Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass vs. the 1619 Project

A new book explicates the escaped slave and renowned orator's argument that the Constitution is "a glorious liberty document" that justified ending slavery.


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Last year, 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, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her work, argued that the U.S. Constitution was a "decidedly undemocratic" document and that "anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country." This interpretation of the American founding has been the subject of a heated debate. The 1619 Project has also 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."

After five eminent historians attacked the 1619 Project, the project's editor responded by reiterating Hannah-Jones's view that "advances for minority groups have almost always come as a result of political and social struggles in which African-Americans have generally taken the lead, not as a working-out of the immanent logic of the Constitution."

This view of the Constitution is at odds with that of Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave, abolitionist, author, and towering figure in American history. In his new book, A Glorious Liberty: Frederick Douglass and the Fight for an Antislavery ConstitutionReason Senior Editor Damon Root explicates Douglass's classical liberal reading of the Constitution. Far from seeing it as a morally ambiguous document that 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.

Edited and Motion Graphics by Isaac Reese; production assistance from John Osterhoudt and Reagan Taylor.

Music: "Witches Brew," by CK Martin

Photos: Beowulf Sheehan/ZUMA Press/Newscom; World History Archive/Newscom; World History Archive/Newscom; Everett Collection/Newscom