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 remembered primarily for his role in the abolitionist movement and for his inspiring and compelling autobiography, which chronicles his escape from slavery and later life. But Douglass was also a broad thinker who wrote on a wide range of subjects. Many of his writings and speeches, including the lesser known, are interestingly relevant to modern debates. In this post, I have covered a few notable examples.

Although Douglass is best known for arguing for racial equality within the United States, he argued in his 1869 “Composite Nation” speech (criticizing then-growing calls to limit Chinese immigration) that the same principles prohibited immigration restrictions, particularly those of certain ethnicities. Motivated by a desire to alienate ethnic, or cultural groups:

I submit that this question of Chinese immigration should be settled on higher principles than coldness and selfishness.

There is something called human rights in the world. They rest on no conventional foundation, but are external, universal and imperishable. Among these, the right to motion; immigration rights; Rights which do not belong to any particular nation, but are equal to all and to all. The right you claim from here, and your fathers came here to claim. I claim this great right for Chinese and Japanese and for all other races of men alike, now and forever. I know of no national right higher than the right of humanity, and when a supposed conflict arises between human and national rights, it is safe to go on the side of humanity.

Douglas was one of the first to realize that immigration restrictions had much in common with racial discrimination. That speech also addresses several standard justifications for immigration restrictions, such as the fear that they are justified by the need to prevent native cultures from being “swamped” by immigrants.

Douglass’ 1871 Decoration Day speech is highly relevant to the long-running debate 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—in the interest of national unity—we should not denigrate it. Douglas had little patience for such ideas:

We are sometimes called, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck 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 a minister of hate. I won’t hurt to fall. I would not drive away the penitent; But my “right hand may forget its cunning, and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,” if I forget the difference between the parties in that terrible, protracted, and bloody conflict….

The essence and significance of our devotion here today is not to be found in the fact that the men who filled these graves were brave in battle. If we meet to show our sense of bravery, we should have enough to admire on both sides….

But we are not here to praise the bravery of the man, it is displayed for a noble purpose. We must never forget that the victory of the Rebellion means the death of the Republic…. If today we had a nation not seething with bloodshed… if we had a united nation today, no longer cursed by the hell-black system of human slavery…. , we owe it to the selfless devotion of the noble army that rests in these honored graves around us.

It has obvious relevance to modern debates, such as the debate over the removal of Confederate monuments, and the more general issue of how we should think about slavery and the Civil War. As I noted earlier, condemning the Confederacy and celebrating its defeat does not require us to excuse or justify everything the Union side did in the war (nor did Douglass make any such claim).

One of Douglass’s most famous works was his July 4, 1852 speech, “What Fourth of July to the Slave?” It is remembered today chiefly for its condemnation of American slavery and hypocrisy regarding freedom. But it’s worth emphasizing that it praises the ideals of the American establishment, even the Founders, as in this passage:

The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They too were great men—great enough to give fame to great ages. It is not often that a nation produces so many true great men at one time. The point from which I am obliged to view them is, of course, not the most favorable; And yet I cannot think of their great deeds less than praise. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did and the principles they stood for, I join with you in honoring their memory.

They loved their country more than their own personal interests; And, although it is not the highest form of human excellence, all will admit that it is a rare quality, and when it is displayed, it should be respected. He who will intelligently lay down his life for his country is a man whom it is not human nature to despise. Your fathers staked their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor for their country. In praise of freedom they lose sight of all other interests.

They were people of peace; But they preferred revolution to peaceful surrender to slavery. They were quiet people; But they did not withdraw from the movement against oppression. They showed tolerance; But they knew its limits. They believe in discipline; But not in order of torture. With them, some “settlement” that was not right. With them, justice, liberty, and humanity were “ultimate;” Not slavery and oppression. You may well cherish the memory of such men.

Both Douglas’s 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 want to minimize or ignore America’s wrongs. To the left those who claim its liberal ideals are insignificant compared to those injustices, even their contributors.

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

“[d]o Don’t we know that every argument and every pretense we put up for national pride is giving the enemy a stick to break our own heads?… We can’t afford to draw color lines in politics, commerce, education. , manners, religion, fashion, or civilization. We cannot afford to draw color lines especially in politics.”

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

We hear, since liberation, our modern caste leaders talk about race pride, race love, race effort, race superiority, race men and so on. One man is praised for being a caste man and another caste is condemned for not being a caste man. In all these discussions about race, the intention may be good, but the method is bad. It is an attempt by Beelzebub to cast out the devil….. The evils which are now crushing the negro upon the earth have their root and sap, their strength and mainspring, in this narrow consciousness of race and color, and the negro has no more right to excuse and nurture it than any other race of men. . I do not accept and accept no narrow basis for my thoughts, feelings, or course of action. I will place myself, and I will place you, my young friends, on a higher and broader basis than any based on race or color…. We are not recommended to love or hate any particular variety of the human family more than any other.

Therefore, at the risk of detracting from the quality of love and loyalty to race and color, I confess that in my advocacy of the cause of the colored man, whether in the name of education or in the name of freedom, I have meant manhood, and what is understood between manhood and womanhood, merely by race and color. than an accident; And, if it is loyalty to caste and caste, I am guilty. I insist that the lesson that the colored man, no less than the white man, should now learn is, that the color of a man’s cuticle has no moral or intellectual quality; That color, in itself, is neither good nor bad; Being black or white is not an appropriate source of pride or shame.

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

Douglas’s views on the US Constitution have great potential relevance for our time. He began as an adherent of the view—advanced by the great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison—that the Constitution irrevocably favored slavery. But he gradually shifted to the almost completely opposite view that the Constitution—even before the Thirteenth Amendment took effect—was actually anti-slavery.

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

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

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

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

The above does more than scratch the relevance of Frederick Douglass to the modern debate. There are a lot of things where that came from. But I hope I’ve at least said enough to convince readers to look deeper into these and other aspects of his writing. They pose significant challenges to right and left alike.

Even in reading the greatest thinkers of earlier eras, we usually find ideas that are parochial, anarchistic, apparently invalidated by later developments, or simply irrelevant to modern concerns. Douglas’s work is not entirely free from such problems. But the extent to which he avoided them is remarkable.