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America’s second democratic opening

By Condoleezza Rice, professor of political science, professor at the Graduate School of Business and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and at the Freeman Spogli Institute.

Rarely do people think of the civil rights movement as a moment of democratic transition. But it was. Of all the amazing twists and turns of America’s history, none is more remarkable than the degree to which the Constitution came to serve the cause of overcoming the legacy of slavery and legalized segregation. That the descendants of slaves would embrace the Fourteenth Amendment as a means to push for equal rights is testament to the document’s extraordinary ability to channel and facilitate America’s evolution.

In the view of many Founders, this was an improbable outcome. Thomas Jefferson was convinced that black slaves would not live in chains forever. “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free,” he once wrote. But he was equally certain that whites and freed blacks “cannot live in the same government.” Tocqueville, in viewing the fate of the “three races” that inhabited America in 1835 (the “whites,” “negroes,” and “Indians,” as he put it), saw no way for them to live together in peace. Madison and other Founders so despaired about the future for freed slaves that they endeavored to return them to Africa, supporting the creation of what would become the country of Liberia. Even after the long and arduous struggle to end slavery, it took almost a hundred years, until the civil rights movement of the 1960s, to accomplish what many of the Founders thought impossible — the extension of “We the people” to black Americans.

The journey was a chaotic one. Certainly the Constitution could not help slaves in the antebellum South. Yet a few had audaciously tried, with little success, to appeal to the courts for their freedom. Under the Slave Codes, slaves had no rights because they were considered property, not people. They could not testify in court against a white person, they could not enter into contracts, and they could not defend themselves against the violence of their masters. But in the North and the new states and territories of the West, legal challenges to slavery met with more success.

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Although most cases took place at the state level, a few made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In one such case, none other than John Quincy Adams defended the kidnapped Africans who were being illegally transported from Africa to slavery on the ship Amistad. They had rebelled, killing members of the crew, and Adams won their acquittal in 1841.

A few years later, the Supreme Court heard perhaps its most infamous case. Dred Scott was a slave who had been brought to a free state by his owner and claimed he should therefore be free. Deciding the question of whether the descendants of Africa, free or enslaved, could be considered Americans, a majority of the court said no: “They are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States.” Frederick Douglass, the leading abolitionist, who had escaped from slavery in his youth, denounced the 1857 ruling as the “most scandalous and devilish perversion of the Constitution” he had ever seen, calling it “a brazen misstatement of the facts of history.” And yet, he said, “My hopes were never brighter than now.” The decision had been a clear setback in the legal battle for freedom, but in the political realm it had an unintended effect, energizing opponents of slavery and hastening the onset of the Civil War, which would settle the issue once and for all.

Excerpted from the book DEMOCRACY: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom. Copyright © 2017 by Condoleezza Rice. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.