Juneteenth: Frederick Douglass Insists the US Constitution is Not a Pro-Slavery Document

Juneteenth: Frederick Douglass Insists the US Constitution is Not a Pro-Slavery Document

1895 statue of Frederick Douglass in its original location in Rochester, NY (NYPL)

[The slaveholders] see that the Constitution will afford slavery no protection when it shall cease to be administered by slaveholders. They see, moreover, that if there is once a will in the people of America to abolish slavery, there is no word, no syllable in the Constitution to forbid that result.

--Frederick Douglass, 1860

As we commemorate Juneteenth this week, it is important to acknowledge the incisive ideas of one of America’s greatest advocates for freedom and justice, Frederick Douglass. As many know, Douglass (who would call Rochester N.Y. his home from 1847-1872) completely broke from the more radical abolitionists who argued that the United States Constitution was inherently a pro-slavery document and therefore actually advocated the dissolution of the Union.

In his 1860 speech “The Constitution of the United States: Is It Pro-slavery or Anti-slavery?”, Douglass insisted that that there was nothing in the United States Constitution or its first ten Amendments (including the so-called “slave-holding provisions”) which endorsed, legally mandated, or guaranteed the future existence of slavery in any state or in the United States as a whole after the year 1808. Although it is true that at the time of its ratification, Article I, Section 9 denied Congress the power to prohibit “The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit” for twenty years, still nowhere does the Constitution authorize or endorse either the continuation or the abolition of slavery beyond that time.

Instead, Douglass argued, the framers quite carefully left the matter of slavery unresolved—an unwritten chapter in the book of America’s future development. Further, both Article IV, Section 3 and Article I, Section 9 (as well as Article V allowing for amendments to the Constitution) provided open doors for Congress to, among other things, not only prohibit slavery in any U.S. territory at the time that the Constitution was written, but also eliminate it entirely in the post-1808 United States if so desired which is, of course, what ultimately happened.

Douglass goes even further by arguing that the spirit of the Constitution is actually anti-slavery as demonstrated, among other things, by the simple fact that there is no explicit reference to “slaves,” “slavery,” or “even “servitude” anywhere in the document, let alone any mandate that it should legally exist. Just as the Constitution is “color blind” by granting rights and privileges to all “people” (not merely “white people”), it is similarly “slavery blind” nowhere insisting on the legality of slavery at the federal level nor protecting its existence or perpetuation in the states beyond 1808. As to the other commonly called “slave-holding provisions,” it can likewise be shown that none of these endorse slavery or, again, even explicitly refer to it.

Clearly, if the U.S. Constitution were to have been a pro-slavery document, the infamous clause in Article I, Section 9 could just as well have denied Congress the power to prohibit “The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit” in perpetuity. Rather, Douglass argued that the very existence of Article I, Section 9 in the Constitution as such was further proof that it is an anti-slavery document simply “because it looked to the abolition of slavery rather than to its perpetuity.”

But perhaps the most powerful argument that our Constitution was never inherently pro-slavery can be seen in the way that it was ultimately used historically to completely abolish slavery in the United States. This was the main thrust of Douglass’s disagreement with the radical abolitionists who argued that the Constitution was a pro-slavery document through and through and that the free states should withdraw from any Union under its authority! As history has shown, Frederick Douglass’s 1860 argument on the eve of the Civil War has proven to be a correct one:

I…deny that the Constitution guarantees the right to hold property in man, and believe that the way to abolish slavery in America is to vote such men into power as well use their powers for the abolition of slavery …

My argument against the dissolution of the American Union is this: It would place the slave system more exclusively under the control of the slaveholding States, and withdraw it from the power in the Northern States which is opposed to slavery…. Within the Union we have a firm basis of opposition to slavery. It is opposed to all the great objects of the Constitution.