The continuing importance of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass.

February is black history month. And there are few more prominent figures in black American history than Frederick Douglass. Today, he is primarily remembered for his role in the abolitionist movement, and for his inspiring and compelling autobiography that describes his escape from slavery and his later life. But Douglass was also a wide-ranging thinker who wrote on a wide range of issues. Many of his writings and speeches, including the lesser-known ones, are incredibly relevant to contemporary controversies. In this post, I cover a few notable examples.

While Douglass is best known for championing racial equality within the United States, he also argued, in his 1869 “Composite Nation” speech (a critique of then-growing calls to limit Chinese immigration), that the same principles forbade immigration restrictions, especially those motivated by the desire to keep out certain racial, ethnic or cultural groups:

I submit that this issue of Chinese immigration should be resolved on higher principles than those of cold and selfish expediency.

There are such things in the world as human rights. They do not rest on any conventional basis, but are external, universal and indestructible. Among them is the right to movement; the right to migrate; a right which does not belong to any particular race, but belongs equally to all and to all alike. It is a right you exercise by staying here, and your fathers exercised it by coming here. It is a great right which I claim for the Chinese and the Japanese, and for all other kinds of people as much as for yourselves, now and forever. I do not know the rights of a race which are superior to the rights of humanity, and when there is an alleged conflict between human and national rights, it is safe to side with humanity.

Douglass was one of the first to realize that immigration restrictions had much in common with racial discrimination. The speech also addresses a number of still-standard justifications for immigration restrictions, such as the fear that they are justified by the need to prevent native culture from being “overwhelmed” by migrant culture.

Douglass’s 1871 Commemoration Day speech is highly relevant to long-standing debates about how Americans should remember the Civil War. To this day there are those who argue that the Confederate cause was justified, or at least that—for the sake of national unity—we should not denigrate it. Douglass had no patience for such ideas:

Sometimes we are asked, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this terrible struggle and to remember with equal admiration those who struck for the life of the nation and those who struck to save it, those who fought for slavery and those who fought for freedom and justice.

I am not the minister of malice. I wouldn’t hit the pale ones. I would not refuse a penitent; but let my “right hand forget its cunning, and my tongue cleave to the palate,” if I forget the difference between the parties in that terrible, protracted, and bloody conflict…

The essence and significance of our devotions here today is not found in the fact that the people whose remains fill these graves were brave in battle. If we met only to show our sense of courage, we should find enough on both sides to excite admiration…

But we are not here to applaud a man’s courage, unless it is displayed in a noble cause. We must never forget that the victory of the rebellion meant the death of the republic… If today we have a country that does not boil in the agony of blood… if we now have a united country, no longer cursed by the hell-black system of human slavery… , we owe selfless loyalty of the noble army that rests in these honorable graves all around us.

This has obvious relevance to contemporary controversies, such as the debate over taking down Confederate monuments and the more general question of how we should think about slavery and the Civil War. As I pointed out earlier, condemning the Confederacy and celebrating its defeat does not require us to condone or justify everything the Union side did in the war (nor did Douglass make such a claim).

One of Douglass’s most famous works was his July 4th, 1852 speech, “What’s a Slave on the Fourth of July?” This is mostly remembered today for its scathing condemnation of American slavery and the hypocrisy of freedom. But it’s worth pointing out that he also praises the ideals of the American founding, and even the founders themselves, as in this passage:

The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men, too—great enough to give glory to old age. It is not often that a nation can raise so many truly great people at one time. The point from which I am forced to observe them is certainly not the most favorable; and yet I cannot think of their great works with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots, and heroes, and for the good they did and the principles they stood for, I will join with you in honoring their memory.

They loved their country more than their own private interests; and, though this is not the highest form of human excellence, all will admit that it is a rare virtue, and that when it is displayed, it should command respect. He who will wisely lay down his life for his country is a man whom it is not in human nature to despise. Your fathers staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor for the cause of their country. In their admiration for freedom, they lost sight of all other interests.

They were peaceful people; but they preferred revolution to peaceful submission to slavery. They were quiet people; but they did not stop agitating against oppression. They showed patience; but if they knew its limits. They believed in order; but not in the order of tyranny. Nothing has “aligned” with them, which is not good. With them, justice, freedom and humanity were “final”; not slavery and oppression. You can cherish the memory of such people.

Both Douglass’ condemnation of slavery and hypocrisy and his praise of the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence are relevant to current debates about how we should teach and think about American history. The first is a rebuke to those on the right who seek to minimize or ignore America’s mistakes. The latter to those on the left who argue that its liberal ideals pale in comparison to these injustices, or even contribute to them.

While Douglass was a sharp critic of the racial intolerance and oppression of his time, he also warned against responding to it with “race pride”—what we might call identity politics today:

“[d]do we not know that every argument we make and every claim we make in favor of racial pride is giving the enemy a club to break our own heads in?… We cannot afford to draw the color line in politics, commerce, education, manners, religion, fashion or civilization. We especially cannot afford to draw the color line in politics.”

In the last speech of his life, “The Blessings of Liberty and Education,” he advised relying instead on universal principles:

Since emancipation we have heard our modern colored leaders talk a great deal about race pride, race love, race toil, race superiority, race people, and the like. One man is praised because he is a race, and another is condemned because he is not a race. In all that race talk, the motive may be good, but the method is bad. It is an attempt to drive Beelzebub out of Satan… The evils that now trample the black man to the ground have their root and juice, their strength and main spring, in this narrow spirit of race and skin color, and the black man has no more right to justify and encourage it than people of any other race. I do not recognize or accept a narrow basis for my thoughts, feelings or ways of acting. I would place myself, and I would place you, my young friends, far higher and wider than any based on race or color…. We are not recommended to love or hate any particular kind of human family more than any other….

Therefore, at the risk of lacking the quality of love and devotion to race and color, I confess that in my advocacy of things of color, whether in the name of education or freedom, I have had more to say about masculinity and what is understood in masculinity and in femininity than mere coincidences of race and color; and, if it is disloyalty to race and color, I am to blame. I insist that the lesson that colored people, no less than white people, should now learn, is that there is no moral or intellectual quality in the color of a man’s cuticle; that color, in itself, is neither good nor bad; that being black or white is neither a true source of pride nor shame.

If this is an indictment of left-wing identity politics, it also contrasts with the ethno-nationalism of much of the modern right, such as the “national conservatives”.

Douglass’ views on the US Constitution also have great potential relevance for our time. He began as a supporter of the view – espoused by the great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison – that the Constitution was irredeemably pro-slavery. But he gradually moved to the almost completely opposite view that the Constitution—even before the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment—was actually anti-slavery.

Along with other abolitionist constitutionalists, he reached this conclusion by elevating the text and principles of natural law over what modern legal theorists call “original expected applications” (how contemporaries thought the Constitution would apply).

This approach poses a challenge to many on the left who reject textualism and originalism in part because they believe that these methodologies inevitably lead to racist results. But it also challenges many conservative versions of originalism, which give more weight to original expected applications.

My co-blogger Randy Barnett insightfully explores some of the implications of abolitionist constitutionalism in an important 2011 article. The subject attracted the interest of other modern scholars as well. But contemporary constitutional theory could benefit from much greater engagement with this body of work.

Unlike Douglass’s views on immigration, the Civil War, the American Revolution, and racial pride, I am only partially convinced of his position on the Constitution. I fear that the pre-Civil War Constitution was more heavily infected with compromises with slavery than Douglass was willing to admit (though not as much as the Garrisons, nineteenth-century defenders of slavery, and many modern left-wing critics of originalism have claimed). But abolitionist constitutionalism deserves our serious consideration and respect nonetheless.

The above does little more than scratch the surface of Frederick Douglass’ relevance to contemporary debates. There are many, many more where that came from. But I hope I have at least said enough to persuade readers to take a closer look at these and other aspects of his writings. They present significant challenges to both the right and the left.

In reading even the greatest thinkers of earlier periods, we usually find ideas that are parochial, anachronistic, apparently undone by later developments, or simply irrelevant to modern issues. Douglass’s work is not entirely free of such problems. But the extent to which he avoided them is incredible.

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