Frederick Douglass’ Constitutional Bedrock

Frederick Douglass has deservedly been the subject of a number of excellent books in recent years. General readers may be familiar with David Blight’s magisterial biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. Peter C. Myers’ Frederick Douglass: Race and the Rebirth of American Liberalism is the best book on Douglass’ political philosophy. The surge in interest in books on Douglass has merged with books reevaluating the relationship of slavery and the Constitution. In 2018, Princeton University historian, Sean Wilentz, published his bombshell No Property in Man: Slavery and Anti-Slavery at the Nation’s Founding and boldly challenged the reigning academic orthodoxy. Wilentz explained that he had agreed with the pro-slavery Constitution until the evidence compelled him to reverse his views. More recently, one of the deans of abolitionism, James Oakes, wrote The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution to carry Wilentz’s story up through the Civil War.

Perhaps then it is not surprising that this publishing milieu has seen the release of a new book on Douglass and the anti-slavery Constitution: A Glorious Liberty. With this book, Reason magazine journalist Damon Root has contributed a brief and readable volume aimed at a general audience. While the book does not necessarily present much new information on Douglass, its sharp focus on his constitutional views will help popularize the interpretation of the Constitution as an anti-slavery document.

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