Memo to Kaepernick: Read More Frederick Douglass

Many observers were quick to correct Colin Kaepernick’s recent selective quoting from Frederick Douglass’s speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” They were right to do so. Misrepresenting anyone’s words in the manner that Kaepernick did breaks one of the first rules of good writing.

In spite of his error, thanks are due as well to him for bringing attention to a very fine speech that all Americans should read. Another of Douglass’s speeches that I urge Mr. Kaepernick and others to read addresses the great document that stands next to the Declaration of Independence: the United States Constitution.

Douglass, born into slavery, escaped and purchased his freedom with the help of others who raised funds. He eventually moved to Rochester, New York and worked to end slavery by helping people reach freedom on the Underground Railroad, supporting anti-slavery political parties, and publishing his own antislavery newspaper, The North Star. It was at the invitation of the Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society that he appeared on July 5, 1852 to deliver the Independence Day speech. The circumstances for his speech on the Constitution were very different. The title of the speech is in the form of a question: “The Constitution of the United States: Is It Pro-Slavery or Anti-slavery?

After Douglass’s escape from slavery he worked with the Anti-Slavery Society founded by William Lloyd Garrison. The American Anti-Slavery Convention convened in 1833 in Philadelphia to address the enslavement of one-sixth portion of the American people. They looked back 57 years to 1776 and acknowledged the effort to deliver America from a foreign yoke, stating that the Temple of Freedom was founded on the principles of the Declaration—that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights. They contrasted their efforts of relying on the spiritual and working through God to the efforts of the Founders who were forced to wage war and marshal arms. They also believed that the Constitution was a pro-slavery document.

Douglass, however, eventually split from Garrison over his interpretation of the Constitution and the use of politics and force to end slavery.

Douglass delivered the Constitution speech in Glasgow, Scotland in 1860. He began by drawing out a contrast between the American government and the American Constitution, which is always worth doing. “They are distinct in character as is a ship and a compass. The one may point right and the other steer wrong. A chart is one thing, the course of the vessel is another. The Constitution may be right, the Government is wrong.”

The issue then was not whether slavery existed at the time of the Founding, but rather whether the Constitution guarantees a right to one class to enslave or hold as property people of another class and should the union be dissolved over disagreement about the question. The Garrisonians held that the Constitution did hold such guarantees and it that it should be dissolved as a “compact with the devil.” In addition, they refused to vote or  hold office in what they understood to be a corrupt system. Douglass stated his position to the contrary: “I, on the other hand, deny that the Constitution guarantees the right to hold property in man, and believe that the way to abolish slavery in America is to vote such men into power as will use their powers for the abolition of slavery.”

The Constitution, Douglass explained, was ratified by the people and it is only they who can alter, amend, or add to it. He took issue with those who look away from the text and dismissed commentaries and creeds written by those who wished to give the text a different meaning or who searched for secret motives or dishonest intentions of those who wrote it.

He gave examples of those who misrepresented the language of the Constitution and corrected them by giving a faithful reading of the words and an interpretation consistent with the historical evidence before him. He also reminded his listeners that the preamble begins with “We, the people of these United States” and “not we the white people, not even we the citizens, not we the privileged class, not we the high, not we the low, but we the people; not we the horses, sheep, and swine, and wheel-barrows, but we the people, we the human inhabitants; and, if Negroes are people, they are included in the benefits for which the Constitution of America was ordained and established.”

Douglass did not excuse those Americans who had given the Constitution a slaveholding interpretation, but dissolution of the union, for him, was not a remedy. He openly rejected Garrison’s call for no union with slaveholders as all Americans have a duty to return the plundered rights of the black people.

Douglass had previously spoken in Glasgow in 1849 when he held different views from the ones that he advanced in his 1860 speech. He readily admitted to the positions that he held previously. “When I escaped from slavery, and was introduced to the Garrisonians, I adopted very many of their opinions, and defended them just as long as I deemed them true,” he said. “I was young, had read but little, and naturally took some things on trust. Subsequent experience and reading have led me to examine for myself. This had brought me to other conclusions.”

We should heed the direction of Douglass to read and examine for ourselves and not hesitate to reevaluate our beliefs and opinions. Perhaps Colin Kaepernick will do as Frederick Douglass did in light of his misrepresentation of the latter. The Constitution speech is a good follow up for further study, but the best place to begin is with Douglass’s Autobiography, which gives the full measure of the man.

Photo Credit: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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About Elizabeth Eastman

Elizabeth Eastman holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Claremont Graduate School, an M.A. in Liberal Education from St. John’s College, and a B.A. in French Literature and Civilization from Scripps College. She has taught in political science and history departments and in the liberal studies programs at colleges and universities around the country. She was the 2020-21 senior scholar in residence at the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization in Boulder, Colorado.