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Timothy Sandefur joins us for a conversation on Frederick Douglass.

Aaron Ross Powell
Director and Editor
Trevor Burrus
Research Fellow, Constitutional Studies

Timothy Sandefur is Vice President for Litigation at the Goldwater Institute. Sandefur has litigated several cases involving property rights, eminent domain, and regulatory takings. Sandefur is a graduate of Chapman University School of Law and Hillsdale College.

Timothy Sandefur joins us for a conversation on Frederick Douglass. We also discuss the abolitionist movement, Douglass’s relationship with President Abraham Lincoln and how Frederick Douglass fits in with subsequent leaders of the black civil rights movement. Timothy Sandefur is the author of Frederick Douglass: Self‐​Made Man.

Further Readings/​References:


Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus.

Aaron Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.

Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Timothy Sandefur, the Vice President for Litigation at the Goldwater Institute, and adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. Before joining Goldwater, he served for 15 years as a litigator at the Pacific Legal Foundation. He is the author of many books on the Constitution and freedom, including The Right to Earn a Living, my personal favorite. He also thinks that the original Star Trek series [00:00:30] is better than the Next Generation which was a episode of Free Thoughts a couple of years ago.
This is his sixth time on Free Thoughts. I’m amazed we have him back, despite his heretical beliefs about Star Trek, so welcome back to Free Thoughts, Tim.

Timothy Sandefur: You should be ashamed of yourself, Burrus.

Trevor Burrus: We won’t even talk about Star Trek Discovery‐

Aaron Powell: Please, let’s not.

Trevor Burrus: … we can get at that on a different episode. Your latest book is Frederick Douglass: Self‐​Made Man. So who was Frederick Douglass, for those who don’t know.

Timothy Sandefur: [00:01:00] Douglass was an abolitionist activist, he was himself a former slave. He was born in Maryland in 1818 on a plantation, which is still standing and is still the residence of the family. He was raised by his grandmother after he was separated from his parents, separated from his mother, which was a common practice of slave masters at the time, was to break up families in that way as a way of exerting control over their human property.
And then he was [00:01:30] sent as a young boy to live in Baltimore, where he tried to learn to read, and when his master discovered that he was doing that, he flew into a rage, and he said that “Literacy would unfit him as a slave,” and Douglass took this as proof that literacy was the key to freedom, and basically found ways to trick or bribe neighborhood children into teaching him to read. And from there, he began reading newspapers and books and discovered the ideas of freedom and was able, when he was 20 years [00:02:00] old, to escape from slavery on the Underground Railroad.
He dressed like a sailor and took a fake sailor’s passport that had been smuggled to him on the Underground Railroad to escape North. Eventually got to New York and from there moved to Massachusetts, joined the abolitionist movement and became a world renowned speaker and author against slavery. Spent the rest of his life advocating for civil rights and equal treatment. Ended up being appointed ambassador to Haiti [00:02:30] and died a world renowned intellectual and author.

Aaron Powell: In the book, when you’re talking about his early life, you make an interesting point about the way that slave‐​holders depended upon destroying the family to kind of reinforce the institutions. Could you tell us about that?

Timothy Sandefur: Yes, this was a point that Douglass emphasized heavily, that slave owners separated children from their parents and from other relatives for a variety of reasons. The primary [00:03:00] one, when you get down to it, was to prevent people from forming the kinds of bonds of affection that might lead them to organize resistance to slavery. So separating mothers and children, separating cousins and uncles and nieces and so forth was necessary in order to prevent the slaves from deciding that they could find a way to organize against the masters.
And Douglass, not only was he separated from his [00:03:30] mother, but he last saw her when he was seven years old. In fact, he picked February 14th as his birthday kind of by, he kind of just guessed at it, because slave’s birthdays weren’t recorded. But his last memory of his mother was when he was seven, that she had come and visited him and brought him a heart‐​shaped cake. Then he sort of vaguely recalled her calling him ‘her valentine’. So he guessed that maybe she would’ve visited him on his birthday and that maybe that was Valentine’s Day, [00:04:00] and so that’s why he picked that day.
Anyway, he would’ve vividly remembered his one family members being separated. On one occasion when his uncle and aunt ran away, their masters sold their children away to the South the very next day, as a form of punishment. So by separating people like this, what the masters hoped to do was not only to instill fear and terror in their human charges, but also to ensure that slaves would feel [00:04:30] like they would be rewarded if they betrayed others who were planning to run away.
And that often happened. In order to curry favor or to prevent punishment or something, masters would reward slaves for telling on each other if they planned to run away, and that would also help prevent solidarity among the slave class.

Trevor Burrus: Now his father was white, correct? I mean, did he know that, or was it just sort of that kind of open secret on a plantation that we know that the master’s [00:05:00] son or the master is your father, or did he suspect it in some way?

Timothy Sandefur: Yeah, I think it was both. He changed his discussion of this in his memoirs over the years. So he published his first version of his memoirs, A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which was published in 1845, that’s the short version that people tend to read in high school nowadays.
Then he expanded it greatly and published it in 1855 in a much longer version, and then in the 1880s he revised it a third time. And he changed his [00:05:30] discussion of his father in the various books and the last version of it was he just said, “Of my father, I know nothing.” But early on he said that it was rumored that his father was his owner, his master, Aaron Anthony, and Anthony was a small scale slave owner, he only owned a few slaves, and he worked as the overseer of the large Lloyd plantation, where there were hundreds and hundreds of slaves. And so it gets a little confusing as to who is who and Douglass himself never found out [00:06:00] exactly who his father was.

Trevor Burrus: Now he was put into, I don’t know the right term for it, but because he either tried to escape or was thought to escape, he was put under a particularly difficult master who was supposed to break bad slaves, correct?

Timothy Sandefur: Yeah, this is the most important episode in his life, probably. What happened was that as a young man, he became very resistant to Thomas Auld, who was his master [00:06:30] at one particular point. And Thomas Auld decided to break Douglass’ spirit, Douglass was 16 or 17 at the time, and decided to break his spirit by sending him to live on the plantation of a small scale farm owned by a man named Edward Covey.
And Covey made extra money by borrowing slaves at reduced prices in exchange for breaking their spirits. And his way of doing this was to subject them to a course of treatment that [00:07:00] I describe in the book as being a rudimentary form of the kind of treatment that was meted out to political prisoners in concentration camps in the 20th century. A series of psychological and physical tortures and abuses that was meant to make this individual lose his sense of selfhood.
And that meant not only physical torture, being beaten at least once a week for the first six months of his time there, but psychological manipulation by being spied on constantly. [00:07:30] Covey would sneak up on his workers and surprise them by just attacking them out of nowhere or by criticizing something that they’re working on, or he would assign them tasks they could not possibly do and then punish them for failing and these sorts of things.
These behaviors were meant to induce in the slave a sense of paranoia that they were always being watched and a sense of complete lack of self control, that every behavior in their [00:08:00] lives they had to have instilled in their minds that somebody could be watching and that they could be punished for any kind of bad behavior. And just bad behavior. Douglass explained that masters would even punish slaves for behaving too well. For answering too intelligently. For coming up with new ways that might be more efficient.
Slaves would be punished for that because it showed that they were getting, you know, too big for their britches or something. Because the point of this process of psychological intimidation [00:08:30] wasn’t just to render the slave into a tool, which was of course a major part of it, but it was also to create that sense of subordination. And Douglass himself fell into this.
He says in his memoirs, he says Covey’s torture worked and he found himself incapable of thinking about the future, of dreaming about freedom, or of anything other than the surviving that day. And finally, on one occasion the treatment became so bad that he begged Thomas Auld, his master, to intercede [00:09:00] and protect him and Auld refused. And so Douglass, when he went back to Covey’s farm, he expected to be attacked, Covey did attack him and Douglass turned around and grabbed Covey by the throat and held him, he says, so hard that the blood ran down his fingernails.
And they began to fight and they fought for about two hours.

Aaron Powell: I wondered about that when I read it. What does fighting for two hours look like?

Timothy Sandefur: Okay, yeah, now this is an interesting part in the memoir, because [00:09:30] it’s unclear what exactly happened. He says that he acted solely in self‐​defense, but that’s pretty dubious to begin with. Secondly, he says that Covey called over some farmhands to help him subdue Douglass, and the farmhands refused to help. One other slave said, “I came here to work, not to help you whip Fred.”
And so then Covey called over, I think it was his cousin, to help and Douglass says in his memoirs that he punched the cousin [00:10:00] in the stomach so hard he just stumbled away running. So we know it wasn’t entirely in self‐​defense. And at the time Douglass wrote that story, he was working for William Lloyd Garrison, who was a pacifist. An outspoken pacifist. And it may be that Douglass sort of moderated his description of what actually happened for that reason.
But we do know that after two hours, Douglass remained, he had not been beaten, and he gained the sense in his own mind that he had stood up for himself, and successively defended [00:10:30] himself. Even if he hadn’t succeeded to getting free or something, he nevertheless had stood up for himself, and that sense of self‐​esteem mattered tremendously to him. He summed it all up in a line from the poet Byron when he said, “Who would be free must himself strike the blow.”

Aaron Powell: When I was reading that part of the book and about the breaking of the slaves, I was curious how systematic this was, or I’m not sure what the term, or even like academic. Were these techniques [00:11:00] something that just this particular guy happened to use, or did slave owners like trade techniques? Was there like a general kind of program that they were all aware of that had been developed that was most effective?

Timothy Sandefur: I think it was a little bit of both. The funny thing, I think, about the slavery ideology is it wasn’t overtly … It very often spoke in euphemisms and slave masters often, [00:11:30] they would often even call their slaves their family and so forth. And I don’t know of any manuals that say, “Here’s how you destroy the soul of a person,” or anything like that, but the techniques have to been handed down from one to another, and there grew this sort of general attitude of here’s how slaves ought to be treated and racial lines hardened so that it was generally understood that “This is how you’re supposed to behave,” and that [00:12:00] sort of thing.
I think it’s more that, rather than a consciously designed system that said, “Here’s how you make a slave into a servant.” But Trevor, you know, you brought this to my attention some years ago about a medical diagnosis of freedom mania. There was even a physician who brought this. I can’t remember what the term for that was.

Trevor Burrus: Drapetomania. Drapetomania. And writes about it, that [00:12:30] there was a runaway slave syndrome and that fits very well. And this is of course before the advent of modern psychology, but it fits very well within the kind of, especially 1840s, 1850s view of slavery, that it was a positive good rather than a necessary evil kind of thing. And so of course, if a slave wanted to be free, that’s a mental illness.

Timothy Sandefur: And you know, this was a group. The pro‐​slavery side [00:13:00] in the 19th century, this was a group that rejected what you and I would consider enlightenment values. They would have rejected what you and I would consider scientific approaches to things, in large part. The slave master class was moved by romanticism. By this sort of poetic notion that the South was turning into an new version of the older Middle Ages kind of society. They were obsessed with Sir Walter Scott and the idea that they were knight [00:13:30] and their ladies fair and so forth.
So they wouldn’t have written the kind of scientific manuals on how to break down people that you see among the Soviets, for example, in the 20th century. But the bottom line was the same, which was “We’re going to make a person into an automaton.’

Aaron Powell: As we’re talking about this, it occurred to me that the way that we use language when discussing, so Tim, you have in talks that you’ve given and books you’ve written, [00:14:00] you’ve talked about the meaning of the term ‘law’ and so I think, correct me if I’m wrong about this ’cause it’s been awhile since I heard you talk about it, but when you’re talking about say the due process of law and the Constitution that one of your arguments is that if things violate certain principles, then it’s wrong to even refer to them as law in the first place.
And so I wonder about that and the terms that we use when we talk about slavery even now, when we’re talking about what happened to Douglass, [00:14:30] almost validate things that are themselves invalid, so we refer to ‘masters’ or we refer to ‘owners’, but at the same time, we think that’s it’s wrong to even think about it as ownership, because you can’t, be definition, own another person.
So is there a way to use the language, or other terms that don’t seem to buy into the [00:15:00] basic principles motivating slavery?

Timothy Sandefur: Possibly. And I’ve thought about this myself because there’s a trend right now among historians to try and avoid using the word ‘slave’ and instead to use the phrase ‘enslaved persons’. Or to say, ‘an enslaved bricklayer’ or ‘an enslaved book black’ or ‘enslaved furniture maker’, whatever the term might be. And I think there’s a lot of validity to that, I don’t particularly do it in my book because I think it gets clutter‐​y if [00:15:30] you try and write that way too much.
It’s more important, I think, just for people to try and keep in mind that these are human beings and that when we talk about the ownership of human beings, you’re talking about a perversity that is a very old one. Historically speaking, slavery is one of the oldest and most long‐​standing institutions in the history of the world. By comparison, monogamy is a relative newcomer, compared to slavery. Literacy is a newcomer [00:16:00] relative to slavery.
So it’s in fact we who are unusual in the scope of world history in that regard. So I personally am not too hung up on that kind of concern, because I think that generally people recognize how evil this thing is and that if they are aren’t, just changing the lingo isn’t going to change that. But I think it’s a well‐​intentioned effort to try and say, you know, when we talk about masters, we’re talking about people who perpetuated their oppression over [00:16:30] other people through a combination of physical violence and psychological manipulation that was backed up by the full control, the full faith and credit of the United States government for many decades, and by the full power of the military.
Just describing the facts should be sufficient to make that case.

Trevor Burrus: By the time that Douglass escapes, which is how long after he had that encounter, the fight with the slave breaker?

Timothy Sandefur: It wasn’t that long after that he [00:17:00] escaped. He made an attempt only about a year later, but was foiled in that attempt. And that’s one of the fateful moments of his life. He and a half dozen other slaves planned an escape and were betrayed at the last minute and they were arrested and taken to jail. And Douglass spent several days in this jail, by himself, and he described the slave catchers coming to ‘shop’ at the jail, for human purchases.
And [00:17:30] finally his master showed up, Thomas Auld showed up and said that he intended to sell Douglass South. And being ‘sold South’ was historically the worst fate that a slave could face because being sent to somewhere like the sugar plantations of Louisiana, you would never be heard from again, and that would be the end of it. And we would never have what we have of Frederick Douglass if Auld had decided to do that and for whatever reason, and we don’t know why, Auld chose not [00:18:00] to do that, but instead to send him back to Baltimore, where Douglass was able to escape in 1838, at the age of 20.
You know, I think we sort of, when we think about Douglass, we imagine that he escaped at an older age, but he was a very young man when he managed to escape and join the abolitionist movement. And so he really grew up about half and half. He grew up half in the slave movement and then half in the abolitionist movement.

Trevor Burrus: When he got to Massachusetts, is that what he immediately did, [00:18:30] was hook up with the abolitionist movement or also was he in fear of being caught by a slave catcher?

Timothy Sandefur: Yeah, he was. He spent the first year or so, he was trying to find work to support, he was married very soon after escaping, within days of escaping and then quickly they started having children, and so he had to find work and support his family. It was a couple years later that he became a professional anti‐​slavery lecturer, under the [00:19:00] leadership of William Lloyd Garrison, who was the head of the Massachusetts wing of the abolitionist movement and today is well remembered as one of the leading abolitionists in American history.
And he spent about 10 years under Garrison’s leadership before he gave up that version of abolitionism and embraced a different wing of abolitionism that was headquartered in New York State. And during that time, between his escape in 1838 to well, [00:19:30] really till the end of the Civil War. Well, until his purchase of his freedom, I should say. During those years, he did run the risk of being captured by slave catchers and sent back under the Fugitive Slave Act of either 1798 or of 1850.

Trevor Burrus: When you talk about that difference of the two forms of abolitionism, what are those two forms?

Timothy Sandefur: So Garrison was an anarchist, a pacifist and he believed that the Constitution of the United States was an evil document [00:20:00] because it provided protection for slavery. And so his motto was “No Union with Slave Holders”. He emblazoned that on the front page of his famous newspaper, The Liberator. And he argued that Northern States should secede from the Union in order to not support slavery any further.
And Douglass agreed with this for the first years of his work in abolitionism and he toured the United States and Great Britain arguing just this. That [00:20:30] the Constitution should be abolished, the Federal Government should be eliminated and that was the only way to end slavery. That to participate in the system, to vote or run for office was a betrayal of the principles of freedom, because it showed your support for this evil system of slavery.
Well, as I mentioned, he went to Great Britain and when he returned from there, some admirers of his bought him his freedom and he then moved to New York State. And this was in 1848, [00:21:00] 1849, something like that and he began publishing his own newspaper. And after about three years of public debates in the newspaper, he changed his mind and he adopted the view of the New Yorker abolitionists and the New York abolitionists had a different view.
They believed that the Constitution was a document that was fundamentally anti‐​slavery. That it provided protections that the Federal Government, if it enforced, could use to protect the rights of black Americans [00:21:30] and that even slaves deserved to be regarded as citizens of the United States under the Constitution, with rights that the government was obligated to defend.

Aaron Powell: How did Christianity and the Christian beliefs fit into the greater ideology of slavery and what was Douglass’ view of Christianity? Both when he was a slave and as then as he moved into the abolitionist movement?

Timothy Sandefur: [00:22:00] Yeah, so this is one of the most interesting things about Douglass’ intellectual growth, I think, is early on I think he was a very devout Christian and I think he was a more devout Christian than biographers have tended to recognize. And we know that he risked severe punishment by teaching other slaves to read the Bible, that he held secret Sunday school meetings while he was still held in slavery.
And that when he escaped from slavery to Massachusetts, one of the first things he did was obtain a preaching license [00:22:30] from the AME Church. But pretty soon after that, he became very troubled, well, he was already very bothered by the way that Southern Christians endorsed and were okay with slavery. Either they openly embraced it or they passively didn’t say anything against it. And when he escaped north he was really, I think, shocked by how Northern churches were the same way.
He stormed out of a church in New Bedford, Massachusetts [00:23:00] in the 1830s when they gave the Eucharist first to white parishioners and then to black parishioners afterwards. Racial segregation had no place in the church, he thought, and he was horrified that Northern Christians, they would have refused to allow a thief or a pickpocket to come to church with them Sunday, were perfectly fine with sitting next to a slave owner on Sunday and saying nothing against it.
And the [00:23:30] churches of the United States he regarded as rotted completely with hypocrisy as a result. And some of the rhetoric he uses to denounce the churches of his day is remarkably heated. Especially in the 1855 version of his memoir, called My Bondage and My Freedom. He openly denounces American Christianity as fundamentally hypocritical.
And then of course, it was only after that really that the churches started to have a real problem with slavery. The Methodist church split into northern and southern wings over [00:24:00] this issue and Douglass moderated his anti‐​church rhetoric in some of his later writings. But we do know that at the end of his life, he really was not a Christian. He was not a believer in supernaturalism. He believed in a sort of broad, humanist ethic that was not backed up by a conscious supernatural entity. So far as we can tell from his writing.
I mean, he never wrote a manifesto on these issues or anything. I personally [00:24:30] suspect that while he was in Europe, he went to Great Britain on two occasions, I suspect that while he was in England, he met with free thinkers and that they had a great deal of influence on his thinking on religious subjects. But the way that Christianity endorsed slavery was very simple because they would point to passages in the Bible that said things like, “Slaves, you should obey your masters.”
And then there was the ‘mark of Ham’, which readers at the time interpreted as meaning that black people had been marked out by God to be servants and so [00:25:00] forth. And you know, as Mark Twain wrote in his memoirs that when he was growing up, he had this preached to him, and that if anybody doubted it, the preacher would be happy to open up the Bible and point out the passages to him, you know? And it hardly even crossed a lot of people’s minds to doubt that that was the correct interpretation.

Trevor Burrus: Even up to the War I thought one of the facts that I didn’t really know is that he had some interactions with John Brown of Harper’s Ferry fame, who was also running around, I guess, in the abolitionist [00:25:30] circles where they all knew each other, but what were his interactions with John Brown?

Timothy Sandefur: Douglass admired John Brown, I think, inordinately. He went to his grave thinking John Brown was one of the greatest heroes in the history of the Unites States. He knew Brown from pretty early on. When he moved to New York, both he and Brown were associates of a very wealthy New York philanthropist and abolitionist named Jarrett Smith.
And Smith gave land to John Brown to live on, to farm, [00:26:00] with his large family. And he also subsidized Douglass’ newspaper. And Brown and Douglass and Smith would meet at various times and Smith came to Douglass’ house on repeated occasions. And every time he would come and stay for quite a long time, you know, weeks or months at a time, and during these visits, he would come up with these ideas or explain these ideas he had for organizing a rebellion or some kind of a guerrilla war against the United States on behalf of the slaves.
And apparently, it [00:26:30] didn’t take long for Douglass to get bored with this kind of talk. He thought it was just sort of airy plans, you know, nothing specific and he didn’t really take it very seriously, apparently. Brown did befriend Douglass’ children, especially his youngest daughter, Annie, who was less than 10 years old at the time. And he would sit there and explain to the kids how his plan would work and this sort of thing.
Then one day Brown sent a message to Douglass and asked [00:27:00] him to meet him at a rock quarry in Pennsylvania and Douglass went down to this meeting in the middle of the night and Brown said, “Here’s my plan to raid Harper’s Ferry, I want you to come with me.” And Douglass refused. He thought it was a suicide mission. But a friend of his who had come along named Shields Green said, “I think I’ll go with John Brown,” and was in fact, killed during the raid.
So Douglass was very closely related to Brown. Had given him money, had published in his newspaper [00:27:30] praise of John Brown, had even attended secret meetings and brought along people who did participate in the John Brown raid. So Douglass faced a real risk of apprehension, arrest, trial and execution after the John Brown attack on Harper’s Ferry, so he fled the country. He went to Britain and he had intended to stay there for quite a while. But his youngest daughter Annie died rather suddenly. Nobody knows why, but the family believed it had been hastened by her depression over Brown’s execution.
[00:28:00] And so Douglass quickly came back to the United States. And fortunately for him, by that time, the congressional inquiry into the John Brown raid had been largely dropped ’cause the war was coming on so quickly that nobody cared about John Brown anymore. But Douglass spent the rest of his life in his speeches praising John Brown and defending him as one of the greatest of all Americans.

Aaron Powell: Can you tell us about his interactions with Lincoln? ‘Cause I thought those were super interesting and just kind of the level of respect that Lincoln paid him at a time [00:28:30] when that was not common.

Timothy Sandefur: Yeah, that’s definitely true. So Douglass was by far more famous than Abraham Lincoln during the 1858 senatorial campaign that brought Lincoln to fame. Frederick Douglass was far better known than this nobody congressman from Illinois. He met Lincoln on three occasions. The first one was on a time when Douglass went to Washington to meet with a senator [00:29:00] and this is the 1860s, that senator said, “Well, why don’t we go over to the White House, see if we can meet with the President?”
They didn’t have an appointment or anything, but they went over there and sent in their card and while they were waiting, the story goes, a man came up to Lincoln and as a sort of snide, racist joke, looked at him and said, “Are you the President?” And Douglass responded, “I am Frederick Douglass.” Which is one of my favorite Douglass. It’s quintessential Douglass. All he said was the plain truth and that was enough.
[00:29:30] Anyway, he went in to meet with Lincoln to discuss enlistment of black soldiers, the equal pay of black soldiers and if the Confederate forces captured black POWs and killed them, which is what they were doing, they treated them as if they were runaway slaves instead of according them respect due to captured enemy soldiers. Douglass wanted retaliation immediately on white Confederates. He wanted tit for tat.
And Lincoln met with him at some length and explained why he didn’t think he could do [00:30:00] those things. And although they disagreed about that, Douglass was very impressed that Lincoln treated him just as an ordinary citizen who had come to discuss something that was important. And even had postponed a meeting with the Governor of Connecticut in order to lengthen their conversation.
On another occasion, on the second occasion, Lincoln summoned Douglas to the White House to discuss a plan. This was during the dark days of the war when it looked like Lincoln wouldn’t be reelected. And Lincoln asked [00:30:30] him to come and visit in order to discuss a plan of what to do in the event that the administration did not get reelected. Lincoln was afraid that if McClellan won the presidency that he would allow the south to secede and if that happened, any slaves that had not managed to make it behind the Union lines would be doomed forever to slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation prohibited the Union soldiers from returned slaves that escaped behind Union lines and Lincoln wanted to make sure that didn’t change.
[00:31:00] So he had a plan that Douglass described as something like John Brown’s plan for sending spies south to kind of encourage the slaves to rise up and to go north and get behind the Union line. That was all rendered moot when Atlanta fell and it became clear that the Union was going to win the war and so nobody had to worry about that.
The third occasion they met was on Lincoln’s second inaugural when, the story goes, that after the inaugural address was over, Douglass went to the White House to see [00:31:30] the President and was almost thrown out by some of the police officers there. But Lincoln interceded on his behalf and said, “Here comes my friend Douglass,” and shook his hand and said, “What did you think of my speech?” And Douglass said, “It was a sacred effort, Mr. President.”
And that meant a lot to Lincoln. Douglass was, of course, one of the most highly regarded orators in the United States, so I’m sure it did mean a lot to him that he got approval from Frederick Douglass.

Trevor Burrus: After the war, would that be a kind of … It seems like you write [00:32:00] about it as a switch, a little bit, in his attitude toward emancipation and with everything going on for reconstruction. Maybe even a little bit with his attitude toward Lincoln about how to fix this problem. Is that kind of immediate in the first years after the war? What was his idea? What did Douglass think should be done immediately after the war to the newly freed African Americans former slaves?

Timothy Sandefur: It’s an upsetting period because Douglass appears to go through this period right after [00:32:30] the war is over, he seems to be so euphoric that slavery is over and then the gradual realization sets in that actually the North’s promises of protecting civil rights in the South don’t really hold all the weight that they’re supposed to. Johnson succeeds Lincoln upon his assassination. Johnson is horrible. Johnson is the very last person you would want to be President of the United States at that time.
An alcoholic, racist Southerner who had no concern [00:33:00] whatsoever for the plight of the freedmen in the South. And Douglass meets with Johnson on one occasion in order to try and persuade him to do more to protect the former slaves, and Johnson goes off on this weird, racist tirade about how now that the war is over the South should be inherited by poor whites, and not by the former slaves and so forth. And it’s a horrible experience.
Then Grant tries fairly well to protect civil rights in the South, [00:33:30] but toward the end of his administration, things start to completely fall apart and by 1880, it’s quite clear. I mean, in 1877, the Union troops are removed from the South so that 1880 it becomes pretty clear that what is effectively the re‐​enslavement in the South is beginning in earnest and Douglass’ speeches become more and more, first fearful and then angry and denunciatory.
But as far as his view of Lincoln, yeah, so [00:34:00] Douglass gave a talk at the Freedman’s memorial to Lincoln, which is up in Washington, up behind the Capital Building. The very first monument to Lincoln. And Douglass spoke at the dedication ceremonies, in front of an audience that included the President, the Supreme Court, all of the grand luminaries of Washington D.C. And it’s a fascinating speech because you would think that at an event like that, you would just praise Lincoln to the skies and Douglass does not.
Douglass says, in this speech, that Lincoln was [00:34:30] emphatically the ‘white man’s President’ and shared all of the weaknesses of white racists in their attitudes towards black Americans. But he balances that criticism with an appreciation of Lincoln’s statesmanship, of his willingness to take the necessary steps to secure Union and to free the slaves, but it’s definitely not unlimited praise on Douglass’ part and I think Douglass never really reconciled himself to Lincoln [00:35:00] in that way.
He wanted Lincoln to be a bold leader for freedom and Lincoln was always a crafty, careful politician who took the steps he could take without, in his estimation, going too far. And in this speech, Douglass also warns about the rising tide of what we now call the lost cause school of the Civil War, or what we now call the alt‐​right, monuments being put up to the Confederates. Praise of the Confederate [00:35:30] Armies, this idea of “Well, let’s let bygones be bygones and not talk too much about slavery.” And that sort of thing was already starting in the late 1870s.
And Douglass gave this wonderful speech called ‘There Was a Right Side in the Late War’, where he says, “We must not lose sight of the fact that this was a war between freedom and slavery and we must not abandon the freed men and just patch it up amongst whites,” which of course is exactly what did end up happening.

Trevor Burrus: You described Douglass as [00:36:00] a classical liberal and he is the kind of figure in American history where kind of like Thomas Jefferson, I think everyone wants to take ownership of him in some way. I mean, probably even the socialists to some degree could tell some story about Douglass being on their side. Why do you think he was a classical liberal?

Timothy Sandefur: So Douglass believed in free markets, in private property rights, in the right to possess firearms. That was a very important part of his creed, and he believed in the code of self‐ [00:36:30] reliant individualism that is largely associated with the rugged frontier individualist pioneer atmosphere of the late 19th century that is generally associated with classical liberalism.
And he always ascribed his views, paralleled them with the founding fathers with regard to individual liberty. He also rejected the popular ideas of the time that were opposed to individual liberty, particularly socialism. [00:37:00] His first biographer, a man named Frederick Holland, who wrote his book, while under Douglass’ observation and with Douglass’ help and that Douglass himself praised. In this book, Holland described Douglass’ views about socialism and it’s a fascinating passage in this book.
He says, “Socialism won’t ever work.” This is being written in the 1880s, he says, “Socialism will never work because there are only two reasons people will ever work. They’ll work for private profit or they’ll work to escape punishment. [00:37:30] And socialism eliminates the first thing. So if you ever had a country that actually adopted socialism, you would have so much punishment going on,” he says, “That socialism would resemble all the evils of Negro slavery.”

Trevor Burrus: Wow, that’s pretty prescient.

Timothy Sandefur: And sure enough, that’s exactly what did end up happening. So I think it’s perfectly fair to say that Douglass was a classical liberal or libertarian. And not a conservative. I think it’s important, today’s conservatives are a little bit different, but remember that Douglass, [00:38:00] toward the end of his life, crossed the color line and married a white woman. In violation of what was law in most states at the time, and shocking the sensibilities of a great many Americans.
He believed in a radical idea of not just that, but feminism also. He was a very outspoken feminist. He literally died, he argued for women’s liberation to the very day he died, within hours of spoken in defense of [00:38:30] female suffrage. So he was by no means a conservative. He was a individualist first and foremost.

Aaron Powell: So this part of the book, and this argument that you make in the book, has caused something of a controversy? So for example, I’m going to read this passage from, so Yale historian David W. Blight in a New York Times op‐​ed called How the Right Co‐​ops Frederick Douglass, and in this case, he’s referring to you.
He says, ” [00:39:00] The radical abolitionist who risked all to use words and politics to free an entire people from slaves was, to Mr. Sandefur, only a radical for individualism and never concerned with the interests of the collective. To believe that, one has to ignore most of Douglass’ career, especially his life as an abolitionist, his ferocious attacks on the poison of racism, and his brilliant analysis of how lynching emerged from the evils of white supremacy. Douglass believed that freedom was only safe within the state and under [00:39:30] law.”
How do you respond to that line of critique?

Timothy Sandefur: Well, I would first emphasize that he is deliberating misquoting me. To say that Douglass did not care about the interests of the collective is a falsehood, I did not say that. What I say is that as a radical for individualism, Douglass did not believe in sacrificing individual rights for the sake of the collective. That’s what I say, and is absolutely the truth.
There is of course [00:40:00] no reason in the world why a libertarian would not be concerned with the protection of the rights of others. I think the three of us are evidence of that, having devoted our careers to that very point. We believe in freedom and we are fortunate enough to have sufficient freedom to work for the freedom of others, precisely because we’re so committed to principle. I think Blight represents, and you know, Blight is a Professor at Yale, he’s writing in the New York Times, one should not [00:40:30] be surprised that he finds himself on the opposite from Frederick Douglass on questions about individualism and limited government.
He has this attitude that to be an individualist means, for some reason or other, to be solely concerned with one’s own interests or something, which just betrays a complete ignorance of what it is that classical liberalism actually means. But I think it is worth pointing out that historiography [00:41:00] of the 19th century in the United States has been overwhelmingly controlled and worked on by historians of what I would call the far left. And particularly Frederick Douglass, I’m sorry to say.
Douglass’ writings were never published in a collected form until 1950, when it was published in a five volume set by Phillip Foner, who was a socialist, and it was published by International Press, which was a front organization for the KGB. So the left sunk it’s claws [00:41:30] into Douglass early on in the historiography of this era. And they did great work. I mean, it’s worth emphasizing, Foner did a lot of important work in rescuing Douglass from historical oblivion where he had been left in the early 20th century.
His son Eric Foner is today the most prominent scholar of the reconstruction era and Foner argues that during the period after the war, the ideology of laissez faire capitalism [00:42:00] was basically constructed on the foundations that had been left to them by the abolitionists. And the reason he makes that argument is because it would devastate the left’s interpretation of American history to acknowledge the fact that anti‐​slavery was in fact fully in line with the views of America’s founding fathers and that laissez faire capitalism flows from those principles as well.

Aaron Powell: How does Douglass fit in, then, with the subsequent [00:42:30] leaders of the movement for black civil rights? So immediately Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, but then also say Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

Timothy Sandefur: Douglass stands above them, like a blimp at the Super Bowl. So Douglass, in one sense, you might say that Douglass was fortunate to die when he did, because he died [00:43:00] in 1895 as American race relations were approaching their lowest point. When the North simply stopped caring about civil rights in the South, and in fact one year before Booker T. Washington gave his infamous Atlanta speech where he appeared to accommodate segregation and said that black and white Americans could live as separate as the fingers on some things, but as connected as the hand on other things, which struck most [00:43:30] people as a concession to segregation.
And so Douglass was not confronted with the debate between Washington and Du Bois. He didn’t have to take sides in that dispute. And of course, he also died a couple years before Plessy versus Ferguson. So what happened in the years that followed was that Washington basically took on the mantle of Douglass, was seen as his successor. Washington even published on of the earliest biographies of Douglass.
And he was seen as the leader of the black [00:44:00] race in the United States for many years. It was only a couple years after that that Du Bois began challenging him and the difference lay in their approach to civil rights. Washington emphasized that industrial education, building up a black working class that could afford a leadership class that challenged segregation going forward and Du Bois argued that it should be the reverse. That there should be a black leadership class who insisted on equal rights and that that would trickle down to the average person [00:44:30] in the street.
And that dispute is one of the great unresolved dilemmas of American history. It’s one of the most fascinating political debates of the 20th century. And you read Washington and you’re persuaded entirely by him and then you turn and read Du Bois and he changes your mind and you go back. It’s impossible to really answer that question. And then going forward from there, on Douglass with regard to 20th century leaders, Douglass would have, I think, embraced King’s rhetoric and his [00:45:00] insistent demand for equality and his insistence on the immorality of racial segregation.
But he would certainly have rejected King’s anti‐​violent view. Douglass was not a believer in pacifism or non‐​violence by any stretch, and so in that respect, Douglass more reflects or more resembles Malcolm X. He was much more a believer in the individual standing up for his own self‐​defense.

Trevor Burrus: [00:45:30] Now I think it’s important in this conversation, as we come to a close, that we talk about Frederick Douglass as libertarian and fitting into the libertarian world, but also the strange relationship some libertarians have toward the Civil War. What should libertarians think about the Civil War and learn maybe from people like Frederick Douglass?

Timothy Sandefur: Yeah, well, I think there’s a fascinating and important parallel here because I think what you see within the libertarian community today is there’s a [00:46:00] strong strand within the libertarian community that is more like William Lloyd Garrison and that thinks that political involvement and political engagement is bad because it lends credibility to what they view as an evil regulatory welfare state system that violates individual rights. And they oppose participation, even voting in elections, exactly the way Garrison did a century and a half ago.
And on the other hand, there is Douglass, who embraced political engagement and although [00:46:30] he recognized that meant he would often have to settle for half a loaf, rather than getting everything that justice demands, and he acknowledged that sometimes that meant you were lending credibility to an evil system, but he insisted that nevertheless, that was the right approach and that the Constitution really is a protector of liberty, if it were properly enforced.
Personally, I take Douglass’ side in that dispute. Douglass pointed out, not only did he make his legal arguments of why the Constitution [00:47:00] was a protection for individual freedom, but he argued that to prioritize one’s own moral purity over doing the hard, sometimes dirty, work of actually freeing the slaves was a form of arrogance that could not be justified in terms of individual freedom.
Garrison’s motto ‘No Union with Slave Holders’, he said, “If I were a pirate and with other pirates, I had raided and robbed and plundered, I can’t cleanse myself [00:47:30] of the sin by jumping into the lifeboat and shouting ‘No Union with Pirates’. It’s my duty to restore the lost treasure.” And he said it was American’s duty to get involved in liberating people from an oppressive state. Now that dispute between the sort of Douglass wing of libertarianism and the Garrison wing of libertarianism, that, I think, is in good faith. I think there are good arguments to be made on both of those sides, although I would ally with Douglass’ view.
There’s also a third strand within the broad tent [00:48:00] of the libertarian world, which is outright pro‐​Confederate, that thinks that the South was right in the Civil War, that secession was legal, that Lincoln was a tyrant, all of which are falsehoods and I think it really behooves us, particularly in today’s climate, to make clear that anyone who believes that states have rights that are superior to individual rights, or that the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery, a historical factual falsehood, or that Lincoln was not justified [00:48:30] in takin the steps necessary to enforce the law and to protect the rights of American citizens held in bondage, anyone who thinks that really doesn’t belong among us.
I would recommend anybody who’s interested in more on this read my paper on how libertarians ought to think about the Civil War.

Aaron Powell: Free Thoughts is produced by Tess Terrible. If you enjoyed today’s show, please rate and review us on iTunes, and if you’d like to learn more about Libertarianism, [00:49:00] find us on the web at www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.