It’s the 200th anniversary of Frederick Douglass’s birth, and some on the right have been crashing the party. To mark the start of last year’s African American History Month, Donald Trump called Douglass “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job.” He may have been unaware of Douglass’s death in 1895, or perhaps he took literally 19th-century encomiums for “the immortal Douglass.”1
The ways that conservatives use Douglass can affirm a dispiriting sense that, all too often, opportunism and ignorance foreclose discussions about race in America. It can seem pointless to engage such partisan views, but they might actually teach us something about the history of Douglass’s reception in the United States, not least by African Americans on the right.
Last month brought the release of Timothy Sandefur’s biography Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man. Sandefur is vice president for litigation at the Goldwater Institute, which describes itself as “a leading free-market public policy research and litigation organization.”2 The Cato Institute published the book. Unsurprisingly, given the think tanks involved, Sandefur’s thesis is that “Douglass’s political views are, with some exceptions, best described as ‘classical liberal’—today often called ‘libertarian.’”
Don’t let the scare quotes fool you. Although Sandefur acknowledges the range and fluidity of Douglass’s political thought, he works hard to align Douglass with key libertarian positions: belief in limited government, allegiance to free-market capitalism, and—above all—the celebration of individual economic agency. The maddening thing about Sandefur’s book is that it is not entirely wrong.
Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man traces familiar moments in Douglass’s life—from his struggles as a slave in Maryland to his rise as a champion for slavery’s abolition to his work as the preeminent African American leader after the Civil War. Sandefur’s book is 142 pages, notes included, and contains no original archival research. It draws mainly on Douglass’s autobiographies and a handful of his many speeches, with few references to his voluminous journalism or personal correspondence. Sandefur engages influential scholarship on Douglass and cites selected histories of abolitionism and slavery.
Written for a general audience, Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man is a carefully partisan book. Sandefur introduces his project as a corrective to Douglass scholarship, which he sees as stubbornly leftist. He singles out Angela Davis, whom he describes as “a former member of the Black Panthers and the Communist Party, and a recipient of the Soviet Union’s Lenin Peace Prize.” Another way to describe Davis would be as a scholar of African American civil rights. Here is Sandefur taking issue with Davis’s introduction to her 2009 edition of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845):
She focuses on the injustice and illegitimacy of slavery, but makes no mention of Douglass’s later embrace of the Constitution and rejection of the anarchist version of abolitionism that he espoused at the time he wrote the Narrative. Her notes make no mention of Douglass’s hostility to communism, his skepticism of labor unions, his unequivocal opposition to black nationalism, or his allegiance to limited government and free enterprise.
Some of this is misleading: Douglass was the first president of the Colored National Labor Union, hardly the position for a union skeptic. Some is reductive: Douglass’s relationship to black nationalism, particularly as manifested in Haiti, is too complicated to be called “unequivocal.” Some is disproportionate: Douglass paid little attention to nascent communist movements in America, so one can hardly fault Davis for not mentioning them. Some is perverse: how might one introduce Douglass’s Narrative without focusing on the injustice of slavery?
Sandefur appeals to present-day conservative readers by speculating that Douglass would support modern gun rights and post-racialism while opposing government regulation, affirmative action, the redistribution of property, and the welfare state. Much of this is, again, misleading. As Douglass scholars David W. Blight and Nicholas Buccola have recently noted, Douglass supported the Freedman’s Bureau, a massive government agency to help recently freed slaves, and he came to argue that slaveholders’ lands should be redistributed to formerly enslaved people.3 Sandefur shows us that though the arc of history may bend toward justice, there are yet other ways it may be bent.
More plausible and therefore more interesting is Sandefur’s emphasis on Douglass’s “allegiance to limited government and free enterprise.” I confess that when I think of the evils of slavery, Sandefur’s point that “it discouraged invention and entrepreneurialism” is not high on my list, but that does not make Sandefur wrong. Nor is it entirely inaccurate to claim that “Douglass viewed economic freedom as more than an incentive: it was the source and symbol of personal liberation.” Many of Douglass’s writings throughout his career argue that moral law, whether based in Christianity or Enlightenment philosophy, constitutes the foundations of freedom. But, OK: Douglass did support free enterprise. He saw no fundamental conflict between capitalism and civil rights. He believed that individual effort, including economic striving, leads to social progress. That Sandefur celebrates what some leftist critics lament about Douglass does not invalidate his point.
Sandefur shows us that though the arc of history may bend toward justice, there are yet other ways it may be bent.
Douglass’s supposed “allegiance to limited government” is harder for Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man to maintain. For one thing, Douglass supported the greatest expansion of federal power in the 19th century—the Union suppression of the Confederacy. Douglass also advocated the compulsory freeing of slaves, which defenders of slavery decried as government overreach and a violation of property rights. Sandefur wants chattel bondage to be the antithesis of capitalism and thus destined for extinction under a triumphalist history of free markets. But if Sandefur has faith that the “clash of ideas behind the [Civil War] made slavery’s death inevitable,” he never explains why, for many decades, free markets failed to free the slaves and why government intervention proved necessary to end slavery.
Yet Sandefur is not wrong that Douglass at times can sound like a libertarian. Sandefur takes the title of his book from Douglass’s “Self-Made Man,” a 1859 speech celebrating unconstrained individualism in a world where everyone can succeed. Sandefur does not mention that the speech attributes personal success not only to individual agency, but also to unevenly distributed advantages and privileges. Nor does he point out that in one version of the speech, Douglass refers to the self-made man as a “solecism”—that is, an incongruity or contradiction in terms. But, OK: Douglass did believe in the heroic self-reliance prevalent in his era and ours.
Sandefur’s version of Douglass is not as new as it might seem. Invocations of historical figures are, of course, often more about the present than the past, but Sandefur’s account of Douglass actually has precedents in a long tradition of conservative thinkers, including African Americans. The locus classicus for conservative accounts of Douglass is a passage from “What the Black Man Wants” (1865), which Sandefur quotes at length. Speaking for his race, Douglass tells his white audience:
Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! I am not for tying or fastening them on the tree in any way, except by nature’s plan, and if they will not stay there, let them fall. And if the negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs!
This passage has been a favorite among black conservatives from Booker T. Washington and Benjamin Brawley at the start of the 20th century to Clarence Thomas and the Hoover Institute’s Thomas Sowell today. It is quoted by the African American libertarian economist Walter E. Williams and the Wall Street Journal’s Jason L. Riley, who uses it in his book Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed (2014). The National Review has quoted Douglass’s passage in an editorial, as has The Objective Standard, a journal of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, whose current issue features Douglass on its cover and a lead article by Sandefur. One need not go deep into Google search results to find Douglass’s quote from “What the Black Man Wants” on racist alt-right blogs, though some economic conservatives still use Douglass to distance themselves from populist racism in the age of Trump.
Douglass did say, “If the negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall.” “What the Black Man Wants” was given in April 1865, during debates over what would become the 13th and 14th Amendments. Douglass was fighting desperately for black citizenship and equal protection at a time when some states had begun instituting so-called “Black Codes” to replace chattel bondage with racist laws. In the face of such threats, Douglass held that sometimes government should be limited, and he hoped that emancipation unfettered by government restrictions would significantly improve black lives. For someone who experienced the harsh realities of slavery, negative liberty—that is, freedom from oppression—was attractive in 1865.
But this individualist, libertarian Douglass is only part of the man. Douglass was a dedicated organizer in the African American community. He was deeply committed to the Christian fellowship of the antislavery movement. After Reconstruction, he recognized that individualism as a matter of public policy was an inadequate response to structural inequality, though it is fair to say that Douglass was never fully committed to this point. Douglass took longer than some to realize that emancipation and self-reliance were not enough to overcome inequality in America. All of which is to say that the intricacies and contingencies of Douglass’s thought during his half-century as a civil rights leader make it hard to fit him into neat categories.
The most famous episode of Douglass’s life is his fight with Edward Covey, the overseer charged with breaking the spirit of the rebellious 15-year-old slave. Douglass was nearly, in his words, “transformed into a brute” by the hard labor, beatings, and surveillance he endured under Covey. Sandefur takes such abuse to anticipate tactics of the Nazi death camps and Soviet gulags. But if these are the touchstones of libertarian nightmares, a progressive might find other analogies for Douglass’s systematic oppression—the enforced servitude of workers without adequate protections under capitalism or the brutal realities of America’s carceral state.
Sandefur certainly identifies racism as one form of injustice affecting Douglass’s thought, but compared to nearly all of Douglass’s readers, he minimizes race as an explanatory concept. When introducing the problem of slavery in America, Sandefur writes that “the weak point in the whole system” was that the master class “knew in their hearts that each person in servitude nevertheless remained a person.” This claim, unfalsifiable because unprovable, indicates what seems to me either profound ignorance about Douglass’s life and times or a disingenuous misunderstanding of them.
A multitude of political, legal, scientific, and religious thinkers in the 19th century openly denied the humanity of blacks. The brutal treatment of African American slaves practically demonstrated not only a disregard for their personhood or a desperate desire to repress it but also the capacity of some people to see blacks as less than human. To presume to know the hearts of the master class and to generalize about them so confidently underestimates the ongoing challenge of understanding slavery and racism in America.
Douglass did not simply harbor misgivings about unlimited government power. He wanted to limit racist government. He was against racist labor unions. He was not simply for the liberating potential of free enterprise; he supported capitalist enterprises as long as they were not racist.
Unlike Sandefur, Douglass took race as a primary analytic concept. He fought the racism he found in the hearts of Americans, many of whom did not know what was right. His vital legacy shows the limitations of, among other things, libertarianism. It can also complicate peremptory efforts to make Douglass a champion of contemporary progressivism. Douglass can help Americans talk more productively about race in a neoliberal age. And were Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man a different sort of book—more accurate, less anachronistic, willing to engage Douglass’s complexities, attentive to the profound power of racism in America—it might have advanced this goal.
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.
- See, for instance, Henry McNeal Turner, A Speech on the Present Duties and Future Destiny of the Negro Race (Simms, McDowell, and Godfrey, 1872), p. 16. ↩
- “The Goldwater Institute” (accessed May 2, 2018). ↩
- David W. Blight, “How the Right Co-Opts Frederick Douglass,” New York Times, February 13, 2018; Nicholas Buccola, “You Can’t Put Frederick Douglass in Chains,” New York Times, March 12, 2018. ↩