Freedom and Frederick Douglass

 

The ideals of 1776 had no greater champion than black abolitionist Frederick Douglass.  A former slave, he understood in his bones the importance of freedom.

Fellow-citizens! there is no matter in respect to which, the people of the North have allowed themselves to be so ruinously imposed upon, as that of the pro-slavery character of the Constitution. In that instrument I hold there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing; but, 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. While I do not intend to argue this question on the present occasion, let me ask, if 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. What would be thought of an instrument, drawn up, legally drawn up, for the purpose of entitling the city of Rochester to a track of land, in which no mention of land was made? Now, there are certain rules of interpretation, for the proper understanding of all legal instruments. These rules are well established. They are plain, common-sense rules, such as you and I, and all of us, can understand and apply, without having passed years in the study of law. I scout the idea that the question of the constitutionality or unconstitutionality of slavery is not a question for the people. I hold that every American citizen has a right to form an opinion of the constitution, and to propagate that opinion, and to use all honorable means to make his opinion the prevailing one. Without this right, the liberty of an American citizen would be as insecure as that of a Frenchman. Ex-Vice-President Dallas tells us that the Constitution is an object to which no American mind can be too attentive, and no American heart too devoted. He further says, the Constitution, in its words, is plain and intelligible, and is meant for the home-bred, unsophisticated understandings of our fellow-citizens. Senator Berrien tell us that the Constitution is the fundamental law, that which controls all others. The charter of our liberties, which every citizen has a personal interest in understanding thoroughly. The testimony of Senator Breese, Lewis Cass, and many others that might be named, who are everywhere esteemed as sound lawyers, so regard the constitution. I take it, therefore, that it is not presumption in a private citizen to form an opinion of that instrument.

What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?, July 5, 1852

In the waning days of the Civil War he discussed an issue much in the public mind, what is to done with the former slaves?

In regard to the colored people, there is always more that is benevolent, I perceive, than just, manifested towards us. What I ask for the negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice. The American people have always been anxious to know what they shall do with us… I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! … And if the negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! If you see him on his way to school, let him alone, don’t disturb him! If you see him going to the dinner table at a hotel, let him go! If you see him going to the ballot box, let him alone, don’t disturb him! If you see him going into a work-shop, just let him alone, — your interference is doing him positive injury.

January 26, 1865-Frederick Douglass

 

 

 

 

As Justice Clarence Thomas noted in his dissent in Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 US 306 (2003), Frederick Douglass’ position of simple justice is still a burning question today:

 

  The Court also holds that racial discrimination in admissions should be given another 25 years before it is deemed no longer narrowly tailored to the Law School’s fabricated compelling state interest. Ante, at 30. While I agree that in 25 years the practices of the Law School will be illegal, they are, for the reasons I have given, illegal now. The majority does not and cannot rest its time limitation on any evidence that the gap in credentials between black and white students is shrinking or will be gone in that timeframe.13 In recent years there has been virtually no change, for example, in the proportion of law school applicants with LSAT scores of 165 and higher who are black.14 In 1993 blacks constituted 1.1% of law school applicants in that score range, though they represented 11.1% of all applicants. Law School Admission Council, National Statistical Report (1994) (hereinafter LSAC Statistical Report). In 2000 the comparable numbers were 1.0% and 11.3%. LSAC Statistical Report (2001). No one can seriously contend, and the Court does not, that the racial gap in academic credentials will disappear in 25 years. Nor is the Court’s holding that racial discrimination will be unconstitutional in 25 years made contingent on the gap closing in that time.15

    Indeed, the very existence of racial discrimination of the type practiced by the Law School may impede the narrowing of the LSAT testing gap. An applicant’s LSAT score can improve dramatically with preparation, but such preparation is a cost, and there must be sufficient benefits attached to an improved score to justify additional study. Whites scoring between 163 and 167 on the LSAT are routinely rejected by the Law School, and thus whites aspiring to admission at the Law School have every incentive to improve their score to levels above that range. See App. 199 (showing that in 2000, 209 out of 422 white applicants were rejected in this scoring range). Blacks, on the other hand, are nearly guaranteed admission if they score above 155. Id., at 198 (showing that 63 out of 77 black applicants are accepted with LSAT scores above 155). As admission prospects approach certainty, there is no incentive for the black applicant to continue to prepare for the LSAT once he is reasonably assured of achieving the requisite score. It is far from certain that the LSAT test-taker’s behavior is responsive to the Law School’s admissions policies.16 Nevertheless, the possibility remains that this racial discrimination will help fulfill the bigot’s prophecy about black underperformance–just as it confirms the conspiracy theorist’s belief that “institutional racism” is at fault for every racial disparity in our society.

    I therefore can understand the imposition of a 25-year time limit only as a holding that the deference the Court pays to the Law School’s educational judgments and refusal to change its admissions policies will itself expire. At that point these policies will clearly have failed to “ ‘eliminat[e] the [perceived] need for any racial or ethnic’ ” discrimination because the academic credentials gap will still be there. Ante, at 30 (quoting Nathanson & Bartnika, The Constitutionality of Preferential Treatment for Minority Applicants to Professional Schools, 58 Chicago Bar Rec. 282, 293 (May—June 1977)). The Court defines this time limit in terms of narrow tailoring, see ante, at 30, but I believe this arises from its refusal to define rigorously the broad state interest vindicated today. Cf. Part II, supra. With these observations, I join the last sentence of Part III of the opinion of the Court.

* * *

    For the immediate future, however, the majority has placed its imprimatur on a practice that can only weaken the principle of equality embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Equal Protection Clause. “Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537, 559 (1896) (Harlan, J., dissenting). It has been nearly 140 years since Frederick Douglass asked the intellectual ancestors of the Law School to “[d]o nothing with us!” and the Nation adopted the Fourteenth Amendment. Now we must wait another 25 years to see this principle of equality vindicated. I therefore respectfully dissent from the remainder of the Court’s opinion and the judgment.

Published in: on November 15, 2019 at 5:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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Religious Beliefs of the Founding Fathers

 

You desire to know something of my Religion. It is the first time I have been questioned upon it: But I do not take your Curiosity amiss, and shall endeavour in a few Words to gratify it. Here is my Creed: I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing Good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever Sect I meet with them. As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity: tho’ it is a Question I do not dogmatise upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble. I see no harm however in its being believed, if that Belief has the good Consequence as probably it has, of making his Doctrines more respected and better observed, especially as I do not perceive that the Supreme takes it amiss, by distinguishing the Believers, in his Government of the World, with any particular Marks of his Displeasure. I shall only add respecting myself, that having experienced the Goodness of that Being, in conducting me prosperously thro’ a long Life, I have no doubt of its Continuance in the next, tho’ without the smallest Conceit of meriting such Goodness.

Benjamin Franklin, excerpt of a letter that Franklin wrote to Ezra Stiles, President of Yale on March 9, 1790, six weeks prior to Franklin’s death.

Published in: on March 29, 2018 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Religious Beliefs of the Founding Fathers  
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Second of the Founding Fathers to Die

The improbably named Button Gwinnett was the second of the Founding Fathers to depart this vale of tears.  John Morton of Pennsylvania died of tuberculosis on April 1, 1777.

Born in 1735 in England, in 1762 Gwinnet and his wife departed England for Charleston, South Carolina.  A merchant, in 1765 he left that trade and purchased a plantation in Georgia, the youngest of the 13 colonies.  In 1769 he was elected to the provincial legislature.   Sent as a delegate from Georgia to the Second Continental Congress, he signed the Declaration of Independence.

Back in Georgia he was elected Speaker of the Georgia Assembly.  After the death of the President (Governor) of Georgia he was elevated to that position.  He did not have long to enjoy it, receiving a mortal wound in a duel with arch political foe Lachlan McIntosh following a dispute arising out of a failed invasion of East Florida and dying on May 19, 1777. (more…)

Published in: on January 17, 2018 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Second of the Founding Fathers to Die  
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Free Speech Is So Eighteenth Century!

 

“If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”

George Washington, 1783

Published in: on July 22, 2016 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Free Speech Is So Eighteenth Century!  
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The Catholic Signer

 

 

Without morals a republic cannot subsist any length of time; they therefore who are decrying the Christian religion, whose morality is so sublime & pure, [and] which denounces against the wicked eternal misery, and [which] insured to the good eternal happiness, are undermining the solid foundation of morals, the best security for the duration of free governments.

Charles Carroll of Carrollton, letter to James McHenry, November 4, 1800.

Charles Carroll of Carrollton, as he signed his name when he added his signature to the Declaration of Independence, was the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.  When he died at the age of 95, he was the last of the Signers to depart this vale of tears.

The scion of perhaps the richest family in the colonies, Charles Carroll was initially uninterested in politics and, in any case, was debarred by his religion from participating in politics in his native Maryland by his religions.  However, in his thirties he became a passionate advocate of American independence from Great Britain and quickly became one of the chief leaders of the Patriot cause in his home colony.  It was only natural as a result that he was sent to Congress, in spite of his religion, where he was one of the chief spokesmen for independence and happily placed his signature on the Declaration even though by doing so he risked not only his fortune but his life if the British had prevailed.  By the end of 1776 the revolutionary government of Maryland had issued an act of religious freedom, and Carroll and his fellow Catholics in Maryland enjoyed the same civil rights as Protestants.

In 1778 he returned to Maryland and helped draft the state constitution and in setting up the new state government, serving in the State Senate until 1800, and briefly in the United States Senate.

A slaveholder, throughout his career Carroll spoke and wrote of slavery as an evil that must come to an end as soon as possible.  He attempted, but failed, to have Maryland implement a plan of gradual emancipation.  At the age of 91 he took on the task of being president of the Auxiliary State Colonization Society of Maryland, part of  a national movement to have free blacks voluntarily colonize what would become Liberia in Africa.

Something of a Renaissance man, he had a strong interest in science and in his nineties helped set up the B&O Railroad, lending his prestige to this new technology in his native Maryland.

Throughout his life his two main passions were the American Revolution and his Faith.   Like most of the Founding Fathers he regarded the idea of political liberty divorced from sound morality, derived from religion, as an absurdity.  He set forth his ideas on this subject in a letter to Secretary of War James McHenry in 1800 in which he lamented the then current American political scene: (more…)

Published in: on July 20, 2016 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on The Catholic Signer  
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Three Ring Government

Well, I must say that whenever I have had involvement with government on the state or federal level, I have thought that a circus was surely running things!

The French author and philosopher Montesquieu, leaning heavily on Aristotle and the Greek historian of the Roman Republic Polybius, in his The Spirit of The Laws (1748) helped popularize the notion of a mixed government: executive, legislative and judicial, providing a safeguard to liberty.  As our history has shown, it is hard for the components to stay in balance. (more…)

Published in: on August 25, 2011 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Three Ring Government  
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What Would The Founding Fathers Think?

This week I posted on another blog I write for, The American Catholic, a recent post I wrote here about Alexander Hamilton and the National Debt.  In the comments to that post, the following question was asked of me:

Don,

What do you suppose Hamilton would have said about whether we should raise the debt ceiling?

In many ways that was an unanswerable question.  Taking someone from one historical era and asking what they would say about some current controversy involves too many imponderables:  our imperfect knowledge of the past and of most historical figures;  judging the stance of a historical figure on an issue arising usually in vastly changed times and circumstances;  the difficulty of attempting to understand the mental processes of someone based upon the records that they and others left behind them;  etc.  However, fools rush in where angels wisely fear to tread, and I gave the following response: (more…)

Published in: on July 29, 2011 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on What Would The Founding Fathers Think?  
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The Founding Fathers and Slavery

Too often we forget that the Founding Fathers found slavery well-established in all the colonies.  It is therefore astounding that most of the Founding Fathers were hostile to an institution that was hallowed in tradition and the law.  Abraham Lincoln was correct in regard to most of the Founding Fathers and slavery when he said during the Lincoln-Douglas debates: (more…)

Published in: on October 26, 2010 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on The Founding Fathers and Slavery  
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In Defense of American Exceptionalism

 “Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We — even we here — hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just — a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.” Abraham Lincoln, December 1, 1862.

 

This is a repost of a post I did on The American Catholic.  I thought our readers here might find it interesting.

 

 As a liberal democracy, is the United States different in any appreciable way from other liberal democracies in the western tradition, and if so, does the thought of its founders explain this?

That is the question posed yesterday by commenter and Vox Nova blogger Morning’s Minion. Commenter Art Deco took up the challenge:

 I do not think you are going to find a nexus of social phenomena that is explained by a single cause. To the extent that intellectual genealogies influence people’s conceptions of what their interests and ideals are, the thought of that corps of politicians is important. To the extent that the social evolution of the United States has been shaped by political institutions which were informed by the thought of these men, their thought is important.

 Any society has its signature elements. I am not sure why it escapes you what ours are, in the political realm and outside it. We can defer for a moment the more interesting discussion of the country’s social history and historical geography and just look at aspects of the latter-day political order, as you insist.

1. The political parties have tended to manifest conflict between subcultures rather than between social strata.

 

2. The political parties are haphazard and decentralized in comparison with their European counterparts (France excepted).

 

 3. Formal political institutions are likewise, with many accumulated barnacles.

 

4. We maintain a common law system, which is not indebted to the Code Napoleon.

 

5. Our constitution antedates all but a few in Europe by a century and the forms delineated therein derive from institutions of colonial government more than 150 older than that; there has been intramural political violence in the United States but also absolute continuity of local institutions for more than 400 years and continuity of continental institutions for in excess of 200 years.

 

6. Because our institutions are comparatively antique and because they were delineated by a single statute, aspects of political practice in Britain were retained here while being abandoned there and elsewhere. Notable is the absence of parliamentary government, something quite unusual among the fifty or so most durable constitutional systems. (I believe the United States and Costa Rica are the only examples).

 

 7. Both in politics and society, trade and industrial unions are much weaker here, comprehending just 9% of the private sector workforce. Unions in America are now lobbies for the interests of public employees.

 

8. The multiplication of the functions of the state and corporatist institutions and practices have been much more restrained here. Public enterprise has tended to be limited to natural monopolies owned and operated by provincial and local governments; the federal government operates a postal service, some hydroelectric stations, and maintains a large inventory of land, but that is it.

 

9. The political intelligence and moral sentiments of our elected officials (not our judges) remain more resonant with that of the general public than is the case elsewhere. I think it was Oriana Fallaci who once complained that if you ask a British legislator what the intellectual influences on him were, he might offer Marx or Burke; his American counterpart would name his own father. There is a reason we have capital punishment in this country and they do not in Canada, and that reason is not differences in public sentiment. (more…)

Published in: on June 24, 2010 at 5:38 am  Comments Off on In Defense of American Exceptionalism  
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