Frederick Douglass changed my mind about the Constitution

Citation metadata

Author: James Oakes
Date: Sept. 2008
From: Social Education(Vol. 72, Issue 5)
Publisher: National Council for the Social Studies
Document Type: Article
Length: 966 words
Lexile Measure: 1370L

Document controls

Main content

Article Preview :

Frederick Douglass changed my mind about the Constitution--no small irony in view of the fact that Douglass himself so dramatically and publicly changed his own mind. Like many historians of slavery, I had long viewed the Constitution as a problem--not necessarily the compact with Satan that William Lloyd Garrison thought it was, but not all that far from historian Paul Finkelman, who isolated a dozen or so passages in the Constitution that implicitly recognized slavery.

Writing a book on Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass forced me to reconstruct carefully three very different positions on slavery and the Constitution. The first was the view shared by the slaveholders and the Garrisonians, to which Douglass initially subscribed, that the Constitution was a proslavery document; the second was Douglass's "strong" antislavery constitutionalism, which interpreted the Constitution as an antislavery document; and the third was Lincoln's "weak" antislavery constitutionalism, which held that the Constitution recognized slavery in a couple of ways, but only out of necessity, while allowing Congress to restrict slavery in other ways. Having worked my way through these three interpretations I found myself persuaded by Lincoln, and I'm still inclined in that direction.

But shortly after finishing the book, I got myself wrapped up in an Internet discussion of the three-fifths clause and went back to a speech Frederick Douglass gave in Scotland on the eve of the Civil War. He argued, for example, that the fugitive slave clause does not actually...

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A185487369