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.

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  1. A-frigging-men! I get so damned tired of people trying to make the claim the the Confederacy was standing up for state’s rights. Nonsense. Everything derived from their anti-human position on slavery. Arguments about state’s right are undercut by the fundamental wrongheaded premise of white supremacy held by the likes of Calhoun, Davis and Stephens.

    1. True, the confederacy was not primarily standing up for states’ rights.

      But the Union sure as hell was trying to destroy them.

      1. That’s great, because states don’t have rights, only individuals do. States have powers, which should be limited and enumerated. Enforcing slavery based on skin color should never have been one of those power. The states demanding “rights” deserved the beat down they (eventually) got.

    2. But the Union sure as hell was trying to destroy them.

      This is right. The States Rights argument for the Confederate secession fails because there can be no right to something as fundamentally misanthropic as slavery. OTOH, The Union invasion wasn’t about slavery, it was about corralling unruly states with delusions of sovereignty. And they made damn sure to show the consequences of not towing the lion in the future.

      So really, both sides lost the Civil War.

      1. Or I could argue that Lincoln gently pushed the southern states to secede(sp) because the emancipation proclamation wasn’t usable until they broke away from the union. Once they left the union he declared slavery illegal, but only in the secessionist states. Once the market was destroyed, then the northern slave traders could be put out of business.

        1. The term for that would be “paranoia” or perhaps “conspiracy theory.” Lincoln’s own actions throughout his time in office indicate he wanted a gradual abolition of the same sort that had already been achieved in Britain and France. He was not ready to shred the entire social order just to root out slavery. Things just didn’t work out the way he wanted, much to his regret; the only place his plan ever actually went into effect was in Washington D.C. itself, where the Treasury paid an average of about $300 a slave to buy out the local slaveholders.

  2. States dont have rights (only individuals have rights, states have powers). Standing up for something that doesnt exist would be pretty damn stupid (but people do it all the time). I have no doubt that the Confederacy was, therefore, stading up for states rights.

    1. Some rights are civil rights, but all rights are not civil rights.

      Organizations have property rights and contractual rights conferred on them all the time. So it makes perfect sense to talk about states having rights within the Union.

      1. “Organizations have property rights and contractual rights conferred on them all the time. So it makes perfect sense to talk about states having rights within the Union.”

        I agree, I’m fairly skeptical of the argument that “only individuals have rights, states have powers.” Such a claim sounds plausible, but you’d need some pretty sophisticated arguments to back it up; a bald assertion is not sufficient. All manner of corporate entities are considered to have “rights” in our society. Why, specifically, is this automatically false when applied to government entities?

        1. corporate entities are collections of individuals. The individual rights flow up to them.

          Government entities are specifically granted powers by the people. The wording of the 10th amendment even agrees with the theory. Common Sense states the case, Im assuming that is standard knowledge, so my “bald assertion” had a lot of hair backing it.

    2. Crap, robc was way ahead of me.

  3. Douglass was pretty keen on the Reconstruction projects which were “big government” for its day…

    All major African-American leaders have talked up both the Liberal ideals of the Declaration, individual self-sufficiency, and advocated government assistance at the same time. When your movement is trying to rise up it’ll pull several straws ’til things start to work.

    1. Yes, and on some issues (like trade), the Confederates were fighting for classical liberal ideas, as even Karl Marx was aware.

      Both sides had classically liberal stances on some issues and not on others. I think the case is pretty much closed that Frederick Douglass and people in his orbit were “better” classical liberals than those who advocated continued slavery, but it does not necessarily follow that they were therefore “more” classically liberal, at least not if that description is going to have a more specific definition than “palatable to modern classical liberals”.

  4. And that’s the rest of the story.

    Good day!

    1. Hey you! Get back in the grave!

  5. Not to metion that slavery’s defenders were quite content with utilizing Federal power when the issue was fugitive slaves or aboltionist literature.

    It’s not possible to form a coherent classical liberal ideological stance that includes a pro-slavery position, but it’s possible to construct a coherent idelogical stance that is pro-slavery and has some policy stance overlap with classical liberalism on non-slavery related matters.

    Harvey’s argument is like saying that because liberalism and libertarianism often have policy overlap on civil liberties, there must be a pro-regulation strain within libertarianism.

  6. Frederick Douglass, Classical Liberalism, and the Fight for Racial Equality
    ..a type of guy that most libertarians/conservatives are against…because there should never be equality…regardless of history.

    1. Jesus, it’s hard to figure out if you are really stupid or just a troll.

      That in mind, please stop talking about the War on Drugs. Your arguments are so vacuous, you’ll do more good if you sound like a proponent of it.

      1. KEEP DOPE ALIVE!!!

        There is nothing vacuous ’bout that.

        But seriously Mr. Penguin…do u really think a libertarian/conservative believes in racial equality? In fact, do u really b-lieve that a libertarian/conservative believes in any equality?

        They believe in PURE MERIT…right?
        Irregardless of disposition.

        1. I have been criticized here for nitpicking the grammar and diction of morons, so I will hold off on 90% of what I would say in response to this.

          That being said, libertarians who believe in law believe in equality before the law. Conservatives believe in equality of opportunity. There may be some overlap.

          1. Yea its b-cause I don’t know how i spell because …right ?

            1. Okay grammar-haters, you saw it. She asked for it.

              1) ALL CAPS WRITING SCREAMS IGNORE ME! Learn to use tags instead.
              2) because, about, and you > b-cause, ’bout, and u. You have a full keyboard at your disposal, which is bigger than your cell phone.
              3) Irregardless is not a word. But it is a helpful indicator that you are a blustery, self-important ignoramus.

              1. I would also like to point out that I managed that entire post without bringing the wrath of joe’z law upon my head.

                1. But you Sugarfree’d the link, which is ironic considering what you said about tags. Does this count as a corollary of joe’z or do I get to name this one Bergholt’z Law?

                  1. I vote for a special case of joez law. Say what you will about joe, but his law is hilarious. (Although maybe not so much in this particular case.)

              2. Irregardless is a word in the exact same way that aint is a word. (Okay, irregardless is stupider*)

                Language is descriptive not prescriptive.

                *Im not backing off it

        2. Equal treatment under the law is different than equal social status. Get a grip, Alice.

          1. kinda reminds me of an old joke i heard back in the 1980’s. That is,

            Q: What do u call a black MD/PhD?
            A: A nigger.

            Is that what u refer to as a difference between equal treatment under the law vs. equal social status?

            1. Gotta love the high-minded deployment of the N word. It’s really the only way to fly: I don’t call black people names because I enjoy it. I’m being ironic.

              1. I much prefer this version of the joke:

                Q: What do you call a black man flying a plane?

                A: A pilot, you racist!!

        3. Hugh and MP both said it.

    2. It makes my head hurt.

  7. So, if I’m following the implications of Harvey’s argument . . . basically, Fredrick Douglass was a huge racist.

    Such is life in Barack Obama’s America.

  8. “So, if I’m following the implications of Harvey’s argument . . . basically, Fredrick Douglass was a huge racist.

    Such is life in Barack Obama’s America.”

    It’s crazy but that’s academia for you. Oh, wait, Obama spent his whole life in academia (excepting a few years filing time in senate seats)? Hmmm.

    Here is my response to Harvey. As I note, I have written three books and never respond to reviews but this one was so outrageous and indicative of academic discussions of race that it deserved a response:

    http://www.independent.org/blog/?p=3937 OR http://tinyurl.com/yg3nvjn

    1. It would seem that the modern left has forgotten [again] its roots in both religion and racism which were prevalent amongst the early Progressives.

      1. Don’t forget eugenics! Three generations of dimwits is enough!

        1. Yes, the infamous Buck v. Bell case is in my book too! You guys must have read it? Or you are the few who know your history. 🙂

  9. Whatever few classical liberal ideas the confederate revolution had, it only took the confederate government about five minutes to ignore them anyway. Even if you ignore the whole slavery thing which completely cancels out any liberalism in the first place.

    And what the fuck is “left liberalism”?

    1. I don’t use the libertarian term for a variety of reasons (classical liberal is far more capacious and less artificial, although it has its own problems). Obviously, before telling the story of classical liberals on race, I had to define the term and distinguish it from what most people now call “liberalism”–hence “left-liberalism.” Harvey picked up on that term, although I take sharp aim at the GOP and GW Bush for “losing its soul.” The Democratic Party’s shortcomings come after addressing the GOP, Bush, Congress.

      I want to know what Bush meant, in the 2000 debate, about being for “affirmative access.” What a weasel term.

  10. Both the Confederacy and the Union went to war for the wrong reason. The Confederacy seceded so as to defend slavery; the Union went to war with the Confederacy for the sake of nationalism (which the Confederates had promoted prior to secession, in the context of the federal Fugitive Slave Act).

    1. I make that point in my book by pairing Lincoln’s First Inaugaural Address (and other quotes) with Spooner, Douglass.

      1. I need to borrow your book from the library – oops, I mean *buy* your book.

        1. Buy mine while you’re at it (click on my name).

      2. Speaking of, I just happened to re-read one of Lysander Spooner’s quotes on that very topic early today (for a completely unrelated reason):

        A government that can at pleasure accuse, shoot, and hang men, as traitors, for the one general offence of refusing to surrender themselves and their property unreservedly to its arbitrary will, can practice any and all special and particular oppressions it pleases. The result — and a natural one — has been that we have had governments, State and national, devoted to nearly every grade and species of crime that governments have ever practised upon their victims; and these crimes have culminated in a war that has cost a million of lives; a war carried on, upon one side, for chattel slavery, and on the other for political slavery; upon neither for liberty, justice, or truth. And these crimes have been committed, and this war waged, by men, and the descendants of men, who, less than a hundred years ago, said that all men were equal, and could owe neither service to individuals, nor allegiance to governments, except with their own consent.

  11. Classical liberalism is to modern liberalism as Coke Classic is to New Coke.

    Alas, modern liberalism is more enduring.

  12. Keep it up Damon!

  13. Saying Jefferson Davis was among “the most representative defenders” of classical liberalism is like calling Mussolini the 20th century’s foremost expert on railroad efficiency.

    Douglass’ ideas, on everything from slavery to economics to gender equality (he ran with a woman on a presidential ticket) track almost exactly with John Stuart Mill’s. Is Mill now going to be expelled from the “classical liberal tradition” to make room for, who, Nathan Bedford Forrest?

    1. Yeah – Nathan Bedford Forrest, Hitler and Satan.

      By the way, Theodore Bilbo was both an extreme white supremacist *and* a hard-core New Dealer ? a biography of him is calledRedneck liberal.

      I think liberals would call this a ‘paradox’ – ‘wow, man, Bilbo was so liberal in many ways, but on race he was like a total conservative, man!’

      Theodore – the Other Bilbo.

      1. The one who never gave up the Ring.

          1. Since you two are heading to the library for my book (hee, hee), I’ll let you know that there are two documents on how the GOP led by Robert Taft threw Bilbo out of the Senate. And then Zora Neale Hurston ballyhooed that moment in the Sat. Evening Post. It’s all in the book. Wonder why these grand moments don’t make the textbooks?

            Redneck Liberal is a good biography — and description of many others. The to and fro in the debates over lynching: I don’t know how the likes of Taft, Hamilton Fish, and other decent men put up with that cracker language. (Is “cracker” politically incorrect?)

  14. People who hold some thoroughly illiberal and wrong-headed ideas can also simultaneously hold some classical liberal ideas. And the Southerners who tried to secede from the union are a prime example — slavery violates the most fundamental principle of libertarianism, the right to self-ownership.

    But, the right of states to quit the union for any reason whatsoever also protects liberty by acting as a huge check on the ambitions of a centralized federal government, even if an individual state secedes for a thoroughly illiberal reason.

    If you go to a negotiation with the other side knowing good and well that you can’t walk away from the table and say “fuck you, I’m taking my business elsewhere”, you are going to get royally screwed over. And that’s what the federal government does to states now — they know the states can’t walk away if they’re offered a raw deal.

    So, unlike most people, I’ve come to reject the statist indoctrination I was subjected to, and consider Lincoln to be one of the worst presidents ever for changing it from “these” united states to “the” United States.

    1. The question of peaceful secession seems to just get lost. The South could have moved an act in Congress to allow secession. There was no Constitutional prohibition on doing so, nor is there one even now. There was considerable sentiment in the Northern states to let them and their abominable institution go.

      I would say the reason they didn’t is that they wanted out from under the tariffs and knew the longer they stayed, particularly without the addition of new slave-holding states, they were doomed.

  15. Didn’t we have another thread on this whole The-Confederacy-was-actually-a-big-government-proponent thing just a few months ago? The Confederacy instituted a draft, confiscated property, fixed prices, meddled with its currency and economy, and ran roughshod over its citizens’ liberties much the same as any corrupt modern state does.

    1. Good point. The only thing the Confederate states had going for them was that they refused to follow Washington’s lead. Where they went after that was pure dipshittery.

    2. We did and the argument was ridiculous. This is what governments do when faced with an overwhelming enemy, it’s wrong, but that’s what they do and proves only that the South did see the North as a superior military power. The US did have hyperinflation and a draft in some of the states during the war for independence too.

      1. One more thing, the Confederate Constitution did not include the general welfare clause.

    3. The Confederacy had also only existed a couple of months before they were at war. What state hasn’t trampled on the rights of its citizens during a war to secure its very existence?!

      I’m not pro-South or anything, but it’s something worth remembering.

      In fact, I think this whole discussion is sort of a desperate attempt by all sides to make things seem politically black and white and applicable to today’s morality…it was a little different back then, slavery had existed in one form or another since -I dunno- THE DAWN OF CIVILIZATION. And it’s not as if most whites living in the Union gave a toss about the plight of southern blacks. (Especially the Irish mobs who were lynching blacks right and left during the draft riots)

  16. There isn’t the slightest chance Congress will let any state peacefully secede like that, any more than the mob would let someone who owed them money off the hook. Allowing secession would decrease the number of people subject to Congress’ acts, and allow states to negotiate with the feds on an equal basis, creating a new check and balance.

    Power-hungry politicians aren’t going to voluntarily give up any power.

    1. I didn’t say it would succeed, not then or now, but there was and is no constitutional obstacle to making the attempt – unlike say violent rebellion. Might have to wonder how that would play out in the court of public opinion. Back then, you might have gotten Northern assent to be rid of the South.

      In terms of today, I fully agree – no politician would give up power except at gunpoint.

  17. 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.

    No. If either of the two have to be chosen, Douglass. But there are easily people from the era more suited to being called “classical liberalism’s most representative defender.”

    Lysander Spooner, for example.

  18. The civil war was not fought to free the slaves (that was simply the most easily marketable reason) and Classical liberalism does not embody oligarchichal tyranny “for the better good”. Slavery would have disappeared with time but our nation will never be restored from the centralization of power and federal supremacy brought in the name of banishing it.

  19. Had to happen. Somebody had to raise the canard that Nathan Bedford Forrest was pure evil. And in a discussion critiquing somebody’s ignorance of the truth. Ironic.

    Nathan Forrest has been smeared as much by the left as the right when in fact he was one of the greatest advocates of higher education and equality for blacks in the south and earlier than any of his peers. What’s more he didn’t just mouth platitudes he acted on those beliefs.

    Nathan Bedford Forrest was one of the greatest men of that age. No, he did not form the racist KKK. That was a lie that has no basis in fact. He was elected in absencia to the KKK, did not accept the result of that election nor was the KKK of that era the same as the white-hooded tyrants we all know about today.

    1. nor was the KKK of that era the same as the white-hooded tyrants we all know about today.

      Perhaps in some locales, but bullshit in NC. At least if you consider intimidating blacks (and whites) out of their right to vote part of the tyranny we know about today. And that started in 1868 in North Carolina.

      1. I’m not going to defend the KKK. Forrest publicly demanded they disband in 1869.


  20. Jefferson Davis was anything but a proponent of states’ rights and classical liberalism. You want a Confederate of the time who was? Try North Carolina governor Zebulon B. Vance, from an old Whig family and a former Unionist. He fought Jeff Davis’s centralizing tendencies.

  21. It’s not about state’s rights, it’s about checking federal power. God knows that we need more of that, not less.

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