Frederick Douglass

Damon Root: Why Frederick Douglass Loved the Constitution (and You Should Too)

The escaped slave called the Constitution "a glorious liberty document" that justified extending equality to blacks and women.


In August 2019,*  The New York Times published The 1619 Project, an immensely ambitious, influential, and controversial reframing of American history.

The project's creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, won a Pulitzer Prize for her work while arguing that the nation's founding was based on a "racist ideology," and that the U.S. Constitution was a "decidedly undemocratic" document.

This idea has resonated with many Americans and The 1619 Project has been adapted into a high school curriculum that attempts to "reframe U.S. history by marking the year when the first enslaved Africans arrived on Virginia soil as our nation's foundational date." Appearing just months before highly publicized police killings of African Americans such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, The 1619 Project informed much of the rhetoric of demonstrators who took to the streets to protest racially charged police brutality.

But Hannah-Jones' view of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence is at odds with that of Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), the escaped slave, abolitionist, intellectual, and towering figure in American history.

In his new book A Glorious Liberty: Frederick Douglass and the Fight for an Antislavery Constitution, Reason Senior Editor Damon Root looks at the arguments that took place in the middle of the 19th century over racism and America's founding, which are being replayed today.* Far from seeing our country's Constitution as a morally ambiguous document that simply sanctioned white supremacism, Douglass extolled it as "a glorious liberty document" that justified the ending of slavery and other forms of race- and gender-based inequality. Douglass's message, says Root, is as vital to the current moment as it was in the 19th century.

Root is also the author of the influential Overruled: The Long War for Control of the U.S. Supreme Court (2014). In a wide-ranging conversation with Nick Gillespie, he talks about recent changes at the Supreme Court and whether the three judges appointed by President Donald Trump (Neil Gorsuch, Bret Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett) will be good from a libertarian perspective.

CORRECTION: The text originally stated that Root's book argues that the contemporary debate over the American founding are replaying arguments that took place in the 19th century. A Glorious Liberty: Frederick Douglass and the Fight for an Antislavery Constitution doesn't mention The 1619 Project or the contemporary debate. The original text also misstated the publication date of the project, which was August 2019, not December.