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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Douglass and the Constitution

There has been much discussion of the Constitution in recent months. The House floor reading of the document has drawn attention to its relationship to slavery. Peter C. Myers provides some historical context. He writes that escaped slave Frederick Douglass was critical of the Constitution in his youth, but then had a change of heart (a point that our textbook mentions on pp. 62-63).

Douglass publicly announced his change of opinion in the spring of 1851, but his most powerful statement of his revised view appears, fittingly enough, in his speech at an Independence Day celebration in 1852. In that speech, often considered the greatest of all abolitionist speeches, he excoriated America’s injustices no less vigorously than he ever had, but he took great care to distinguish America’s practice from its first principles and the actions of its subsequent generations from those of its Founders.

“The signers of the Declaration of Independence,” Douglass told his audience that day, “were brave men. They were great men too…. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes.” In his discerning view, however, the main source of their greatness—the virtue that enabled them to be more than revolutionaries, the Founders of a great republic—inhered not in their bravery but in their dedication to the “eternal principles,” the “saving principles,” set forth in the unique revolutionary document they dared to sign. “Your fathers, the fathers of this republic, did, most deliberately…and with a sublime faith in the great principles of justice and freedom, lay deep the corner-stone of the national superstructure, which has risen and still rises in grandeur around you…. Mark them!”[15]

In truth, Douglass had long admired the Declaration and the Revolution; but now, having broken with the Garrisonian variant of abolitionism, he had come to admire the whole of the Founding, because he had come to judge the Constitution to be faithful to the saving principles of the Declaration. The charge of a pro-slavery Constitution was “a slander upon [the] memory” of the Framers, he contended; “interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document.” Consider “the constitution according to its plain reading,” Douglass continued, “and I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it. On the other hand it will be found to contain principles and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.”