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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.
Douglass also immediately recognized that the end of slavery did not mean the end of racist government abuse. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the former Confederate states began passing a series of laws, regulations, and ordinances aimed at restricting or even eliminating the new political, civil, and economic rights enjoyed by African Americans, including their right to vote, earn a living, and defend themselves from attack. Mississippi’s Black Code, for example, declared “that no freedman, free Negro, or mulatto…shall keep or carry firearms of any kind,” while Louisiana’s Black Code decreed that “every negro is required to be in the regular service of some white person, or former owner, who shall be responsible for the conduct of said negro.”
These laws were enacted and enforced in blatant violation of the freedmen’s rights, although as Douglass acidly remarked in 1872, “The trouble never was in the Constitution, but in the administration of the Constitution.” Douglass repeatedly urged the government, including the federal courts, to fulfill its basic constitutional responsibility to safeguard the life, liberty, and property of all citizens. Tragically, he met with very limited success.
Which brings us back to Douglass’ famous statement that the government should “do nothing” with black Americans. Obviously he didn’t mean do absolutely nothing. After all, he favored the aggressive enforcement of federal civil rights legislation. So what did he mean?
Consider the way he phrased that statement on a different occasion. “Give the Negro fair play,” Douglass declared in 1893, “and let him alone.” That 1893 statement is Douglass’ entire agenda in a nutshell, a perfect distillation of Douglass’ classical liberal approach: protect individual rights, pay restitution for past crimes, and let black Americans get on with the business of seeking happiness as they see fit.
Damon W. Root is a senior editor at reason.