Frederick Douglass Rochester NY Sites, Day 1

Susan B. Anthony Square, Rochester NY, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

At Susan B. Anthony Square

Ninth day, Monday Mar 28th

On a cold, gray, and blustery spring morning, I drive from Syracuse to Rochester NY, and head straight for a certain house very near Susan B. Anthony Square. As I suspect might be the case, the house is closed to the public today so I’ll return tomorrow; I head here first anyway to scope things out in person because, as it turns out, I have more free time to explore Rochester this morning than I thought I would. Hooray!

For the moment, I leave my car in the Madison St parking lot adjacent to the house and head to the square just around the corner, going east through Yack Alley, not the only or even necessarily the shortest way but I choose it because the name makes me smile. Susan B. Anthony Square, at 39 King St, is a little park crisscrossed with meandering paths and dotted with benches and neatly trimmed shrubbery, in the center of pretty blocks of well-maintained early 19th century houses. The square is dominated by a life-size sculpture of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony by Pepsy Kettavong, called ‘Let’s Have Tea’, installed in 2001.

Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony statue by Pepsy Kettvong, Rochester NY, 2016 by Amy Cools

Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony sculpture by Pepsy Kettvong in Susan B. Anthony Square, Rochester NY

The sculpture presents an idealized picture of Douglass’ and Anthony’s friendship, a view I had long held myself and never really questioned, I suppose because I admire them both and wish it were true! As my research for this series reveals, however, the real relationship between Douglass and Anthony was a long, complicated, often troubled one over the years. (I should have known something was up given that Douglass doesn’t write about her in his autobiographies except for a brief mention of her as one of the authors of History of Woman Suffrage.) Sometimes they were real friends, such as when they first met; at other times, they were estranged co-activists in a shared cause, presenting a united front solely for practical, political reasons. For all her admirable work in promoting women’s and black rights over her long career as a social reformer, Anthony, as you may remember from my Albany account, resorted to using racist language in her campaign against the 15th Amendment’s granting voting rights only to men, regardless of race, and also sadly, she was among those spreading rumors that Douglass’ friendship with North Star colleague Julia Griffiths might be …ahem, less than respectable. (For more about the troubles in Anthony’s and Douglass’ relationship, listen to the second part of my interview with Douglass scholar Leigh Fought, starting at about 9:30).

Historical Marker and plaque for site of Amy and Isaac Post's house, Rochester NY, 2016 by Amy Cools

Historical Marker and plaque at 50 Plymouth St, marking the site of Amy and Isaac Post’s house

Douglass began the move to Rochester near the end of 1847, and brought the rest of his family here in February of 1848. Douglass said the move was ‘for motives of peace’. He wanted to start his own newspaper independently of the Garrisonians, who were centered in Boston (Lynn, where Douglass was living, is very close to Boston) and who disapproved strongly of his new pro-Union, pro-Constitution political views and newfound independence of thought and decision-making. Besides the fact that his good friends Amy and Isaac Post lived here, that it was an important stop on the Underground Railroad, and that it was a center for the feminist movement where the Post’s and his (then) friend Susan B. Anthony lived, Douglass listed all manner of other reasons for his move to Rochester in his autobiography Life and Times. ‘[Rochester] …is the center of a virtuous, intelligent, enterprising, liberal, and growing population… It is on the line of the New York Central railroad – a line that, with its connections, spans the whole country. Its people were (were? I wonder why he wrote this, in 1881, in the past tense)  industrious and in comfortable circumstances – not so rich as to be indifferent to the claims of humanity, and not so poor as to be unable to help any good cause which commanded the approval of their judgment’.

Post house site and old Central Prebyterian, now Hochstein Music School, 2016 by Amy Cools

Site of Douglass friends Amy and Isaac Post’s house (plainer front building to the left, with the blue Post house sign in front) and of the Central Presbyterian Church (center) where Douglass’ second funeral service was held in 1895. It’s now the Hochstein Music School.

I drive east on Main St and turn north on Plymouth Ave N, where there’s a historical marker for the site of Amy and Isaac Post’s home, just under a mile from Susan B. Anthony Square. It’s in front of the handsome brick buildings which now house the Hochstein Music School.

A gray sky and freezing gusty wind follows the milder temperature, scattered clouds, little rainbursts, and blue sky of the morning. The fine raindrops pepper my face like icy Lilliputian buckshot as I take photos of the front of the historical marker and the school. I can hardly hold my camera still between the wind and the shivering of my hands, fingers stiffened with cold. Ah, early spring in northern New York!

Amy and Isaac Post Historical Plaque at 50 Plymouth St, Rochester NY, 2016 Amy Cools

Amy and Isaac Post Historical Plaque at 50 Plymouth St, Rochester NY

Amy and Isaac Post were long-time friends of Douglass. He met them while passing through Rochester in 1842 or 1843 (depending on the source) on a marathon antislavery speaking tour early in his career. He described them in his Life and Times as ‘two people of all-abounding benevolence, the truest and best’. They were members of the Hicksite Quaker sect, the more progressive branch of the Society of Friends which emphasized the importance of the ‘inner light‘, which God places in all individuals for spiritual guidance. This, in turn, led to an emphasis on the moral, and hence to some, the social and political equality of all human beings. The Posts were emblematic of the brand of Quakerism that inspired so many activists in the abolitionist, women’s rights, temperance, and other human rights and social reform movements of the time. Yet even this brand of Quakerism was ultimately too conservative for the socially conscious Posts, who eventually became Spiritualists.

Old Central Presbyterian Church Plaque, Funeral of Frederick Douglass, 2016 Amy Cools.JPG

Old Central Presbyterian Church historical plaque with a photo of Frederick Douglass’ funeral service

Old Central Presbysterian Church sanctuary as Hochstein Music School theater today, 2016 Amy Cools.JPG

Old Central Presbysterian Church sanctuary in today’s incarnation as the Hochstein Music School theater

Stained glass window in Old Central Presbyterian Church building, now Hochstein Music School Theater

Stained glass window in Old Central Presbyterian Church building, now Hochstein Music School Theater

Hochstein not only stands on (or near, according to the Freethought Trail website, though I don’t think they’ve necessarily got it right: the house was at number 36 Sophia St, which was what Plymouth used to be named north of Main, which in turn was originally named Buffalo St, and the numbering may have changed along with the street name) the site of the old Post house. It’s also partly composed of the former Central Presbyterian Church where Douglass’ 1895 (his second, the first was held in Washington DC) and Anthony’s 1906 funeral services were held.

I enter the front door and am assisted by a helpful lady in the front office to the right. In response to my inquiries, she gives me permission to go inside and photograph the sanctuary of the old church building, now the school’s main performance hall. The man at the front desk takes me inside, and finds himself interested in the history of the old church too. ‘I’ve worked here five months,’ he says, ‘and I’ve never looked at these before!’ He’s referring to the plaques on the walls, with their photos and history of the building and of the school’s founder.

After admiring and photographing the theater, and learning what I can from these plaques and photos, I head east on Main again, a third of a mile closer to the Genessee River, to the site of the old Corinthian Hall, which, according to a couple of sources, was near the end of Corinthian Street behind the Reynolds Arcade, where the parking garage is now. Originally called The Athenaeum, as were so many public halls of the time, it was renamed Corinthian Hall after the style of the classical columns on its stage, and the building was widely famed for its beauty. Corinthian Street was also renamed, and most internet sources I find say it was originally named Exchange Place.  However, I discover that these two pieces of received internet wisdom appear to be a bit off. Poring over old maps in Rochester Library’s online images database, I find one published in 1851, two years after the hall was built in 1849. For one, I find that while the street was named Exchange Place before it was named Corinthian, it was named Work Street at the time the hall was built. Secondly, I find that it was not actually under the parking garage at the end of the street. It was actually directly across from the back entrance of the Reynolds Arcade, where a parking lot and a glassy midcentury office building now stand. The 1851 map was a little behind the times: Corinthian Hall and Exchange Place had already received their new names in 1850, but the map retains their original designations.

Corinthian St, north of Main, around the site of old Corinthian Hall

The rear of the Reynolds Arcade facing onto Corinthian St, north of Main, across from the site of old Corinthian Hall

View from west end of Corinthian St, showing site of old Corinthian Hall at right where the glassy midcentury building now stands, photo 2016 by Paige Sloan

View from west end of Corinthian St, showing site of old Corinthian Hall at right where the glassy midcentury building now stands, photo 2016 courtesy of Paige Sloan. Note the Corinthian columns on the First National Bank of Rochester-Old Monroe County Savings Bank Building, built in 1924, in the rear of the photo.

Douglass spoke frequently at what he referred to as ‘the beautiful Corinthian Hall’ in the 1850’s. In fact, he  ‘lectured [there] every Sunday evening during an entire winter’ as he wrote in his Life and Times. He delivered a speech here on Aug 21, 1852 at the Fugitive Slave Convention, in opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act. Then in July 1853, Douglass presided over the National Convention of Colored Men in Rochester, which became a center for the antislavery movement; his biographer Philip S. Foner called this convention ‘the most important’. This is where the pressing problem of lack of unification between various factions of the antislavery movement were identified and discussed, as well as the relative lack of black leadership. Though this Rochester convention still failed to bring about a unified black political movement, like the previous one in Troy discussed in an earlier account, it sent a powerful message that all black Americans had a powerful champion in Douglass.

Drawing of Corinthian Hall, image credit Rochester Public Library Local History Division (note it's also called The Atheaneum in the subtitle)

Drawing of Corinthian Hall, image credit Rochester Public Library Local History Division (note that it’s still titled The Athenaeum)

But the single most important Douglass moment in this hall happened on July 5, 1852, when he delivered his powerful ‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?‘ speech for the first time. He delivered it on the 5th instead of the 4th, he said, because the latter was a day of mourning, for himself and his people. This speech was Douglass’ Gettysburg Address, his Second Inaugural, his ‘To Be or Not to Be?’, where his powers of oratory and his eloquence were in full force. The speech is long, opening with a reflection on the history of the United States’ founding and its promise of renewed freedom for all. Then he pours out his lament:

‘I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn….

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all 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. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.’

If what he had to say that day didn’t make people ashamed to celebrate liberty for themselves while denying it to others, no words could.

Talman Building at 25 E Main St, Rochester NY, where Douglass published the North Star

Talman Building, across from the Reynolds Arcade at 25 E Main St (formerly 25 Buffalo St), Rochester NY, where Douglass published the North Star

Lobby of the Talman Building. Frederick Douglass' North Star offices were on the second floor

Lobby of the Talman Building. Frederick Douglass’ North Star offices were on the second floor

So the first issue of Douglass’ first very own newspaper the North Star came out on Dec 3rd, 1847. Rosa O’Keefe, on page 29 of her 2013 book Frederick and Anna Douglass in Rochester, New York, writes that the first edition was printed in the basement of the A.M.E. Zion church (a site we’ll return to in my next account); however, the first edition lists the Talman building address as its place of publication on the upper left-hand corner. Perhaps the Talman office was all lined up as the North Star‘s permanent home but still needed to have its press moved in. After all, it’s no joke hoisting a mid-nineteenth century printing press up to the second floor.

As described above, William Lloyd Garrison and the Boston abolitionists tried to dissuade Douglass from leaving the Boston area and starting his own paper. They wanted him to continue on in his role as one of their most famous lecturers, and warned that his lack of experience and formal education would likely lead to the paper’s ultimate failure, talented as they knew him to be. But he had reached a new level of confidence after his successful British Isles lecture tour and was determined to strike out on his own. He ascribed to himself ‘motives of peace’ in the wish to avoid competition with Boston’s The Liberator, but as the people who knew him longest observed, Douglass was always strong of personality, self-willed, and enjoyed taking charge. Many friends and supporters donated money to fund the paper, including $4,000 donated by British supporters of his cause (British friends had also purchased his freedom), and subscribed, encouraged others to do the same, and in many other ways supported his endeavor.

Talman Building's old Post Office, where Douglass published his North Star, image credit Rochester Public Library

Talman Building’s old Post Office, where Douglass published his North Star, image credit Rochester Public Library

And no other single person did more to make the North Star a personal and financial success than Julia Griffiths, an English abolitionist he had met in December 1846 in Newcastle upon Tyne. They hit it off right away, and stayed good friends for the rest of their lives. When she heard he had founded his newspaper only to have it run into financial and editorial difficulties, this energetic woman came to Douglass’ rescue in the spring of 1849. She quickly took over some of the editing and most of the bookkeeping and finances, and within a year, doubled the number of subscribers and lifted the paper, and Douglass with it, out of debt. At first, she lived with the Douglass family; later on, she moved to her own place, as the rumor mill never stopped grinding out malicious gossip, much to the ever-respectable, ever-private Anna Douglass’ dismay.

Site of old Seward Seminary, Alexander at Tracy St, Rochester NY

Near site of Seward Seminary, east side of Alexander a little south of Tracy St, Rochester NY. The historical marker used to be near the bench and the tree

I head further east, over the Genessee to Alexander St, a little north of Tracy St and on the same side, by the old Genessee Hospital. There’s a vacant lot here, with a distinctive tree and a bench, near where there used to be a New York historical marker for the site of the old Seward Seminary.

Seward Seminary, Alexander St Rochester NY, image credit Rochester Library Historical Images

Seward Seminary, Alexander St Rochester NY, image credit Rochester Library Historical Images

I know I’m at the right place by the map coordinates, and it’s easy to recognize the bench, tree, and buildings on the background in the photos of this location I found online posted just a few years ago. But the sign is now gone, stolen, or being repaired or repainted, who knows? I hope it will be reinstalled, because it marks the site of an important social movement in the United States that Douglass took part in way back before it was really a thing.

In 1848, Douglass enrolled his daughter Rosetta in Seward Seminary, the fashionable girls school which stood here. Likely having accepted Rosetta in the first place because her father was a well-known man, the school’s principal Lucilia Tracy, in deference to the school’s trustees, made Rosetta learn her lessons in a separate room from the other students. Rosetta, no surprise, was the only black student enrolled. When Rosetta tearfully told her father of this, Douglass was enraged. He confronted Tracy, who tried to evade responsibility by putting it to a student vote: who would object if Rosetta would sit next to them? One after the other, every student in the room said they were not only willing, but many requested that Rosetta be placed next to then. As is so often the case, these children proved themselves more fair-minded and far more progressive than even most of the adult citizens in Rochester, where racism was still rife. Yet in response to the notes that Tracy sent home with the students reporting the situation, every parent voted in tandem with their children, except one, the editor of the Rochester Courier. As he had with train car segregation in New England, Douglass took this battle to the public, castigating this H.G. Warner in the North Star and other papers, and all those like him in front of the the School Board of Education.

The site, now a parking lot, of the Douglass home at 4 Alexander St, Rochester NY, 2016 Amy Cools

The site, now a parking lot next to a restaurant, of the Douglass family home at 4 Alexander St, Rochester NY

In his vigorous expose of the injustice and harm in such undignified treatment of children, Douglass’ campaign to integrate the public schools in Rochester was ultimately successful: the public schools were integrated in 1857. This was a century before Brown vs. Board of Education! Though Douglass’ campaign here was successful, the principle that all children should receive fair and equal treatment in America’s schools was not to be enshrined in law in most of the United States for over a century. Hate can certainly be intransigent.

Douglass home at 4 Alexander St in later incarnation as a shop, image Rochester Public Library Local History

The Douglass family home at 4 Alexander St in a later incarnation as Vogue Furniture shop, image c. 1936, credit Rochester Public Library Local History Division. The building was torn down in 1954.

Just a little farther north at 297 Alexander St, close enough for little Rosetta to have walked to Seward Seminary without breaking a sweat, there’s now a parking lot next to a restaurant simply called ‘Mex’. There’s nothing indicating this as the site where the Douglass family moved into their first house here in Rochester in April 1848, at what was then 4 Alexander St. It took some time for the Douglasses to find a house to buy in Rochester; Douglass’ family had followed him here in February and boarded until a local abolitionist sold them the 9 room brick house that once stood on this spot. By 1850, Douglass had became the leader of Rochester’s Underground Railroad, which was among the work he was most proud of, and this house became one of the most important stops. Rochester was one of the last way stations on the way to Canada. Since the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, even the northern states had become too dangerous for escaped slaves to remain in, so many chose to press farther north in their quest for freedom.

Paganini's Violin at the Municipal Palace in Genoa, image public domain via Project Gutenberg

Paganini’s Violin at the Municipal Palace in Genoa, image public domain via Project Gutenberg

But it wasn’t all work and no play for Frederick Douglass, even with all his writing, speaking, campaigning for justice for his children, and aiding fugitives from slavery. This house was accumulating a large library for the literary Douglass, and as you may remember, he loved to play the violin. At least one occasion in 1850, he played an impromptu concert for the neighborhood children here in this house. Anna had encouraged him to take up the violin in the early days of their relationship in Fell’s Point, and he never stopped playing. In his Life and Times, he devotes a whole page to the moving experience of seeing Niccolò Paganini’s violin on display in a museum in Genoa, Italy in 1886. Music was very important to the Douglasses: Rosetta would accompany her father on the piano, and Douglass’ love of the violin would continue on in his progeny, which we’ll return to in a later account. 

Thus ends my first day in Rochester New York, but I’ll be here in this area following Douglass’ life and ideas for awhile longer and having many more exciting historical adventures. Stay tuned!

*Listen to the podcast version here or subscribe on iTunes

~ With special thanks to Paige Sloan, who heads and teaches a writing program for international students at the University of Rochester and, like me, is a big Fredrick Douglass fan! She provided me with an additional source for my Corinthian Hall research and a photo I neglected to take.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and Inspiration

27. Frederick Douglass Newspaper Office‘, The Freethought Trail website

30. Post Home / Western New York Anti-Slavery Society‘, The Freethought Trail website

33. Corinthian Hall / Academy of Music‘, The Freethought Trail website

Colored National Convention (1853 : Rochester, NY), “Proceedings of the Colored National Convention, Held in Rochester, July 6th, 7th, and 8th, 1853.,” ColoredConventions.org.

Corinthian Hall (venue)‘, under ‘Charter Inductees’, Rochester Music Hall of Fame website

Cornell, Silas, ‘Map of the City of Rochester‘, 1863. From Rochester Library Digital Collections, Monroe County Library System website.

Death of Frederick Douglass‘. Feb. 21, 1895 obituary, reprinted in the New York Times: On This Day

Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies (includes Narrative…, My Freedom and my Bondage, and Life and Times). With notes by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Volume compilation by Literary Classics of the United States. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.

Douglass, Frederick. “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”, July 5, 1852. Teaching American History (website)

The Era of Academies in Monroe County‘, From Rochester Library Digital Collections, Monroe County Library System website.

First National Bank of Rochester-Old Monroe County Savings Bank Building. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Foner, Philip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 1-4. New York: International Publishers, 1950.

Fought, Lee. ‘The Musical Douglasses: Rosetta‘. Frederick Douglass’s Women: In Progress blog,

“Let’s Have Tea” by Pepsy M. Kettavong‘, Rochester Public Art Catalog (website)

McFeely, William. Frederick Douglass. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.

McKelvey, Blake. ‘Historic Antecedents from the Crossroads Project‘. From the Rochester History Journal, Oct 1864, Vol. 26, No. 4.

Many Roads to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in Rochester and Vicinity‘. Article, Rochester Digital Collections, Monroe County Library System website.

Morry, Emily. ‘Frederick Douglass Home on Alexander Street’ and ‘Talman Building‘, Democrat & Chronicle: Retrofitting Rochester series

The North Star: Abolitionist Newspaper Founded By Frederick Douglass‘, Maryland State Archives (website)

O’Keefe, Rose. Frederick and Anna Douglass in Rochester, New York: Their Home Was Open to All
Charleston: The History Press, 2013.

Post House‘, New York Historic website

Quaker Influence‘, National Historical Park New York page of the National Park Service website

Seward Seminary‘ – New York Historical Markers on Waymarking.com

Smith, Marcus. ‘Plan of the City of Rochester, N.Y. [Southwest Quadrant]‘ and ‘Southeast Quadrant‘, 1851. From Rochester Digital Collections, Monroe County Library System website.

Southwest Quadrant – Susan B. Anthony‘, article from the City of Rochester website

Interview with Leigh Fought on Anna and Frederick Douglass

Leigh Fought image Le Moyne College, Anna Douglass image Library of CongressI’m pleased and honored to present my third interview guest, Leigh Fought, Anna and Frederick Douglass scholar and assistant professor at LeMoyne College in Syracuse. We’ll be talking about Anna Douglass, about whom I believe too little is known, and most historical presentations of her range from woefully incomplete to inaccurate and even unfair. Ms. Fought is doing significant work in righting this with her upcoming book about the women in the life of Frederick Douglass, the most significant of which, of course, is Anna.

Interview with Leigh Fought, Part One

Interview with Leigh Fought, Part Two

Find out more about Ms. Fought and her work at her blog Frederick Douglass’s Women: In Progressfaculty page for Le Moyne College, and Amazon author page, and here are some other articles and papers she’s written / co-authored; there are many others not available online, please contact the author:

Globalizing Protest in the 1980s: Musicians Collaborate to Change the World‘, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Commentary: Frederick Douglass and Interracial Marriage‘, Syracuse.com blog

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Frederick Douglass Albany, Troy, and Syracuse NY Sites

A view of Albany, NY, 2016 by Amy Cools

A view of downtown Albany, New York, looking west

Eighth Day, Sunday March 27th

I get up very early and leave Cambridge (where I’ve been staying while visiting Boston and Lynn) and this time, instead of heading north, I head west across upstate New York. I’ve never visited this part of the country before. My friend who I’ll be staying with in Rochester laments that I’m visiting at the least advantageous time of year for beauty’s sake: the snow is gone, and having scrubbed the trees bare, leaves the trash it’s been concealing exposed, and there’s not a hint of green nor bloom yet on the branches. But I still think it’s lovely, with a sort of stark gray beauty, and enjoy the day’s drive of about 325 miles.

A view down State Street looking toward the Hudson River, Albany NY

A view down State Street looking toward the Hudson River, Albany NY

My first stop is Albany, a city on a hill with beautiful architecture. There were some ardent abolitionists here, and it had one of the main stations on the Underground Railroad on the route Frederick Douglass was connected to. Douglass named Stephen MyersLydia and Abigail Mott (who he entrusted with the education of his daughter Rosetta for a time) and William Topp in his autobiographies as some of the key figures here in the cause of the liberation of black people. But Douglass had some very unflattering things to say about Albany too: as he wrote in 1847, he observed a lot of racism here, especially in the wealthier families enriched directly or indirectly from slaveholding, and in the press. He was warmly welcomed by the congregation of the Baptist Church on State Street, but as of this time I can’t confirm its location: the current Baptist Church on State Street, Emmanuel, didn’t move there until 1869, and the Baptist church I found dating from his time was not on State St.

Tweddle Hall, inscribed 1754 Old Tweddle Hall, from Albany Institute of History & Art Library

Tweddle Hall, inscribed ‘1754 Old Tweddle Hall’, from Albany Institute of History & Art Library

I wander the downtown area for a little while, glad to stretch my legs, admiring the grand city center buildings, soaring churches (mostly built in the mid to late 1880’s), old stone and brick row houses, and the lovely view east where the hill slopes down to the Hudson River. Then I head to my main destination, the site where Frederick Douglass spoke at the American Equal Rights Convention at Tweddle Hall, held November 20th and 21st, 1866. Tweddle Hall once stood at the northeast corner of State and Pearl, and originally built in 1860, it burned down, was rebuilt once in 1883, then replaced in 1927 by the Bank Building which now stands here.

Douglass had long been an ardent champion of the women’s rights movement; he had been the first to back Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s call for women’s suffrage at the Seneca Falls convention in 1848 (more on this story in an upcoming account).

But here in Albany, a serious split in the women’s rights movement began with the debate over the 15th Amendment. The American Equal Rights Association had formed earlier that year, on May 10th in New York City. The Eleventh National Women’s Rights Convention reformed itself as the AERA, dedicated equally to black and female suffrage following the 14th Amendment, which for the first time specifically linked the word ‘male’ to the right to vote. While the 14th Amendment didn’t specifically guarantee the right to vote to all males, it did limit representation according to the number of adult males allowed to vote, overturning the hated 3/5ths compromise clause of the Constitution which granted representation, albeit reduced, to non-voting ‘persons bound to service for a number of years’, in other words, slaves.

Bank Building at NE corner of State and Pearl, site of old Tweddle Hall, 2016 Amy Cools

Bank Building at northeast corner of State and S. Pearl, site of old Tweddle Hall

The proposed 15th Amendment, as written and as it was eventually passed, would guarantee the right to vote to all citizens regardless of ‘race, color, or previous condition of servitude’, leaving the ‘male’ link to voting from the 14th Amendment intact. Douglass’ biographer Phillip S. Foner describes Douglass’ position on the 15th Amendment as: ‘to women the ballot was desirable, to the Negro it was a matter of life and death.’ Douglass thought it was absolutely imperative that black people get the right to vote even if it meant putting aside other great political causes for the moment. Adding women’s right to vote to the 15th Amendment would make it so much more controversial that it surely wouldn’t pass. After all, it wasn’t only black men who were still suffering great oppression and failing to enjoy the rights the Civil War victory was supposed to have won them; black women suffered worst of all because they had no legally protected voters to represent them. To many in the women’s rights movement, this was an unpardonable breach of loyalty from the man who had been their dedicated champion from the beginning. But Douglass still supported the AERA, joined in their petitions, and even acted as a representative and as a Vice President over the years.

Unfortunately, as the political struggle for racial suffrage gained more traction than woman suffrage, some of the feminist political rhetoric took on a racist character, saying, for example, that suffrage for educated, civilized white women should take precedent over suffrage for uneducated, ‘degraded’ black people. Sadly, even his old friends and allies Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton stooped to this rhetoric, though in later years Stanton redeemed herself somewhat by warmly, and wittily, congratulating Douglass and Helen Pitts on their January 24th, 1884 marriage: ‘After all the terrible battles and political upheavals we have had in expurgating our constitutions of that odious adjective ‘white’ it is really remarkable that you of all men should have stooped to do it honor.’ Perhaps his good example of loyalty to her in later years, despite her earlier racist comments, helped her overcome the worst in her character that angry disappointment can tend to bring out even in the best of us.

Liberty St at Franklin, Troy NY, two blocks east of the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church site

Liberty St at Franklin, Troy NY, two blocks east of the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church historical marker site

I return to my car and drive about 15 minutes north along the Hudson River to Troy, another northern New York State former industrial town which has clearly suffered a long and steady decline. But it’s full of lovely old buildings and has an interesting history; for example, Elizabeth Cady Stanton attended Troy Female Seminary. It’s also a college town; when I stop for coffee and to do some research, I find myself among many college age students spending late Easter morning studying (though I suppose they’re on spring break, what good students!) and hanging out.

Liberty Street Presbyterian Church, Collection of the Rensselaer County Historical Society, Troy, NY 2

Liberty Street Presbyterian Church in a later incarnation as a laundry. This only known surviving photo is in the collection of the Rensselaer County Historical Society, Troy, NY

I’m headed for the site of Liberty Street Presbyterian Church, which Albany’s Times Union newspaper reports was on the corner of Liberty and Franklin Streets – which may not actually be the right street corner, as I discover when fact-checking and doing extended research for this account, more on that in a moment. The Liberty Street Church used to be a stop on the Underground Railroad, ran by pastor Henry Highland Garner from 1838 to 1848.

I’m looking for this site today because the 1847 National Colored Convention was held here, where the ultimately unsuccessful movement to start a national, unified Negro League movement began. According to John Cromwell in his 1914 book The Negro in American History‘…the very first article in the first number of [Douglass’ paper] the North Star published January, 1848, is an extended notice of the National Colored Convention held at the Liberty Street Church, Troy, New York, October 9th, 1847′. Nathan Johnson, who the Douglasses made their first home with in New Bedford, was president of the convention. Frederick Douglass was one of the Massachusetts delegates to this convention. He still espoused Garrisonian principles at the time (he changed his mind later), which, among other things, held that moral suasion and non-violent boycotting of politics were the most effective ways to end slavery. He called on his fellow black people everywhere to leave their churches if they were segregated or supportive of slavery in any way, and stressed the importance of education and self-improvement to stand as living testaments against the prejudices of white people. However, for a variety of reasons, it proved too difficult to unite the scattered, disenfranchised black community together into one unified movement. Those who were free shared the tactical and philosophical disagreements of white members of the abolitionist movement; those who were still enslaved or suffering the worst hardships of poverty, illiteracy, and other innumerable forms of intimidation and oppression found it difficult or impossible to participate.

Liberty Street Presbyterian Church Site (according to historical marker), photo by Howard C. Ohlhous 2016

Liberty Street Presbyterian Church Site with historical marker, photo by Howard C. Ohlhous 2016

So why might I be at the wrong street corner here at Liberty and Franklin? Because my additional research for this account prior to publication pulled up two locations for the old church, rather than the one I had initially pulled up. A couple of secondary and tertiary sources, which I find first and which guide my day’s search here, list the location as Liberty at Franklin: the newspaper, and this booklet for a historical project from 2008. I don’t yet have enough evidence now to prove definitively which is correct, though I believe one much is more likely. The crossing of Liberty and Franklin Streets is unmarked; Franklin is a narrow little street that runs between 2nd and 3rd, between the three story brick building and the two story white board one with the bay window. It’s a rather shabby little street corner now, the buildings here now don’t appear to be all that old.

Liberty Street Presbyterian Church Marker at Liberty and Church Streets, photo by Howard C Ohlhous

Liberty Street Presbyterian Church Marker at Liberty and Church Streets, photo by Howard C Ohlhous

Yet the historical marker for the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church is placed at Liberty and Church Streets, two blocks east of here. Oddly enough, the creators of the Spectres of Liberty project describe the site in their booklet as located on Liberty at Franklin, yet they hold their ‘Raising the Ghost of the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church‘, a super cool historical art event, at the marker site. Could it be that the street names have been changed or reassigned? A city map / atlas from 1845 reveals that the street names and locations are the same here today as they were then.

In case the historical marker is placed incorrectly (update: the Rensselaer County Historical Society assures me that the marker is at the correct site) and this does turn out to be the correct site, which corner of Liberty and Franklin could it have been on? Comparing the photo to the streets now, there’s one clue that might help me: the fire hydrant shown in the photo. There is no fire hydrant now, but there is a capped water supply pipe which could have supplied it; unless it’s torn up and moved, this would remain a permanent fixture. It’s in the sidewalk in front of the three story red brick apartment building on the northwest corner of the street. If this is the same water supply, that would place the church on that corner with its narrower pointy side facing on Franklin and its long side facing Liberty. However, when I look more closely at the photo I’m referring to (the only known surviving one, it’s in the Rensselaer Historical Society collection), the site where the historical marker is located, two blocks east at Liberty and Church looks more like the correct location, if the placement of the fire hydrant and the street pole are the same today.

So why include my story of possibly looking in the wrong place (which, as it turns out, I do)? Well, this travel series is the story of a journey, and journeys often include wrong turns, misreading of signs, incorrect maps, bad directions, and so forth. Each of these is a learning experience, and I hope you don’t mind that I take you along with me as I learn. As we’ve just seen, there are conflicting sources of information out there, and the lesson I learn here: triple-check all sources!

Wieting Hall Site, Syracuse NY,

Wieting Hall Site,  111-119 W. Water St at S. Salina off Clinton Square, Syracuse NY

Wieting Opera House on Clinton Square in Syracuse, New York, 1898

Wieting Opera House on Clinton Square in Syracuse, New York, 1898

My last destination of the day is the site of Wieting Hall, at 111-119 W. Water Street in Syracuse, NY. The hall, which was first built in 1851, burned down in 1856 and was rebuilt as an opera house in 1857, burned and rebuilt yet again in 1881. Its builder and public-spirited owner Dr. John Wieting was a stoic yet tenacious man, responsible for its every incarnation. As you can see, what stands here now is not nearly so inspiring, in looks or in history.

On Nov 14th, 1861, Douglass was scheduled to deliver a speech on the Civil War and why the slaves needed to be freed en masse for the Union to win, one of his many appearances in Syracuse. Syracuse was another important stop on the underground railroad. However, as we’ve seen throughout this travel series, just because New York and other Northern states were free did not mean that all people here wanted black people to be armed, to enjoy civil rights, or even to be emancipated. Many in Syracuse were abolitionists and many others were not; racism was endemic in both of these groups.

According to Foner’s biography, an angry protest was planned: many townspeople were prepared to drive him and the other abolitionist speakers from the city. However, to his great credit, mayor Charles Andrews and Dr. Wieting refused to be intimidated, insisting that the talk take place as planned. They believed (as I agree all Americans should) that even unpopular speech should be protected speech, and their Syracuse was not to be a place where free speech could be squelched by threats. So 50 – 100 police were stationed (depending on the source) along with armed members of the Second Onondaga Regiment. When Douglass spoke, the crowd was well-behaved and respectful, be it because they actually did respect him and his right to speak, or because they were not allowed to be otherwise.

Clinton Square and Jerry Rescue Monument, Syracuse NY

Clinton Square and Jerry Rescue Monument, at S. Clinton and W. Water Streets, Syracuse NY, with Wieting Hall site in the background

Jerry Rescue Monument, Syracuse NY, photo 2016 by Amy CoolsAs I have plenty of daylight left, I wander through lovely Clinton Square, clearly a site in the process of restoration. The large rectangular concrete center used to be a part of the Erie Canal, a waterway route to the center of the city, and a place to ice skate when frozen over in winter (part if it is still filled with water and turned into a wintertime outdoor skating rink today!)

I discover a monument near the southwest corner of the square, erected in 2001 and dedicated to the October 1st, 1851 rescue of William ‘Jerry’ Henry. An escaped slave from Missouri, he was arrested as part of the effort to enforce the much-hated Fugitive Slave Act, enacted on September 18th, 1850. Many Northerners, abolitionist or not, thought it an intolerable intrusion on the legal autonomy of states and on freedom of conscience. Though the orator and statesman Daniel Webster (who, as you may remember from the second of my Lynn accounts, supported it as an acceptable compromise for preserving the Union) warned that the Fugitive Slave Act would be rigorously enforced here in Syracuse, it was vigorously defied on that October day. Attendees of the Liberty Party state convention (the party of Gerrit Smith, Douglass’ friend and mentor who we’ll learn more about soon) broke into the jail and freed Jerry, hid him in town for a few days, and smuggled him to Canada. This event would be long celebrated by abolitionists and champions of human rights, Douglass among them, as a triumph over oppression and in thanks to those who risked themselves to help a fellow human being in need.

Jerry Rescue Monument Plaque, Syracuse NY, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Jerry Rescue Monument Plaque in Clinton Square, Syracuse NY

Yellow house I stay at in Syracuse, NY, photo 2016 by Amy CoolsSo ends my tale of today’s adventures. I’m going to spend the night in a rented room in an old yellow house near beautiful Syracuse University, the most charming place I stay throughout the trip, with the exception of my new friends’ house near Baltimore and my old friends’ house in Rochester. Stay tuned for my continuing adventures following the life and ideas of Frederick Douglass!

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and Inspiration:

Amendment XIV: Citizenship Rights, Equal Protection, Apportionment, Civil War Debt‘, Constitution Center website

Amendment XV: Right to Vote Not Denied by Race‘, Constitution Center website

American Equal Rights Association‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Beauchamp, William Martin. Past and Present of Syracuse and Onondaga County, New York: From Prehistoric Times to the Beginning of 1908 (Volume 2). SJ Clarke Publishing Co: New York, 1908.

Blassingame, J. (Ed.). The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews. 4 volumes, and The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series 2: Autobiographical Writings. 3 volumes. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979-1999 (including a letter to Sydney H. Gay, dated Oct 4th 1847)

‘Courtesy of the Rensselaer County Historical Society: Rev. Henry Highland Garnet’. The Amistad CommissionNew York Department of State website

Cromwell, John Wesley. The Negro in American History: Men and Women Eminent in the Evolution of the American of African Descent. J.F. Tapley Co: New York, 1914

Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies (includes Narrative…, My Freedom and my Bondage, and Life and Times). With notes by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Volume compilation by Literary Classics of the United States. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.

Frederick Douglass Escapes Slavery, Becomes Leading Abolitionist‘, Onondaga Historical Association website

Foner, Philip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 1-4. New York: International Publishers, 1950.

Garrison, William Lloyd. The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison, Volume IV: From Disunionism to the Brink of War, 1850-1860. Edited by Louis Ruchames

Hallaron, Amy. ‘Artist’s magic lives on in Troy‘, Times Union, Albany, Monday, January 16, 2012

Jerry Rescue‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Jerry Rescue Monument‘, #44, Freethought Trail website

‘Liberty Street Presbyterian Church (African)’, Historical Marker Database (source of marker photos)

Lydia and Abigail Mott‘, Underground Railroad History website

McFeely, William. Frederick Douglass. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.

Proceedings of the National Convention of Colored People and Their Friends; held in Troy, NY; on the 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th of October, 1847.’ Colored Conventions website, University of Delaware

Rittner, Don. Albany, Then & NowArcadia: Charleston SC, 2002

Robinson, Olivia, Josh MacPhee, and Dara Greenwald. Spectres of Liberty: The Raising of the Ghost of the Liberty Street Church. Websitebooklet and video

Stephen Myers‘, Underground Railroad History website

Susan B. Anthony Boldly Writes the Speaker of the House Asking for a Public Endorsement of Women’s Suffrage‘, pamphlet for 1866 Convention and signed letter, RAAB collection website

Troy, N.Y., from actual survey‘ (map / atlas) by S.A. Beers, civl. engineer. Depicts: 1845

Upstate New York and the Women’s Rights Movement‘, University of Rochester / River Campus Libraries website

Wieting Opera House‘, #51, Freethought Trail website

Frederick Douglass on the Constitution

Frederick Douglass Ambrotype, 1856 by an unknown photographer, image public domain via Wikimedia CommonsEarly on his career as an abolitionist speaker and activist, Frederick Douglass is a dedicated Garrisonian: anti-violence, anti-voting, anti-Union, and anti-Constitution.

In the early 1840’s, Douglass joins a revitalized abolitionist movement largely shaped by the views of William Lloyd Garrison. Since the early 1930’s, Garrison espouses a particular set of moral and political beliefs, radical for his time, which he promotes in his influential anti-slavery paper The Liberator. He believes in total non-violence, violence being a tactic of the slaveowners and their corrupt government protectors, not of good God-fearing people who have moral truth on their side. He believes that since voting implies that a government that legalizes slavery is legitimate, true abolitionists must abstain. He believes that the continued Union of the States, Abraham Lincoln’s sacred cause, was not only impossible, but undesirable: it involved the North, directly and indirectly, in the evil of slavery. Since the South was hell-bent on preserving that unnatural and therefore illegal institution, the South should go, and good riddance. And all of these are tied to Garrison’s view of the Constitution: it’s an ultimately pro-slavery, anti-human rights document, and therefore not worthy of obedience or respect.

For many years, Douglass fully agrees with Garrison. But over time, as a result of his conversations and debates with abolitionists who interpret the Constitution differently, and of his own study, experience, and thought in the first four years of publishing his own paper The North Star, Douglass changes his mind. By the early 1850’s, the abolitionist par excellence had come to disagree with Garrison, father of American radical abolitionism, and to agree with Lincoln, proponent of preserving the Union at all costs and of the gradual phasing out of slavery.

So how does Douglass come to make what seems such a counterintuitive change in his views on the Constitution and on the role of violence, voting, and the Union in bringing an end to slavery?

Some of the reasons for Douglass’ evolution are pragmatic; his pragmatist side becomes more pronounced with time and experience (more on this in another piece). For one, he comes to believe that violence is not only unavoidable at times, but sometimes necessary (more on this in another piece as well).

Douglass also becomes convinced that abstaining from politics is just suicide by degrees for the abolitionist movement, since it cedes political power to slaveowners and their supporters. Abstaining from voting in protest, as Garrison calls for, actually works against the project of obtaining greater political rights for black people. (As with celebrity comedian-guru Russell Brand’s anti-voting campaign today; the idea of abstaining from the vote in protest is neither new nor, in my opinion, any more effective now than it was then.) As Douglass points out, however motivated some people are to do the right thing by their fellow citizens, there will always be plenty of others motivated by greed, moral laziness in going along with the status quo, and the drive for power and domination over others. Political clout, gained through voting in those who represent their views, is one of the very few ways in which black people can finally obtain and protect their equal legal rights. And not only that: voting is one of the most practical yet powerful ways black people can demonstrate their full citizenship to those who might be inclined to doubt it. Other than getting an education and fighting in the war for emancipation, Douglass argues that it’s the most important way to undermine ugly stereotypes, prevalent in his day, of black people as lazy, uninformed, and fit only to have their lives run by others. (These stereotypes are, by the way, so ugly that it’s painful just to write them down, but confronting the ugliness head-on drives home the dire necessity of getting rid of them once and for all.)Constitution of the United States, first page of the original, provided by the National Archives and Records Administration, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

But voting’s not enough to ensure that black people obtain the political power necessary to enhance and preserve their rights. For the abolitionist revolution to succeed, the Union must be preserved at all costs, and in the process, it must be recreated as the unified, true haven of freedom it’s meant to be. Douglass believes it’s the responsibility of the free states to liberate the enslaved people of the Southern states, and to extend and enforce guarantees of human rights for all inhabitants of all states.

Why? Because the Preamble of the Constitution tells us that’s what it’s for.

But how does Douglass justify this interpretation when it’s still a matter of such contention that he’s watching his country tear itself in two over it?

To understand the Constitution, it can help somewhat to consider the history that led to its creation and the ideas and intentions of those who wrote it; but to fully understand its true meaning and purpose, Douglass believes, we must always interpret all of its parts in the context of its preamble:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.’

The preamble is the key to any valid interpretation of the Constitution because it tells us, in plain, direct, and eloquent language, why the Constitution is written, who it’s written for, and who is bound to obey it. Any interpretation inconsistent with the Preamble reveals that either the Constitution itself is illogical, inconsistent and therefore invalid, or it shows that it’s the interpreter’s reasoning that’s illogical, inconsistent and therefore failing in understanding. Garrisonians agree with the first; Douglass agrees with the second.

So what to do with such parts of the Constitution as the three-fifths clause, which reads:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which  may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons‘?. (Art. I, Sec. 2, Cl 3.)

Doesn’t it imply that all those bound to service, which in Douglass’ time almost exclusively applies to black slaves, only count as three-fifths-person, and ergo, are not fully human? While Douglass grants that this clause is deeply problematic, he no longer agrees that it’s actually an endorsement of slavery.

There are two cases which can be argued when it comes to the effects of the three fifths clause: that it gives extra 3/5th’s representative powers to slaveowners, or that it takes away 2/5th’s; that point’s debatable. As Douglass points out, the clause actually appears to be a concession of a point that slaveowners didn’t really want to make but felt forced to if they wanted to increase their political power: that slaves are persons. If they’re not, it would make no more sense to include them at all for purposes of representation than it would to include cows, chickens, or farm implements. But even this grudging concession of personhood is conceivably debatable.

But while the effects of the three fifth clause may help indicate what use it’s been used for, they don’t tell us what it really means or what its true purpose is. So how do we successfully go about determining its meaning?

How about original intent? Since the expressed beliefs and opinions of the Constitution’s authors vary so widely on the matter of slavery, this won’t help us to decide the matter either. Douglass bases his original interpretation of the Constitution as a pro-slavery document on the basis of intent, but as we’ve seen, he changes his mind.

Well, then, how about strict constructionism? This won’t help us either. The terms used are so broad that it’s hard to tell what they literally and finally mean, or to prove outside of the historical context that they refer to the American brand of slavery at all. The three fifths clause never says anything about permanent bondage or race-based slavery. (In fact, the phrase ‘term of years’ seems to imply that there’s a beginning and end to the servitude in question that’s determined by something other than birth and death, but it doesn’t exclude the latter.)

So which interpretation of the three-fifths clause is most consistent with the preamble? Not the idea that those bound to service are anything other than persons or citizens, since the right to representation is only accorded to citizens, which, in turn, are necessarily persons. Nor is the idea that those bound to service are part-person or part-citizen: there’s nothing in the language of the clause nor of the rest of the Constitution that recognizes there’s such things as part-persons or part-citizens. Douglass points out that ‘…the Constitution knows of only two classes [of people]: Firstly, citizens, and secondly, aliens’. Constitutionally, all persons born in the United States are citizens by definition, and all others aliens; of course. the latter are still persons. So the ‘three-fifths’ clause can’t be referring to the completeness of individual persons; as we can see by the language itself, it specifically applies to the total number of persons for the purpose of apportionment only.

Free Stephens, Henry Louis 1824-1882 artist, Public Domain via Library of CongressIt’s clear, then, what the three-fifths clause says about persons and implies about citizens, but what does it really say about slavery?

In a word, nothing. At least, not directly. As Douglass reminds us, the word ‘slave’ and its derivatives never appear in the Constitution at all. It does mention people ‘bound to service for a term of years’ but as we’ve already considered, this is unspecific, never mentions race, nor implies that bondage to servitude is ever anything other than limited.

There is one reading of the three fifths clause that I think is most consistent with the Preamble and with Douglass’ view of proper Constitutional interpretation. Given that the Constitution is concerned with Union, and Justice, and Tranquility, and the common defense, and the general Welfare, and Liberty, the three-fifths compromise was the best the founders could do at the time, given the intransigence of the slaveowners coupled with the young country’s need for their inclusion in the Union, to make the country large and strong enough to bring as much liberty as possible to as many people as possible. Bringing an end to slavery, Douglass believes, is the next necessary step for accomplishing the goals laid out in the Preamble as well as in the Declaration of Independence: to finally stamp out that liberty-destroying institution which had so undermined the general welfare, strength, and tranquility of the Union from its very beginning.

To return to the twin issues of personhood and citizenship in Douglass’ America: in a speech in 1854, Douglass says ‘In the State of New York where I live, I am a citizen and legal voter, and may therefore be presumed to be a citizen of the United States’. Just three short years later, in the infamous Scott vs. Sandford, a.k.a. the Dred Scott decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Douglass and all his fellow black people are not citizens at all. While Douglass explains  in his speech’… [the]  Constitution knows no man by the color of his skin’, the infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857 upended decades of common practice and legal precedent since the founding of the nation, where free black people throughout the United States had enjoyed legal, if not social, equality. However, as Douglass correctly observes, skin color is never mentioned in the Constitution as a precondition for citizenship, only place of birth and status of naturalization.

According to his biographer Philip Foner, Douglass becomes the most advanced and most informed thinker in Constitutional law, and the political and legal theory that informs it, than any of his fellow prominent abolitionists. Douglass believes, in the end, that the Garrisonian abolitionists are making the same mistake as the slaveowners: they fail to interpret the Constitution rightly, on its own terms and as a unified legal document unparalleled and unprecedented in its full establishment of human liberty. From the Garrisonians onward, those of us who likewise interpret the Constitution as protecting the rights of some without protecting others, or who likewise fail to understand its true significance, its true potential, and its true power to bring the blessings of liberty to all, just don’t get the Constitution.

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Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and Inspiration:

Blassingame, J. (Ed.). The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews. 4 volumes, and The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series 2: Autobiographical Writings. 3 volumes. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979-1999

Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies, with notes by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Volume compilation by Literary Classics of the United States. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.

Douglass, Frederick. The Heroic Slave: A Cultural and Critical Edition. Eds Robert S. Levine, John Stauffer, and John McKivigan. Hew Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom: 1855 Edition with a new introduction.. Re-published 1969, New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Foner, Philip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 1-4. New York: International Publishers, 1950.

Landmark Cases: Scott vs. Sandford (The Dred Scott Decision), A C-Span Original TV Series, 2015  http://landmarkcases.c-span.org/Case/2/Scott-V-Sandford