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.
Consider the remarkable 1848 letter Douglass wrote to his old master, the slaveholder Thomas Auld. It rings out repeatedly with the tenets of classical liberalism. “You are a man and so am I,” Douglass declared. “In leaving you, I took nothing but what belonged to me, and in no way lessened your means for obtaining an honest living.” Escaping from slavery wasn’t just an act of self-preservation, Douglass maintained; it was an affirmation of his unalienable natural rights. “Your faculties remained yours,” he wrote, “and mine became useful to their rightful owner.”
Douglass struck a similar note in his powerful 1852 speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Evoking John Locke’s famous description of private property emerging from man mixing his labor with the natural world, Douglass pointed to slaves “plowing, planting and reaping, using all kinds of mechanical tools, erecting houses” as proof that they too deserved the full range of natural rights. “Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? That he is the rightful owner of his own body?” Douglass asked his mostly white audience. “There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.”
“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.
Yet as Douglass later explained in My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), the second of his three autobiographies, it didn’t take long before he started chafing under the paternalistic guidance of Garrison and other allies. “Give us the facts,” one abolitionist leader told him.“We will take care of the philosophy.” But as Douglass explained, “I could not always obey, for I was now reading and thinking. It did not entirely satisfy me to narrate wrongs; I felt like denouncing them.”
It wouldn’t be the last time Douglass disregarded the misguided views of his fellow activists. As Buccola notes, “throughout his development as a political thinker, Douglass was presented with a series of ideological alternatives,” including the pacifist anarchism of Garrison, who said the only government he recognized was the “government of God,” and the utopian socialism of John A. Collins, general director of the Massachusetts Antislavery Society, who believed “that private property was the root of all evil.” Douglass, Buccola observes, “consistently rejected these in favor of liberalism.”
Socialism was then becoming particularly attractive to many New England reformers. Yet Douglass rejected the socialist case against private land ownership, saying “it is [man’s] 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.
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.