Slavery, the Constitution and Frederick Douglass: What was The New York Times thinking?

Frederick Douglass

There is a bizarre omission in The New York Times’ review of James Oakes’ new book, “The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution.”

The question at the center of the book is whether the Constitution should be viewed as a pro-slavery or anti-slavery document. And the reviewer, the historian Gordon S. Wood, never mentions Frederick Douglass. Good Lord. If there was one central takeaway from David Blight’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” (2018), it’s that Douglass embraced the Constitution as a weapon with which to fight slavery, breaking with William Lloyd Garrison, who thought the Constitution was irredeemable.

Curious, I decided to dig a little deeper. And I found a review in The Washington Post by Elizabeth R. Varon of the University of Virginia. It turns out that Oakes not only mentions Douglass, but is a scholar of his views about the Constitution. Varon writes:

This book represents a shift in Oakes’s own thinking. While his 2007 study of Frederick Douglass and Lincoln, “The Radical and the Republican,” juxtaposed Douglass the crusading reformer with Lincoln the cautious politician, this volume foregrounds the commonalities between the two men. Lincoln shared with Douglass, Oakes emphasizes, an abiding belief in the abolition movement’s core principle of fundamental human equality.

Much insight is to be gained by contrasting the antislavery constitutionalism of Douglass and Lincoln with the proslavery constitutionalism of Southern enslavers.

By leaving out Douglass, Wood manages the task of writing a nearly 1,300-word essay about slavery without mentioning a single Black person by name. What was he thinking? And does anyone at the Times edit these things?

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Reading the Declaration of Independence with Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

One of my favorite Fourth of July traditions is reading the Declaration of Independence in The Boston Globe. Last year I added to that Frederick Douglass’ great 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

Having just read it again, I was struck by the extent to which the speech summarizes some of the most important themes of Douglass’ public mission, as laid out in David W. Blight’s 2018 biography: his belief that the Constitution was, at root, an anti-slavery document, a view that was far from universal among his fellow Abolitionists; his hatred for the hypocrisy of the American church’s embrace of slavery; and his fundamental optimism, on display in the opening section, in which he talks about believing the country could change because it was still so young.

Then there is this great passage, which comes about halfway through:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

Read it. Slavery may be part of the past. But at this moment of heightened attention to racism and how it continues to affect the lives of Black Americans, Douglass’ speech takes on new relevance.

And don’t miss this video of Douglass’ descendants reading parts of his speech.

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David Blight’s biography of Frederick Douglass

Photo from the Library of Congress Brady-Handy Collection

I just finished David Blight’s monumental (750 pages) biography “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.” Perhaps a controversial view: It would have been better at half the length, supplemented with 100 to 150 well-curated pages of Douglass’ lectures and writings.

Still, it’s a great work of scholarship, well deserving of the Pulitzer that it won, with deep dives into Abolitionism, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and emergence of Jim Crow and lynchings. And, of course, Douglass, perhaps the most remarkable public person of the 19th century, and his family.

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