A review of Frederick Douglass and the Fourth of July by James A. Colaiaco
Colaiaco, who teaches Great Books at New York University, argues that this speech was a crucial event in American history—the greatest of all abolitionist speeches.
To substantiate that judgment, Colaiaco
elaborates on the ceremonial, judicial, and political qualities of Douglass's speech.
shows how Douglass became, after 1852, both more conservative and more radical in response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott ruling, and John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry.
directs attention away from racial identity, the focus of much recent scholarship on his
subject, and back to Douglass's primary concern with understanding and advancing the principles of natural justice and liberal republicanism in America.
The book's most interesting and provocative sections relate Douglass's arguments to alternatives that shared his
commitment to natural rights but differed about how to secure them.
provides the most complete exposition yet of Douglass's constitutional abolitionism.
Identifying originalism with its grossly defective applications by Garrison and the Taney Court, Colaiaco
gives too little attention to Douglass's sketch of a challenging originalist argument.
Most concretely, Colaiaco
seems to accept Douglass's radical claim of a constitutionally delegated federal power to abolish slavery directly, instantly, everywhere in the country—a reading unendorsed by anyone who signed or ratified the Constitution and one whose implementation would surely have provoked immediate civil war.
treatment of the relation between Douglass and Abraham Lincoln is also one-sided, giving Douglass the benefit of the doubt in all their disagreements.
But contrary to Colaiaco's
repeated claim, Lincoln's prewar antislavery policy was not grounded in a passive hope that slavery, once confined, would eventually die a "natural death."