How did Frederick Douglass—one who was born a slave, one who had been denied all formal education, one who had been sundered from his family, one who had been starved, tortured, and, on occasion, nearly killed—manage to muster the courage to do something as bold as challenge the United States Supreme Court? This Article suggests that Douglass, in order to assert his right as an American citizen, first had to assert his right as a man in an explicitly gendered sense. That is, Douglass had to muster a powerful sense of manliness that could elevate him psychologically to assert his right to equal citizenship under the Constitution. He had to generate a potent faith in his own gendered identity in order to overcome the debilitating political stigma that attached to his racial identity. Only by doing this, was Douglass able to make the powerful claim that he was entitled— as an American citizen—to contest the authority of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Part I sets the historical backdrop by discussing the infamous Supreme Court case of Dred Scott v. Sandford. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney argued that the Founding Fathers could never have intended to include blacks as citizens because blacks were utterly emasculated victims of the former’s masculine imposition of white supremacy. Part II summarizes how there was conspicuous support in the civil society of the South for the racist worldview represented by Chief Justice Taney. What Frederick Douglass encountered, then, was not only a racist Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice Taney but a coterie of racist authorities in Southern society. Part III will introduce a thesis for how Douglass mustered the psychological resources to challenge the racist assertions of Chief Justice Taney and his ilk. Part III delves into Douglass’s autobiography for answers. There, one finds a compelling narrative of an adolescent boy who had
been born into slavery. Douglass describes how white supremacy, as enacted through the practice of slavery, was designed to prevent a black male child from developing anything resembling a sense of his manhood. Eventually, the young Douglass would find a redemptive manhood through an ordeal of intense violence. It was this crucial event that galvanized him to assert himself as a citizen of the United States, and, hence, as one who was entitled to challenge the Supreme Court’s opinion in Dred Scott.
Part IV examines the substance of Douglass’s assertions. In lieu of the idiom of hypermasculinity that had been enlisted by Chief Justice Taney, Douglass opted for textualism. As Part IV will discuss, however, Douglass did not completely renounce the idiom of manliness. As he would make clear in his most famous public speech, Douglass reclaimed the image of the Founding Fathers from that sketched by Chief Justice Taney in Dred Scott. What made the Founding Fathers great, Douglass argued, was not their fealty to the hypermasculine anthems of white supremacy. What made them great, he explained, was that they aspired to be morally upright gentlemen who embraced the virtues of equal respect and civility toward all, regardless of race. As Part IV will elaborate, Douglass stressed that the Founding Fathers had failed to fulfill their own ethical aspirations, but the white sons who were listening to him in 1852 could do so by working bravely to end slavery and racism. Douglass thereby propounded a conception of manhood that was compatible with an egalitarian interpretation of the Constitution.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 International License.
John M. Kang,
The Political Urgency of Black Manhood: Frederick Douglass on Constitutional Theory,
N.M. L. Rev.
Available at: https://digitalrepository.unm.edu/nmlr/vol52/iss2/4