Frederick Douglass’ Constitutional Bedrock

Frederick Douglass has been the topic of a number of excellent publications in the last few decades. Peter C. Myers’ Frederick Douglass: Hurry and the Rebirth of American Liberalism is the best book on Douglass’ political philosophy. The spike in interest in books on Douglass has merged with books reevaluating the connection of the Constitution. At 2018, Princeton University historian, Sean Wilentz, published his bombshell No Home in Person: Slavery and Anti-Slavery at the country’s Founding and boldly challenged the reigning academic orthodoxy. Wilentz explained that he had agreed with all the pro-slavery Constitution until the evidence compelled him to reverse his perspectives. More recently, among the deans of all abolitionism, James Oakes, wrote The Crooked Trail 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 seen the launch of a brand new book on Douglass and the anti-slavery Union: A Dramatic Liberty. With this book, Reason magazine journalist Damon Root has given a brief and readable volume geared toward a general audience. While the book does not necessarily present much new info on Douglass, its sharp focus on his own constitutional views will help enhance the interpretation of the Constitution within a anti-slavery document.
A Dramatic Liberty opens marginally suddenly, focusing to the 1830’s with John Quincy Adams’ grand rhetorical and principled fight against the infamous”gag rule” prohibiting the discussion of slavery in the House of Representatives. Adams’ constitutional understanding helped form Douglass’ early perspective of the way the institution of slavery conflicted with American infantry principles.
Clients might be disappointed to have a meager few pages on Douglass’ history in slavery. While the book isn’t a full size biography, the absence is remarkable in fully grasping Douglass’ viewpoints. He’d experienced the brutality and dehumanization of a system which repeatedly undermined his personhood and violently broke his soul. The story of how he barely preserved his humanity through learning to read, fighting against those who stripped away his penis, and eventually escaping to independence is central to comprehend why his constitutional opinions are ultimately so significant. These are not biographical information to be treated lightly.
Garrison was a prominent abolitionist lecturer who helped launch Douglass’ career as a public speaker.
Garrison was an abolitionist who required immediate and unconditional emancipation. His amazing radicalism drew into a dedicated set of zealous followers. He didn’t merely see slavery as a contradiction or even aberration in the American regime but embraced the view that the Constitution had been a pro-slavery document. In Garrison’s view, the American republic was thoroughly corrupted that the Union must be immediately divided from the secession of those non-slaveholding northern states.
Early , Douglass embraced Garrison’s reading of the Constitution. His addresses from the mid-1840s are replete with references to the pro-slavery Constitution. He shared the message with audiences in Great Britain throughout a yearlong speaking tour and at an anti-slavery convention in Syracuse, New York, where he said,”The Constitution I hold to be a radically and basically slaveholding document.”
Garrison and Douglass began to float apart for personal and ideological motives, before they finally had a falling out. Douglass increasingly resented being relegated to only speaking about his experiences as a slave and wished to comment on the institution and also articulate his abolitionist views.
Douglass also devoted considerable effort to carefully studying the records of the American founding and came to hold a distinct political philosophy at odds with all the Garrisonian perspective. A number of people who had been advocating for its anti-slavery constitutional perspective influenced Douglass’ believing.
Douglass believed a few those anti-Garrisonian arguments were especially persuasive. He came to concur with the view that slavery was antithetical to some constitutional republic based on the natural rights evident in the principles at the Preamble and due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. The institution also didn’t locate any sanction in the Constitution, as constitutional protections for property could not be removed to endorse slavery becausein Douglass’ studying, there was no”no property in person.” The rules of legal interpretation meant that any ambiguities had to be construed to encourage natural justice. Thus, Douglass believed that slavery was immoral and illegal anywhere in the United States, and the federal government could outlaw slavery anywhere. Garrison believed the anti-slavery Constitution perspective was”utterly absurd and preposterous.”
Other difficulties helped to space Douglass further from Garrison. Douglass rejected Garrison’s pacifism and non-participation in politics. The opponents also launched into personal animosity since Garrison brooked no more heresy contrary to his positions and resented the contest Douglass’ North Star newspaper introduced to The Liberator.
Root just spends one page examining Douglass’ 1860 Glasgow address on the anti-slavery Constitution. In that address he said that the text from the Constitution encouraged neither slavery nor some property in person. Instead, people who believed the slavery clauses of the document overtly encouraged the institution misinterpreted them. It is a shame that the writer didn’t devote a chapter to the seminal language and more carefully assess each of the slavery exemptions and Douglass believed they supported his reading of the Constitution within an anti-slavery document. This has been a missed opportunity since the address was the very thorough analysis Douglass made from each of those supposedly pro-slavery clauses of the Constitution. The address is that the clearest articulation of Douglass’ ideas that are central to the aim of the book.
The book is neatly summed up by Root statement that Douglass again and again”returned to the bedrock liberal principles enshrined in America’s founding documents.” Root contrasts Douglass’ perspective with this a rising Abraham Lincoln in the late 1850s. Root emphasizes that both rejected a property in guy in the Constitution, both embraced the idea that slavery was a moral evil which violated the principle of equality in the Declaration, and that the federal authorities had the ability to ban slavery in the territories. However, Douglass believed that the principles of the Preamble and natural rights foundation of the Constitution was adequate authority for the federal government to end slavery in the countries where it already was. Lincoln took a more nuanced view that only the constitutional war power could enable the executive to do this. That substantial gap between the two which deserves far more focus than the brief mention it receives in this book.
On the other hand, Root contrasts the viewpoints of Douglass together with South Carolina senator John Calhoun. For Calhoun, slavery wasn’t a essential evil because it had been for the creators but instead a”positive good” and a boon. The federal government had no power to end slavery anywhere, such as the territories and Washington, D.C. Any attempt to do so would lead to a slippery slope of enabling the federal government to control or ban slavery where it existed in the South.
Douglass marshalled his anti-slavery Constitution arguments in his review of the Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857). Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote that blacks were not citizens at the time of the Constitution and could not become citizens. Additionally, the Court declared that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional because Congress had no power to control slavery in the territories.
Douglass recognized the outbreak of the Civil War, which introduced an chance to deal a”death-blow to the monster evil of slavery.” The Emancipation Proclamation had a moral energy which made him joyous because he celebrated the”righteous decree.” He joined the war effort by acting as a recruiting agent for black soldiers. He promised that the soldiers who the”musket means liberty.”
The chapter on the war provides intriguing brief overviews of Lincoln’s anti-slavery Constitution perspectives and presidential war powers resulted at the Emancipation Proclamation. The story of the significant events of the war are also told in colorful detail, especially for the all-black 54th Massachusetts regiment. But, Douglass curiously only makes brief appearances and his comprehension of the anti-slavery Constitution completely drops from the story.
The problem with all the Civil War chapter proceeds into the Reconstruction section. Douglass’ story is again subsumed by bigger –and compelling–events about the struggle for its Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments and other efforts at justice for freed persons. Equally striking and distressing are the dreadful acts of violence and injustices dinosaurs endured for decades following the Civil War.
Douglass fought for black suffrage, citizenship, and constitutional rights following the war. Douglass wanted all Americans to love suffrage and equalityand was a long-time advocate of women’s suffrage since the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. However, he believed that the polity must prioritize black male suffrage following the Civil War. An upset Elizabeth Cady Stanton countered that girls ought to be allowed the vote before female and black males, and also her disagreements were marred by racist and xenophobic slurs.
Root adequately covers Douglass’ political and constitutional responses to those events of the late nineteenth century. Douglass’ profound reflections in that address transcend even Lincoln and aim at understanding the nature of the American regime and also the place of black Americans in that regime.
A Glorious Liberty is a solid introduction to an important topic of wonderful relevance now as Americans willful over race and founding principles. The book is neatly summed up by Root statement that Douglass again and again”returned to the bedrock liberal principles enshrined in America’s founding documents.” The race problem in this country could be solvedaccording to Douglass, by”no longer evading the claims of justice.” Reflecting on Douglass’ life needs to help make sure the public square does not escape his hard claims.