SAN JOSE, February 25, 2014 – The month of February, designated as Black History Month, will soon come to a close. Before that happens, it is appropriate to recognize Frederick Douglass, one of the most important Americans in the nation’s history. His value to the formation of the United States of America is critical, as Frederick Douglass was perhaps one of the most important leaders of the abolitionist movement in the years prior to the American Civil War, and a dedicated women’s rights advocate afterwards. It is particularly important that younger Americans of all races have a deeper perspective on the significance of Frederick Douglass’ legacy in the fight for freedom, especially since the Constitution has increasingly come under attack via the current administration.
Frederick Douglass believed (he wasn’t sure) that he was born in February of 1818. He was born into slavery in Maryland, at the time a slave state, although north of the U.S. capitol in Washington, D.C. He was originally given the name Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, but changed it numerous times to avoid being captured and brought back to chains. He allowed Nathan Johnson, who had provided for his welfare after fleeing from Maryland, to give him a new last name, but to leave intact his first name of Frederick. He stated in his first autobiography that he wanted to hold on to that to preserve his own sense of identity. Johnson, who had been reading Lady of the Lake, gave him the last name of Douglass, which he kept the rest of his life.
At around the age of 21, after two previous unsuccessful attempts, Douglass escaped across the Mason-Dixon line into free Pennsylvania, and became the first slave to declare publicly that he was a fugitive. After obtaining refuge and relative freedom in the North, Frederick Douglass eventually became one of the best-known abolitionists of his time. He shocked the populace in the North with his eloquence when he spoke about his personal ordeals as a slave. Because he was a former slave, Douglass served as a prime witness against the evils of slavery, and definitively impacted the knowledge-base of the northern citizens who read his books or came to hear him speak on his life experiences that he had as a slave, or speak out against slavery as an institution.
Frederick Douglass became one of the most famous individuals in American history due to his bold support for the abolition of slavery. After living in relative freedom in the North, Douglass attended an anti-slavery convention on NantucketIsland in Massachusetts In 1841. It was as much a critical turning point in his life as his escape to freedom because at the convention, he became impressed with William Lloyd Garrison, who at the time was publishing The Liberator newspaper, one of the most potent abolitionist newspapers in the nation. Douglass became a colleague of Garrison, who became a sort of mentor to Douglass. The two gradually developed a symbiotic relationship, and became two of the most outspoken abolitionists in the country.
Douglass ultimately joined with the American Anti-Slavery Society as a public speaker, and they sent him out on a lecture circuit. Additionally, he wrote articles and books on his life as a former slave. Douglass went on to become one of the most articulate public speakers advocating the abolition of slavery in the U.S. during the period prior to the Civil War. However, because he had been influenced by the views of William Lloyd Garrison, among others regarding the Constitution of the United States, Douglass also viewed the document with serious misgivings. Garrison, as an ardent abolitionist, also possessed a strong antipathy toward the U.S. Constitution as he believed it sanctioned slavery and he even went so far as to publicly burn copies of the document.
Douglass was also profoundly impacted when Garrison generated a public resolution that denounced the U.S. Constitution as a document sanctioning the criminal activity of slavery. On January 27, 1843, Mr. Garrison specifically charged that “The compact which exists between the North and the South is a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.” The resolution was adopted by the American Anti-Slavery Society.
However, as Frederick Douglass matured in his political views, he evolved in his personal position regarding the Law of the Land. In fact, Douglass made one of the most dramatic changes in position regarding the value of the U.S. Constitution in the years leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War.
As Douglass read and studied more, and became more aware of other abolitionists, he began to pull away from Garrison’s orbit of persuasion. On December 3, 1847, after Douglass came back from a tour of England and Ireland, he used funds entrusted to him to start his own weekly abolitionist newspaper that he called The North Star. This initiated a substantial break with his previous supporter. Garrison felt largely responsible for the rise in prominence of the former slave, but ironically opposed the move to establish a separate abolitionist news organization. He may have regarded it as some needless competition for his own newspaper. Nonetheless in The North Star, Douglass replicated Garrisonian views that the Constitution was intentionally pro-slavery.
Frederick Douglass had even publically debated with Lysander Spooner and Gerrit Smith who were abolitionists that supported the Constitution. In 1846, Spooner, an ardent abolitionist, had written a book titled The Unconstitutionality of Slavery which proposed the opposite perspective of Garrison, in which Spooner expressed that the Founders had not deliberately legalized slavery. Eventually, Frederick Douglass made public a dramatic change of opinion about the Constitution in his newspaper, and later in a public speech, he proclaimed it as “a glorious liberty document.” Such a dramatic personal shift in opinion reflected a larger split within the abolition movement in general due to perceptions regarding the Constitution and the proper way for the nation to deal with the institution of slavery.
If anyone still doubted the new position Douglass had adopted, he made his views crystal clear in a speech he gave on July 5, 1852, in Rochester, New York. James Colaiaco, in his book Frederick Douglass and the Fourth of July, makes the point that this speech given to the Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society is arguably the most powerful abolition speech of the time. Colaiaco examines this shift in the thinking of Douglass regarding the Constitution, and he dissects the speech in which Douglass made a serious challenge to America to resolve the seeming contradiction between slavery and the country’s founding documents. This speech was powerful and has been dramatically revived and publically presented in recent years.
Frederick Douglass cut into the very heart of the matter of slavery within the Land of the Free. Rev. Martin Luther King’s powerful “I Have A Dream” speech echoed the sentiments of Frederick Douglass when King demanded, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, that America live up to the Founding Father’s promise when he said: “…we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Even over 150 years ago, as America fought with itself over its own identity as a nation, the Constitution was essentially at the heart of the struggle. It was at the core of the crisis within the nation that led to the Civil War, which essentially ripped the nation apart. Nevertheless, incredible men and women, people like Frederick Douglass, rose to the challenge in the time of great national crisis, and recognized the weight, substance and power of the Founding Father’s words, and remembered the true identity of the United States of America. Then, they truly fought to carry the promise of the Land of the Free on into the future. Just as the Constitution comes under attack today, incredible men and women, will rise to the challenge in this time of great national crisis.