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Frederick Douglass, the Declaration, and the Problem of Injustice



Practicing the Truth of Equality

The Tocqueville Program for Inquiry into Religion and Public Life and the Potenziani Minor in Constitutional Studies recently partnered with the Institute to Humane Studies to host an on-campus undergraduate seminar. The seminar focused on “The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass.” Over the course of five hours of moderated discussion and many more hours of informal conversation, participants explored and debated themes and questions drawn from Douglass’ essays, letters, and speeches. Professor Phillip Muñoz moderated the lively discussion. “Frederick Douglass is an American treasure,” said Muñoz. “His political thinking is provocative and profound. It was a great pleasure to introduce some of his lesser-known essays to Notre Dame undergraduates and watch them wrestle with his thought.”

We can surely agree today that Douglass was right in his opposition slavery. We can see, for example, “This slavery is a system, not only of wrong, but is of a lawless character.” Douglass resisted ever equating slavery with legitimate law. Indeed, we probably agree with Douglass when he writes in commenting on the Fugitive Slave Law, “Human government is for the protection of rights; and when human government destroys human rights, it ceases to be government, and becomes a foul and blasting conspiracy.”

We might agree that this is all true. But I wonder if we––as Douglass himself understood the use of the word in the Declaration as referring to all people and taking no account of their race, color, or creed––can agree about why it’s true. Is it simply because we’re better, more enlightened people than 18th and 19th century Americans? Douglass would likely scold us for our arrogance. Why was he right, then?

Reading Douglass causes one to recall Thomas Aquinas’ teaching in the Summa Theologica, “An unjust law…is not law at all.” St. Thomas, of course, helped Christians understand the harmony between faith and reason. Douglass points to this same harmony as the foundation for his opposition to slavery. “He who has God and conscience on his side, has a majority against the universe.” In accord with the principles of reason and teachings of faith, Douglass articulates the moral hypocrisy at the root of slavery in his 1852 speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” “There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven,” Douglass declares, “that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.” To institute and enforce slavery in a land founded upon the self-evident truth of natural equality, and among a people who purported to cherish the Declaration of Independence, is to commit “crimes against God and man.” Against faith and reason.

Douglass cherished the Declaration. He found it to capture both his desire for freedom and his instinctive grasp of the natural law evidenced throughout his famous autobiography. The Declaration articulates the self-evident––or per se notum––truth of equality. If we know man, we know that man is equal in his natural rights to life and liberty. It follows that one man may not legitimately deprive another man of this equality. Douglass declared, “The principles contained in that document are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.” Douglass, for his part, served this cause by helping to clarify the relationship between the Declaration and the Constitution.

The Declaration underlies the Constitution and enables it to bring about good politics. The Constitution is to be interpreted in light of the principles of the Declaration. Indeed, its express purpose as stated in the preamble, to “secure the blessings of liberty,” is, Douglass emphasized, “in harmony with the Declaration of Independence.” The Constitution so understood is not only a mechanism for law, but also a commitment to natural justice. Regard for the Declaration in political practice would preclude even the consideration of slavery. To enslave another man is not a legitimate right among the equal and natural rights of man.

To build a system upon a fallacious idea of such a right, then, is to institute illegitimate rule. Disregard for the Declaration can turn the Constitution from an instrument of good government into a cover for injustice. Indeed, Douglass thought, “It was [John Calhoun] who first boldly declared the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence, self-evident falsehoods.” It was then the party of Calhoun who made a political practice out of enforcing and extending slavery, using the Constitution as a guise. This bad practice led Douglass to proclaim, “The minister of American justice is bound by law to hear but one side; and that is the side of the oppressor. Let this damning fact be perpetually told.” Indeed, to abandon the Constitution’s foundation in making law is to enable injustice—disguised as and claiming the title of legitimate law—to take root. It is, Douglass wrote in response to Roger Taney’s ruling in Dred Scott, that “judicial incarnation of wolfishness,” to “void our Constitution.”

I will leave the reader with these thoughts about how Douglass’ commitment to the Declaration and the nature of law might relate to modern politics. Recent and quite radical efforts to expand abortion rights have legislators and executives in New York, Virginia and elsewhere making callous statements and troubling arguments. They are trying to convince us of why we should be able to leave a child who has already been born to die…legally. Since the Rover covered New York’s Reproductive Health Act, Governor Andrew Cuomo published an op-ed defending his decision to sign the bill. “My oath of office is to the Constitutions of the United States and of the State of New York—not to the Catholic Church. My religion cannot demand favoritism as I execute my public duties.” Moreover, Cuomo asserts, “Our country is founded on pluralism.”

Constitutional duties? Pluralism? Recall Douglass’ teaching about the relationship between the Constitution and the Declaration. American politics are not an adventure in limitless pluralism, but rather are based upon moral truth. That truth is the basis of constitutional duty, and indeed, of the scope of legitimate legal authority. The issue at hand, then, as Douglass might formulate it, “is the question of whether the rights…enjoyed by some ought not to be shared and enjoyed by all.” In enjoying the protection of his own life but sanctioning such things as he does, Governor Cuomo might be attributed with, as Douglass would say, the “condition of a man who has given away that which is not his own.”

Nick Marr is a junior from San Diego, CA. He lives in Knott Hall and studies history and political theory. As a 10 year old, he argued with a Supreme Court justice about who was a bigger Notre Dame fan. You can reach him at nmarr@nd.edu.

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