In the 1850’s a Republican liberator began to rise to prominence. He was a giant of a man both physically and intellectually. He was raised in adverse circumstances that he would eventually rise above. When called upon, he served his country admirably in grave times, and broke racial barriers in this nation like no other man before him had. No, I’m not speaking of Abraham Lincoln, although that description would be equally fitting for him; I speak of the great anti-slavery orator Frederick Douglass.
As it was with most people born into slavery, Douglass did not know the exact date of his birth. He did however adopt Valentine’s Day as his birthday due to the fact that his mother, Harriet Bailey, lovingly referred to him as “her little valentine.” This year will mark the 192nd anniversary of Douglass’ birth.
Like many historical figures, Frederick Douglass’ true character and beliefs have been somewhat obscured, whether due to the fog of time, or to fit modern agendas. While we take for granted today that Douglass’ views on the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage were just, his view of the US Constitution would be considered by many to be out of the mainstream.
On July 5th of 1852, Douglass, who referred to himself as a “black, dyed in the wool Republican”, addressed the Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society in Rochester, New York. During his passionate speech, Douglass said, "Take the Constitution according to its plain reading. I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it." Douglass continued his Independence Day address by proclaiming that, "Interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document."
Imagine the leap of faith that that statement must have taken for a black man who lived in a time in which members of his family were treated as property to view the Constitution as a beacon of liberty. If the self educated scholar Douglass had stood in front of the crowd and torn the document to shreds, one could scarcely have blamed him. While evident to Douglass over 150 years ago, this trust in the idea of limited government in general, and the protections afforded by the United States Constitution specifically, seems to be difficult for many on the American left to accept even today.
What makes Douglass’ praise for the constitution even more unlikely was that he did so according to its “plain reading”; or in other words, as it had been written. He spoke these words before America fought a Civil War to decide once and for all the issue of slavery and even before a single piece of Civil Rights legislation had passed through congress. Douglass did not complain about the lack of specifics in the constitution that indicated what the government “must do on your behalf”, as then Illinois State Senator Barack Obama famously did in a 2001 interview. Nor did he decry that it was a “charter of negative liberties” which, as President Obama has stated he believes, “represented the bias of the founders.”
Douglass’ words came even before The Constitution came to be viewed by many as a series of court cases and precedents rather than a stand-alone document. For example, his praise did not rest on the decision made in Brown vs. Board of Education which would come over 100 years later. Douglass apparently understood that civil rights would not be the products of court decisions, but that they were intrinsic to the nature of our republican form of government.
How far has this country fallen that views of an ex-slave and arguably the nation’s greatest abolitionist are today characterized as the views of white, racist, demagogues? Today, advocates of limited and constitutional government are routinely skewered in the media being subjected even to childish name-calling without a moment’s hesitation by prominent national figures. What was self evident to Douglass, and countless others who believed as he did, is relegated to the margins.
This all begs the question: what did Frederick Douglass, a man who could have easily been forgiven for hating this nation, understand that the American left doesn’t?
This Valentine’s Day in addition to celebrating our own valentine, we should take a moment to remember Harriet Bailey little valentine, Frederick. His words and views are as important today as they were 200 years ago.