SAN JOSE, Ca. February 18, 2012 - Unlike current Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg who appears to have lost respect for the U.S. Constitution, famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass understood the true and lasting power of the document.
Two days prior to Lincoln’s birthday, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the U.S. Supreme Court Justice, advocated that the Egyptians not look to the U.S. Constitution as an example for writing their own law of the land.
Ginsburg wasn’t just whispering her opinion to a few diplomats, she announced this on the Egyptian television station Al Hayat for all the Middle Eastern world to hear. In imparting her wisdom to the Egyptians she stated: “I would not look to the U.S. Constitution if I were drafting a Constitution in the year 2012. I might look at the Constitution of South Africa. That was a deliberate attempt to have a fundamental instrument of government that embraced basic human rights, have an independent judiciary. It really is, I think, a great piece of work that was done.”
She made the recent statements while visiting Egypt and while Egypt’s Justice Ministry of their interim government has claimed 43 nongovernmental organization employees, including 19 Americans have violated Egyptian law for failing to obtain licenses from the government and for spending foreign funds in violation of Egypt’s nongovernment organization law. These are criminal charges for aiding pro-democracy NGOs which were offering nonpartisan campaign training to Egyptian politicians and had offered to help to monitor future elections. The accused face fines and up to five years in prison.
Ginsburg’s position reveals a great deal about one of America’s own high court judges. In a nation struggling with the turbulence and turmoil as it moves to develop a free country, she musters her courage to turn them away from America for leadership. Her courage to be so bold in issuing such a pronouncement may stem from the fact that America is currently ruled by a constitutional scholar, and the president may have provided similar advice. However, such a statement undermines confidence in her ability to uphold the U.S. Constitution for which she swore an oath of allegiance. Truly ironic.
In stark contrast to Ginsburg’s legal advice, Frederick Douglass, one of the most famous individuals in American history due to his bold support for the abolition of slavery, made a dramatic change in his opinion of the U.S. Constitution years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. Frederick Douglass, a former slave who had escaped to freedom in the North, was the first slave to declare publicly that he was a fugitive as he went on to become one of the most articulate public speakers advocating the abolition of slavery in the U.S. during the period prior to the Civil War.
After escaping from slavery in Maryland, Douglass attended an anti-slavery convention on Nantucket Island in Massachusetts in 1841. It was as much a critical turning point in his life as his escape to freedom because at the convention, he became impressed with William Lloyd Garrison who was perhaps the most outspoken abolitionist in the country.
Douglass became a colleague of Garrison, working with the American Anti-Slavery Society as a public speaker on a lecture circuit and writing articles and books on his life as a former slave. At the time, Garrison was publishing the Liberator newspaper, one of the most potent abolitionist newspapers in the nation. However, Garrison had a rather dim view of the U.S. Constitution as he believed it sanctioned slavery and he even went so far as to publicly burn copies of the document.
On January 27, 1843, Garrison generated a public resolution which denounced the U.S. Constitution as a document that sanctioned the criminal activity of slavery. He boldly stated that “The compact which exists between the North and the South is a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.” The resolution was adopted by the American Anti-Slavery Society and it definitely made a profound impact on Douglass.
However, as Douglass matured and read more and became aware of other abolitionists, he began to pull away from Garrison’s orbit of persuasion. On December 3, 1847, after Douglass came back from a tour of England and Ireland, he used funds entrusted to him to start his own weekly abolitionist newspaper called the North Star. This initiated a substantial break with his previous supporter. Garrison opposed the move to establish a separate abolitionist news organization, but it may have also been because he regarded it as needless competition for his own newspaper.
Nonetheless in the North Star, Douglass replicated Garrisonian views that the Constitution was intentionally pro-slavery. He publically debated with Lysander Spooner and Gerrit Smith who were abolitionists who supported the Constitution. In 1846, Spooner, an ardent abolitionist, had written a book titled The Unconstitutionality of Slavery which proposed the opposite perspective of Garrison and that the founders had not deliberately legalized slavery.
Eventually, Frederick Douglass made public a dramatic change of opinion on the Constitution in his newspaper and later in a public speech, proclaimed it as “a glorious liberty document.” Such a dramatic personal shift in opinion reflected a larger split within the abolition movement in general due to perceptions regarding the Constitution and the proper way for the nation to deal with the institution of slavery. Douglass made his views crystal clear in a speech he gave on July 5, 1852, in Rochester, New York.
James Colaiaco, in his book Frederick Douglass and the Fourth of July, makes the point that this speech to the Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society is arguably the most powerful abolition speech of the time. Colaiaco examines this shift in the thinking of Douglass regarding the Constitution and he dissects the speech in which Douglass made a serious challenge to America to resolve the seeming contradiction between slavery and the country’s founding documents. This speech was powerful and has been dramatically revived and publically presented in recent years.
Frederick Douglass cut into the very heart of the matter of slavery within the land of the free and Dr. Martin Luther King’s powerful “I Have A Dream” speech echoed the sentiments of Frederick Douglass when King demanded on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that America live up to it’s promise when he said: “…we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Frederick Douglass believed, he wasn’t sure, that he was born in February of 1818. He was originally given the name Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, but changed it numerous times to avoid being captured and brought back to chains. He allowed Nathan Johnson, who had provided for his welfare after fleeing from Maryland, to give him a new last name, but to leave in tact his first name of Frederick. He stated in his first autobiography that he wanted to hold on to that to preserve his own sense of identity. Johnson, who had been reading Lady of the Lake, gave him the last name of Douglass which he kept the rest of his life.
Over 150 years ago, as America fought with itself, over its own identity as a nation, the Constitution was at the heart of the struggle. It was at the core of the crisis within the nation that led to the Civil War which ripped our nation apart. Nevertheless, incredible men and women rose up in the time of great need and recognized the weight, substance and power of the founder’s words and remembered the true identity of our country. Then they truly strove to carry the promise of the land of the free forward into the future. May it happen in this day too.
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