Frederick Douglass, Classical Liberalism, and the Fight for Racial Equality


Writing at Christianity Today, University of Colorado historian Paul Harvey has some unkind words for the recent book Race & Liberty in America, which was edited by Southern Illinois University historian Jonathan Bean. As I discussed in my review of the book, it's a wide-ranging collection of speeches, articles, legal decisions, and other documents demonstrating the long and essential role that classical liberal ideas have played in America's fight for racial equality.

Harvey takes a much dimmer view of that role, arguing that there is no coherent classical liberal tradition when it comes to race, and that Bean failed "to investigate the complexity and contradictions within classical liberalism with the same zeal that he applies (especially in the conclusion) to left liberalism." I'll leave Bean to mount his own defense against those and other charges, but I would like to challenge Harvey on a few matters pertaining to the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, whose writings feature prominently in the book, and whose status as a classical liberal Harvey calls into question. Here's Harvey:

Douglass certainly drew (as did most antislavery activists) from the classical liberal tradition, and the contribution of classical liberalism to the antislavery movement stands as its proudest moment. But of course, the most representatives defenders of that classical liberal tradition were southerners such as Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens, who perceived the Republicans as the party of big government, conspiring to take away local authority, individual freedom (especially property rights), and the proper Constitutional authority of the states. The Confederate revolution was, in large part, a classical liberal one, an inconvenient truth for the thesis presented here.

There are some major problems with this. First, Harvey confuses classical liberal ideas with the various individuals (and governments) who sometimes selectively espouse them. So while Confederates like Davis and Stephens may have struck a libertarian note by complaining about the "tyrant Lincoln" trampling on state's rights, the Confederacy itself violated the most basic and essential tenet of classical liberalism: the right of individual self-ownership, or as Frederick Douglass put it in his famous letter to his former master, "You are a man, and so am I…In leaving you, I took nothing but what belonged to me." To call the Confederate revolution "a classical liberal one" is to fundamentally misunderstand what classical liberalism is all about.

In fact, one of Douglass's greatest achievements was to employ the classical liberalism of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence as weapons against slavery and against the Confederacy. As an escaped slave and self-taught author and orator, Douglass understood better than most just how potent the promise of liberty, equality, and "unalienable rights" could be, and he never tired of pointing that potency out to his mostly white audiences.

In contrast, consider John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who was perhaps slavery's most eloquent defender, and who Harvey dubiously places in "a long line of classical liberal thinkers." Unlike Douglass, Calhoun hated the Declaration of Independence, denouncing its assertion that "all men are created equal" as "the most dangerous of all political error." As Calhoun put it in an 1848 speech, the Declaration's false notion of equality "had strong hold on the mind of Mr. Jefferson…which caused him to take an utterly false view of the subordinate relation of the black to the white race in the South; and to hold, in consequence, that the former, though utterly unqualified to possess liberty, were as fully entitled to both liberty and equality as the latter."

In other words, both Calhoun and Douglass understood that slavery and classical liberalism were incompatible. This led Calhoun to denounce classical liberalism, and led Douglass to embrace it. So if anyone from that era deserves to be called classical liberalism's "most representative defender," it's Frederick Douglass.