Gregory Collins on Frederick Douglass and Originalism

Beyond Politics and Natural Law: The Anticipation of New Originalist Tenets in the Constitutional Thought of Frederick Douglass


JMC fellow Gregory Collins’s new article in American Political Thought: A Journal of Ideas, Institutions, and Culture, explores Frederick Douglass’s largely overlooked reflections on constitutional interpretation.

Abstract: Scholarship on Frederick Douglass has focused on his natural law and natural rights philosophy and on his statesmanship in breaking with Garrisonian abolitionists over the question of whether slavery is compatible with the US Constitution. My article departs from these readings by addressing the merits of his strict constitutional philosophy. I argue that Douglass’s emphasis on a plain reading of the Constitution’s semantic content and his skepticism of intent-driven interpretation anticipate some of the fundamental tenets of the modern legal theory called New Originalism. Therefore, scholars should elevate the importance of Douglass’s constitutional hermeneutics when assessing his contribution to American political thought. Moreover, Douglass’s judicial philosophy offers a way to help alleviate the seeming tension between adhering to an eighteenth-century document and embracing twenty-first-century moral principles.

The article can be accessed online through the University of Chicago Press. Users without a subscription can purchase an electronic copy.

Gregory Collins

Gregory CollinsGregory Collins is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Political Science at Yale University. He received his Ph.D. from Catholic University this past spring. His research interests include Western political thought; constitutional theory and practice, American Political Development; Congress; racial and ethnic politics; and political economy. Greg is currently completing a book manuscript on Edmund Burke’s economic thought, and has an article on “Edmund Burke on the Question of Commercial Intercourse in the Eighteenth Century” in the Review of Politics. He has also written for the Imaginative Conservative, the Washington TimesRealClearPolitics, and American CurrentSee.