American Constitution: A living, evolving document -- from guaranteeing the right to enslavement in the 18th century to modifications in favor of freedom in the 19th century
Constitution today protects the rights of all in its language, but this was not always the case in its text and spirit. As a political tactic as well as out of personal conviction and experience, Frederick Douglass' characterization of the American Constitution as an anti-slavery document is certainly an admirable piece of rhetoric. Douglass stated that although the America he spoke to at the time of his autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom, was a nation divided between free and slave states and territories, fundamentally America was and "is in its letter and spirit, an anti-slavery instrument, demanding the abolition of slavery as a condition of its own existence" (396)
Slavery, Douglass stated, deprives an individual of his or her dignity, deprives an individual American of the right to dispose of his or her person as he or she sees fit, and lastly deprives a potentially educated American citizen of the right to read and to obtain an education, even if he or she possesses the intellectual capacity to do so, and thus is a violation of the principles of American democracy. Douglass demonstrates that even marriage becomes corrupt in the enslaved states, a mere institution of breeding rather than of Christian love as it ought to be for, "slavery provides no means for the honorable continuance of the race."(86)
At times during his many lecture tours, Douglass was told to reign in his vigor of his critique of the American institution of slavery, even by fellow White abolitionists. "I could not always curb my moral indignation for the perpetrators of slaveholding villainy, long enough for a circumstantial statement of the facts which I felt almost everybody must know. Besides, I was growing, and needed room. 'People won't believe you ever was a slave, Frederick, if you keep on this way,' said Friend Foster. 'Be yourself,' said Collins, 'and tell your story.' It was said to me, 'Better have a little of the plantation manner of speech than not; 'tis not best that you seem too learned.' These excellent friends were actuated by the best of motives, and were not altogether wrong in their advice; and still I must speak just the word that seemed to me the word to be spoken by me." (362)
In this passage one sees the crux of Douglass' argument -- his justification of slavery as an American wrong to the individual, and also of his careful positioning of his arguments towards a White and Northern public, one of the reasons for his stress upon the moral corruption of slavery of Whites, such as his analysis of the fall of the character of his first white mistress as a child. Thus, Douglass defended his right to speak as he wished as part of his rights as a citizen put also as a speaker with a political more than a historically accurate agenda. He thus attempted to rally support amongst American whites to fight against the South's peculiar, oppressive institution of slavery as stressing the notion of slavery as anti-Constitutional as well as anti-American.
However, although Douglass was understandably vehement in his insistence upon the anti-American quality of slavery, his argument does not stand up to sustained legal and historical analysis of the original text of the American Constitution, as signed after the Constitutional Convention, and before the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation. Douglass argued in his autobiography that the American nation stands proud as a nation protective of individual rights and democracy, and that slavery is a violation of this ideal. "The slave is a subject, subjected by others; the slaveholder is a subject, but he is the author of his own subjection. There is more truth in the saying, that slavery is a greater evil to the master than to the slave, than many, who utter it, suppose. The self-executing laws of eternal justice follow close on the heels of the evil-doer here, as well as elsewhere." (106) Even a poorly off free White or Black man, he states, is at least free -- moreover he paints a picture of slavery that is enslaving and corrupting to White morality as well as to the morality of slaves, in an additional attempt to shock his readership.
Yet the pre-Civil War American Constitution protected the slave trade through the vehicle of the infamous 3/5th's Compromise, despite Douglass' insistence that freedom was the main impetus of the document's passage. This compromise explicitly diluted the popular census count for states with a slave population. It thus excluded African-Americans from citizenship and the protections that went with citizenship. For all of James Madison's declamations in the Federalist Paper Number 10 against the dangers of factionalism, clearly the United States Constitution contained early factional influences within its very text, specifying in no uncertain terms the different racial status of two separate groups of citizens.
Furthermore, despite Douglass' declamation of slavery as anti-individualistic, it is incumbent upon the modern reader to remember that the United States was and is in its status, a republic that protected the rights of individuals, and was not entirely under the sway of the popular will. In the Federalist Paper Number 10 as well, James Madison in the guise of Publius also points out that the Founding Fathers were endeavoring the create "a republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure and the efficacy which it must derive from the Union," for a republic is based upon the representation of a wide range of interests, as represented by an elected elite, as opposed to a government constructed purely of the whims of the electing people.
Madison's argument that large republics were better than small republics was used to defend against an overly democratic and popular will, "as each representative will be chosen by a greater number of citizens in the large than in the small republic, it will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried; and the suffrages of the people being more free, will be more likely to center in men who possess the most attractive merit and the most diffusive and established characters." This statement was used by defenders of the American Union such as Abraham Lincoln to prohibit the supposed right of Southern secession from the Union.
True, by stressing the ability of one individual to represent another through republican government, the lack of confidence in the popular voice and vote is expressly shown in a way that allows for African-American's rights to be protected as minority interests in a republic. However, on the other hand, because African-Americans are expressly defined as being representative of only 3/5 of a white person in their combined voice, the original draft of the Constitution clearly does not accord them adequate parity with the voice of whites in enslaved states. The first Constitution defined slaves as outside of the republic, giving slaves a status betwixt and between the rights of true citizens. "A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State," notes Madison, in Number 10, but this enthusiasm at diluting popular opinion likewise means diluting the combined voice of the racially oppressed and abolitionists in the minority or majority both.
Thus, in its letter, the first Constitution clearly was not an anti-slavery document, and in its spirit it functioned as a founding of a republic, not a democracy, with a dim view of factional interests, including the rights of both slaveholders and slaves, but with a particular view upon limiting the representative vote of those in bondage. Even Abraham Lincoln in his first Inaugural Address, in an attempt to extend an olive branch to the Southern states: "I do but quote from one of those speeches when I declare that: I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so." Personal views aside, Lincoln states that he speaks and advocates for the people of America, more so than for himself. "Those who nominated and elected me did so with full knowledge that I had made this and many similar declarations and had never recanted them; and more than this,…