Frederick Douglass vs. the 1619 Project

How amusing it is to see the advocates of critical race theory (CRT) and the 1619 Project vehemently deny that their philosophy is even being taught in elementary and secondary schools. Most recently, teachers’ union president Randi Weingarten insisted that CRT is merely a subject of discussion in law schools and the legal community, not in the public school system.

Hogwash! Parents wouldn’t be mobilizing against CRT if they didn’t witness its divisive propaganda being dumped on their children. Ironically, we have the COVID lockdowns to thank for this. Ordinarily, parents aren’t exposed to what their children are being taught in school. But with online instruction, they can pop into their kid’s room and go, “They’re teaching him WHAT?”

If CRT and its ideological cousin the 1619 Project really aren’t being taught in schools, why would the teachers unions and the left worry about them being banned by state legislators? That would be like states banning unicorns. This is absolutely no problem, since there are no unicorns. Of course, the reason the unions and the left are up in arms is because CRT and the 1619 Project are being widely taught, and the state laws would curb these forms of indoctrination.

Taking a somewhat different approach, Gillian Brockell wrote a recent article in The Washington Post implying that CRT and the 1619 Project represent the very mainstream of American history, and that the great abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass would have been on board with their core premises. “Frederick Douglass had nothing but scorn for July Fourth,” her headline reads. “The Black abolitionist spoke for the enslaved.”

The article, however, like CRT and the 1619 Project, tells only half of the story. Let’s follow its narrative in some detail. Brockell recalls Douglass’s famous July 4 address (pdf), delivered in Rochester, New York, to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. The first part of the speech does indeed support Brockell’s account, because Douglass gives a savage indictment of how American independence looks to a black man.

“This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine,” Douglass says. “You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me by asking me to speak today?” Douglass here is not speaking for himself. After all, he had escaped slavery in Maryland 14 years earlier. He was not “a man in fetters.” Douglass, however, was speaking from the point of view of the slave, his former self.

“What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?” Douglass continues. “I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all the other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”

Already one can see Douglass’s speech as a masterpiece of rhetoric, each phrase building on the previous one, almost like a wave gathering force before crashing down on the audience. Yet as the speech moves on, Douglass makes a sharp and surprising turn. Far from denouncing the Fourth of July, far from scorning the Declaration of Independence as a charter of hypocrisy, far from blaming the Constitution for making an unholy pact with slavery—this is precisely what the critical race theorists do today—Douglass roundly affirms the founding as a “glorious liberty document” that launched “forces in operation” that “must inevitably work the downfall of slavery.”

Brockell has read Douglass’s speech. She knows about this “turn” in Douglass’s rhetoric. But she downplays it, quoting only a small part and suppressing the rest, and presenting even this tidbit as a sort of postscript, rather than the central point which Douglass was making. Why? Because the tidbit and its larger context completely undercuts her argument. Let’s probe deeper into what Douglass said.

Douglass argued in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln, who famously argued that in affirming the equality clause of the Declaration of Independence, the founders “meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.” Lincoln and Douglass were both instruments of that enforcement. They helped realize the principles of 1776 and 1789.

Douglass’s point—and Lincoln’s too—is that there are two traditions in America, a tradition of enslavement and oppression, but also a tradition of emancipation and freedom. Both men regarded the Declaration of Independence and even the Constitution as part of the latter tradition. They also identified the Democratic Party with oppression and the Republican Party with freedom. Here’s a later remark by Douglass: “The Republican Party is the ship; all else is the sea.”

By contrast, CRT holds that there’s a single tradition, only enslavement and oppression, no genuine emancipation or freedom. That’s why the 1619 Project says virtually nothing about Douglass, and even Martin Luther King Jr. is barely mentioned. Its credo is that racism is built into the DNA of America not just from the founding but also from the country’s very beginning in 1619. So the deceit of the 1619 Project and CRT is that both exaggerate one tradition, conceal its association with the Democratic Party, and suppress the emancipation tradition and its inevitable association with the Republican Party.

Douglass ended his speech on a patriotic note that vividly contrasts with the way he began, and shows why he had no problem, in the end, with celebrating the Fourth of July and what it represented. Of the Constitution, Douglass later said, “Abolish slavery tomorrow, and not a sentence or syllable of the Constitution needs to be altered.” That’s because the document gives no support, no sanction, to slavery.

Douglass of course knew that the founders who approved the Constitution allowed slavery to continue beyond 1789, but his argument is that this compromise was necessary to get a union—the very union that would have the power to bring about the end of slavery. Slavery, Douglass concluded, is merely the “scaffolding to the magnificent structure, to be removed as soon as the building was completed.” Indeed, the founders delivered “the deadliest blow upon slavery” that could be practically “given at a particular time.”

Dinesh D’Sousa

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