Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass Hated Socialism

He stood for natural rights, racial equality, and economic liberty in a free labor system. At the heart of his worldview was the principle of self-ownership.

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In November 1848, a socialist activist gave a speech at the 13th annual meeting of the Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Society. "Mr. Inglis" began his remarks well enough, reported the abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, who was also there to give a speech that day, "but strangely enough went on in an effort to show that wages slavery is as bad as chattel slavery."

Douglass soon became infuriated with the socialist speaker. "The attempts to place holding property in the soil—on the same footing as holding property in man, was most lame and impotent," Douglass declared. "And the wonder is that anyone could listen with patience to such arrant nonsense."

Douglass heard a lot of arrant nonsense from American socialists. That's because, as the historian Carl Guarneri has explained, most antebellum socialists "were hostile or at least indifferent to the abolitionist appeal because they believed that it diverted attention from the serious problems facing northern workers with the onset of industrial capitalism." The true path forward, the socialists said, was the path of anti-capitalism.

But Douglass would have none of that. "To own the soil is no harm in itself," he maintained. "It is right that [man] should own it. It is his 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—now and always."

Douglass favored the set of ideas that came to be known as classical liberalism. He stood for natural rights, racial equality, and economic liberty in a free labor system. At the very heart of his worldview was the principle of self-ownership. "You are a man, and so am I," Douglass told his former master. "In leaving you, I took nothing but what belonged to me, and in no way lessened your means for obtaining an honest living." Referring to his first paying job after his escape from bondage, Douglass wrote: "I was now my own master—a tremendous fact." This individualistic, market-oriented definition of liberty put Douglass squarely at odds with the socialist creed.

The abolitionist-turned-socialist John A. Collins offers a telling contrast. In the 1840s, Collins went on a fundraising trip to England on behalf of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. He returned home a devotee of the English socialist George Henry Evans.

The "right of individual ownership in the soil and its products," Collins declared, are "the great cause of causes, which makes man practically an enemy to his species." Collins now thought private property was the root of all evil.

He didn't remain much of an abolitionist after that. "At antislavery conventions," the historian John L. Thomas has noted, "Collins took a perfunctory part, scarcely concealing his impatience until the end of the meeting when he could announce that a socialist meeting followed at which the real and vital questions of the day would be discussed."

Perhaps the most significant left-wing attacks on the abolitionists were found in the pages of the socialist journal The Phalanx. "The Abolition Party," complained an unsigned 1843 editorial, "seems to think that nothing else is false in our social organization, and that slavery is the only social evil to be extirpated." In fact, The Phalanx asserted, the "tyranny of capital" is the real problem, because capitalism "reduces [the working class] in time to a condition even worse than that of slaves. Under this system the Hired Laborer is worked to excess, beggared and degraded.…The slave at least does not endure these evils, which 'Civilized' society inflicts on its hirelings."

When it came to attacking free labor, the socialists and the slaveholders adopted certain identical positions. For example, the South's leading pro-slavery intellectual, the writer George Fitzhugh, argued that free labor was "worse than slavery" because it meant that the capitalists were free to exploit the workers. The idea that "individuals and peoples prosper most when governed least," Fitzhugh wrote, was nothing but a lie: "It has been justly observed that under this system the rich are continually growing richer and the poor poorer." As for the pro-market writings of Adam Smith and others, Fitzhugh dismissed them as "every man for himself, and Devil take the hindmost."

Douglass, meanwhile, took a page from John Locke's notion of private property emerging when man mixes his labor with the natural world: "Is it not astonishing that, while we are plowing, planting, and reaping, using all kinds of mechanical tools, erecting houses," he marvelled, "we are called upon to prove that we are men!"

Having experienced slavery firsthand, Douglass had no doubt that free labor was infinitely superior to it.

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  1. Given the recent flap about Ben Carson and his outrageous claim that slaves worked “for less”, I can’t help but wonder why no one jumps down the throat of anyone who uses the phrase “wage slavery.”

    1. Funny thing is obama said essentially same thing in dec 2015 to a college commencement i think it was

    2. Calling imported slaves immigrants is perhaps an odd word choice, but strictly speaking true.

      Ben Carson says weird shit. I think everyone already knew that.

      People pick the dumbest shit to get worked up over. And you are right “wage slavery” is much more insulting to people who were actually enslaved than Carson’s slightly odd comment.

      1. I suspect that Carson is too smart for politics. The man has serious chops and its likely he was trying to make a high level point that flew right over the heads of the far dumber reactionaries.
        The really intelligent do that all the time, which is why most of the time, they stay out of the public light.

        It’s a rare gift for the highly intelligent to be able to relate to the general populace. which makes guys like Hawking so friggin amazing.

        1. He is certainly a brilliant man. And he was making a good point, even if he could have picked his words better.

          He’s also been known to express some pretty peculiar beliefs. I’m a little surprised both that he was offered the job, and that he accepted it. But I don’t think it matters at all who is in charge of HUD. Funny how so much attention is being given to the heads of the most irrelevant departments.

          1. “But I don’t think it matters at all who is in charge of HUD”

            I suspect it will matter a lot with this administration. Older, high educated, overtly religious conservative black man is pretty much the ideal for redefining inner city public housing and being the front man for a redo of what has happened to African American communities.
            I do think Trump was serious about those efforts. Its the root of so many issues and is a political gold mine for a Republican who can pull it off. Traditional old white guys like Reagan, Bush 1, 2, Dole, McCain, Romney. None of them had any credibility in the black communities. Bush 2 should have but the press destroyed that as they tore down Powell and Rice.
            Trump has some credibility with minority communities. As much as the media has tried to hit him on old lawsuits, he’s supposedly been quite a leader in equality.

  2. It’s an evil thing to think that one man may own another when all men are properly the property of the state, it’s theft pure and simple to claim the right to ownership of another’s labor. Or your own. You didn’t build that – give it back to society, you thieving bastard.

    1. And that there are imbeciles in the world who actuallu believe that, although most of them are clever enough not to say it, is a prime reason for keeping the Second Amendment sacred.

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    1. Damon wrote this, not Jesse. Moron.

      1. I’m finding it harder and harder to take spambots seriously after that flub.

        1. They’re just trying to help you get a Jaguar

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          2. But I want a Maserati! And I want it now! /Veruca Salt

        2. How can it be harder than impossible?

  4. Wasn’t this originally posted in the blog? Then adapted for the magazine, which is posted again on the blog.

    But I’m a sucker for Douglass and mocking socialism, so… *scrolls to the top*

  5. “while we are plowing, planting, and reaping, using all kinds of mechanical tools, erecting houses,” he marvelled, “we are called upon to prove that we are men!”

    Yeah, well, Frederick Douglas was a sexist Uncle Tom tool of the imperialistic patriarchy. He was probably homophobic and anti-trans as well.

    1. I hate to think what medical procedures enabled a transitioning back in the mid 19th century. [shudders]

      1. What are you doing with those leeches?

        1. Doctor’s reply: “Well, they’re just leaches now, but once I sew them into a circle and insert them, your new hoo-ha will be the talk of the town up and down the Mississippi.”

    2. Douglass was pro-health! why are you attacking him for his anti-transfats bias?

  6. The ACLU’s mask slips.

    The event, staged in town hall style, was aimed at capitalizing on numerous demonstrations since Trump’s election in November and to make sure people know their rights to protest, Romero said. He said priority issues are immigration, the First Amendment free speech and religious freedom rights, civil and reproductive rights and rights of gay, lesbian and transgender people.

    “We will bring all the lawsuits necessary to defend these rights,” Romero said. “We’ll do the work in the courts. You do the work in the streets. People are motivated. They want to be engaged.”

    The ACLU also launched a new grassroots online organizing platform called PeoplePower.org. It’s billed as a way for people considering a local protest or rally to connect and coordinate with others around the country with similar intentions, and to provide details of ACLU initiatives.

    For an organization that claims to care so much about ensuring the right to vote, they sure don’t have any qualms about reversing the results of votes through undemocratic means.

    1. I’m not sure what the problem here is. There is wrong with encouraging people to protest as long as they are not encouraged to engage in explicit violence, block highways etc. Also who cares about democracy? It is better at protecting what the majority wants to do than it is at protecting our rights.

      1. “There is wrong with encouraging people to protest”

        Read that as “There is nothing wrong” with. Where art thou edit button?

      2. There is nothing wrong with encouraging people to protest as long as they are not encouraged to engage in explicit violence, block highways etc.

        Of course! Except the “as long as..” part is exactly what the left is doing.

        Imagine the howling that would come from the left if the NRA had said “We’ll do the work in the courts. You do the work in the streets.” in the context of opposing gun control laws in 2013.

        1. Imagine the howling that would come from the left if the NRA had said “We’ll do the work in the courts. You do the work in the streets.” in the context of opposing gun control laws in 2013.

          I can imagine a totally fucking stupid reaction based on a wilful misinterpretation of what they said. Let’s not do the same thing here, eh?

          “The left” is not a single unified entity. I don’t see any reason to believe that the ACLU is promoting violent protest.

          1. The ACLU has become a tool of the Left. It’s a sad outcome for an organization that should be non-partisan.

            It’s not what they are saying, it that they are openly declaring that they are now part of the Left.

            1. That does seem to be true. I used to defend the ACLU as doing more good than harm, but I’m not so sure anymore.

              What I don’t like is to see people adopting the strategy of many on the left of freaking out about irrelevant crap and deliberate misinterpretations.

            2. I don’t think it’s really news that the ACLU is left-leaning. I do think they should be called out when they’re inconsistent or hypocritical, but this here is reaching. The left isn’t a unified monolithic entity. While there has definitely been a concerning amount of support for violent “protests” among the left recently, I’ve also seen plenty of left-leaning people (in conversation, on Facebook, and random Internet commentators) condemn that.

              1. “The left isn’t a unified monolithic entity.”

                Yes it is. It just happens to use a diverse group of patsies to lead the various efforts.

                Just look at the nepotism and ‘in-breeding’ of spouses, children, friends in the career paths of the movers in media, politics, think tanks and universities.

                If you don’t think BLM, Occupy, Antifa, etc etc aren’t coordinated and funded by a centralized organization, you haven’t been paying attention.
                Everything from anti-fracking protests, the pipeline protests, to Ferguson and Baltimore, to the townhall disrupts are coordinated and bankrolled. Propaganda is manufactured and distributed on Facebook and social media to establish the talking points and then regurgitated through the MSM with talking points disseminated from whatever replaced JournoList.

  7. “A Southern farm is the beau ideal of Communism; it is a joint concern, in which the slave consumes more than the master, of the coarse products, and is far happier, because although the concern may fail, he is always sure of a support”
    – George Fitzhugh, *Sociology for the South: or, The failure of free society*

    The Southern slaveowners were advocates of socialism, with themselves as the nomenklatura of course. At least implicitly, if not always as explicitly as here. So it’s no wonder that Frederick Douglas, who experienced first-hand the “benevolence” of “the beau ideal of Communism,” didn’t care at all for socialism in any form.

    1. To clarify my point, George Fitzhugh didn’t just argue against capitalism, and he didn’t just happen to use the same arguments as socialists in doing so. He positively extolled the virtues of socialism.

      1. “He positively extolled the virtues of socialism.”

        To be sure. But it was a very aristocratic form of socialism. So much so that they were effectively anti-moderns reverting back to largely feudalistic norms.

        Some of the rhetoric was no doubt adopted out of sheer convenience, but much of it was old habits dying hard.

    2. The Southern slaveowners were advocates of socialism, with themselves as the nomenklatura of course. At least implicitly, if not always as explicitly as here. So it’s no wonder that Frederick Douglas, who experienced first-hand the “benevolence” of “the beau ideal of Communism,” didn’t care at all for socialism in any form.

      “Mr. President, if we recognize no law as obligatory, and no government as legitimate, which authorizes involuntary servitude, we shall be forced to consign the world to anarchy; for no government has yet existed, which did not recognize and enforce involuntary servitude for other causes than crime. To destroy that, we must destroy all inequality in property; for as long as these differences exist, there will be an involuntary servitude of man to man. Your socialist is the true abolitionist, and he only fully understands his mission.”
      -Robert M. T. Hunter, Senator from Virginia c.1850

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  9. Douglass soon became infuriated with the socialist speaker.

    Yeah, they’ll tend to do that.

    1. I’m assuming Douglass drank a lot too.

      1. That’s why they called him Dou-glass.

      2. That’s why they called him Dou-glass.

        1. And called me Dou-posts apparently.

    2. To be fair, socialists from the 19th century can be forgiven for naivete as they did not have any examples of what socialism leads to in the real world. Socialists from 2017, not so much.

      1. They had the example of the Plymouth colony.

        -jcr

        1. That’s probably easier to dismiss because of it’s small size and the other hardships that come with being a small, isolated colony.

  10. I would think that anyone who had a front-row seat to slavery would be skeptical of socialism.

    1. Hmm, maybe if everyone was forced into slavery we’d get rid of socialism altogether. I’d say we’re on our way here in the USA.

  11. …and Thomas Jefferson loved banging slaves.

    So what?

  12. the writer George Fitzhugh, argued that free labor was “worse than slavery” because it meant that the capitalists were free to exploit the workers. The idea that “individuals and peoples prosper most when governed least,” Fitzhugh wrote, was nothing but a lie: “It has been justly observed that under this system the rich are continually growing richer and the poor poorer.”
    You’re being pretty disingenuous, Damon. Fitzhugh wasn’t a defender of egalitarian socialism; quite the opposite, he promoted slavery because he thought that humans were inherently unequal.

    1. Fitzhugh wasn’t a defender of egalitarian socialism; quite the opposite, he promoted slavery because he thought that humans were inherently unequal.

      I’m not sure how those things are opposites.

      1. Slavery implies a master class and a slave class. If you take the proponents of egalitarian socialism at their word, both would be abolished and we’d all live in a classless utopia. Fitzhugh hated the European socialists and their talk of “equality” and “liberty” and what-not; only reason why calling him a “socialist” means some kind of sense is because at the time “socialism” was so vague that anybody could claim it; it didn’t turn into the whole “workers-of-the-world-unite” revolutionary shtick until after Marx’s death (and when Engels published a lot of his unfinished stuff).

  13. Why does everybody seem to hate Socialism? What is the definition of Socialism? No two people are exactly alike and no two definitions of Socialism are exactly alike. Here’s mine: A group of individuals working together (willingly or unwillingly) to achive a goal. A friend of mine has a different interpretation. To him, Socialism must be forced on you. He considered taxes he didn’t like to pay as socialism, but taxes he didn’t mind paying as OK. So paying his federal taxes is ‘Socialist’, but paying for his kid to play soccer or participating in neighborhood watch is not. He also approved of libraries and police but not his homeowners association, and I agree with him. This doesn’t change the fact (to me) all three are ‘Socialist’.

      1. Beat me to it, I see.

      2. Socialism is what you want it to mean, man!

        Now I know why it persists….because of this kind of sophistry.

    1. And why is it called ovaltine?

    2. Socialism is lots of people working together unwillingly to achieve an apparachik’s goal. In other words, mass slavery.

      1. ^ this one right here

    3. A group of individuals working together to achieve a goal is also called a corporation.

    4. The definition of socialism: whatever attracts the most useful idiots

    5. “A group of individuals working together (willingly or unwillingly)”

      Never before has someone nailed slavery on the head so fast.

    6. You nailed it and you don’t know it.

    7. If you are going to discuss something with people, then you need to agree on definitions of words, or at least understand how other people use the words.

      I think most people understand socialism to refer to a system where government owns or effectively controls large parts of the economy. A lot of people also consider welfare states and other government provided services to be socialism.

      It should be fairly obvious that libertarians are opposed to all of those things.

  14. Snort|3.12.17 @ 3:20PM|#
    “What is the definition of Socialism? No two people are exactly alike and no two definitions of Socialism are exactly alike. Here’s mine: A group of individuals working together (willingly or unwillingly) to achive a goal.”

    I’m gonna be generous and assume you’re joking.

  15. F.D. would be vilified in our time. Socialists blather on and on about “labor”, and they know all there is to know about outrage, but they know nothing about work.

    1. Nah, vilifying him would give him too much attention. They’d ignore him in the media and the history books alike. And of course, the media and the history books would be all the lesser for it.

  16. Douglass was BADass.

    What a surprise socialists would turn their backs on abolitionism. Mind you, to be fair, as Root writes it; they seemed to think capitalism was the root cause of slavery so it doesn’t mean they were pro-slavery. Of course, the flaw being slavery precedes capitalism. So we’re back to socialists turning their backs on abolitionists.

  17. The most common definition of Socialism from Merriam-Webster: “Any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.” Using this definition of ‘Socialism’ I have never met an out of the closet ‘Socialist’ in my life. Virtually all the people called ‘Socialists’ it all forms of media are not real ‘Socialists’ using this definition. So who is a Socialist? If they don’t meet the definition how do you know?

    1. Words have meanings, bud.

    2. Using this definition of ‘Socialism’ I have never met an out of the closet ‘Socialist’ in my life.”

      No, you simply have very poor powers of perception and reasoning. Either that or you are insisting on a pedantic reading of the definition, one requiring every element be met in order to qualify.

      Because there are plenty of people who openly advocate “government… administration of.. the distribution of goods… (and services.)”

      Medicare
      Medicaid
      TANF
      etc.

  18. I’ve been researching Lincoln’s background and what I’ve seen thus far is intriguing to say the least. It all centers around a friendship that began in 1848, while Lincoln was a representative from Illinois. Horce Greelley had been appointed as an alternative and would only serve the remainder of the year.

    Although Lincoln knew of Greelley he had never met him. Horce Greelley was the founder and editor of the New York Tribune. Charles Dana, Albert Brisbane, Karl Marx, Margaret fuller, and several other socialist would be employed at the Tribune. Needless to say Greelley would play an interact role in Lincoln’s political career.

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