Damon Root did a fine job drawing from my book and other sources to reveal that Frederick Douglass’ thought occasionally was “suspiciously libertarian” (“Frederick Douglass, Classical Liberal,” August/September). But one of the central conclusions of my book, The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass: In Pursuit of American Liberty (New York University Press), is that Douglass’ thought defies such easy categorization. Indeed, he reminds us that complex political problems often require us to abandon the comforts of ideological purity. Lest readers come away with the impression that categorizing Douglass as a “classical liberal” or “libertarian” is without any difficulties, allow me to raise a couple of problems.
First, libertarians might find some of Douglass’ writings on the “The Labor Question” to be suspiciously progressive: “That society is a failure in which the large majority of its members, without any direct fault of their own, would, if any accidental circumstances deprived them for a month of the opportunity of earning regular wages, be dependent upon private or public charity for daily bread.” We could quibble about how Douglass’ ideas on the labor question might translate into our own times, but the spirit of what he is saying is more comfortably assimilated into the reform liberal tradition.
Second, some of Douglass’ ideas about the social realm probably would strike contemporary libertarians as frighteningly puritanical. In 1886, for example, Douglass wrote a letter to The Issue magazine in which he declared himself a prohibitionist: “The sober contemplation of the evils of intemperance not only upon the dram drinker, but upon his family, his friends, and upon society generally, has compelled me to go the whole length for prohibition.”
I write this not to argue that Douglass was right about the labor question or prohibition. Instead, I write to make a broader point about our responsibility as interpreters of history: We should not try to remake great political thinkers (even our heroes) in our own image.
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