Frederick Douglass' Constitution: from Garrisonian abolitionist to Lincoln Republican.

Author:Finkelman, Paul
Position:VI. A Young Abolitionist, Constitutional Theory and Constitutional Reality through XI. From Antislavery Theory to an Antislavery Nation, with footnotes, p. 33-73
 
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  1. A YOUNG ABOLITIONIST, CONSTITUTIONAL THEORY, AND CONSTITUTIONAL REALITY

    Literate, skilled, young, and idealistic, it took Douglass very little time to acclimate himself to New Bedford's black community and its vibrant antislavery culture. (261) He read the nation's leading antislavery newspaper, The Liberator, and attended antislavery meetings. (262) The Liberator was edited by William Lloyd Garrison, the founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society ("AA-SS") and the nation's most famous abolitionist. (263) The Garrisonians soon "discovered" Douglass, and he quickly became an activist and then a professional abolitionist lecturer. (264) Garrison's organization hired him as a speaker for their public events. (265) In an age when lectures were a form of public entertainment--as well as a method of communicating ideas and gaining adherents to a cause--Douglass was enormously successful. As a young man, he had memorized speeches in The Columbian Orator, (266) and this preparation, combined with his natural poise and self-confidence, made him into an instant success as an abolitionist speaker. Eventually, he would become "one of the nineteenth century's greatest orators." (267)

    Most of his talks were about his experiences as a slave, but as he became more involved in the abolitionist movement, he also discussed constitutional issues. (268) Unlike many of his white counterparts, Douglass could tie constitutional arguments to his own experiences. (269) Thus, in an 1841 anti-slavery meeting in Hingham, Massachusetts, Douglass expressed his views on the American union. (270) He pointed out that "the Northern people stand pledged by this union to return runaway slaves" and that this constitutional obligation "constitutes the bulwark of slavery," because slaves were "told that if they escape to the North, they will be sent back." (271) He explained that "this is the union whose 'dissolution the Garrisonians "want to accomplish." (272)

    Douglass later added to the debate over antislavery petitions to Congress. (273) Since the mid-1830s, abolitionists had been flooding Congress with petitions against slavery, often paralyzing the House of Representatives in what is known as "the Great Petition Campaign." (274) The House of Representatives responded to the petition campaign by adopting a "gag rule," which provided that all antislavery petitions should be tabled without being read or considered. (275) This rule was in force from 1836 until 1844. (276) Abolitionists seized on the gag rule as proof that slavery threatened the liberty of all Americans by trampling on their First Amendment right to petition Congress. (277) At the local level, the petition campaign helped spread antislavery ideas as men and, significantly, women went door-to-door gathering signatures of their neighbors while taking the opportunity to hand out abolitionist literature. (278) At the national level, the campaign had enormous propaganda value as it exposed the many ways the national government supported slavery and how proslavery politicians were able to dominate American politics. (279) The petitions were important in raising antislavery consciousness in the North, even though they had virtually no effect on public policy. (280)

    Garrisonians, who generally eschewed political action and did not vote, were divided on whether they should be involved in petitioning Congress. From the beginning, Douglass supported the petitions because his life experiences shaped his constitutional understandings. (281) He knew that literate slaves--such as he had been--were able to read newspapers and learn about the debates in Congress over the petitions. (282) He asserted--from his own experience as a slave--that "[t]hese petitions delight the hearts of the slaves; they rejoice to know that something is going on in their favor." (283) He knew that when slaves learned about the petitions, "they talk over what they have heard--they talk about liberty." (284) For Douglass, the petition campaign was an example of practical constitutionalism--using the First Amendment to give encouragement to slaves in a way that undermined the South's system of bondage.

    There was another constitutional lesson in the petition campaign that Douglass learned but did not immediately absorb or apply. Asserting Constitutional rights allowed whites and blacks in the North to challenge slavery, even if they could not defeat the institution. (285) Exposing the totalitarian nature of southern congressmen--their willingness to use the gag rule to suppress petitions because they did not like their content--taught all northerners that slavery threatened the civil liberties of whites even as it denied freedom to blacks. The petition campaign implicitly demonstrated that basic constitutional rights in a liberal democracy--such as those in the First Amendment could be used to challenge the proslavery constitutional regime. When Douglass moved away from the Garrisonian rejection of politics, he took this lesson with him.

    Douglass did not immediately apply this lesson because, as a Garrisonian, he rejected political participation. (286) But the lesson clearly taught the potential for agitation and social change under a liberal constitutional regime. Even though the Constitution itself protected and supported slavery, the Constitution also allowed some agitation against slavery. (287) The petitions to Congress, and the gag rule that southern members of the House pushed through to suppress these petitions, raised antislavery consciousness throughout the North. From 1836 to 1844, the gag rule illustrated the stranglehold slavery had on the national government under the Constitution. (288) The fact that the gag rule could be passed and implemented underscored the Garrisonian contention that the Constitution was a "Covenant With Death and an Agreement in Hell." (289) But, the fact that a tiny group of abolitionists scattered across the North could create such anxiety among the slave state representatives suggested the power of the liberties found in the First Amendment --freedom of speech, press, and the right to petition. (290) Opponents of slavery could use their constitutional rights to agitate and undermine the southern hegemony in the national government. (291) From 1836 until 1844, the House maintained its gag rule, tabling antislavery petitions without reading them. (292) The volume of petitions grew throughout this period as tens of thousands of Americans signed petitions protesting the federal government's involvement with slavery and Congress's denial of their constitutional right to petition. (293) The Great Petition Campaign, as it came to be known, brought thousands of northerners into the antislavery movement and helped teach the North that slavery threatened the civil liberties of whites as well as the personal liberty of blacks. (294) Eventually, Douglass would come to see that political action was a valuable tool in the struggle against slavery, even under a proslavery Constitution.

    But in the early 1840s, Douglass was not ready to endorse the Constitution or advocate political participation to fight slavery. He was an orthodox Garrisonian who saw the Constitution as proslavery. Like other Garrisonians, he believed it was pointless to engage in traditional electoral politics, because there was no constitutional or political path to ending slavery and the South controlled national politics. (295) Like other Garrisonians, he also believed that political participation was morally corrupting, because office holders had to take an oath to support the Constitution--the proslavery "covenant with death" as the Garrisonians called it. For the Garrisonians like Douglass, the only solution to this dilemma was disunion--for the free states to separate from the slave states and create a new nation based on liberty and morality. (296)

    In early May 1845, on the eve of the publication of his first autobiography, Douglass spoke in New York City to the Twelfth Annual Convention of the AA-SS. (297) There, he explained how the Constitution affected slaves and slavery. (298) "While you continue in the Union, you are as bad as the slaveholder" he told the gathering of abolitionists. (299) The solution to this complicity was simple and direct: "If you have thus wronged the poor black man, by stripping him of his freedom; how are you going to give evidence of your repentance? Undo what you have done." (300) This discussion was an orthodox Garrisonian view of the Constitution, but with a very personal subtext because Douglass was a fugitive slave subject to being seized and sent South. Thus, Douglass asked if his listeners were "willing to have your country the hunting-ground of the slave." (301) Tying Garrisonian constitutional theology to evangelical Protestant theology, he observed: "God says thou shalt not oppress: the Constitution says oppress: which will you serve, God or man?" (302)

    This analysis, like all his discussions of slavery and the Constitution, fused Garrisonian disunionism with Douglass's personal situation. As a fugitive slave, he was in constant danger of becoming an "object" of the Constitution. The United States--and the North--was a "hunting-ground of the slave" and Douglass was one of the hunted. (303) In his New York speech, he named his former master in Maryland--something most fugitives never did, because it exposed them to great danger, and it would alert their masters to where they were and what name they were using. (304) The Auld family in Maryland did not know who Frederick Douglass was, but now they could find out that Frederick Bailey was in Massachusetts living under the name Frederick Douglass. As a result, Douglass might be more easily seized as a fugitive. With the publication of his autobiography later that month, (305) Douglass was even a greater potential target for slave catchers. He was now famous, and he had revealed where he was from and who "owned" him...

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