Frederick Douglass

The Libertarianism of Frederick Douglass: Podcast

Damon Root on how the famous abolitionist was also an outspoken classical liberal.

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Frederick Douglass was born 200 years ago this month, and while he's justifiably known as an escaped slave and influential abolitionist, he was also one of the 19th century's most outspoken classical liberals. "The great fact underlying the claim for universal suffrage is that every man is himself and belongs to himself, and represents his own individuality," Douglass declared. "The same is true of woman… Her selfhood is as perfect and as absolute as is the selfhood of man."

A proponent of "free labor," Douglass was at odds with socialist and communitarian abolitionists who denounced property and self-ownership as part of a broader exploitative capitalist system. In fact, Douglass called socialism, which was migrating from Europe to the United States during his life, "errant nonsense" and was a proponent of John Locke and liberalism.

Reason's Nick Gillespie spoke to senior editor Damon Root, whose new article on Douglass is available at Reason.com, about the historical figure and his broader impact on American thinking.

Audio production by Ian Keyser.

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  1. A proponent of “free labor,” Douglass was at odds with socialist and communitarian abolitionists who denounced property and self-ownership as part of a broader exploitative capitalist system.

    Nothing says self-ownership than a forced collective farm.

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  2. In fact, Douglass called socialism, which was migrating from Europe to the United States during his life, “errant nonsense” . . . .

    So it’s ironic that the 5-volume collection of the Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass is published by International Publishers, the de facto publishing organ of the CPUSA.

    1. Well, the author of those was a Marxist.

    2. Either Nick or Damon (don’t remember now – it’s been about an hour) does make a comment alluding to the fact that the modern left seems to appreciate the narrative of Douglas’ life rather more than it does his ideas.

  3. Douglas and Spooner are the only abolitionists I’m aware of who weren’t total progs.

    1. I know that “OMG Lincoln wasn’t an abolitionist” (until he was), but consider this:

      “What is the true condition of the laborer? I take it that it is best for all to leave each man free to acquire property as fast as he can. Some will get wealthy. I don’t believe in a law to prevent a man from getting rich; it would do more harm than good. So while we do not propose any war upon capital, we do wish to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else. [Applause.] When one starts poor, as most do in the race of life, free society is such that he knows he can better his condition; he knows that there is no fixed condition of labor, for his whole life. I am not ashamed to confess that twenty five years ago I was a hired laborer, mauling rails, at work on a flat-boat — just what might happen to any poor man’s son! [Applause.] I want every man to have the chance — and I believe a black man is entitled to it — in which he can better his condition — when he may look forward and hope to be a hired laborer this year and the next, work for himself afterward, and finally to hire men to work for him! That is the true system.”

    2. Progressives may have been abolitionists but they were almost always racists. They were against slavery because they thought that slave owners were lazy and not good example of what white people were supposed to be. As far as black people, they thought they were savages who would never adapt to the White Anglo Saxon Protestant superior culture and should go back to Africa.

      1. As a movement, abolitionism arose in reaction against the colonizationists who wanted to send freed black people out of the country (Liberia got started that way). No shortage of racism, but abolitionist racism compared to slaveowners’ racism was like a cold compared to a cancer.

  4. Fedgov freed the slaves. Just sayin.

    1. So, they fixed a problem that they started? Good for them! Now off I go to start trouble and then be my own peacemaker so other people can say how great of a person I am.

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