Frederick Douglass: Race and the Rebirth of American Liberalism

by Peter C. Myers

University Press of Kansas, 265 pages, $34.95

As predictably as the calendar pages turn, each time I taught American political thought, whenever we got to the Declaration of Independence, some student would report breathlessly that the author of such phrases as “unalienable rights” and “all men are created equal” kept slaves . The moral: “These are fine ideals, Professor, but we haven’t practiced them very well, have we?”

My response was to thank the student for the reminder. Yes, these are indeed fine ideals, and the fact that the nation has often fallen short of them has been a constant goad to reform. Agitating and demonstrating, American reformers have helped us in some ways to become a better people. The response seldom satisfied the rhetorical questioner, but it did touch on the three elements of the strategy employed by reformers throughout our history: Praise America’s founding ideals, show how the nation hasn’t measured up, push for change.

In modern times, the model is Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, but it has its roots in the abolitionist rhetoric of the nineteenth century”particularly in the oratory of Frederick Douglass, the former slave who fled to the North in 1838 and became America’s foremost African American gadfly for the next fifty-seven years. He did not share King’s unvarying rejection of violence; indeed, Douglass often cited as the pivotal moment in his life the time he finally fought back against a brutal “slave-breaker.” But he anticipated King in making the Declaration of Independence his moral yardstick. It thus became the basis of his harshest moral judgments. As he told a crowd celebrating the Fourth of July in 1852, to the slave “your shouts of liberty and equality [are] hollow mockery.” Even at his angriest, though, Douglass never lost sight of what he called the “saving principles” of the Declaration of Independence.

In other words, the bad part of America, its terrible hypocrisy, is itself testimony to the good part, its liberating principles. Frederick Douglass has long been a hero to reformers, but in recent decades some on the far left have been questioning the premise underlying his rhetoric. In their view, the problem with America is not that it fails to live up to its principles”the problem is its principles.

Marxist-influenced “critical studies” programs in colleges and universities, scorning the “bourgeois” ideals of the Declaration, regard them as worse than useless. Based as they are on an individualistic ethos, they make true liberation, “structural change” toward socialism, all the more difficult to achieve. Less nuanced, “critical race theory” often depicts Douglass as an assimilationist with little real appreciation of the black predicament in America. Here he has been charged with “Eurocentrism” and even with a “secret desire to be white.”

These are minority views even within the academy, but they have been slowly seeping out of graduate seminars and black-studies programs and permeating into broader sections of our culture. With these developments in mind, Peter C. Myers, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, has now written Frederick Douglass: Race and the Rebirth of American Liberalism , a well-reasoned vindication of Douglass’ core ideas. Myers’ intention is, first, to show that Douglass’ thought is more coherent than many of his critics charge; and second, and more urgently, to argue that Douglass’ reliance on the Declaration’s natural-rights principles is “a necessary and sufficient basis for addressing the nation’s racial problems.”

Myers finds the source of the coherence in Douglass’ natural-law doctrine, which Douglass found in the Declaration and, more basically, in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government . There are, of course, many versions of natural law besides that of John Locke, and there is even a question whether Locke’s version is the one that most influenced Jefferson in writing the Declaration. Some recent historians insist that it was such eighteenth-century Scottish moral philosophers as Francis Hutcheson and Henry Kames who were more on Jefferson’s mind at the time.

Still, Myers is probably right that Douglass himself read the Declaration from a Lockean perspective, since there is no evidence that he ever read Hutcheson or Kames. Douglass was much drawn to Locke’s central premise, that man possesses inherent liberty “to dispose of his person or possessions,” and its corollary, that man’s work is what gives him title to ownership. Together, Myers thinks, these help explain why Douglass, who was always pushing the government for reforms (“Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!”), could, after emancipation, respond to the question “What shall we do with the Negro?” with this retort: “Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us.”

In part this reflected his suspicion of those pious white liberals who a few years earlier had proposed to help blacks by shipping them back to Africa. At a deeper level, however, it was an expression of Douglass’ muscular liberalism. He recoiled at the notion of liberty being handed to people; they should claim it and, above all, use it. Politically, that meant voting, the right to which Douglass called “the keystone to the arch of human liberty.” Socially, it meant self-help and, above all, advancing oneself through hard work. He wanted blacks to shake off what he saw as an aversion to work inherited from their former masters; productive labor, more than any parchment guarantee, would give them the surest title to self-ownership. If one of his signature slogans was “Agitate!” the other was “Work!”

The first has a radical ring, whereas the second has been embraced by conservatives; both, Myers thinks, were products of the same Lockean natural-law philosophy. It was not pure laissez-faire”Douglass supported impartially administered government programs”but it put a premium on individual initiative.

Myers thus considers it a coherent philosophy and, beyond that, a hopeful one. He notes that Douglass’ concept of natural law was influenced not only by Locke but also by George Combe, a nineteenth-century Scottish philosopher. In Combe’s view, the moral law is “self-executing” because persistent violations of it eventually become self-defeating.

This was the conviction that sustained Douglass during the darkest years of slavery, when the Southern slaveocracy became increasingly arrogant in justifying slavery and attempting to extend it beyond its existing boundaries. Douglass accurately predicted that this would produce a crisis that could destroy the slave regimes. A generation later, during the post-Reconstruction period, he maintained that the injustices of the white South might eventually defeat the regimes that practiced them. It took another eighty years for that to happen, but that underscores a qualification that Myers is careful to make: “Douglass did not betray a naive or willful idealism. He did not affirm that racial progress was a simple historical inevitability. Nor did he expect that it would occur in a linear succession of events.” Revolutions, Douglass said, “may for a time seem to roll backwards.”

Myers believes Douglass’ “invincible hopefulness” is what is needed to confront the challenges still facing the black community. What worries him most is “the culture of nihilistic alienation that has lately enveloped the urban poor,” a culture that has “found its own elite purveyors” in academia, the mass media, and even politics. If Douglass were alive, he would indignantly reject that culture, Myers insists, and remind African Americans of their “resilience in generations past and of the tested wisdom of their tradition’s understanding of the principles of justice and the conditions of progress.”

Hope is essential to success in every struggle, and Myers demonstrates that Douglass’ philosophy exuded that virtue. But is his philosophy itself, as Myers claims, “a necessary and sufficient basis” for dealing with America’s racial problems? It is a rights-based philosophy, and that was surely appropriate to his times. Douglass was living in a period of nakedly oppressive laws and practices: slavery, disfranchisement, lynching, enforced segregation, and the like. But today? As Myers himself recognizes, the main problems today seem to be those connected with a variety of social pathologies, such as violent crime, gangs, drugs, family disintegration, early departure from school, and single parenthood. It is not clear how a philosophy centered on rights is sufficient for dealing with them.

Perhaps we need to start a new conversation on rights”or renew an old one. In the past, natural rights were embedded in a body of natural law. The Declaration of Independence preserves part of that tradition, asserting that rights are grounded in the “laws of nature” and of “nature’s God.” Removed from the context of law, rights grow relativized, finally becoming indistinguishable from whatever the loudest pressure groups are demanding.

To his credit, Douglass intuited the connection between law and rights, which seems to be why he defended the Constitution as a liberating document when many of his fellow abolitionists thought of it as a pact with slave owners. But Douglass never explored the implications of this connection, falling back instead on his understanding”or misunderstanding”of Lockean rights. The wellspring of all rights, Douglass insisted, is self-ownership: “Every man is the original, natural, rightful, and absolute owner of his own body.”

Myers thinks this is “in keeping with the Lockean tradition of natural rights reasoning.” But Locke never said that people are the absolute owners of themselves. He wrote that, since human beings are all “the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker . . . they are his property.” That is why Locke (unlike later liberals) refused to recognize a right to suicide: We have no right to destroy Someone’s property. To recover the implications of that kind of thinking might lead us”who knows where?

George McKenna is professor emeritus of political science at City College of New York. His latest book is The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism.