Nikole Hannah-Jones, the chief architect of the 1619 Project, is quite the active Twitter user. She responds to critics and fans alike, with varying degrees of unwarranted condescension. One example of her prolific tweeting came recently: “Imagine trying to use Frederick Douglass against the 1619 Project and then arguing about intellectual dishonesty. Whew. I actually laughed.”
But no imagination is required. It is Nikole Hannah-Jones who is being intellectually dishonest.
A lengthy Twitter debate, in which this author participated, was spurred on by a Reason video shared by Nick Gillespie entitled “Frederick Douglass vs. the 1619 Project.” The clip was not particularly objectionable if one has read much Douglass. Its main point is that the 1619 Project attempts to reframe history around the importation of the first slaves in 1619 instead of the Revolution of 1776 or the Constitution of 1787. Included in the video is a snippet of Nikole Hannah-Jones claiming that America was a “slaveocracy” instead of a “democracy.” But Hannah-Jones’s attempt to use Douglass to promote the thesis that our founding documents were written to be intentionally and inherently proslavery is a mistake. Douglass simply did not assent to such a view.
But you need not take my word on this, nor should you. Let’s see what Douglass himself said.
Nikole Hannah-Jones alleges that she has “read far more Frederick Douglass” than I have, but clearly she is misunderstanding or misusing his writings.
Douglass is famous for having aligned with abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who believed that the Constitution was a pro-slavery compact with the devil. People who want to further a pro-slavery interpretation can take Douglass’ early words out of context. For example, early in his public life, he does proclaim of the Constitution, “Slaveholders took a large share in making it. It was made in view of the existence of slavery, and in a manner well calculated to aid and strengthen that heaven-daring crime.” This is a view he held sincerely, but it was not his final word.
Douglass soon publicly rejects this pro-slavery interpretation in 1851’s “Change of Opinion Announced.” He describes how the former position of his paper wrongly followed the model of the Garrisonians and writes that “we were compelled to go behind the letter of the Constitution.” This change in his thought is essential to understanding Douglass. Conservatives and leftists alike will attempt to cast Douglass as a proponent of their own positions, with the latter favoring and perpetuating the Garrisonian Douglass. Rather than attempt to align him into any given camp, we would do well to try and understand Douglass as he understood himself.
With this in mind, it is clear that Douglass changed his stance regarding the role of slavery in the American Founding. He maintained this view consistently after 1851, as will be shown by decades of evidence. Not only did he make the shift public that year, he did so in private as well. As he writes to Gerrit Smith, a prominent ex-Garrisonian and a good friend, “I had not made up my mind then, as I have now, that I am only in reason and in conscience bound to learn the intentions of those who framed the Constitution in the Constitution itself.” The language makes very clear that this shift in opinion is something about which Douglass had thought long and hard.
Douglass expands upon the basic point in the Smith letter in his celebrated speech on the Constitution at Glasgow in 1860. The reason that the Constitution was anti-slavery was because its text was anti-slavery, and the real intentions of its framers are revealed in the document they authored and ratified. “I, on the other hand,” he declares, “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.” The Constitution was not pro-slavery in intent, and he sources the intent from the provisions therein. The solution to slavery would be to further the Constitution’s aims and select good men to serve in the political offices it established.
Douglass gives a call to action in his last great speech: “Man is broad enough and high enough as a platform for you and me and all of us. The colored people of this country should advance to the high position of the Constitution of the country. The Constitution makes no distinction on account of race or color, and they should make none.” This is from 1894, about a year before his death. For over 40 years Douglass was consistent on why the Constitution was not pro-slavery — it was, in his view, color-blind — and he extolled fellow blacks to assume their rightful station as citizens. It is not only their right but their duty to do so.
Douglass’s view of the founding is complex and easily misconstrued. He came out of slavery and sincerely held a hatred for the country that had legally permitted such an injustice. But he also reconsidered his view on the founding and arrived at a new conclusion.
Yet Nikole Hannah-Jones sees things differently. In our Twitter exchange, she concedes that Douglass took a pro-Constitution stance “as a strategy to end slavery.” Her phrasing seems to indicate an insincerity on Douglass’s part. The evidence is clear, though, that this was not merely a shift in strategy but a true change of opinion.
Contrary to Hannah-Jones, it was not the Constitution that was pro-slavery, nor was the nation’s true founding in 1619. Douglass believed that the American founding was good in many ways and provided a solid foundation for reforms he believed would make it better. Although the barbarous institution of slavery was legally permitted for far too long, its perpetuation was not the ultimate aim of the American regime, according to Douglass.
Hannah-Jones alleges that she has “read far more Frederick Douglass” than I have, but clearly she is misunderstanding or misusing his writings. The evidence from Douglass disproves her selective use of his writings. One should heed the words of the man himself and not fall prey to interpretations of his thought not rooted in the text.
Frederick Douglass offers a corrective to the false portrayal of the founding offered by the 1619 Project. He shows Americans why, although their country is not perfect, it is still good at its core. The 1619 Project, on the other hand, provides a view of America rooted in anger and resentment, albeit resulting from legitimate ills. The 1619 Project’s authors and promoters could learn much from Douglass: he had experienced the horrors of slavery himself, and yet he did not succumb to hatred in the end. He operated out of a sense of duty to members of his race and for the good of his country. Today, too, Americans must understand our founding truly before attempting to apply lessons from the past to our present circumstances. Douglass can help to show us the way.
Joey Barretta is Ph.D. student studying American politics and political philosophy at the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College. He is currently planning to write a dissertation on the Reconstruction-era political thought of Frederick Douglass.