Frederick Douglass believed the United States Constitution was itself an anti-slavery document, a view that differed sharply from that of some abolitionists in the mid-19th century. Douglass -- a former slave who became a notable orator, writer and statesman -- initially interpreted the document as being pro-slavery after escaping to the North and forming a relationship with William Lloyd Garrison, a prominent white abolitionist who published the anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator. However, while Garrison believed the Founding Fathers intentionally preserved the institution of slavery in the Constitution, Douglass eventually came to the opinion that the framers intended the U.S. Constitution to be an evolving document that could be wielded as a weapon against slavery.

Original Position

Douglass was enslaved in Maryland until escaping to New York City in 1838. In 1841 he met Garrison, who would become his mentor. Although Douglass originally shared Garrison’s belief that the Constitution's failure to prohibit the forced bondage of African-Americans made it a pro-slavery document, his views began to evolve after touring Europe and establishing his own newspaper, The North Star, in 1848. At that time the abolitionist movement was sharply divided between those who believed the Constitution itself was a “guilty compromise” on slavery in order to create the Union, and those who believed the document was opposed to injustice for people of all colors and backgrounds. In 1851 Douglass began publicly discussing his view that the Constitution, especially in the context of federal jurisdiction, could be used to support emancipation. The divergence of Douglass’ opinion from that of Garrison ended their friendship.

Pro-Slavery Argument

Abolitionists like Garrison believed the entire structure of the Constitution worked against easing the way for emancipation, making the document supportive of slavery. For instance, Garrison and his supporters believed Congress’ limited powers to interfere in the domestic institutions of individual states was included to appease slaveholders in the South. Several clauses in the body of the text, such as Article 1’s “three-fifths" compromise that allowed “those bound to Service” to be counted as three-fifths of a human being for the purposes of congressional representation, were also viewed as being inherently supportive of the institution of slavery.

Douglass On the Framers' Original Intent

Douglass came to believe that documents recording the debates of the framers during the composition of the Constitution, as well as a straight reading of both that document and the Declaration of Independence proved the framers did not intend to preserve the institution of slavery. Douglass, for example, believed the “We the people” opening of the preamble of the Constitution encompassed African-Americans -- meaning they were similarly guaranteed to the “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” outlined in the Declaration of Independence. Douglass also argued that the framers, who in Article 1 of the Constitution included of a 20-year limit on the importation of African slaves, intended the practice of slavery to end after that date.

Natural Law

Douglass drew on the tradition of natural law in his argument against slavery. The history of Western democracy and republicanism places a firm emphasis on justice and social progress, which Douglass argued must have subsequently influenced the general ideas of America’s founding documents. According to Douglass, slavery also contradicted the creation story of the Christian Bible, which states God “hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.” The Bible’s affirmation of universal brotherhood, according to Douglass, made it a natural law that would have affected the framers' drafting of the Constitution.