Current political discourse is frequently marked by a sense of impending disunion and discontent rivaled only by days of civil unrest long past. In light of such sentiments, this year’s Constitution Day was commemorated with a lecture titled “Democratic Faith: Thomas Jefferson, the People, and Early Black Politics.” Brown University Associate Professor of Political Science Melvin Rogers delivered remarks.
Rogers’ discussed how Jefferson’s sometimes controversial ideas fit into slightly later notions of equality espoused by Frederick Douglass and Martin Delany. Specifically, Rogers spoke on the need for a constant redefinition of who is included in democratic society.
Discussing Delany, an active abolitionist and black nationalist of the 1800s, Rogers set up one thread of his argument. What use is it for people of color, particularly black Americans, to attempt to live and thrive in a nation with such a difficult past with race, he asked.
Then, Rogers discussed Douglass’ more well-known stances on the role of African Americans in nation-building and democracy. Rogers boiled down these competing claims, as essentially the “conflict between Delany and Douglass on the role of hope and confidence in the American capability to change. Where “Delany has no hope, Douglass seemingly has faith,” Rogers said.
He then focused the remainder of his lecture on the role of faith in building and sustaining a democracy. For Rogers, democracy is characterized by its innate ability to change. He points to America’s storied history of constituent power, or power of the people. Calling this tendency toward civic action “aspirational,” Rogers argued that it is where the crux of democratic legitimacy falls.
Rogers continued to stress the necessity of change in the democratic process. For him and the theorists he discussed, “what America is, what it amounts to, is not set in stone.”
Rogers concluded on a hopeful note, noting how progress is deeply intertwined with our collective notion of a people yet to exist; that we must carry on with the desire that future lives and peoples be made better.
The Constitution Day Lecture was sponsored by the Office of the President, the Victor S. “Torry” Johnson III ’71 fund, and the Government Department.