February 13, 2020
By Timothy Sandefur
Frederick Douglass decided late in life to call February 14 his birthday. He didn’t know the exact date—or even the correct year—since such things weren’t usually recorded for those born into slavery. But he chose Valentine’s Day because he vaguely recalled that the last time he’d seen his mother was when he was seven. He had been hungry, and she had given him a little heart-shaped cake to eat. From that point on, he could only barely recall her face.
It’s astounding to think that Douglass rose from such terrible circumstances to become a world-renowned intellectual, orator, diplomat, and author of one of America’s greatest memoirs. Perhaps more astonishing, Douglass became one of the most important defenders of the U.S. Constitution, in an era in which millions of his fellow Americans were enslaved, allegedly in accordance with the law. When other anti-slavery leaders insisted the Constitution was an evil document because it protected slavery, Douglass took a different view. The Constitution was “a glorious liberty document,” which, if properly understood, gave slavery no permanent protection and even gave federal authorities power to abolish it if only they had the political will to do so.
During his early years as an anti-slavery spokesman, Douglass agreed with such anti-Constitution abolitionists as William Lloyd Garrison, who called the nation’s fundamental law a “pact with the devil.” But around 1850, he began to change his mind as he studied the issue more closely, thanks to the work of such pro-Constitution abolitionists as Lysander Spooner, Joel Tiffany, and Gerrit Smith. The Constitution, he noted, never used the word “slave” and protected the “privileges and immunities” of Americans without regard to race. Although the Constitution obviously contained provisions recognizing the existence of slavery, it contained nothing that guaranteed its existence. In fact, Douglass noted, Garrison’s arguments against the Constitution were the same arguments that such pro-slavery thinkers as Chief Justice Roger Taney used.
The pro-Constitution abolitionist theory is largely ignored in today’s history classes—as I recently noted in Reason, it’s never mentioned in the New York Times’s “1619 Project”—yet it proved to have a lasting influence on American institutions. Prominent anti-slavery politicians including John Quincy Adams, Charles Sumner, William Seward, Samuel Chase, and Abraham Lincoln, all endorsed some form of it, and when the Civil War came to an end, it was the pro-Constitution anti-slavery theory—not the anarchism of Garrison—that provided the intellectual foundation for the Fourteenth Amendment, which sought to eliminate any vestige of pro-slavery thinking from American constitutional law. Whether or not Douglass had been right to call the Constitution a “glorious liberty document” before the War, he was certainly right to call it that afterwards.
I discuss Douglass’s constitutional views in greater depth in this National Review article. It’s a shame that his constitutional interpretation is typically omitted in today’s historical discussions, and that even some of America’s most prominent constitutional scholars now claim—in agreement with the infamous Dred Scott opinion—that the nation’s fundamental law really was a pro-slavery document. But it’s not surprising, given that many of today’s leading intellectuals urge Americans, and especially black Americans, to abandon belief in the American Dream itself, and to accept the racist lie that this nation was created for white people only. These writers represent a repudiation of everything Douglass fought for—as I explain the latest issue of Cato Journal:
What are we—as individuals or a nation—if we surrender our commitment to principle (which is what we mean when we speak of our dreams)? Without dreams, are we not just “poor, bare forked creatures”? Aren’t we just doomed to repeat the crimes of past ages? “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” A land without a dream is only dirt. A creature that does not dream is only a congeries of bones and tissues. A person who can dream and chooses not to has surrendered the one thing that can never be taken away by any jailer. Why does the caged bird sing? Because it dreams of freedom. What comes of a dream deferred? It festers like a sore and then runs. But a dreamless man can neither sing nor run. He can only be a body—a thing acted upon by others. A racist may be deluded by thinking he’s biologically superior, but a dreamless man is even more deluded—because he thinks that he’s awake.
This Black History Month, it’s worth taking a moment to rediscover the ideas of Frederick Douglass—“this man, superb in love and logic,” as the poet Robert Hayden put it—and why this man, who had every reason to despise America, believed to the contrary that it was destined to be the land of the free.