Frederick Douglass Project Writings: Comments on Gerrit Smith's Address

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The North Star, March 30, 1849

It will be remembered that Mr. Smith referred us in last week's paper to this address, for his views respecting the Constitutionality of slavery; and virtually said to us, Dispose of these, and if it shall then be necessary, you shall have more. To us, the address is quite unsatisfactory and unsound. About what a government ought to be so far as relates to a crime like slavery, there is no difference of opinion between us. That it is the duty of a government to protect the rights and liberties of its subjects, there is no question; and that that government which fails to do this is extremely guilty, there is equal agreement. What a government ought to do, is one thing; but not the thing germane to the question at issue between Mr. Smith and ourselves. That government ought to be just, merciful, holy, is granted. The question is not, however, what a government ought to be, or to do, but what the government of the United States is authorized to be, and to do, by the Constitution of the United States. The two questions should be kept separate, that the simplest may understand, as blending them only leads to confusion.

It is because we hold civil government to be solemnly bound to protect the weak against the strong, the oppressed against the oppressor, the few against the many, and to secure the humblest subject in the full possession of his rights of person and of property, that we utterly abhor and repudiate this government and the Constitution as a dark and damning conspiracy against all the purposes of government. Both its framers and administrators were, and have been until now little better than a band of pirates.—We would make clean work of both the government and the Constitution, and not amend or force a new construction upon either, contradicted by the whole history of the nation; but would abolish both, and reconstruct a Constitution and a government which shall better answer the ends of justice. To think of good government in a Union with slaveholders, and under a Constitution framed by slaveholders, the practical operation of which for sixty years has been to strengthen, sustain and spread slavery, does seem to us delusive. We are not for mending old clothes with new cloth, or putting new wine into old bottles, but for starting afresh under a new and higher light than our piratical fathers saw, and form a Constitution and government which shall be so clear and explicit that no doubt can be entertained as to its minutest purposes.

That this cannot be truthfully affirmed of our present Constitution, we need not insist upon at this time. Even our friend Smith virtually admits that it would be dangerous to leave the question of the slave's redemption to be decided in the light of the Constitution. The "old tattered parchment" receives no great deference from him after all. Disdaining it altogether, he says, "Whatever may be said of the lawfulness of slavery, government must abolish it. If it have a Constitutionunder which it cannot abolish slavery, then it must override the Constitution, and abolish slavery. But whether under or over the Constitution, it must abolish slavery." We like this for its whole-souled devotion to a glorious object. It is revolutionary, and looks as much like the fanaticism of Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison, as if it had been cast in their mould. In plain terms, Mr. Smith is for the abolition of slavery, whether in accordance with, or in violation of, the Constitution; and while the declaration is worthy of his noble heart, we cannot think such of his head. The doctrine laid down in this declaration, runs through the whole address, and gives it a vigor and warmth from beginning to end. We shall therefore express a few thoughts upon it.

It will be seen that the doctrine in question makes the government superior to, and independent of, the Constitution, which is the very charter of the government, and without which the government is nothing better than a lawless mob, acting without any other or higher authority than its own convictions or impulses as to what is right or wrong. If this doctrine be sound, it is a mere farce to have a written Constitution at all; for if the government can override and violate its Constitution in one point, it may do so in all.—There is no limit, or safety, or certainty. If it can abolish slavery in violation of the Constitution, because it conflicts with the moral sentiments of the majority, the same may be done in other cases for the same reason. All the safe-guards of that instrument, providing for its own interpretation and its own amendment, are worthless and needless, if this doctrine be true, and government will merely be the voice of an ever-shifting majority, be that good or evil.

Among the causes which have convulsed and revolutionized Europe during the past year, none has been more prominent or effective than the want and rational desire of the people for Constitutional government—not an unwritten, but a written Constitution, accurately defining the powers of government. But these revolutions and Constitutions would be a mere mockery, if government has a character independent of, and powers superior to the Constitution creating it. In the light of such doctrine, Constitutions are impotent and useless, and not worth the trouble of making them, to say nothing of the blood and treasure expended in their support. We hold this doctrine to be radically unsound, (and although brought forward to promote a noble object,) its tendency immoral. We say to our friend Smith, and to all others who sympathize with his views on this subject, If you profess to hold to the Constitution, maintain its provisions. If you cannot, in accordance with your conscience, perform its requirements, or submit to its limitations, then we say, it is your plain duty to come out from it, forsake it, repudiate it, abandon it, do anything rather than seem to be in harmony with an instrument which you would set aside and destroy. Do not, for the sake of honesty and truth, solemnly swear to protect and defend an instrument which it is your firm and settled purpose to disregard and violate in any one particular. Such a course would unsettle all confidence, invert all the principles of trust and reliance which bind society together, and leave mankind to all the horrors of anarchy, and all the confusion of Babel. We hold in respect to this, as the apostle held of old in respect to another Constitution—"They that be under the law, are bound to do the things contained in the law." We repudiate the law, and the things contained in it, while friend Smith holds to the law, but makes it subject to the understanding of right. But, says Mr. Smith—

"Civil Government is to protect rights; and that it might as well, be openly repudiating its functions, and destroying its very existence, as to be giving countenance to searches after authorities for destroying rights. Laws, which interpret, define, secure rights, Government is to respect: and laws, which mistakingly, yet honestly, aim at this end, it is not to despise. But laws, which are enacted to destroy rights, it should trample under foot,—for, to say nothing worse of them, they are a gross insult upon it, inasmuch as they are a shameless attempt to turn it from good to evil, and from its just and Heaven-intended uses, to uses of a diametrically opposite character."

Here again, the argument goes to the extent of assuming, that civil government in this country has a separate existence from the Constitution, and, as if the Constitution were not the supreme law of the land, and that the government can consistently overthrow the Constitution whenever it shall think proper to do so. In answer to this statement, it is enough to say that the government of the United States is limited in its powers and action by the Constitution, and that beyond those limits it cannot go, by any pretext whatever; and that the Supreme Court, the appointed agent to decide the meaning of that instrument, has only to decide a law to be unconstitutional, and it is null and void. It may indeed be said, that the Supreme Court of the United States has no right to legalize what is unjust and in derogation or against human freedom; but the answer is, that that is legal in this country which is Constitutional, and that the Supreme Court has no conscience above the Constitution of the United States, and certainly no power to set that instrument aside, either by declaring it to be null and void, or wrest it from its true intent and meaning, by a class of rules unknown and unsustained by a single precedent in this country.

As to what Mr. Smith says of determining the meaning of the Constitution by its letter alone, and disregarding as utterly worthless the intentions of the framers of that instrument, it may require consideration when he gives us some fixed and settled legal rules sustaining his views on this point. Such rules may exist, but we have not yet seen them; and until we do, we shall continue to understand the Constitution not only in the light of its letter, but in view of its history, the meaning attached to it by its framers, the men who adopted it, and the circumstances in which it was adopted. We have not read law very extensively, but so far as we have read, we have found many rules of interpretation favoring this mode of understanding the Constitution of the United States, and none against it, though there may be such.

It can scarcely be necessary, after what we have already said, to spend much time upon the following extraordinary declaration of Mr. Smith, respecting the Constitution, in which he declares that it "is drawn up with the intelligent and steadfast purpose of having it serve and be forever fully and gloriously identified with the cause of liberty, republicanism and equal rights, must of necessity be shut against the claims and pretensions of slavery." That it was drawn up with the purpose of serving the cause of the white man's liberty, is true; but that it was meant to serve the cause of the black man's liberty, is false. That a Constitution so drawn, must necessarily be shut against the claims of slavery, is an error. We are not deeply skilled in the science of human language, and use language in the sense in which it is generally used, rather than scientifically, and we do know that "Liberty, Republicanism, and Equal Rights," words constantly on the lips of this nation, are deemed to be no more hostile to Negro slavery, than the same words, when used by the Greeks, were supposed to be against the enslavement of the Helots. Ours is not the business of a lexicographer, but to receive the idea meant to be conveyed by the language of those who use it, and condemn or approve accordingly.

In the letter of Mr. Smith which we published last week, he assumes that the material thing for us to prove, in order to establish the wrongfulness of voting and acting under the United States Constitution, is, that the Federal Government has no right to abolish slavery under that instrument. With all deference, we must say, we see no such necessity laid upon us. We might, for argument's sake, grant all that Mr. Smith claims as to the power of the Federal Government to abolish slavery under the Constitution, and yet hold, as we certainly do hold, that it is wrong to vote and take office under the Constitution. It is not enough that a man can demonstrate that his plan will abolish slavery, to satisfy us that his plan is the right and best one to be adopted. Slavery might be abolished by the aid of a foreign arm; but shall we therefore invoke that aid? We might, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, break into the house of Mr. Smith and steal the wherewithal to do these things, but the question of the rightfulness of such conduct would be still open. If there is one Christian principle more firmly fixed in our heart than another, it is this, that it is wrong to do evil that good may come; and if there is one heresy more to be guarded against than another, it is the doctrine that the end justifies the means. We say, therefore, that it is not incumbent upon us to show that, by a forced and latitudinarian construction of the Constitution, Congress may not abolish slavery in all the slaveholding States, in order to establish the doctrine which we lay down and justify the course which we feel bound to pursue in regard to voting under the Constitution of the United States. It is enough for us to know that the Constitution requires of those who are parties to it to return the fugitive slave to the house of bondage, and to shoot down the slave if he rises to gain his freedom, to justify us in repudiating and forever casting from us, as a covenant with death, the American Constitution.

Of course those who regard the Constitution in the light that Mr. Smith does, are bound by their convictions of duty to pursue an opposite course; and we candidly confess that, could we see the Constitution as they do, we should not be slow in using the ballot-box against the system of slavery, or urging others to do so. But we have learned enough of the elements of moral power, to know that a man is lame, impotent, and worse than weak, when he ceases to regard the clear convictions of his understanding, to accomplish anything, no matter how desirable that thing may be. We shall therefore continue to denounce the Constitution and government of the United States as a most foul and bloody conspiracy against the rights of three millions of enslaved and imbruted men; for such is the conviction of our conscience in respect to both the Constitution and the government. Down with both, for it is not fit that either should exist!—F. D.