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

Posted By Hannah Sternberg On January 11, 2011 @ 3:30 pm In First Principles | Comments Disabled

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In a move one blogger called “Huck Finning the Constitution [2],” 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 [3] 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.


Article printed from The Foundry: Conservative Policy News from The Heritage Foundation: http://blog.heritage.org

URL to article: http://blog.heritage.org/2011/01/11/the-colorblind-constitution-frederick-douglass-on-race-and-america%e2%80%99s-founding/

URLs in this post:

[1] Image: http://www.foundry.org/wp-content/uploads/Frederick_Douglass_portrait.jpg

[2] Huck Finning the Constitution: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/plum-line/2011/01/huck_finning_the_constitution.html

[3] a new First Principles Paper: http://www.heritage.org/Research/Reports/2011/01/Frederick-Douglass-s-America-Race-Justice-and-the-Promise-of-the-Founding

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