reciting the very end of Article II, Section 1, which is the presidential oath of office.
Updated at 2:35 p.m. with Keegan's statement.