Frederick Douglass’s America: Race, Justice, and the Promise of the Founding

Summary of Study

Bottom Line: Professor Peter C. Myers looks to the example of Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist and advocate of civil and political equality, to explain why black Americans should love their country despite its past injustices. Grounding his political philosophy on the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the architecture of the Constitution, Douglass taught that Americans of all races should understand that the Founders’ original promises of equality and liberty extend to all citizens. 

Professor Peter C. Myers argues that the American Founders believed in the principle “all men are created equal” – and that racial integration was a logical inference from that principle. For an exposition of the Founders’ principled understanding of equality, he recommends turning to the writings of Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist and advocate of civil rights.

Douglass grew up in slavery. His resistance to a particularly violent slave-master fueled a strong urge to escape from his conditions to the North, which he did in September 1838. At first, Douglass partnered with prominent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, but he later broke away from his mentor’s teachings, which condemned the U.S. Constitution as a pro-slavery document. Douglass instead crafted an argument that looked back at the Founding as a moral lodestar whose implications promised an end to the institution of slavery and allowed blacks to become full heirs of the Founders’ promises.

As Myers argues, Douglass “had long admired the Declaration and the Revolution; but now, having broken with the Garrisonian variant of abolitionism, he had come to admire the whole of the Founding, because he had come to judge the Constitution to be faithful to the saving principles of the Declaration.”

Though at first skeptical of Abraham Lincoln – and especially of his view that the abolition of Southern slavery should not be the Union’s primary aim during the first years of the Civil War – Douglass grew to admire Lincoln’s leadership, ultimately seeing him as “the greatest statesman that ever presided over the destinies of this Republic.”

Devoting 54 years of his life to advancing black freedom and equality, Frederick Douglass stood for the American promise of liberty and justice for all. And he taught fellow blacks to love their country – because its promises extended to them as well as to their white counterparts.

Read the full essay here.