In “Frederick Douglass’s Vision for a Reborn America,” David W. Blight, one of the nation’s preeminent Frederick Douglass scholars, provides a faulty account of Douglass’ view of America and his understanding of the American Founding.[1] Throughout his account, Dr. Blight emphasizes the need to examine Douglass in light of modern racial strife. He begins by explaining that at the beginning of Reconstruction, Douglass had a “most sanguine vision of a pluralist future of human equality in the recently re-United States.” This is the “vision” America needs once more, Dr. Blight proclaims. However, the content of Blight’s account does not accurately describe Douglass’ thought and portrays him as a modern progressive, which he was not.

Dr. Blight cites Douglass’ 1869 speech “Our Composite Nationality” as the cornerstone of his argument in order to make the case that Douglass had a view of race akin to the modern pluralist.[2] For instance, he quotes the following from Douglass: “Joy and sorrow speak alike in all nations, and they above all the confusion of tongues proclaim the brotherhood of man.” This seems to imply that all peoples are the same and that America ought to be a cosmopolitan, post-racial society. Dr. Blight leaves out some important context in using this quotation. Throughout the speech, Douglass stresses the duties required of citizens and the immense work it takes to form and sustain political society. America may be composed of many races, but there are principles that must be held in common. Dr. Blight notes that his excerpt of Douglass shows that the country would hold true to “universal values,” but he fails to account for the duties of the citizenry of all races to subscribe to those “values.” Douglass’ conclusion has more complex implications than Dr. Blight admits. Douglass believed that there were universal principles that bound together “our composite nationality,” and that all races therein have equal duties they must uphold as American citizens.

Dr. Blight expands on his theme of a cosmopolitan America to suggest that Douglass saw Reconstruction as a new founding of America. He writes, “The United States, he believed, had launched a new founding in the aftermath of the Civil War, and had begun to shape a new Constitution rooted in the three great amendments spawned by the war’s results.” This suggests that Douglass rejected the founding of 1776, the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. This simply is not the case for the majority of Douglass’ public career. Douglass had once subscribed to the Garrisonian view that the Constitution was a proslavery compact with the devil, but he makes a very public and explicit break with William Lloyd Garrison and those of his ilk. In an 1851 editorial, Douglass stresses the need to examine the text of the Constitution to derive the real intentions of the founders.[3] Dr. Blight amends a position he took in his earlier work. In his 1989 book he wrote, “Douglass always garnered hope from America’s founding creeds, and in his view the Constitution—its republicanism and protection of individual rights—provided a legal foundation for the earlier promise in the Declaration of Independence.”[4] Dr. Blight does not understand this anymore. Douglass saw the Declaration as espousing the natural rights principles necessary to bring about the equality he sought.

Even in response to the Dred Scott decision, Douglass maintained his positive view of the founding.[5] Douglass exclaimed, “In conclusion, let me say, all I ask of the American people is, that they live up to their Constitution, adopt its principles, imbibe its spirit, and enforce its provisions.” Douglass held founding in high esteem and believed that the principles contained in both the Declaration and Constitution were not limited to whites alone. The Civil War and Reconstruction were necessary to fulfill the promise of the country’s just founding principles. As Douglass explained, the principles of the Declaration were not to blame, but rather the foilbles of the American people.

Following his claim that Douglass saw Reconstruction as a new founding, Dr. Blight moves back to an earlier point in Douglass’ life. As earlier described, Douglass was a Garrisonian in the years immediately following his escape from slavery. Dr. Blight cites two of Douglass’ speeches from the 1840s to describe his encounters with the brutality of slavery. By not describing Douglass’ shift to a pro-founding view, Dr. Blight implicitly suggests that early Douglass is indicative of his later thought. He describes Douglass’ journey to Britain in 1845 as his first experience of racial equality. This may be a logical and correct observation, but he fails to give the broader context. Douglass spent most of his career seeking to complete the work of the American founding, rather than attempting to imbibe America with a more British spirit. It must be noted that Dr. Blight does accurately describe Douglass’ anger upon his return to America. He quotes a speech Douglass gave in 1847: “I have no love for America, as such. I have no patriotism. I have no country. . . . I desire to see its overthrow as speedily as possible, and its Constitution shivered in a thousand fragments.”[6] Douglass was understandably angry with a country and a people that allowed the white man to legally place him into bondage and treat him as a beast.

Yet, he realized that this ideologically pure Garrisonian stance would not be the prudent way to fulfill the ends he sought. Thus, in his 1851 editorial, he wrote that the Constitution, “construed in the light of well established rules of legal interpretation, might be made consistent with its details with the noble purposes avowed in its preamble; and that hereafter we should insist upon the application of such rules to that instrument, and demand that it be wielded in behalf of emancipation.” In other words, the “all men” of the Declaration did not discriminate based on race and neither did the “we the people” of the Preamble to the Constitution because their purposes are intertwined. The Declaration laid out the principles and the Constitution developed the governing form and institutions to bring those principles into practice.

Dr. Blight does not depict this side of Douglass because it complicates the narrative. He writes, “The fact that emancipation, extracted through blood and agony, could so quickly transform Douglass into the author of a hopeful new vision of his country is stunning, a testament to the revolutionary sense of history embraced by this former slave and abolitionist.” This was not a new vision. Douglass believed that slavery was by its nature incompatible with the founding, and he sought a restoration of those principles consistently after 1851.

David Blight conceives of America purely as an idea, so he can easily portray it as what he believes it ought to be. Dr. Blight proclaims, “Americans needed a new articulation of how their country was an idea, Douglass recognized, and he gave it to them.” America had its own history and customs combined with principles manifested in its governing institutions. Dr. Blight’s portrayal of America as an idea thus also permits him to claim that Douglass sought to reinvent the country. He again uses the “Our Composite Nationality” speech in which Douglass defends the influx of Chinese immigrants to portray Douglass as a cosmopolitan. Citing Douglass’ words as timely, Dr. Blight concludes, “He urged Americans not to fear the alien character of Asian languages or cultures. The Chinese, like all other immigrants, would assimilate to American laws and folkways.” Douglass does say that the Chinese will bring their own unique talents and abilities to the United States, but Dr. Blight’s quip that they will certainly assimilate needs to be put into context. Douglass refutes Christians who were responding with racist hatred to the influx of Chinese immigrants: “It is the Chinaman, not the Christian, who should be alarmed for his faith. He exposes that faith to great dangers by exposing it to the freer air of America.” Thus, the Chinese person who was not used to freedom will certainly change when living in America, but Dr. Blight’s assessment of it is insufficient. There are duties that Americans have in their conduct with immigrants.

Douglass believed that peoples of many ethnicities could become Americans, to be sure, but he also said that they ought to assimilate and it is the duty of the citizenry to encourage this. Douglass concluded, “We shall mold them all, each after his kind into Americans . . . all shall here bow to the same law, speak the same language, support the same government, enjoy the same liberty, vibrate with the same national enthusiasm, and seek the same national ends.” He believed that America was fundamentally good, but her people had long failed to live up to her noble principles. It was now the task of the citizenry to combat prejudice in all forms, and he saw the best way to do this was to promote an active and engaged citizenry constituted of many races rooted in shared principles.

Dr. Blight finishes by integrating his account of Douglass once more with our contemporary situation. He emphasizes, “Many civil wars leave legacies of continuing conflict, renewed bloodshed, unstable political systems. Ours did just that, even as it forged a new history and a new Constitution. In 2019, our composite nationality needs yet another rebirth.” Again, Douglass did not see the Civil War or the abolition of slavery as a new founding. Dr. Blight is correct that Douglass’ thought is applicable to modern circumstances, but he is wrong in manipulating the words of Douglass to elucidate his own preconceived vision for a reborn America. Frederick Douglass remains one of the greatest American minds and remains worthy of study—no attempt to place him within any contemporary political narrative required.

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Notes:

[1] David W. Blight, “Frederick Douglass’s Vision for a Reborn America,” The Atlantic, December 2019.

[2] Frederick Douglass, “Our Composite Nationality,” December 7, 1869, published by Teaching American History.

[3] Frederick Douglass, “Change of Opinion Announced,” May 23, 1851, published by Teaching American History.

[4] David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass’ Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 33.

[5] Frederick Douglass, “Speech on the Dred Scott Decision,” May 1857, published by Teaching American History.

[6] Frederick Douglass, “The Right to Criticize American Institutions,” May 11, 1847, published by Teaching American History.

The featured image is a portrait of Frederick Douglass as a young man (1855) by J.C. Buttre (1821-1893) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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