Frederick Douglass’ Garrisonian Years
Frederick Douglass’ life and work highlight the best and worst of American history. Today, Douglass is generally known for his escape from slavery, but he was also a brilliant thinker whose writings are worthy of serious study to better understand slavery and America itself. His view of America changed over time, but his early understanding was highly critical of this country’s foundation, which he believed was linked to slavery, a sin to which he himself had been subject.
Douglass’ account of his escape from slavery is so vivid that even modern readers become conscious of just how gruesome and dehumanizing slavery was. He rose to prominence after his escape by shining a light on this brutality. He possessed an authority unmatched by any of the prominent abolitionists of the day because he had lived through the horrors of slavery.
His public career spanned over fifty years, over which time there was a major shift in his view of America and its Founding. His initial view of America was that it was principally based on slavery and was irredeemable. Whites held the power while blacks were treated as property under slavery. He would eventually come to praise the American Founding, but that would not happen until five years after publishing his first autobiography (he wrote three over the course of approximately four decades).
In 1849, Douglass proclaimed his disgust for America. “I have no love for America,” he opined, “as such: I have no patriotism. I have no country. What country have I? The institutions of this country do not know me, do not recognize me as a man.” America had not been kind to Douglass during his formative years under slavery, so his natural response was to rebuke the country that had not accepted his humanity, treated him as property, and circumvented his natural right to govern himself.
His early view of the American Founding rested on a proslavery interpretation of the Constitution, which he described as a compromise with the South. He explained in his second autobiography that he had come to this view sincerely after his escape and this was further cultivated under William Lloyd Garrison.
Douglass became famous while under the mentorship of Garrison, the extreme abolitionist who advocated abandoning American politics by famously exclaiming: “No union with slaveholders!” As a mentee of Garrison, Douglass served the useful role as an ex-slave who had the scars to demonstrate slavery’s brutality and the eloquence to describe his experiences under that peculiar institution.
Garrison and his followers used a tactic of “moral suasion” which was comprised of fire and brimstone rhetoric against America for its sin of slavery without the prudence to see what was good about their country. They consistently attempted to hold the moral high ground, but most of them refused to participate in politics, so their effectiveness was limited.
The history of his country had convinced Douglass that slavery was a part of its tradition and was unable to be separated from its Founding. The Constitution had various pro-slavery clauses, according to early Douglass.
In an 1849 editorial, Douglass went through the origins of the Constitution and its clauses explaining how they must be viewed in light of the legal protections they provide for slavery. The Constitution was flawed due to the character of the people who wrote it and the provisions they provided: “Slavery existed before the Constitution, in the very States by whom it was made and adopted. — Slaveholders took a large share in making it.” The people that made the Constitution were themselves slaveholders; thus the provisions they passed must be understood in relation to their intentions.
Despite his harsh criticisms of America, he began to further consider the words of the Founders and would go on to interpret the Constitution based on a textual view. Through this textual view, he believed he would see the true intentions of the Founders. Then he would link the Constitution to the natural rights principles of the Declaration of Independence. Only when America and her citizens held true to the Founding principles could self-government for all men be possible.
Frederick Douglass was a great American not because he held an extremely critical view of this country, but because he understood its just principles, even when many did not. He would not merely be angry for his time in slavery, but sought to make America and Americans better, to better adhere to the creed that “all men are Created equal.”