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  • The Colorblind Constitution: Frederick Douglass on Race and America’s Founding

    In a move one blogger called “Huck Finning the Constitution,” the 112th Congress left out the infamous “three-fifths compromise” in their much-publicized reading of the Constitution on the House floor. The “three-fifths compromise” is a clause in Article I, Section 2, which states the number of Congressional representatives from a state will be calculated, in part, by including “three fifths of all other Persons” who are neither “free Persons” nor “Indians not taxed,” and was understood to apply to the counting of slaves. This clause was later nullified by Section 2 of the 14th Amendment.

    In a classic damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don’t predicament, House leaders were faced with the choice between reading the defunct clause aloud, and garnering criticism for seemingly promoting a racist document, or omitting the passage, and being accused of sugar-coating the Constitution’s flaws. In either scenario, the Constitution comes across as an embarrassing older relative, insisting on spouting uncouth remarks, constantly engaging its more politically enlightened offspring in a game of interference.

    Many prominent American intellectuals and civil rights leaders, as well as the bulk of the American academic establishment, claim that America’s founders, and the Constitution they wrote, were fundamentally racist.

    These thought-leaders cite the racial achievement gap in public schools, urban poverty and high rates of crime and incarceration among blacks as signs of the deep alienation with which blacks in America regard traditional American values. Meanwhile, the rhetoric with which they attack the principles of the Founding only encourages, and in some cases helps to generate, this sense of alienation among the black community. But as Peter C. Myers writes in a new First Principles Paper released today by the Heritage Foundation, “It is very difficult to see how the forward- and upward-looking labor required to achieve the ends of justice for all and black elevation in America is to be sustained amid a spreading sentiment of alienation from America.” Myers, professor of political science, counters such critics’ arguments with the story and writings of an iconic figure, the passionately pro-America, pro-Constitution activist and intellectual, Frederick Douglass.

    Myers writes, “The principles of natural human rights set forth in the declaration of Independence, Douglass was convinced, represent a permanent, universal truth as well as the most practically powerful moral and political theory ever conceived. It was above all in America’s original and unforgettable dedication to those principles that Douglass found reason to love and identify with his country, despite the injustices that he and his people had suffered.”

    The tale of Douglass’s education, escape from slavery and ascent to leadership of the abolitionist movement is familiar to any high school American history student. But less examined is the story of his intellectual transformation, from a follower of radical rejecter of the Constitution, William Lloyd Garrison, to an ardent defender of the self-evident truths embodied uniquely in America’s founding documents. Perhaps Douglass’s awakening belief in the special position of America in the world and her unparalleled promise of freedom is first seen in his choice to return to the country of his former enslavement, after a sojourn in Britain—returning not simply to end the institution of slavery there, but to promote the integration of freedmen into American society. After the abolition of slavery and the end of the Civil War, Douglass rejected alike the demands of white supremacists who demanded a separate, degraded legal status for freedmen, and the solutions forwarded by black leaders who suggested mass emigration by freedmen and the formation of self-segregated new colonies. Rather, Douglass asserted, “I know of no soil better adapted to the growth of reform than American soil.” Diametrically opposed to critics—yesterday and today—who claim that the Constitution is a fundamentally racist and pro-slavery document, Douglass held that:

    I base my sense of the certain overthrow of slavery, in part, upon the nature of the American Government, the Constitution, the tendencies of the age, and the character of the American people….The Constitution, as well as the Declaration of Independence, and the sentiments of the founders of the Republic, give us a platform broad enough, and strong enough, to support the most comprehensive plans for the freedom and elevation of all the people of this country, without regard to color, class, or clime.

    Rejecting America’s founding principles and documents because of the country’s earliest mistakes is throwing the baby out with the bathwater, on a grand scale. Myers writes, “Most urgently, [Douglass] taught [black Americans] to reject the spirit of alienation, which he saw as the greatest danger to any people’s liberation and elevation.”

    Returning to 2011, and the first day of the first session of America’s 112th Congress, the critics of that country’s Constitution, especially those who decry it as a hopeless anachronism, might realize, if they listen carefully, they can hear in its words the passion and dedication of a former slave who bettered his country by honoring its highest principles despite all odds.

    Posted in First Principles [slideshow_deploy]

    13 Responses to The Colorblind Constitution: Frederick Douglass on Race and America’s Founding

    1. Jim N. Taylor, Harli says:

      Our Constitution will never become outdated because it provided a means by which it can be ammended, just as it was when the Bill of Rights and all the other ammendments were passed and ratified. Those who wish to discard the document are just too lazy to do the politcal work to get it changed; especially those who know that their view would never be accepted by a majority are looking for possible way to the reality of the truths therein.

    2. Pingback: Tweets that mention The Colorblind Constitution: Frederick Douglass on Race and America’s Founding | The Foundry: Conservative Policy News. -- Topsy.com

    3. Dennis Georgia says:

      I do not think socialism was included in the Constitution, just as a dictator was not included. The dems and obama want just that, socialism and a dictator style "guvment".

    4. West Texan says:

      The constitution, from its birth, required fine tuning due to incorporated blemishes that conflicted with its basic principles of liberty. Philadelphia's convention was challenging enough making necessary a bill of rights shortly after ratification. This doesn't mean all amendments contribute to good government. Social progressives, like Woodrow Wilson and FDR, precariously undermined the constitution's structural foundation creating dangerous defects for our freedoms and prosperity. Frederick Douglass would likely not recognize and certainly be disappointed with today's intrusive over-controlling centralized government.

    5. Mike, Wichita Falls says:

      I was disheartened by Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr.'s remarks prior to the reading of the Constitution that the original text should be read instead of the amended text. It was as if he wanted to remind us Americans of something we did not do and that we overwhelmingly condemn. He was not a slave, and we were not owners of them. Slavery is no longer a legal institution, and racism is no longer institutional. There will always be racists as there will always be murderers. All the laws in the world will not change all hearts.

      I was heartened that the entire amended text of the Constitution was read inside of maybe two hours. How many laws passed by previous Congresses can make that claim? How many future bills will make that claim? That's your standard, GOP, in more than one way.

    6. Don Ruane, Lilburn, says:

      In the distant future, I hope a President will announce that the Federal Government will no longer keep records by race or any other subset of origin. Each American is the same in the eyes of our Constitution, with amendments.

      We have so few true leaders in House of Representative and non in the Senate in this session. Alas, it will take the Voters Imposing Term Limits on Congress before this can and will happen.

    7. Quiberon says:

      The Constitution also provided for the banning of slave commerce in the near future. The Constitution, with the 3/5 provision, also prevented slave states from obtaining a disproportionate influence within the Federal Legislature on no other basis but their slaveholding status. People need to think.

    8. Connie New Mexico says:

      Yes we "all" need to think! Yes times have changed but mankind hasn't. The constitution needs to be read, actted upon when needed and not changed at all. Our founding fathers were smart, courageous men who put alot of time and work into the constitution looking toward the future. They wanted a country that would last and wanted future generations to continue their love and protection of their country and it's people whom they held inhigh esteame and close to their hearts.

      May God continue to bless America and all people that care enough to do what is right and good for "all" people.

    9. Anna says:

      Seems a nation to be strong must have a solid foundation, a foundation that can weather change, progress. Our constitution is that foundation; The more we disregard and ignore it the easier it is for the structure of our society upon which it rests to tumble. I can see the earthquake like shaking right now from those in our government who think it is dated and have a disdain for it.

    10. Leon Lundquist, Dura says:

      Let us not slip quietly now into our new American slavery. It has been some years since I heard the phrase "De Facto Slavery." If Progressives do as they have done in Illinois increase taxes by 60%? I keep blogging, these Progressives have created illegal, Unconstitutional Forms Of Government. What Fredereck Douglass saw in our Constitution and Declaration is exactly what is under attack! We need to heat up the rhetoric, how deadly and dangerous our Government has become! The House Of Representatives simply must Prosecute these Traitors! It will be the death of us! You can't exaggerate how important this is!

      Just now the Captive Media and Progressive Officials want to shut down the free Media! Shameless! But the Constitution is the answer to Slavery, the real answer. Shame on the Democrats for fouling it!

    11. Blue Dog says:

      Our Constitution will never become outdated because it contains Eternal Truths.

    12. Sandy Olnhausen says:

      I only wish the Black Caucus would heed the words of Frederick Douglass.

    13. Galen Smith says:

      The truth about the Constitution and slavery from the man who would know.

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