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Frederick Douglass: Libertarian
Friday, February 17, 2017 13:34
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Black History Month is an excellent time to revisit Damon Root’s 2012 Reason Magazine essay Fredrick Douglas: Classical Liberal
In April 1865, as the Civil War was reaching its bloody climax, the abolitionist leader and escaped former slave Frederick Douglass stood before the Massachusetts Antislavery Society and delivered a rousing speech entitled “What the Black Man Wants.” “The American people have always been anxious to know what they shall do with us,” Douglass told the crowd. “I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief.” In fact, he continued, “if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall.…All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone!” To modern ears, statements like “let him alone” and “do nothing” may sound suspiciously libertarian. Frederick Douglass has long been accused of harboring certain libertarian tendencies. University of Virginia historian Waldo Martin, for example, charged that Douglass’ “do nothing” rhetoric revealed an unfortunate “procapitalist bias” in his otherwise commendable thinking. Yale University historian David Blight, meanwhile, has criticized Douglass for preaching “a laissez-faire individualism that echoed the reigning Social Darwinism of the day.”
It’s true that Frederick Douglass simultaneously championed both civil rights and economic liberty. But the proper term for that combination isn’t Social Darwinism; it’s classical liberalism. The central component of Douglass’ worldview was the principle of self-ownership, which he understood to include both racial equality and the right to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor.
“Douglass’s arguments against slavery are, in a very important sense, arguments for liberalism,” writes Linfield College political scientist Nicholas Buccola in
The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass, his engaging new study of the great abolitionist. Taking seriously Douglass’ dual commitment to both a “robust conception of mutual responsibility” and “the ideas of universal self-ownership, natural rights, limited government, and an ethos of self-reliance,” Buccola offers a nuanced portrait that illuminates both Douglass and his place in American intellectual history.
Born in February 1818 in Tuckahoe, Maryland, to a slave mother and a white, likely slaveholding father, Frederick Douglass escaped from bondage at the age of 20, making his way first to New York City, where he got married, and then to the whaling port of New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he changed his last name (he had been known as Frederick Bailey until then) and found a job loading ships. “I was now my own master—a tremendous fact,” he later wrote. “The thoughts—‘I can work!…I have no Master Hugh to rob me of my earnings’—placed me in a state of independence.”
Within a year he was attending abolitionist lectures and subscribing to
The Liberator, the abolitionist weekly edited by William Lloyd Garrison, the country’s most famous antislavery leader, who became a friend and early mentor. Encouraged to share his own remarkable story, Douglass soon became a fixture on the abolitionist lecture circuit, captivating audiences with his gripping account of the outrages he suffered and witnessed under the peculiar institution.
Socialism was then becoming particularly attractive to many New England reformers. Yet Douglass rejected the socialist case against private land ownership, saying “it is duty to possess it—and to possess it in that way in which its energies and properties can be made most useful to the human family.” He routinely preached the virtues of property rights. “So far from being a sin to accumulate property, it is the plain duty of every man to lay up something for the future,” he told a black crowd in Rochester, New York in 1885. “I am for making the best of both worlds and making the best of this world first, because it comes first.” As Douglass’ glowing description of his first paying job indicated, he also considered economic liberty an essential aspect of human freedom. Nor was Douglass a fan of organized labor. Since most labor unions at the time excluded blacks from their ranks, while lobbying the government for exclusive privileges, Douglass justifiably saw unions as yet another racist obstacle to black economic independence. As he argued in his 1874 essay “The Folly, Tyranny, and Wickedness of Labor Unions,” there was “abundant proof almost every day of their mischievous influence upon every industrial interest in the country.” As for Garrison’s pacifism and anarchism, Douglass thought them preposterous in the face of the state-sanctioned outrages perpetrated under the slave system and later under the South’s incipient Jim Crow regime. “Yes, let us have peace, but let us have liberty, law, and justice first,” he declared on Memorial Day, 1878. “Let us have the Constitution, with its thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments, fairly interpreted, faithfully executed, and cheerfully obeyed.” A highlight of
The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass is Buccola’s sharp analysis of how Douglass’ belief in “social responsibility” shaped and informed his political judgments. “Douglass’s hope,” Buccola writes, “was that men could be so devoted to freedom—the value he identified as the center of the northern social system—that they would be moved to action on behalf of their neighbors.” Unfortunately for both Douglass and the country, things didn’t always work out that way, and his optimism diminished as he aged. Buccola is slightly less persuasive when it comes to Douglass’ complicated relationship to government power. Douglass “had a reform liberal’s sensitivity to the ways in which social and economic inequality can undermine the promise of liberty,” Buccola argues. “As such, he defended an active role for the state to combat inequality and promote fairness.” Douglass did defend an active role for the federal government, including subsidized land grants by the Freedmen’s Bureau and universal public education for African Americans. But there is an important distinction between his justifications for these programs and the arguments made today by advocates of welfare-state liberalism. As far as Douglass was concerned, the former slaves had been robbed, not just of the fruits of their labor but of their very minds and bodies. They were therefore entitled to some serious compensation from the federal and state governments that had aided, abetted, and profited from those crimes. So he wasn’t talking about redistribution; he was talking about restitution—paid directly to the victims.
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