In light of the controversy over the Confederate battle flag (which has been controversial for many years, lest anyone try to pretend otherwise), I felt this portion of my new book,
“Liberty’s Secrets: The Lost Wisdom of America’s Founders,” would be particularly relevant:
[Frederick] Douglass was not a Founder, but an ex-slave who escaped to the North from bondage and campaigned against slavery for the rest of his life, even becoming friends with Abraham Lincoln. But far from hating and dismissing the Founders, this great man held them in esteem and awe. In 1852 he delivered a famous speech entitled “What to the slave is the 4th?” referring of course to the Fourth of July, when the Founders declared that “all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” This speech is often used to criticize the Founders. However, those who do so have either not read the whole speech, or refuse to quote it in context. This shall, accordingly, be done here:
Fellow citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too – great enough to give name to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. … I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesman, patriots, and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory. … With them, nothing was “settled” that was not right. With them, justice, liberty and humanity were “final,” not slavery and oppression. … Their solid manhood stands out the more as we contrast it with these degenerate times. … Their statesmanship looked beyond the passing moment, and stretched away in strength into the distant future. They seized upon eternal principles, and set a glorious example in their defense. Mark them!
He went on to say:
Your fathers have lived, died, and have done their work, and have done much of it well. You live and must die, and you must do your work. … You have no right to wear out and waste the hard-earned fame of your fathers to cover your indolence. … It was fashionable, hundreds of years ago, for the children of Jacob to boast, we have “Abraham to our father,” when they had long lost Abraham’s faith and spirit [Matthew 3:9; John 8:39]. That people contented themselves under the shadow of Abraham’s great name, while they repudiated the deeds which made his name great. Need I remind you that a similar thing is being done over this country today? … Washington could not die till he had broken the chains of his slaves. Yet his monument is built up by the price of human blood, and the traders in the bodies and souls of man shout – “We have Washington to our father.”
Notice that Douglass explicitly praised the Founders, Washington in particular, but heaped curses on the generation that followed the Founders. He continued: “Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the Constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery – the great sin and shame of America!”
Imagine: Douglass, a former slave, heaping praises upon the Founders. How could he do this? In short, because Douglass was historically literate. He knew that though they had done it imperfectly, the Founders had advanced the ball down the field significantly, to use a modern sports metaphor. He concluded his thoughts on the Founders with an exhortation on the Constitution:
But I differ from those who charge this baseness on the framers of the Constitution of the United States. It is a slander upon their memory, at least, so I believe … interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gateway? Or is it in the temple? It is neither. … [I]f it be not somewhat singular that, if the Constitution were intended to be, by its framers and adopters, a slave-holding instrument, why neither slavery, slaveholding, nor slave can anywhere be found in it. … Now, take the Constitution according to its plain reading, and I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it. On the other hand it will be found to contain principles and purposes entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.
If a former slave could heap such praise on the Founders, what, may I ask, justifies the temerity of those today who heap nothing but curses? It is precisely because many notable former slaves knew American history and the true legacy of the Founders that they loved them, and why (to put it bluntly) in our amnesia many middle-class white kids of the 21st century, among others, deem them their moral inferiors.
But the most conclusive, if not utterly disturbing evidence that Douglass was correct about the Founders comes from, of all people, the vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, who asserted that the new government of which he was an officer was established on completely different principles than those espoused by the Founders when it came to race:
Those ideas [of the Founders], however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.” Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
Need more be said?
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