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  • Democracy's False Choice:The Reform-Revolution Dilemma
  • Kelvin C. Black (bio)

In the mid-nineteenth century, Frederick Douglass changed his opinion on the proslavery character of the US Constitution. His initial position, held roughly from 1841 to 1851, was largely aligned with that of William Lloyd Garrison. These men defined the abolition of slavery as also the abolition of the nation's narrow foundational concepts of freedom, liberty, equality, and justice and viewed the existing democratic process as a grossly deficient basis for emancipation. They advocated for the reconstitution of the American Union with a new Constitutional Convention, this time with an articulation of freedom fundamentally opposed to enslavement of Africans. After 1851, however, [End Page 381] Douglass adopted a reform position I have called elsewhere the Preamble position, defining the abolition of slavery as the fulfillment of American Revolutionary ideals.1 In his new understanding, emancipation was best achieved in a hermeneutic struggle with the nation's foundational documents and history. This interpretive commitment viewed the existing democratic process as a wholly sufficient means to help emancipate enslaved Africans.

Near the end of his life, Douglass had occasion to question the wisdom of his choice to struggle for emancipation within the constraints of national loyalty and its sympathetic ethics. In an essay written one year before his death, titled "Why Is the Negro Lynched" (1894), Douglass declares:

Do not ask me what will be the final result of the so-called Negro-problem. I cannot tell you. I have sometimes thought that the American people are too great to be small, too just and magnanimous to oppress the weak, too brave to yield up the right to the strong . . . But events have made me doubtful. The favour with which this proposition of disfranchisement has been received by public men . . . has shaken my faith in the nobility of the nation.2

His late-life doubt about the nobility of the United States calls into question the terms of his public announcement in "Change of Opinion Announced" (1851), where he proclaimed his "firm conviction" that, if viewed through the lens of "the noble purposes avowed in its preamble," the US Constitution could be used in the service of the emancipation of enslaved Africans.3 For Douglass, the question of whether enslaved Africans could ever be free in the United States was inextricably linked to the possibilities for their sociopolitical inclusion. Hauntingly, thought-provokingly, his reflections in 1894 echo his original belief—repudiated in 1851—that the nation and its institutions fundamentally lacked the "nobility" necessary for the extension of this public freedom to its enslaved Africans.4

In On Revolution (1963), Hannah Arendt argues that we must understand the enduring legacies of the late eighteenth-century Western European revolutionary tradition in order to understand modern disappointments with democracy in the West. In particular, she claims that a better historical understanding of the central tension in the world's democracies, roughly from the time of the French Revolution onward, between the expression of public freedom (including but not limited to [End Page 382] various forms of sociopolitical inclusion) and the mediation of that freedom by republican representation can explain why the central preoccupation of modern revolutionary thought in the West is the realization of greater public freedom.5 This tension reveals how citizenship and citizen agency have long been tangled in a fundamental struggle between sociopolitical stability and change.

For scholars of the nineteenth-century United States, Douglass's change of opinion on the proslavery character of the Constitution is familiar. To my mind, his shift indexes what Arendt helps us see as a reform-revolution dialectic: the opposed sympathetic preferences for stability and continuity, and disruption and discontinuity produced in the wake of the French Revolution. The reform-revolution dialectic presents an ongoing dilemma for Anglo-American traditions of change, and for the democratic form. Douglass's change of opinion on the proslavery character of the Constitution illustrates how the reform-revolution dialectic, and the contending forms of sympathy that compose reformist and revolutionary thinking, informed his developing understanding of possibilities for change inside and outside the US democratic form. To be precise, Douglass's differing positions on the proslavery...


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