Frederick Douglass has been the topic of a number of excellent novels in the last few years. General readers might know about David Blight’s magisterial biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. Peter C. Myers’ Frederick Douglass: Hurry and the Rebirth of American Liberalism is the best publication on Douglass’ political doctrine. The spike in interest in books on Douglass has merged with novels reevaluating the association of the Constitution. In 2018, Princeton University historian, Sean Wilentz, printed his bombshell No Home in Man: Slavery and Anti-Slavery in the country’s Founding and boldly challenged the reigning academic orthodoxy. Wilentz explained he had agreed with all the pro-slavery Constitution before the evidence compelled him to reverse his perspectives. More recently, among the deans of abolitionism, James Oakes, composed The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution to carry Wilentz’s story up through the Civil War.
Maybe then it isn’t surprising that this publishing milieu has witnessed the release of a brand new publication on Douglass and the anti-slavery Union: A Glorious Liberty. With this publication, Reason magazine writer Damon Root has given a short and readable volume aimed at a broad audience. While the publication does not automatically present new info about Douglass, its sharp focus on his own constitutional views will help enhance the interpretation of the Constitution within a anti-slavery document.
A Glorious Liberty opens somewhat suddenly, focusing on the 1830’s with John Quincy Adams’ grand rhetorical and principled struggle against the notorious”gag rule” banning the talk of slavery in the House of Representatives. Adams’ constitutional understanding helped shape Douglass’ early perspective of the way the establishment of slavery conflicted with American infantry principles.
Readers may be disappointed to get a meager three webpages on Douglass’ background in captivity. While the publication isn’t a full size biography, the absence is noteworthy in fully grasping Douglass’ views. He had experienced the brutality and dehumanization of a system that repeatedly undermined his personhood and violently broke his spirit. The story of how he scarcely saved his humanity through learning how to read, fighting back against people who stripped away his prick, and eventually escaping to freedom is fundamental to comprehend why his constitutional opinions are ultimately so important. These are not biographical details to be treated lightly.
Root devotes the first part of the novel to analyzing the famous story of Douglass’ relationship with abolitionist and editor of The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison has been a prominent abolitionist lecturer who assisted launch Douglass’ career as a public speaker.
Garrison was an abolitionist who wanted immediate and unconditional emancipation. His uncompromising radicalism drew in a committed group of enthusiastic followers. He didn’t merely see slavery as a contradiction or even aberration in the American regime but adopted the view that the Constitution was a pro-slavery document. In Garrison’s view, the American republic was thoroughly corrupt the Union should be instantly divided from the secession of their non-slaveholding northern nations.
Early on, Douglass adopted Garrison’s reading of the Constitution. His addresses from the mid-1840s are filled with references to the pro-slavery Constitution. He shared that message with audiences in Great Britain during a two-year speaking tour and in an anti-slavery convention in Syracuse, New York, ” he stated,”The Constitution I was a radically and basically slaveholding document.”
Garrison and Douglass started to float apart for private and ideological motives, until they eventually had a falling out. Douglass increasingly resented being tethered to only speaking about his experiences as a slave and wanted to comment about the establishment and also articulate his abolitionist views.
Douglass also dedicated considerable effort to closely analyzing the documents of the American founding and came to hold a different political doctrine at odds with all the Garrisonian perspective. Several individuals who were advocating for its anti-slavery constitutional perspective influenced Douglass’ believing.
Douglass thought a few the anti-Garrisonian arguments were especially persuasive. He came to agree with the view that slavery has been antithetical to a constitutional republic based on the rights evident in the fundamentals in the Preamble and due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. The organization also didn’t find any sanction in the Constitution, as constitutional protections for property couldn’t be taken to endorse slavery as , in Douglass’ reading, there was no”no property in man.” The rules of legal interpretation supposed that any ambiguities had to be construed to support justice. Thus, Douglass believed that slavery was illegal anywhere in the USA, and the federal government would outlaw slavery anywhere. Garrison thought the anti-slavery Constitution perspective was”utterly foolish and ridiculous.”
Other problems helped to space Douglass farther from Garrison. Douglass refused Garrison’s pacifism and non-participation in politics. The rivals also launched into private animosity since Garrison brooked no more heresy contrary to his rankings and resented the contest Douglass’ North Star paper introduced to The Liberator. Ideological differences led to the decisive break in their friendship, and Garrison vilified Douglass for his apostasy.
Root just spends one particular page analyzing Douglass’ 1860 Glasgow speech on the anti-slavery Constitution. In that speech he stated that the text from the Constitution encouraged neither slavery nor any property in man. Rather, those who believed the slavery clauses of the document overtly encouraged the establishment misinterpreted them. It is a shame the writer didn’t give a chapter to this seminal language and much more closely assess every one of the captivity exemptions and Douglass believed they supported his understanding of the Constitution within an anti-slavery document. This is a missed opportunity since the speech was the most comprehensive analysis Douglass made from every one of the allegedly pro-slavery reports of the Constitution. The speech is that the clearest articulation of Douglass’ ideas that are fundamental to the objective of the publication.
The book is neatly summed up by Root’s announcement that Douglass again and again”returned to the bedrock liberal principles enshrined in America’s founding documents.” Root compares Douglass’ perspective with this a climbing Abraham Lincoln in the late 1850s. The writer sees much consistency at the ideas of Douglass and Lincoln in 1860. Root emphasizes that both refused a property in person in the Constitution, either adopted the thought that slavery was a moral evil that violated the rule of equality in the Declaration, and that the federal authorities had the power to prohibit slavery in the territories. However, Douglass believed that the fundamentals of the Preamble and natural rights foundation of the Constitution was adequate authority for the federal government to stop slavery in the states in which it existed. Lincoln took a more nuanced view that only the constitutional war power might enable the executive to get this done. That significant difference between the two that deserves far more focus than the short mention it receives in this publication.
On the other hand, Root contrasts the views of Douglass with South Carolina senator John Calhoun. For Calhoun, slavery was not a essential evil as it was for the creators but rather a”positive good” and a blessing. The assertion that”all men are created equal” was false and a harmful political mistake in Calhoun’s estimation. The federal government had no power to stop slavery anywhere, such as the territories and Washington, D.C. Any effort to do so would lead to a slippery mountain of empowering the federal government to control or prohibit slavery where it existed in the South.
Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote that blacks weren’t citizens in the time of the Constitution and couldn’t become citizens.
Douglass recognized the outbreak of the Civil War, which introduced an opportunity to deal a”death-blow to the monster evil of slavery.” The Emancipation Proclamation had a moral power that made him joyous as he observed that the”righteous decree.” He promised that the soldiers that the”musket means freedom.”
The chapter about the war provides intriguing short overviews of the way Lincoln’s anti-slavery Constitution views and presidential war powers led to the Emancipation Proclamation. The story of the major events of the war will also be told in colorful detail, especially for the all-black 54th Massachusetts regiment. However, Douglass curiously only makes brief appearances and his comprehension of the anti-slavery Constitution completely falls from the narrative.
The trouble with all the Civil War chapter continues to the Reconstruction section. Douglass’ story is subsumed by bigger –and persuasive –events about the struggle for its Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments and other attempts at justice for freed persons. Equally striking and painful are the horrific acts of violence and injustices blacks endured for decades after the Civil War.
Douglass fought for black suffrage, citizenship, and constitutional rights after the war. He was outraged by many Supreme Court cases such as the Slaughter-House Cases (1873), curbing the application of the Fourteenth Amendment to the nations, and the Civil Rights Cases (1883), which held the 1875 Civil Rights Act unconstitutional since they limited the newly-won rights for black Americans. Root narrates Douglass’ famous debate with woman suffragettes within the Fifteenth Amendment granting the vote to blacks. Douglass needed all Americans to appreciate suffrage and equality, and has been a long-time advocate of women’s suffrage because the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. But he thought the polity must prioritize black male suffrage after the Civil War. An angry Elizabeth Cady Stanton countered that women should be granted the vote before black and immigrant males, and also her discussions were marred by racist and xenophobic slurs.
Root satisfactorily covers Douglass’ inherent and political answers to the events of the late nineteenth century.” Douglass’ deep reflections in that speech supports Lincoln and aim in understanding the essence of the American regime and also the location of black Americans in this program.
A Glorious Liberty is a good introduction to a significant topic of wonderful significance today as Americans willful more than race and founding principles. The book is neatly summed up by Root’s announcement that Douglass again and again”returned to the bedrock liberal principles enshrined in America’s founding documents.” The race problem in this state could be solved, according to Douglass, by”no longer evading the claims of justice.” Reflecting on Douglass’ life must help make sure the public square does not escape his challenging claims.