By Tony Williams
In 1860, ex-slave and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, delivered a powerful speech “The Constitution: Is It Pro-Slavery or Anti-Slavery?” Douglass used the speech to criticize his fellow abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison who called the Constitution a “Covenant with Death” and publicly burned the Constitution because he believed it a pro-slavery document. This view is very common among many modern academics who discredit the Founders for creating a fundamentally flawed constitutional system rooted upon slavery and extinguished through the efforts of uncompromising abolitionists. Douglass thought differently.
Douglass was a former slave who had escaped the horrors of slavery. He was raised on a plantation that was many miles from a mother that he rarely saw. From a young age, he witnessed the brutal whippings of slavery. His spirit was nearly ruined by a “slavebreaker,” but Douglass recovered his manhood when he fought back and refused to be whipped again. He eventually learned to read and learned the power of rhetoric by reading The Columbian Orator. He finally escaped from slavery through the Underground Railroad and recovered his human dignity. He became such a powerful speaker that his listeners did not believe he was a former slave.
In 1860, Douglass systematically goes through the supposedly pro-slavery clauses of the Constitution and demolishes the argument that the Constitution is pro-slavery. Douglass begins with a strong statement that the Constitution is a Newtonian document with immutable principles rather than a “Living Constitution” that can mean whatever the interpreter wants it to mean.
What, then, is the Constitution? I will tell you. It is no vague, indefinite, floating, unsubstantial, ideal something, coloured according to one’s fancy, now a weasel, now a whale, and now nothing. On the contrary, it is a plainly written document, not in Hebrew or Greek, but in English . . . . The American Constitution is a written instrument full and complete in itself. No Court in America, no Congress, no President, can add a single word thereto, or take a single word therefrom. It is a great national enactment done by the people, and can be altered, amended, or added to by the people.
Many people today believe that Thomas Jefferson did not really mean all people when he wrote “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence and think that they know who Jefferson really meant. Douglass takes on the same kind of reasoning regarding slavery and the Constitution when he argues that, “The text, and only the text, and not any commentaries or creeds written by those who wished to give the text a meaning apart from its plain meaning . . . . instead of looking to the written paper itself, for its meaning, it were attempted to make us search it out, in the secret motives, and dishonest intentions, of some of the men who took part in writing it.” For Douglass, the Constitution must “stand or fall, flourish or fade, on its own individual and self-declared character and objects.”
Douglass starts by asserting that the framers purposefully avoided the mention of slavery in the Constitution. “It so happens that no such words as ‘African slave trade,’ no such words as ‘slave representation,’ no such words as ‘fugitive slaves,” no such words as ‘slave insurrections,’ are anywhere used in that instrument. These are . . . not the words of the Constitution of the United States.”
As Abraham Lincoln said the same year at his Cooper Union address, paraphrasing James Madison at the Constitutional Convention: “Neither the word ‘slave’ nor ‘slavery’ is to be found in the Constitution . . . and that wherever in that instrument the slave is alluded to, he is called a ‘person.’”
The purpose, Lincoln told his audience was to prevent slavery from being a blot on the American founding and Constitution after slavery had inevitably been extinguished. The founders did this “on purpose to exclude from the Constitution the idea that there could be property in man.”
Douglass first addresses the Three-Fifths clause of Article I, section 2 and examines the idea of a slaveholding power. He indirectly demolishes our modern view that it literally meant that the slaves were considered three-fifths of a person. Do not forget that the South wanted to count the slave as a full person for the purposes of representation. Douglass also attacks the idea that this did not create a slave power in the Congress nor did it represent anything less than a compromise over representation and taxation.
“A black man in a free State is worth just two-fifths more than a black man in a slave State, as a basis of political power under the Constitution. Therefore, instead of encouraging slavery, the Constitution encourages freedom by giving an increase of ‘two-fifths’ of political power to free over slave States . . . taking it at its worst, it still leans to freedom, not to slavery,” Douglass avers.
Douglass next addresses the slave trade in Article I, section 9, in which the Congress could not ban the slave trade for 20 years. The founders, Douglass argues, were not protecting the slave trade and thus slavery with this clause but were “providing for the abolition of the slave trade.” And, indeed on January 1, 1808, that is exactly what happened when the 1807 bill that President Thomas Jefferson signed, went into effect. Douglass says that the clause “looked to the abolition of slavery rather than to its perpetuity,” and that the founders intentions “were good, not bad.”
Douglass tackles the “slave insurrection” clause in Article I, section 8. He states that “there is no such clause” because it is a general statement that the chief executive has the power and duty to suppress all “riots or insurrections” in the interests of maintaining law and order. Even if Douglass concedes for the sake of argument that it is aimed at slave insurrections, he turns it on its head and states that, “If it should turn out that slavery is a source of insurrection . . . why, the Constitution would be best obeyed by putting an end to slavery, and an anti-slavery Congress would do that very thing.”
Finally, Douglass discusses the “Fugitive Slave clause” of Article IV, section 9, and believes that it could only be applied to indentured servants and apprentices because slaves were not “bound to service” in the sense that they were contractually obligated to perform “service and labour,” because they could not legally make contracts.
Douglass then examines the larger natural rights principles of the Constitution and argues that they do not support slavery. The purposes of the new constitutional government as stated in the Preamble – union, defense, welfare, tranquility, justice, and liberty – Douglass tells us, “are all good objects, and slavery, so far from being among them, is a foe to them all.” He continues, “Its language is ‘we the people;’ not we the white people.”
Finally, Douglass argues that “there is no word, no syllable in the Constitution to forbid [abolishing slavery].” The North banned slavery in the wake of the American Revolution, the Northwest Ordinance banned it in that territory, and the Missouri Compromise banned it in the northern part of the Louisiana Territory. Douglass states that, “The Constitution will afford slavery no protection.”
Douglass’ speech was aimed as much at the radical abolitionists as slave owners as he thought it remarkably imprudent to say “No union with slaveholders.” If the North were to let the South secede, then there would be no moral pressure to end slavery in the new confederacy. Slavery, Douglass tells us, “dreads the presence of an advanced civilization. It flourishes best where it meets no reproving frowns, and hears no condemning voices. While in the Union it will meet with both . . . . I am, therefore, for drawing the bond of Union more closely.”
Tony Williams is the Program Director of the WJMI and the author of four books, including America’s Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character.