The Continuing Relevance 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, which recounts his escape from slavery and subsequent life. But Douglass was also a wide-ranging thinker who wrote about numerous issues. Many of his  writings and speeches, including lesser-known ones are strikingly relevant to modern controversies. In this post, I cover a few notable examples.

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

I submit that this question of Chinese immigration should be settled upon higher principles than those of a cold and selfish expediency.

There are such things in the world as human rights. They rest upon no conventional foundation, but are external, universal, and indestructible. Among these, is the right of locomotion; the right of migration; the right which belongs to no particular race, but belongs alike to all and to all alike. It is the right you assert by staying here, and your fathers asserted by coming here. It is this great right that I assert for the Chinese and Japanese, and for all other varieties of men equally with yourselves, now and forever. I know of no rights of race superior to the rights of humanity, and when there is a supposed conflict between human and national rights, it is safe to go to the side of humanity.

Douglass was one of the first to realize that immigration restrictions have much in common with racial discrimination. That speech also addresses a number of still-standard justifications for immigration restrictions, such as fears that they are justified by the need to prevent natives’ culture from being “swamped” by that of migrants.

Douglass’ 1871 Decoration Day speech is highly relevant to longstanding debates over 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 shouldn’t denigrate it. Douglass had little patience for such ideas:

We are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life and those who struck to save it, those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice.

I am no minister of malice. I would not strike the fallen. I would not repel the repentant; but may my “right hand forget her cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,” if I forget the difference between the parties to that terrible, protracted, and bloody conflict….

The essence and significance of our devotions here to-day are not to be found in the fact that the men whose remains fill these graves were brave in battle. If we met simply to show our sense of bravery, we should find enough on both sides to kindle admiration….

But we are not here to applaud manly courage, save as it has been displayed in a noble cause. We must never forget that victory to the rebellion meant death to the republic…. If today we have a country not boiling in an agony of blood… if now we have a united country, no longer cursed by the hell-black system of human bondage…. , we are indebted to the unselfish devotion of the noble army who rest in these honored graves all around us.

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

One of Douglass’ most famous works was his 1852 July 4 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” This is today mainly remembered for its blistering condemnation of American slavery and hypocrisy about liberty. But it’s worth emphasizing that it 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 fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.

They loved their country better than their own private interests; and, though this is not the highest form of human excellence, all will concede that it is a rare virtue, and that when it is exhibited, it ought to command respect. He who will, intelligently, 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, on the cause of their country. In their admiration of liberty, they lost sight of all other interests.

They were peace men; but they preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage. They were quiet men; but they did not shrink from agitating against oppression. They showed forbearance; but that they knew its limits. They believed in order; but not in the order of tyranny. With them, nothing was “settled” that was not right. With them, justice, liberty and humanity were “final;” not slavery and oppression. You may well cherish the memory of such men.

Both Douglass’ denunciation of slavery and hypocrisy and his praise of the American Revolution and Declaration of Independence are relevant to current debates about how we should teach and think about American history. The former is a rebuke to those on the right who seek to minimize or ignore America’s wrongs. The latter to those on the left who claim its liberal ideals are insignificant compared to those wrongs, or even contributors to them.

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

“[d]o we not know that every argument we make, and every pretension we set up in favor of race pride, is giving the enemy a stick to break our own heads?… We cannot afford to draw the color-line in politics, trade, education, manners, religion, fashion, or civilization. Especially we cannot afford to draw the color-line in politics.”

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

We hear, since emancipation, much said by our modern colored leaders in commendation of race pride, race love, race effort, race superiority, race men, and the like. One man is praised for being a race man and another is condemned for not being a race man. In all this talk of race, the motive may be good, but the method is bad. It is an effort to cast out Satan by Beelzebub….. The evils which are now crushing the negro to earth have their root and sap, their force and mainspring, in this narrow spirit of race and color, and the negro has no more right to excuse and foster it than have men of any other race. I recognize and adopt no narrow basis for my thoughts, feelings, or modes of action. I would place myself, and I would place you, my young friends, upon grounds vastly higher and broader than any founded upon race or color…. We are not recommended to love or hate any particular variety of the human family more than any other….

Hence, at the risk of being deficient in the quality of love and loyalty to race and color, I confess that in my advocacy of the colored man’s cause, whether in the name of education or freedom, I have had more to say of manhood and of what is comprehended in manhood and in womanhood, than of the mere accident of race and color; and, if this is disloyalty to race and color, I am guilty. I insist upon it that the lesson which colored people, not less than white people, ought now to 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 to be black or white is neither a proper source of pride or of shame.

If this is an indictment of left-wing identity politics, it also  equally at odds 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 started out as an adherent of the view – advanced by the great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison – that the Constitution was irredeemably pro-slavery. But he gradually shifted to the almost completely opposite view that the Constitution – even before the enactment of the Thirteenth Amendment – was actually anti-slavery.

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

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

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

Unlike in the case of Douglass’s views on immigration, the Civil War, the American Revolution, and racial pride, I am only partly persuaded by his take on the Constitution. I fear the pre-Civil War Constitution was more heavily tainted by compromises with slavery than Douglass was willing to admit (though not as much so as claimed by Garrisonians, nineteenth century defenders of slavery, and many modern left-wing critics of originalism). But abolitionist constitutionalism nonetheless deserves our serious consideration and respect.

The above does little more than scratch the surface of Frederick Douglass’s relevance to modern debates. There is much, much more, where that came from. But I hope I have at least said enough to convince readers to take a closer look at these and other aspects of his writings. They pose significant challenges to right and left, alike.

In reading even the greatest thinkers of earlier eras, we commonly find ideas that are parochial, anachronistic, obviously invalidated by later developments, or just simply irrelevant to modern concerns. Douglass’s work isn’t completely free of such problems. But the extent to which he avoided them is remarkable.

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