Frederick Douglass

The Inconvenient Individualism of Frederick Douglass

A bizarre New York Times piece knocks down a strawman.


The Yale historian David Blight marked Frederick Douglass' 200th birthday yesterday with a New York Times op-ed headlined "How the Right Co-Opts Frederick Douglass." The article argues that "Conservatives have cherry-picked his words to advance their narrow visions of libertarianism." Aside from a passing reference to some GOPers wearing "Frederick Douglass Was a Republican" buttons, Blight's one example is the libertarian writer Timothy Sandefur:

In "Self-Made Man," a new book published by the Cato Institute, the lawyer Timothy Sandefur argues that Douglass's essential legacy lies in his advocacy of liberty, individualism and private property and free enterprise. The radical abolitionist who risked all to use words and politics to free an entire people from slavery was, to Mr. Sandefur, only "a radical for individualism" and never concerned with "the interests of the collective."

To believe that, one has to ignore most of Douglass's career, especially his life as an abolitionist, his ferocious attacks on the poison of racism and his brilliant analysis of how lynching emerged from the evils of white supremacy. Douglass believed that freedom was safe only within the state and under law.

Needless to say, there is no contradiction between being "a radical for individualism" and being an abolitionist, an anti-racist, and a man who saw the links between lynching and white rule. And yes, Douglass believed government is necessary to protect freedom; unlike some of his fellow abolitionists, he did not want to abolish the state. But that hardly disqualifies him from being an individualist.

The beliefs that Blight lists may be harder to square with the idea that Douglass was "never concerned with 'the interests of the collective.'" But that isn't what Sandefur wrote. Here is the actual passage from his book:

Douglass was not, therefore, a conservative but a radical—a radical for individualism and for the 'bourgeois virtues' of self-reliance, industry, and personal pride. He was not likely to be attracted to any doctrine that subordinated individual rights—whether free speech or property rights—to the interests of the collective.

Needless to say, there is a vast difference between saying someone didn't want to subordinate individual rights to the collective and saying he was "never concerned with the interests of the collective." Also, if a passage explicitly denies that Douglass was a conservative, you probably shouldn't make it the lynchpin of your argument that conservatives are trying to co-opt Douglass. And if you're going to gerrymander a man's words this misleadingly, you may want to refrain from accusing anyone else of cherry-picking. It's unseemly.

NEXT: More Cops in Schools Is the Wrong Answer to Mass Shootings

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Needless to say, there is a vast different between saying someone didn’t want to subordinate individual rights to the collective and saying he was “never concerned with the interests of the collective.”

    Individualists are difficult for those who are not individualists to understand.

    1. I don’t understand how they don’t understand.

      1. I don’t understand but I don’t care ’cause I’m semi-autistic or something.

  2. Collectivists believe that no one cooperates with anyone else unless they are forced. If someone opposes the government forcing people to work together, then that person opposes all cooperation of any kind. Individualists who oppose forced cooperation oppose all cooperation. You either work for the collective with a gun in your back, or you don’t work with anyone at all.

    1. You are getting close, but are not quite there. What you fail to see is that they fundamentally do not respect the notion of the individual.

      To the collectivist force is not ‘force-force’ when done in pursuit of anything that benefits the collective. That is their definition of justice. They only recognize the individual in the sense of ‘something that might impede the collective.’

      Which means, that while they may talk about ‘cooperation,’ they really have no understanding of, or use for it.

      Let that sink in for a while.

      1. I don’t think they understand the notion of the individual. They can’t imagine individuals cooperating voluntarily. It just doesn’t compute. You are either a part of the collective, coerced into cooperation, or an individual who cooperates with no one. The concept of voluntary cooperation, of individuals forming groups and organizations, working towards a common goal without a gun in their back, just doesn’t compute in the mind of a collectivist. That is why they frame everything as a use of force. We’re slaves to the corporations. The corporations force us to work for them and to buy their stuff. The notion that a corporation is a set of individuals cooperating towards a common goal is a concept that the collectivist mind is incapable of understanding.

        1. Someday sarc, the forces of individualism are going to crush the forces of collectivism.

          Collectivists shall, inter alia, be assaulted, beaten, caned, decapitated, executed, flogged, gassed (in and out of chambers), hung, impaled, jailed, kicked, liquidated, maimed, neutered, obliterated, punched, quashed, raped, sterilized, tortured, vanquished, wasted, X-tirpated, yanked, and zapped.

        2. It’s not that they don’t understand it. It is that they reject it.

          To them concern for the individual’s individuality is the essence of false consciousness.

          Thinking this just a misunderstanding is like thinking that the crocodile will listen if you only SPEAK LOUDER.

          1. Have you spoken with some of these dumb dumbs. They are more likely not to understand than understand and reject much of what they hate.

            I know its scarier with the rejection of individualism as a means to enslave. I do not mean to underestimate the socialist enemy but many of these lefties are sheeple and don’t use their brains much.

            1. ThomasD’s “false consciousness” remark is spot on. There are those who don’t have to be forced to work “for the good of the collective,” and that’s those who have drunk the Flavor-Aid. They then bring up their children – or the collective does – to internalize those values. That’s what “New Soviet Man” was about. We know now it is a crock of beans, or would be, had not the collective failed to meet the bean quota…..

            2. Loveman, it really does not matter how ‘deep’ the understanding is, it really boils down to what they accept. Be it through careful reasoned analysis or simply received wisdom.

          2. Yes ThomasD… It’s dangerous to think they are simply ignorant. The masses are, mostly, but not the doctrine followers/creators. They count on our good-will to grant them intellectual leeway.

            1. Yes, we must recognize that they are a reaction to liberalism, and are not remotely liberal at their core.

    2. Criminal conspiracies, therefore, are impossible.

  3. Everyone is terrified of libertarianism and trying to discredit it ahead of the next elections. Expect this hysteria to proliferate in the coming months.

    1. I’m real interested in seeing if Larry Sharpe actually makes any headway in New York. Everybody hates Cuomo. Nobody will ever vote for a Republican. If he gets a few major press pieces and in the debates, he could win.

      1. Everybody hates Cuomo.

        Other than Bill Deblasio, who hates Cumo’s guts, I haven’t really seen any evidence of this. I think it’s more “meh” than anything. Which means he’ll win in a landslide.

    2. The further left the Democratic Party goes the more concern they will have with people straying away. They do not fear people flipping to Republican as much as they fear them discovering that there are other options

    3. Why? Everyone knows that 95% of the “libertarians” are just going to vote for Trump again like last time.

      1. So, you think over a third of the electorate is libertarian? Adding only the remaining 5% voted for Johnson.

        Or more likely, you just make up nonsense by habit.

      2. You really believe that 95% number don’t you?

        I vote GayJay but I will vote for Trump in 2020 unless there is a good Libertarian candidate.

      3. You should really change your handle. I think Dumbfuck Dragon has a nice ring to it.

  4. Blight ignores the inconvenient fact that groups are made up of individuals.
    It is very hard for the group to prosper if the individuals don’t.
    It’s impossible if the individuals can’t.

    The evil is always with respect to the individual. The group is an artifact.
    Groups have no agency..
    Groups suffer no ill except insofar as some/lots/all of the individuals taken to be member of the group suffer ill.

    1. She doesn’t ignore the concept of the individual she fundamentally rejects it.

      It’s a bit like trying to discuss cosmology with a flat Earther.

  5. A bizarre New York Times piece knocks down a strawman.

    It must be a day ending in “y”.

  6. the lawyer Timothy Sandefur

    You can really hear the sneer. There ought to be a law about practicing history without a license.

    1. Wouldn’t help. Have you seen what McKean did to Buchanan?
      That is neither history nor scholarship, yet her credentials are “impeccable.”
      What are the odds she’d get a license?
      What are the odds she’d be one of those deciding who qualifies for a license and who doesn’t?

    2. There ought to be a law about practicing history without a license.

      That is known as the Michael A. Bellesiles gambit. Put him, Nancy MacLean and David Bright (sic) in a room together and I very seriously doubt they could find the door out without phoning a friend.

  7. The headline makes you think this guy is gonna go through a litany of contradictions in the libertarian/conservative (same thing to him) fandom of Douglass. Instead, there’s a measly two paragraphs at the end complaining about Sandefur’s choice of title and thinking that most libertarians don’t see the government as, you know, being instituted to safeguard the rights of its people.

    It’s the laziness that bothers me.

  8. I see that Reason, by and through Jesse, took note of my Black History Outrage post yesterday in which I had observed that Reason had failed to celebrate the birthday of Mr. Douglass.

  9. Needless to say, there is no contradiction between being “a radical for individualism” and being an abolitionist, an anti-racist, and a man who saw the links between lynching and white rule

    Reason comment section suggests otherwise.

    1. Do you still beat your husband, sell heroin to children, and sexually abuse kittens?

    2. Based on the shit that didn’t happen here, or based on the fact you are a bigot in search of people to disparage?

  10. That’s not important, Walker. What’s important is that all Good Historical Figures were progressives, no matter how much that figure’s behaviors or words show otherwise.

    After all, if Douglass were a conservative or a libertarian, he could not be good. Douglass was good. Ergo, Douglass was a progressive.

  11. This proves why libtards are fucking stupid liars. Every thing that comes out of their mouths is a twisting of the truth or outright lying and falsehood. I hate them.

  12. Saya tahu itu menakutkan dengan penolakan individualisme sebagai sarana untuk memperbudak. Saya tidak bermaksud meremehkan musuh sosialis tetapi banyak dari kaum kiri ini adalah domba dan tidak banyak menggunakan otak mereka.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.