Persuasion, Propaganda, and the Thirteenth Amendment

by Lauren Camacci

Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow, Penn State University

This summer, I taught “Persuasion and Propaganda” to a group of newly admitted first-year students. This majority-white group of 18-year-olds was engaged and prepared, allowing us to have frank, in-depth conversations on topics like racism, nationalism, and toxic masculinity.

This group brought to my attention that some Amendments become warrants for students’ political arguments, where others are left by the wayside. Students routinely used the First Amendment as their warrant when arguing about, for example, flying the Confederate flag, while the Second Amendment played a central part in our discussions of polling as propaganda. In our discussions of racism in the United States, however, no student ever marshaled for their argument the relationship between the language of the Declaration, the Preamble, and the Thirteenth Amendment. The Bill of Rights certainly carries a particular authority, but it felt almost like this group of students simply forgot about the Thirteenth. This caused me to ask, what makes some Amendments memorable and others forgettable? Is it a matter of pithy phrasing? Or of identification?