Academic journal article Social Education

Was the Constitution Pro-Slavery? the Changing View of Frederick Douglass

Academic journal article Social Education

Was the Constitution Pro-Slavery? the Changing View of Frederick Douglass

Article excerpt

During the crisis of the union that unfolded in America in the nineteenth century and culminated with the Civil War, a debate raged over whether the Constitution was a pro-slavery document. At first glance, this might not seem a debatable subject. After all, key abolitionist figures, such as William Lloyd Garrison, who disagreed vigorously with slave-owners on virtually every aspect of the slave system did agree with them on one thing: that the Constitution supported slavery. It was the Constitution's protections of slavery, most notably the three-fifths clause, the Fugitive Slave clause and the provision preserving the slave trade for 20 years (see the box on p. 247) that enabled the most vehemently pro-slavery representatives to the Constitutional Convention from South Carolina and Georgia to endorse the Constitution.

Those same provisions led Garrison to denounce the Constitution as "a covenant with death and an agreement with hell," which "compromises with [the] tyranny" of the slaveholder. Garrison dramatized this scathing indictment by publicly burning a copy of the Constitution in 1854. (1) The Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision of 1857, which upheld the right of slave owners to maintain possession of their slaves even in states where slavery was illegal, also seemed to support the contention that the Constitution was pro-slavery.

When we dig deeper, however, into the history of slavery, anti-slavery, and the Constitution, it is clear that the proslavery implications of the Constitution are a matter for debate. The debate was played out most notably in the case of Frederick Douglass, the pre-eminent African American protest leader in the antebellum period. Douglass had escaped from slavery in Maryland in 1838, and within a few years emerged as a towering figure in the abolitionist movement: one of its leading orators, authors, and newspaper editors.

The Initial Interpretation

On the question of the Constitution and slavery, Douglass began his abolitionist career--and went through much of the 1840s-holding the same position as Garrison, his early mentor in that movement. Even as late as 1850, Douglass, in his abolitionist newspaper, The North Star, condemned the founding fathers for having "cunningly wrought into" the Constitution "the pro-slavery principle." Douglass argued that the Constitution's rhetoric about liberty was belied by its pro-slavery provisions:

   Liberty and Slavery--opposite
   as Heaven and Hell--are both
   in the Constitution; and the oath
   to support the latter, is an oath
   to perform that which God has
   made impossible. The man that
   swears support to it vows allegiance
   to two masters--so opposite,
   that fidelity to one is, necessarily
   treachery to the other. If we
   adopt the preamble with Liberty
   and Justice, we must repudiate the
   enacting clauses, with Kidnapping
   and Slaveholding. (2)

By protecting slavery, the Constitution was, in Douglass's words "supporting and perpetuating this monstrous system of injustice and blood." (3)

Douglass, with his flair for stirring oratory and writing, gave voice to this scorching abolitionist indictment of the Constitution in a series of memorable speeches and editorials. One of his most powerful critical statements on the Constitution and slavery was made in England, where he fled and stayed for more than a year after the publication of his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, in 1845, because he lived in fear that his fame in the United States made him, as a fugitive slave, vulnerable to being kidnapped and returned to slavery in Maryland. (4) Douglass condemned the Fugitive Slave "clause of the American constitution" for giving

   to the slaveholder the right at any
   moment to set his well-trained
   bloodhounds upon the track of
   the poor fugitive; hunt him down
   like a wild beast, and hurl him
   back to the jaws of slavery from
   which he had, for a brief space
   of time, escaped. … 
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