This month marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest figures in American history. Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland, sometime in February 1818. At the age of 20, he made his escape from bondage, traveling north to Philadelphia, New York City, and finally to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he would earn his “first free dollar” on the dockyards loading ships. “I was now my own master,” he proclaimed, “a tremendous fact.” In 1839, Douglass spoke up for the first time at an abolitionist meeting. Six years later, he was an internationally acclaimed orator and the author of a celebrated autobiography. In less than a decade, he had established himself as one of the most singular and influential voices in the most pressing debate of his time: the debate over slavery.
Arguing about slavery was a combat sport in those days, both figuratively and literally, and the field was crowded with skilled combatants. Among them was John C. Calhoun, the legendary South Carolina statesman who proclaimed slavery to be a positive good, fully sanctioned by the letter and spirit of the U.S. Constitution. There was also the militant Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who burned his copy of the Constitution, damning it as a pro-slavery “covenant with death and an agreement with hell.”
Douglass would face them both down. “Garrison sees in the Constitution precisely what John C. Calhoun sees there,” Douglass observed. He saw something different: “Interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document.”
At a time when the principles of the Declaration of Independence were under assault, Douglass waved the banner of classical liberalism, championing inalienable rights for all, regardless of race or sex. At a time when socialism was on the rise, Douglass preached the virtues of free labor and self-ownership in a market-based economy. At a time when state governments were violating the rights of the recently emancipated, Douglass professed the central importance of “the ballot-box, the jury-box, and the cartridge-box” in the fight against Jim Crow.
Douglass, the former slave who secretly taught himself how to read, would teach the American people a thing or two about the true meaning of the Constitution.
‘Wielded in Behalf of Emancipation’
On May 9, 1851, the leading lights of the abolitionist movement gathered in Rochester, New York, for the 18th annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Among the items on the agenda was a resolution calling for the society to officially recommend several anti-slavery publications, including a small weekly called the Liberty Party Paper.
But William Lloyd Garrison, the powerful editor of The Liberator, one of abolitionism’s flagship publications, would have none of that. The Liberty Party Paper, Garrison complained, saw the Constitution as an antislavery document. That view was tantamount to heresy, as it clashed with Garrison’s famous judgment that the Constitution was a pro-slavery deal with the devil.
So a more congenial resolution was soon proposed: The American Anti-Slavery Society would only recommend those publications that toed the Garrisonian line.
It was at this point that Frederick Douglass stood up. For the previous 10 years, Douglass had been a friend, ally, even a disciple of Garrison’s. “Every week the Liberator came, and every week I made myself master of its contents,” Douglass later recalled. “I not only liked—I loved this paper, and its editor.”
But Douglass no longer loved what Garrison had to say about the Constitution. In fact, he now thought Garrison was dead wrong on the subject. What is more, Douglass decided that the time had come for him to say so in public. Douglass “felt honor bound to announce at once,” he explained to the assembled worthies, that the paper he edited, The North Star, “no longer possessed the requisite qualification for their official approval and commendation.” The Constitution, he told them, “should be wielded in behalf of emancipation.”
Those words went down about as well as might have been expected given the audience. There were howls of outrage, cries of censure. Garrison, for his part, accused Douglass of harboring ulterior (read: financial) motives. “There is roguery somewhere!” Garrison exclaimed. Douglass never quite forgave his old comrade for that.
In truth, Douglass agonized over his change of opinion. He came around gradually and only after much brooding. He forced himself “to re-think the whole subject,” he recalled, “and to study, with some care, not only the just and proper rules of legal interpretation, but the origin, design, nature, rights, powers, and duties of civil government, and also the relations which human beings sustain to it.”
Those studies began to produce fruit as early as 1849. Writing in The North Star on March 16 of that year, Douglass conceded that the Constitution “is not a proslavery instrument” when interpreted “standing alone, and construed only in the light of its letter.” The trouble came when he considered the pro-slavery “opinions of the men who framed and adopted it.” How to reconcile the text of the Constitution with the unwritten intentions of its framers?
A year later, on April 5, 1850, Douglass moved a little further away from the strict Garrisonian position. The Constitution is “at war with itself,” he now wrote. “Liberty and Slavery—opposite as Heaven and Hell—are both in the Constitution.” Both in the Constitution? The imperious Garrison would not like the sound of that. Furthermore, Douglass ventured, “if we adopt the preamble [to the Constitution], with Liberty and Justice, we must repudiate the enacting clauses, with Kidnapping and Slaveholding.”
By 1851, his mind was made up. Yes, the Constitution did contain certain oblique references to slavery, such as the notorious “three fifths” clause. But those references spoke only of “persons.” Neither the word slave nor the word slavery appear anywhere in the text. That textual absence, Douglass concluded, was a fatal weakness in the slaveholders’s position that must be exploited. “Take the Constitution according to its plain reading,” he insisted. “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.” Douglass would deploy those principles and purposes against the peculiar institution until it was finally destroyed.
‘All Men Are Created Equal’
There was also the Declaration of Independence to factor in. Was not the entire American system founded upon the “self-evident” truths that “all men are created equal” and endowed with “certain unalienable rights,” such as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?” Did not that noble language vanquish the case for slavery?