Frederick Douglass and the United States Constitution

*This post is part of our online forum on the life of Frederick Douglass.

Frederick Douglass mural on the ‘Solidarity Wall,’ Belfast (Photo: Laurence’s Travels, Flickr).

The United States Constitution has a powerful and enduring place in the career of Frederick Douglass. Once he committed to his belief in the Constitution as a valid document, he used it as a tool in his arsenal to advocate for the freedom, and later the civil rights of African Americans and women. Initially, Douglass found himself at odds with his fellow Garrisonian abolitionists; later his support of the Fifteenth Amendment and Black male suffrage was opposed by some of his White female allies. Despite the conflict with friends and allies, he would continue to view the Constitution as the ideal to which the country had yet to fulfill. Like all great thinkers, Douglass was a complicated man whose position evolved throughout his lifetime.

Douglass publicly changed his stance on the Constitution in the spring of 1851. The American Anti-Slavery Society established a new policy denouncing any paper that opposed the organization’s belief in the Constitution as a pro-slavery document at its 1851 annual meeting. Douglass, a longtime member, announced that under this new policy his paper The North Star was ineligible for their endorsement. He published his new stance in the May 15, 1851 edition of The North Star, stating that his interpretation of the Constitution as an anti-slavery document established a precedent which allowed it to be “wielded on behalf of emancipation.”

As Philip Foner has argued, the transition to political abolitionism made Douglass more moderate and palatable to the masses. By acknowledging the validity of the Constitution, Douglass inserted himself into a new dialogue and demonstrated he was a participant in American society rather than an agitator. Under his new thought, Douglass stated that recent presidential administrations had led the government away from its founding ideals. It was therefore the duty of every American citizen to use the Constitution and political processes at their disposal to bring the country in line with its founding intent. By becoming a political abolitionist, Douglass challenged the country to reconsider who was a citizen and entitled to protection under the Constitution. In 1852, he declared that the proper interpretation of the Constitution should always be construed toward freedom and natural rights despite the ambiguity of a particular situation. Douglass’s shift on the Constitution would inform the rest of his career. The Constitution would become the lens through which he would advocate for the freedom and natural rights of all people, African Americans and women.

The complicated aspect of this legacy came after the Civil War during the controversy over the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. When it became clear that the Fourteenth Amendment would exclude a suffrage component, the focus of the Fifteenth Amendment became suffrage. The debate about suffrage for Black men severed ties between White suffragists and Black activists including Douglass. For Douglass, there was something greater at stake than simply obtaining the right to vote for Black men. It was about demonstrating that Black people were human.  Providing Black men suffrage would be a social recognition of them as men and, according to nineteenth century cultural mores, also legitimize them as capable of being a moral force in society.

In January 1865, Douglass declared that the “hour of the Negro” had arrived. He believed that the aftermath of the Civil War was the time to advocate for Black citizenship and suffrage. That sentiment was endorsed by his fellow abolitionist, Wendell Phillips; Ohio Senator Benjamin Wade; and African American activist John Mercer Langston. Douglass, however, had long been recognized as a women’s rights man. He fought for enfranchisement for Black men, but insisted that once that right was acquired, Black men could help in the push for women’s suffrage.1

Suffrage placed White men at the top of the American social hierarchy allowing them to influence the workings of American democracy. To be an American man meant that you had the right to vote and hold office. Upon emancipation, Black men wanted those same rights and privileges. Enfranchised citizenship was of the utmost importance to Black people. Citizenship recognized their native-born status and guaranteed them access to the rights and privileges associated with U.S. birth. Enfranchisement meant that Black men could contribute to American society by voting and holding office, but more importantly receive the economic benefits of American society. For Black men, this right was particularly important because it allowed them to protect their communities and families and insure their interests were represented in the American government.

Upon emancipation, universal suffrage was the next goal on the reform agenda especially among the abolitionists and women’s rights groups.  The women’s rights movement in the United States had been strongly linked with the abolition movement. Women’s rights activists like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucy Stone were also abolitionists. Stanton and Anthony collected 400,000 signatures in support of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1863, and along with Douglass were ardent supporters of universal suffrage in the aftermath of the war. In 1866, they formed the American Equal Rights Association. The political reform agenda in Washington centered on reforms for newly freed Black people, and a universal suffrage amendment was removed in favor of suffrage for African American men. The Republican Party could not secure the votes to support universal suffrage.

Women’s rights activists like Anthony and Stanton were appalled by the shift in the suffrage agenda. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton started a weekly newspaper, The Revolution, to articulate their women’s rights agenda. They began a campaign to push for White women’s suffrage over Black male suffrage.2 Major critiques by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her supporters were based in their belief in the inferiority of Black men. Editorials in The Revolution articulated concern over the inclusion of Black men in an oppressive patriarchal regime resulting in: violence, conquest, disease, and death; White women dominated by inferior Black men; and increased hostility from lower class men toward women. Stanton remarked in an editorial in 1868: “Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung who do not know the difference between a Monarchy and a republic, who never read the Declaration of Independence or Webster’s spelling book, making laws for Lydia Maria Childs, Lucretia Mott, or Fanny Kemble.”3 Editorials like Stanton’s were frequently featured in The Revolution and offered varying justifications to the resistance of some White women to the Fifteenth Amendment.

At the annual meeting of the American Equal Rights Association held in May 1869, Douglass asserted that Black men needed the right to vote because Black people, unlike women, were dragged from their homes and lynched. When an audience member objected to his claim citing Black women, Douglass countered, arguing that Black women were targeted because of their race rather than their gender.4 He eventually attempted to compromise during the meeting by submitting a resolution which agreed to welcome the Fifteenth Amendment while committing to efforts to gain rights without regards to gender.5 His proposal, however, was ignored.

The Fifteenth Amendment was ratified in 1870, granting African American men suffrage. The debate about the Amendment fractured many of Douglass’s long-term relationships with his women’s rights allies. In the aftermath of the Civil War, Douglass was realistic rather than quixotic about the realities facing African Americans. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments did not protect African Americans from poverty, violence, or disenfranchisement. However, the recent amendments created a new paradigm for Douglass. The amendments established that through the Constitution, the country’s central legal document, African Americans and all people were entitled to civil rights.

Douglass’s constantly reconsidered his ideas about the Constitution as the realities of Black life, especially in the South, changed. He would later characterize the status of Black southerners as “in law free, in fact slave; in law a citizen, in fact an alien; in law a voter, in fact disenfranchised…It [government] imposes upon him all the burdens of citizenship and withholds from him all its benefits.” Black people were working, paying taxes, defending the country, and upholding the laws and customs of society without the benefits of protection by law enforcement, enfranchisement, and the government working to insure life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The tension between the burden and benefits of citizenship characterized the ongoing battle for civil rights in the United States. Yet even at the height of the violence and disenfranchisement of Black people, Douglass found no fault with the Constitution. He continued to hold the Constitution in high reverence, stating that his life’s work had been to see the principles of liberty and humanity expressed in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence fully realized without regard to race, gender, or religion.

  1. Kate Masur, An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, DC, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010); C. Peter Ripley, ed. Black Abolitionist Papers, Vol.5 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992); Waldo Martin, The Mind of Frederick Douglass (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997); Benjamin Quarles, “Frederick Douglass and Woman’s Rights Movement,” The Journal of Negro History, 25 no. 1 (Jan. 1940): 35–44.
  2.  The Revolution, December 24 1868.
  3.  The Revolution, “Manhood Suffrage,” December 24, 1868
  4.  The Revolution, “Annual Meeting of the American Equal Rights Association” May 20, 1869.
  5.  The Revolution, May 27, 1869.
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Noelle Trent

Noelle Trent is the Director of Interpretation, Collections & Education at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. She holds a doctorate in American history for Howard University, and is currently expanding her dissertation Frederick Douglass and the Making of American Exceptionalism into a book. Follow her on Twitter @NoelleTrentPhD.