Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass, Classical Liberal

A fresh look at the political evolution of a great American


The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass: In Pursuit of American Liberty, by Nicholas Buccola, New York University Press, 225 pages, $49

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.

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  1. “[U]nfortunate ‘procapitalist bias’?????” WTF? Did U.S. history just not happen at all for this guy?

    1. “unfortunate” is Root’s wry insertion, not from the actual quote.

    1. This is the guy who should have been America’s first black President, not the stuttering maoist prick we have now.

      1. does it know what a maoist was?

        1. Did someone leave the gate open again?

    2. You’re no slouch, HM.

    3. The National Portrait Gallery certainly “whitened” him!

      Brother can’t catch a break!

  2. Dog forbid a former slave would see the merit of self- and property-ownership! Fuckin-a.

    1. Obviously all those beatings he received as a slave caused brain damage.

  3. But by working for someone else he is being robbed of his earnings by a master.


  4. Yale University historian David Blight, meanwhile, has criticized Douglass for preaching “a laissez-faire individualism that echoed the reigning Social Darwinism of the day.”

    Holy shit. And from a Yale history professor? I mean, maybe it’s to be expected, but ugh. And using that label on an intellectual who was an actual slave is just hilarious.

    1. He was no intellectual, just a black face to pair with slaveholder lazy fairy philosophy.

      1. Keep that racism alive in your heart asshole. Hopefully one day it will choke it to death.

        1. Mustard isn’t racist, he wants to enslave everyone (minus a technocratic elite) to the Central State. That’s what passes for civil rights on the Left today.

    2. Sad, isn’t it, that a racist like Prof. Blight is employed by a prestigious university like Yale.

      1. yet remarkably unsurprising

    3. Why is it such a shock that an ex-slave would be a hard-core laissez-faire individualist?

      Isn’t laissez-faire individualism just about the polar opposite of slavery?

      1. We need a different word for successful universities. Yale is prestigious in that people who graduate from there get better opportunities, But not because of their training.

  5. Douglas wasn’t a real slave. He worked at a dockyard and just sent his earnings back to his “master”; it wasn’t the typical slave life. So he had no understanding of what it was like to be a slave, hence his strange obsession with law-of-the-jungle economics.

    1. Nice.

      Oh, wait, are you serious? I thought you were parodying.

      1. He had much more in common with slaveholders than the slaves. If you didn’t see his picture you would think he was white.

        Not exactly someone we want to model racial diversity after.

        1. A+ someone get this guy a medal. Finally, some quality trolling.

          1. I’m going with troll because if somebody actually thinks this, the world is a sadder and crueler place than I imagined.

            1. I’m never surprised anymore by what some people think. This whole planet needs an enema.

            2. Sadly, you can never underestimate the stupidity or ignorance of a human being.

        2. Yes let’s not hold up someone who escaped an oppressive situation (afterall, it was the “wrong kind” of oppression), and went to on to speak out for others and make something of himself, without support from either the government or “handlers” telling him what to think, say, and how to act, as an example to follow. Wouldn’t want anyone else to get any ideas now.

          Frederick Douglass: the original “Uncle Tom”. Kindly go fuck yourself.

          1. There aren’t many historical figures I get worked up over. Frederick Douglass is one of them. Say this shit to my face and I’m in yours.

            Douglass was a great, great man and this pathetic slander from a leftist bacillus is outrageous.

            1. I’m with you on that one. I was saying that as a sarcastic retort to mustard’s idiotic mental diarrhea, in case it wasn’t clear.

              1. Mustard, like all leftists, is thrown into a rage by anyone who dares to live contrary to the Will of Mustard. Douglass’s mile-wide independent streak is an absolute affront to that authoritarian impulse.

                1. needs moar *THEYS*

            2. ooooooh Internet tuff gai. Mite makes right is the libertarian way.

              1. Isn’t that the leftist/statist way? The government has the most guns, therefore you do what they say or go to jail?

        3. So black people are only supposed to think certain things and in certain ways acceptable to white southpaws?

          1. pretty much. For further clarification, see: Sowell, T.; Williams, W.; Rice, C.; and so forth. Authoritarian boots don’t lick themselves you know…

          2. He lived in a different era so his misconceptions are understandable. That was before the free market ideologies had been proven wrong by the 20th century.

            1. How on earth could anyone honestly think the 20th century prove free-market ideology wrong, and not statist central planning?

              1. The fact that Gorbachev screwed the pooch in ’89 doesn’t impugn community planning. The USSR was going fine until he took over.

                The free market gave us the depression of 1930 and the depression of 2007. Without the government banks of the world coming together to hatch a plan, we would be in Hooverville right now.

                1. Come on, guys. Surely, this post alone (not to mention his equally factual posts on Mr. Douglass) is reason enough to ignore this troll forever, right?

                2. It was better when you were maligning Douglass for not being black enough. The troll is too obvious on this one. Subtlety is the key. Trolling is a art.

      2. Douglass, of course, was born into slavery on a plantation and was severely whipped on more than one occasion. He was also separated from his family.

        How is this not slavery again?

        1. How is this not slavery again?

          Your Euro-centric cultural paradigm is fogging your glasses again, ProL.

        2. He may have had a rough childhood, that doesn’t excuse his actions as an adult.

          It’s like when Charlton Heston used to be pro-busing before he went nuts and joined the NRA.

          1. Excuse his actions as an adult? You mean being one of the most prominent abolitionists in the country? As well as an advocate for women’s rights? Why would that need excusing?

    2. So…you’re serious, then?

      1. Light on the “mus,” heavy on the “tard.”

        1. Nice one. 😉

      2. I don’t think so. He’s gone too far into parody on numerous occasions and multiple topics for me to think he isn’t a satire.

    3. I love that leftist shitbags like you try to paint tea partiers and libertarians as racist when this is what you actually believe.

      Go die in a fire you fucking piece of shit.

      1. so douglas didnt work at a dockyard?

        1. He also worked on plantations for much of his youth, was separated from his family, and beaten on multiple occasions. To suggest he was a free man with the exception of having to give back earnings to “master” is not true

        2. If you think Douglas wasn’t a slave, you can go die in a fire too orrin.

          1. simple question.

            so yes, he did work at a dockyard.

            1. You can’t just pick and choose a few words from a post. You need to look at the entire post and then use your brain to figure out what point the writer was trying to communicate and what his suppositions must have been in order to draw the conclusion he drew.

              1. Who died and made you the boss?

              2. …use your brain…

                And that’s where you lost him.

            2. He also witnessed his mother beaten nearly to death by her “owner” and yet could do nothing about it.

              But since he was an individualist, none of his suffering in a violent, immoral culture matters, right 03?

    4. If Obama had a son he’d be as fucktarded as mustard.

      1. +10 internetz.

      2. Why respond to mustard’s stupidity with more of it?

    5. First of all he had a pretty typical slave childhood, but even if he hadn’t he was a “real slave”. He could be whipped for any reason, or no reason, if his master wished. If at any time his master had wanted him back at the plantation he would have been taken back. He was a real slave. That he managed to get treated better through hist own skills doesn’t mean he wasn’t subject to arbitrary brutality. So shut up you stupid man.

  6. Anyone see the irony of a former slave standing up to be a whole human being does not meet the approval of his modern betters who expect him to embrace their preferred form of subservience after he rejected another? Social devolution is the ethos of our era.

    1. Social devolution is the ethos of our era.

      Are we not men???

      1. Lol! That had to be in the back of my mind, as I have been listening to some Devo over the last few weeks.

  7. Who would expect a former slave to desire freedom rather than a master of a different name?

  8. I think this is particularly relevant to this discussion:…..t9249.html

    1. brutus evidently cognates using radio memes and tshirt slogans.

      next assignment – making art from poo

      1. You could show us that, 03, considering the triple assholes.

        Actually, please don’t.

      2. next assignment – making art from poo

        o3: A+

  9. There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him

    I gather there existed no proto-OWS types in that audience.

  10. lol, dude needs a haircut and a shave I think.

  11. Why doesn’t Barack Obama know about this guy?

    1. Conflicts with the narrative.

    2. He knows enough about him to ignore him. And that conciliationist fuck Booker T. Washington.

      President Obama isn’t desperate to put a black face on his rhetoric to look tolerant, because he obviously is.

      1. Oh my! Is Mustard the “Angry Black Man” trope come to life at

      2. Holy shit, you actually are bad mouthing Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington.

        Ladies and gentlemen, I have been to the Great Wall of China, I have seen the Pyramids of Egypt, I’ve even witnessed a grown man satisfy a camel. But never in all my years as a sportscaster have I witnessed something as improbable, as impossible, as what we’ve witnessed here today!

  12. The answer to cure racism is pretty simple and straightforward. All white people need to become slaves to black people. The amount of time your family spends as a slave is based on the amount of money your family has made over the last 250 years. If you are mexican, you don’t get shit. Those are the only races right? White, Black and Mexican

  13. Wait, I thought there were white hispanics too.

    Oh, and asians. Hmm… are caucasians a subset of the asians?

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