Timothy Sandefur joins us this week to discuss how Frederick Douglass and his beliefs do not align perfectly to today’s political factions. He is often mischaracterized due to his legendary status. Has Douglass been purposefully distorted over time? Does the omission of facts about what he did and how he acted play a large role in that distortion?
Frederick Douglass is defined as an individualist, which is best exemplified by his speeches and attitudes toward serving in the military. In his speeches and writings, he believed that slaves should join the army, not to serve their country, but rather, to give themselves a sense of pride. This, he believed, was a crucial way for the slaves to feel empowered because they earned their freedom in a way that ensured that it would never be taken away.
Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man, by Timothy Sandefur
Music by Kai Engel
Slavery in America, Encyclopedia of Libertarianism
What to a Slave is the Fourth of July, written by Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man, Free Thoughts Episode
00:04 Anthony Comegna: Tim Sandefur is the Vice President for Litigation at the Goldwater Institute where he serves as the Chair for Constitutional Government. He is a lawyer and author of many books, among which is his latest, Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man. Today on Liberty Chronicles, he joins me to make the case that Douglass was not only an individualist, but he was a libertarian. We’ll talk about Douglass the slave, the runaway and rebel, the abolitionist and reformer, Douglass the Free Soiler and Douglass the Republican, but perhaps most of all, Douglass the individualist versus Douglass the legend.
00:46 Anthony Comegna: Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.
01:00 Anthony Comegna: So to start us off talking about Frederick Douglass and his legacy and his role in history, and perhaps in libertarian history in particular, I wanna say that in your preface, you note that, let’s call them “public intellectuals,” historians and other folks writing about Douglass, have really bifurcated his legacy into at least two different Douglasses: There’s the Fredrick Douglass we remember who is the escaped slave and the hardcore abolitionist, and then on the other hand, there’s this forgotten Douglass who is sort of a fierce constitutionalist, a racial integrationist. He opposes Black nationalism, he’s this weird laissez-faire liberal that historians today don’t really understand and they seem like like these old relics, but here Douglass is one, he’s a laissez-faire liberal, he’s even an anti-communist, right? [chuckle] So I wanna ask you, why have historians and public intellectuals distorted and bifurcated his intellectual history like that?
02:04 Tim Sandefur: Well, I think there’s two answers to that. There is a class of… I think the number one answer is because Douglass does not fit easily into the accepted political categories of today, and those are the categories that professional historians in our day have grown up recognizing and that’s how they think of things. And so, you encounter a person like Douglass who doesn’t fit into those categories, and there’s a tendency to wanna jam him into one of the other or disregard counter-evidence that suggest that he doesn’t fit easily into those categories.
02:37 Tim Sandefur: On the other hand, there’s also, I think, people who are really not being intellectually honest about Douglass and who intentionally disregard or downplay certain aspects of his legacy in order to use him for political purposes in ways that serve what is generally the prevailing political attitude of the historical profession. Those people, I’m sorry to say, I suspect that they purposely elide Douglass’ hostility to things like government aid programs or socialism in order to make Douglass fit into the narrative that is accepted in the historical profession. And that’s particularly true, I think, about a figure like Douglass who is a Reconstruction-era figure. The history of the Reconstruction era has been dominated by historians of the left political persuasion.
03:32 Tim Sandefur: I’m thinking here, for instance, of Eric Foner, who is probably the leading historian of the Reconstruction era and is very far on the left. His father, Philip Foner, was a socialist and published Douglass’ papers in five volumes through a communist publisher because he was disregarded by the… Douglass was being disregarded by the mainstream political parties of the era. And so it’s the only natural… We always put… Everybody puts their own political biases into things that they write and think about. That’s just natural, and because that strain of the historical profession has been so far to the left, it’s only natural, I think, that they disregard what are today regarded as conservative aspects of Douglass’ legacy. For example, his hostility to labor unions, his hostility toward socialism, his emphasis on a “leave us alone” kind of laissez-faire liberalism of his era.
04:34 Tim Sandefur: Now, that said, it is also true that Douglass was very far on what we would today call “the left” on certain aspects on racial issues, and I think there is a tendency on conservatives to downplay certain aspects of Douglass’ life that might be construed as being anti-conservative. So, it’s just natural for writers to have their own biases in what they say, and I think that’s most of it. But in the introduction, I mentioned, for instance, Angela Davis, who I think… She’s an example of one of the extremes on the left, who I think purposely downplays aspects of Douglass that don’t fit into her mold.
05:16 Anthony Comegna: I personally love Eric Foner’s work. I mean…
05:19 Tim Sandefur: It’s very good work. It’s outstanding work. No question about it.
05:23 Anthony Comegna: And he understands the libertarian perspective, too, I think, ‘cause he’s one of the few proper historians who’ve really spent time with it seriously. So, it does… [chuckle] I sort of like you to name more names about who do you think has really purposefully distorted his view and who do you think is more… And makes more honest mistakes, like perhaps Foner.
05:47 Tim Sandefur: Well, with Douglass, it’s often omission, is the thing. Douglass spent… Had a very long life and was involved in a lot of stuff, and so it’s easy, by leaving some things out, to give the readers an impression of one thing or another. So, some time ago, I think it was NPR, aired a radio show that was a celebration of the work of Howard Zinn, who is a pseudo-intellectual… Intellectually dishonest scholar of the left, if you can even call him a scholar, he’s the author of The People’s History of the United States, which is assigned reading in many colleges, and creates this mythology, a very far left historiography. And as part of that celebration that hired, I think it was Morgan Freeman, to read a passage or two from Douglass’ most famous speech, What to the slave is the 4th of July? , and the passage from the speech that was read left out the end passage which discusses Douglass’ belief that the United States Constitution, “interpreted as it ought to be interpreted,” is a glorious liberty document.
06:55 Tim Sandefur: And by omitting that passage, one is left with the impression that Douglass was one of these Garrisonian abolitionists who thought America was fundamentally evil because it was fundamentally a racist nation. And that mythology, that America is a fundamentally racist nation, is absolutely crucial to the Howard Zinn strain of thought that interprets American society as fundamentally evil because of capitalism, libertarianism, et cetera, et cetera. So, that’s what I mean, is that omission plays a large part of this.
07:25 Anthony Comegna: Absolutely. Now, you said that there are these two sides to Douglass, it’s sort of a… Not a specifically 19th-century mix, but it’s very common in the era to have these conservative and these radical liberal elements sort of jammed together in your thinking. I wonder, is this a little bit like what libertarians often do or at least get accused of doing, with somebody like Thomas Jefferson, where you bifurcate his legacy and focus on the things that you like or that works well for your message and conveniently excuse the other things that are in fact so glaring?
08:05 Tim Sandefur: Well, I think I would quibble with the use of Jefferson as an example, but I get your point, and I would say that actually… In my view, it’s the reverse. In my view, libertarians are true to this traditional 19th-century liberalism that believed in freedom across the board, both in social and in economic aspects, and that it is our own perverse age that has chosen to bifurcate those two things and to say freedom in one but not freedom in the other and then the conservatives have freedom in one and not freedom in the other and liberals flip that around and have freedom in the other but not freedom in the one, that’s our… That’s a modern-day phenomenon. In Douglass’ day, I think he had the right view, which is that it should be freedom across the board, or freedom and none.
08:53 Anthony Comegna: Mm. Now in the introduction, you note that Douglass believed that if Black slaves were ever to be freed, they would have to act to free themselves, the famous saying, “He who would be free must himself strike the first blow.” And you say freedom was not and could never be a gift given to Black Americans by the White majority. But isn’t there sort of a danger here that White Americans might then shrug off the responsibilities that they do actually have toward Black Americans and restricting their liberties? I mean, what did White Americans, then, actually owe toward the greater freedom for slaves? I mean…
09:33 Tim Sandefur: That’s a very good point, and I think you can point to the Reconstruction era as a great example of that very phenomenon happening and Douglass noticing it and commenting on it at the time. Beginning in the 1870s, Douglass started to see around him a trend toward reconciliation among Whites that left Blacks out in the cold, that left the former slaves to their own devices or strip them of firearms and left them to the mercy of racist Whites who wanted to re-institute essential slavery. And Douglass comments on this increasingly in his speeches at the time. There is one particularly fine speech called, “There was a right side in the late war,” in which Douglass complains about what was then a new phenomenon, which is the erection of statues to confederate generals in the South. And he says, “This is a terrible thing and we should not be standing for this.” He points out, “There are no generals… No statues of union generals being put up in the South, so it’s not a matter of magnanimity toward those who suffered in the war. This is a practical effort to re-institute the legitimacy of the Southern cause,” he says. And he was right about that.
10:53 Tim Sandefur: We’re still, of course, reaping the whirlwind of that in our own debates about whether to keep these confederate monuments in place. So, Douglass was very worried about the fact that White Americans were disregarding the fact that they had participated in the slavery system, and now and once the war was over, they wanted to wash their hands of it and say, “Oh, well, it was all just a big misunderstanding,” and disregard the moral importance of the war. So that’s, I think, a very valid point.
11:22 Anthony Comegna: And now, switching gears a little bit to Douglass’ actual life and his experiences, he wrote an awful lot about how the Southern master class consciously and systematically made men into slaves as though it were a mechanical process. And you specifically isolate four steps to that process that I hope you could explain for us in some more detail. First, you rob the newly enslaved, or the unbroken slaves, you rob them of their history, rob them of their protection of law, the fruits of their labor, and finally, any kind of moral responsibility for themselves. Can you explain that to us?
12:08 Tim Sandefur: Yeah, so, Douglass, in his first memoir which was published in 1845, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and that’s what everybody reads ‘cause it’s short and easy to get through, and then 10 years later, he revised it into the much longer and more in-depth My Bondage and My freedom and then at the end of his life, he published… The final version of his memoir is called “The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.” Beginning with the first one, he tries to say this isn’t just some sort of ad hoc cruelty by White people toward Black people; this is a system that is organized around the deprivation of humanity in this class of victims.
12:50 Tim Sandefur: And he shows how it’s consciously designed to do this, and he uses, for example, drunkenness. He says, “Masters will often give alcohol to their slaves and they do this on purpose in order,” he says, “to make them sick of the very idea of freedom, so that during the holidays, slaves can celebrate by getting drunk, and then when the holidays are over, they regret it, and they come to associate in their minds the idea of freedom with that kind of hangover.” And he goes through explaining how this is done in various ways in slave life. Depriving people of their history, of their knowledge of their past where they come from, of their families, particularly the family, Douglass was very emphatic about how destroying the Black family was essential to slavery, and children were taken away from their mothers at an early age, because otherwise, they would form these bonds that would allow them to unite in opposition to slavery. And slave owners wanted to use family connections to their own advantage, and they did this by, for example, threatening to punish relatives of slaves who escaped. Douglass himself had some close relatives who ran away, and the master, the very next day, sold their children South into the slavery of the worst slave plantations in the Southern states.
14:18 Tim Sandefur: So, depriving people of history, of law, of a feeling of getting a grip on the world, makes a person less able to plan for the future, less resistant, more pliant, and make them feel like they have no efficacy. And that was essential to slavery. Of course, depriving them of the fruits of their labor was the whole point of slavery in some regards, but it also had an important role to play in perpetuating slavery, because of course, earning from hard work gives one a sense of self-esteem and pride, and self-esteem and pride, of course, are contrary to the very essence of slavery. And then moral responsibility is part of that. Douglass emphasizes that to make a person into an automaton, into a thing, into a tool, it’s essential to destroy the sense in that person that they are responsible for their own lives, both the good and the bad in their lives. And so slaves were systematically deprived of that in order to make them feel utter dependency on the master class.
15:26 Anthony Comegna: And now, that sort of brings me back to the question of responsibility for all of this, ‘cause on the one hand, if Douglass seems to be of the mind that, “Well, Black Americans, the enslaved, are going to have to do this themself, just like I did,” right? And then on the other hand, he says that slavery is itself an abuse, it lives by abuse and dies by the absence of abuse. So then I guess [chuckle] if you could stand in for Douglass here, I would ask him, well, shouldn’t we then demand that the abusers stop rather than blaming the victim for not rising up yet against them?
16:01 Tim Sandefur: Oh, absolutely. And I don’t want it to sound like Douglass is blaming the victim. He instead, he’s trying to inspire the victim, and all of his writings about self-esteem, he’s trying to say it’s not… “Obviously, it’s not your fault that you’ve been reduced to slavery and been chained, but you always retain that little bit of moral choice in your brain. The master can never actually reach that spark of independence, and so you always have it in your power to say no in some regard, and once you surrender it, it’s very hard to get it back.” And he illustrates this in his memoirs by telling the stories of slaves who would refuse, who would say no, who would resist in some small way, and they would be punished for it, but they would retain that sense of pride. And Douglass says, “He is whipped oftenest who is whipped easiest.”
16:55 Tim Sandefur: And so, when the war comes, I think this all reaches a climax, when the war comes and Douglass becomes a recruitment agent for the Union Army signing up the freed slaves, or Northern free Blacks, to join the military. And I think it’s really interesting when you read his speeches and his writings where he says why you should join the military, he never, or virtually never, ever says you should join the military to serve your country. The very idea would have been absurd to him because, of course, the slaves don’t owe anything to the country; if anything, it’s the country that owes them the ability to serve in the military for their freedom.
17:34 Tim Sandefur: He instead, he insists, “You should do this for yourselves.” He tells the recruits, “You need to join the Army first because you need to get guns in your hands. Once you have a gun in your hand, it’s harder for people to take it away from you.” Then he says “You’re getting to learn to use those guns because you’re going to need to defend yourself once the war is over. But most importantly of all, you need to get that sense of self-esteem, that sense of pride by fighting for your freedom and knowing that you have earned this thing, and nobody can ever take that away from you.” I think that Douglass is the most important spokesman for the connection between personal self-esteem and political freedom before Ayn Rand, and in fact, who was only born about a decade after Douglass’ death. So, I think Douglass’ greatest contribution to libertarian thought is this essential point about personal pride and self-esteem, in the individual, being the essential attribute of a free society when that person is a citizen.
18:36 Anthony Comegna: Mm. Now, let’s talk about that moment in Douglass’ life, that key moment, where he has the stand-off and the fight with Covey, the overseer, right? This is a really amazing moment to me. And it was really only in your book that this sort of revelation came out to me. I always learned about this moment where Covey is this man who is… What, he’s an overseer but he has this 400-acre farm of his own called “Mount Misery.” And you say in the book, it has a striking resemblance to the concentration camps that come up later and Soviet gulags, and slaves certainly thought of it that way, right? So Douglass is leased out to Covey and he’s working his farm, and they get into this battle and the two men are sizing each other up, circling each other for hours. You say it lasted about two hours, right? That is shocking to me because… Ugh!
19:42 Tim Sandefur: Yeah. It is, it’s an amazing dramatic moment. And of course, Douglass used it for that dramatic impact. In all of his life, it became the central episode of his personal experience and the basis of his lesson of… Which was that he who would be free must himself strike the blow. This was the moment where that moment… Where that feeling, that spark of self-esteem, was left to him and he seized upon it and made the most of it. The story is that Douglass was… He was a teenager at the time and he was becoming rather resistant to Thomas Auld, his owner, and so, Auld decided to break him by renting him out to Covey to break his spirit, which, Covey made extra money doing this on the side. And Douglass spent about a year with him, and for the first six months, was beaten at least once a week for offenses real or imagined as a method of breaking down his spirit.
20:43 Tim Sandefur: And what’s important, I think, about those beatings is that they weren’t specifically for any particular thing. The point of the beatings was precisely to not be predictable or rational or to have any connection to a system of rigid rules; it was to emphasize the caprice, the irrationality, of Douglass’ situation. And Douglass tells us that it worked. In fact, there’s reason to believe that he descended into alcoholism at this time in his life. He lost his desire to read, he lost his desire to daydream about freedom because his world shrank down to the particular moment of getting through that one day. And what I thought was really interesting is how similar that regimen is to what we are told was the circumstances in Nazi and Soviet prison camps. The psychological techniques that were used to break Douglass’ spirit are very similar to those that were used on a factory-wide, mass produced, highly technological scale in the 1930s and ’40s.
21:49 Anthony Comegna: And I should note that this was a whole cottage industry. Well, maybe not even cottage at this point; it was a major industry, writing agricultural manuals that taught you how to handle your slaves, too, and how to break them. I mean, it was it all systematic and scientific and academic and professionalized…
22:07 Tim Sandefur: It was right at that point. We’re talking about the 1830s, 1840s period, so industry, the factory and things like… Those are just starting out. This is the point where the Industrial Revolution is becoming the consumer revolution that will later manifest itself in things like the Sears, Roebuck catalog of the 1890s. So, this is just at the beginning, but what we see at this era is that people are being turned into livestock on what we would today call “incipient factory farms,” which, by the way, is a point that is exploited to a very effective dramatic effect in a recent novel called “Underground Airlines” by Ben Winters, which imagines a future in which slavery was never destroyed, and then what would it be like in the 20th century, and it does so in just this way, of imagining factory farms that are populated by slaves who have been subjected to an additional century of this systematic abuse.
23:08 Anthony Comegna: And now just taking one more moment to talk about this exchange, this battle with Covey, the overseer, two hours is no mere moment, right? That’s how I remember learning about this in school. Oh, yeah, he fought the dude and hit him in the face and that was that. The guy backed down, the White guy back down, but that is not what happened. Two hours of them squaring off like that, and apparently, what, there were other slaves viewing it, watching it, right?
23:39 Tim Sandefur: Yeah, and they’re not just two hours, but two hours in the August sun in Maryland.
23:43 Anthony Comegna: Yeah. Yeah.
23:44 Tim Sandefur: If you’ve ever spent an hour in the August sun in Maryland, you know what that’s like. So you can imagine…
23:47 Anthony Comegna: I live in Baltimore.
23:49 Anthony Comegna: I live in Fredrick Douglass country. Yeah.
23:51 Tim Sandefur: Yeah. Well, so yeah, Douglass tells us in… Now the way he tells the story, he says that he only defended himself and that he didn’t actually hit Covey but just fended off his blows. I have my doubts about that. I can’t imagine you can actually have a two-hour fight where that happens. And Douglass was writing this for publication by a group of abolitionists who were pacifists, who didn’t believe in violent uprising. So it’s possible that he shaded this down and downplayed the actual violence that occurred. Incidentally, however, he mentions that at one point in the fight, Covey called a relative over to help him subdue Douglass and Douglass punched him really hard in the stomach. So, we do know that at least to some degree, this was a very serious fight. But the lesson that Douglass drew from it was that resistance was critical to your own sense of being a human being. And when the fight was over, Douglass tells us, Covey didn’t beat him again. He stumbled away and said, “If you hadn’t whipped me so hard… If you hadn’t resisted so hard, I wouldn’t have whipped you so hard,” but he hadn’t with Douglass, and that was the essential lesson.
25:01 Anthony Comegna: And I… Just one more thing, I find it so fantastic that there are other slaves watching this because that itself is an act of solidarity and subversion, right? Letting this happen.
25:10 Tim Sandefur: Yes. Yes, absolutely. They do show solidarity in this moment, when he orders some of the slaves to help him and they said no, they refused to, they say, “I came here to work, not to help you beat up Fred.” And so, that was an essential part of that story, absolutely.
25:26 Anthony Comegna: That’s just amazing to me. I love that anecdote. And I do think that it’s told in this book in a way that you just don’t hear about it other places. Now moving on to some elements of his career in politics and speech-making, have you ever run across any evidence that Fredrick Douglass had exchanges with the Locofocos, a radical faction of Jacksonians?
25:56 Tim Sandefur: Well, I mean, he must have, but… For one thing, the literature on Douglass is still in a fairly sparse state. There was this five-volume set, I mentioned, that Philip Foner published of his writings and speeches, and then since then, they’ve been working at a university on publishing the complete Douglass papers, but that has not been completed. There’s a new, very long book that is destined to come out in this fall, a full-length biography of Douglass that taps into some previously unknown material. And so the historians are still putting together Douglass’ life. His papers at the Library of Congress are surprisingly incomplete, and then some of his papers are scattered across the country in various archives. So, we can’t really know for sure who he did and did not have contact with. But Douglass’ primary intellectual influences were, first, William Lloyd Garrison and Garrison’s abolitionists based in Massachusetts, and then secondly, Jarrett Smith and Smith’s New York-based abolitionists. And I think Smith probably had closer connections with that group of Democrats.
26:58 Anthony Comegna: Oh, yeah, yeah, he definitely did. And now, the Free Soilers, that’s what we just covered on the show. We have three episodes on the Free Soil Movement in 1848. I wondered, if you could give us sort of an overview of Douglass’ interactions with the Free Soil Party.
27:16 Anthony Comegna: Well, Douglass’ relationships with different political parties gets rather complicated, and so it’s best to start by saying when he escaped from slavery in the 1830s, he very quickly joined the Garrisonian abolitionists, who did not believe in participating in politics at all. They thought doing anything… Having anything to do with politics just lent credibility to the evil, corrupt system and that the only real solution to slavery was to abolish the United States Constitution. Garrison would burn the Constitution at his speeches and he said, “No union with slaveholders,” that was his motto. He said that the North should secede from the South in order to have nothing to do with slavery.
27:55 Tim Sandefur: And for the first several years, Douglass agreed with that, naturally enough. He was a young man, fresh on his own, and he was being taught by them, but he very quickly started to have questions and disagreements with them. I think, first, over the issue of violence, in his memoirs. And then secondly, when he went to Europe on a speaking tour that lasted a year in England and Ireland, he came into association with anti-slavery forces there who had done a lot of good work through politics, and I suspect that they immediately started to persuade him that participating in politics was a good thing. And upon his return to the United States, Douglass, very soon afterwards, started his own newspaper and moved to New York, and it was there that he fell under the sway of Jarrett Smith. And Smith was a pro-Constitution abolitionist who believed in participating in politics, organized the Liberty Party, the first anti-slavery political party, which then gradually mutated into the Free Soil Party and then the Republican Party, and Douglass announced his change of mind in an article titled Announcement of a Change of Mind, in which he said, “I no longer hold the Constitution to be a pro-slavery document; I now believe that it is essentially a pro-freedom document if it were enforced by public officials who were willing to do so.” And he never let go of that of that view.
29:25 Tim Sandefur: It was a rather bitter feud. In fact, in the very first biography of Douglass that was published in 1890 shortly before his death, the author mentions that he still couldn’t really get a lot of interviews with some of the Garrisonians because they still had not recovered from this in-fighting within the group. So, Douglass then goes on and participates in these incipient anti-slavery parties, although he apparently voted for Jarrett Smith rather than Lincoln, and it was a while before he would join the Republican ranks. It was really only when the war started that he joined the Republican Party.
30:01 Anthony Comegna: And you seem to take the Garrisonian line in your book that the Free Soil Party was a fiasco. I wonder if you can just elaborate briefly on why you think the Free Soil Party was a fiasco.
30:14 Tim Sandefur: It’s probably the only thing I do agree with Garrison on.
30:18 Tim Sandefur: Yeah, well, so the Free Soilers, a Liberty Party, this is a group of… They’re extremists, they’re kinda like the Libertarian Party is today, they stand outside the mainstream parties of the era. And in an effort to gain more attention for themselves, at one point, they nominated for their candidate for the presidency Martin Van Buren. Now Van Buren, who had been president after Jackson, he had overseen the Trail of Tears, he had overseen the government’s opposition to the Amistad rebels lawsuit. You remember from the classic movie by Steven Spielberg, this true story of slaves who rebelled against their captors on a slave ship but were captured and put on trial and their case went to the US Supreme Court, and it was the Van Buren administration that pushed hard to re-enslave the Africans. So, Van Buren had no credibility as an anti-slavery figure, and the only reason that the party chose him as their candidate was because they hoped his name recognition would get them somewhere, and of course, it didn’t. And the Garrisonians were sitting there, chuckling behind their hands at how the Liberty Party people had sacrificed their principles for temporary notoriety. And they saw that as proving their point, that political participation would accomplish nothing in anti-slavery work. Of course, it was not that long afterwards that Lincoln was elected, and in my view, the pro-political anti-slavery people like Jarrett Smith were vindicated.
31:54 Anthony Comegna: And then later in Douglass’ life, after the war, after abolition, and even after some measure at least of civil rights had been accomplished in some of the states, let’s say, this is of course the era of creeping Jim Crow, this 1660… Or 1860s, 1870s, until Reconstruction fails, in this period after the war, it seems like Douglass spends a lot of his time choosing to criticize Southern Blacks for one thing or another. You mentioned the Exodusters phenomenon, for example. Is it possible that Douglass was just a bit of a contrarian?
32:38 Tim Sandefur: Yeah, I think there’s no question that he had that stripe in him. There’s this great legend that he, when he was an old man, a young man came to visit him and asked him what he should do with his life and Douglass answered, “Agitate, agitate, agitate.”
32:52 Anthony Comegna: [chuckle] That’s good advice, though.
32:53 Tim Sandefur: Which he did… It’s a wonderful story. Now, keeping in mind that Douglass’ form of agitation was always intellectual agitation; it wasn’t just rabble-rousing. But yeah, I think there was some contrarianism in him, but I also think there’s a sense in which he was overly optimistic about the situation in the South in the years right around Reconstruction. Douglass, there was this period after the end of the war and before it becomes really clear to him that civil rights are being totally abandoned in the South, when he still thinks that there’s a way… Perhaps that the negatives are being exaggerated. I mean, it’s hard… I don’t wanna put those words into his mouth, but that’s the sense one gets because he opposes the Exoduster Movement, which is this movement of Southern Blacks to move to places like Kansas to get away from the South where their rights are being violated.
33:45 Tim Sandefur: And Douglass is opposed to this for a number of reasons. One, he says, “If you go to Kansas, you have no history there, and so you’re gonna be looked upon as intruders by the local White population and that will harm you politically. Secondly, you won’t be concentrated; you’ll be spread out, and that’ll harm you politically also. And thirdly, in the South, you have this hard-won claim to civil rights there and you have these bonds there, this history there, that strengthens your hand and… ” But most importantly, I think the fourth thing is, he says, “If you move, you are giving boldness to the White supremacists who insist on you moving. If you give in and surrender to them, then that only makes them stronger in saying, ‘You don’t belong here.’”
34:31 Tim Sandefur: And I think those arguments, there’s merit to those arguments. The problem was that the opposition was just too strong, and the feds were not really committed to defending civil rights in the South by that time. Grant did his best, but after him, it petered out so that even Douglass later changed his mind and said, “Yeah, it makes sense for you to leave.” But Douglass really was resistant to that, because I think it all plays back into his opposition to Black nationalism, which you mentioned earlier on. Douglass was very opposed to the idea of colonization throughout his entire life, and for several reasons. There was efforts to colonize Blacks to Africa or to Central or South America to get them out of the United States, and Whites favored this as a way of solving the slavery problem.
35:19 Tim Sandefur: Now, of course, it was absurd just as a practical matter, there’re just too many people, you couldn’t possibly do it. It was horrendous as a humanitarian matter. These are people who had never been to Africa, their parents and grandparents had never been to Africa, and many other cases. And as Douglass said, “All this native land talk is nonsense. The native land of the American Negro is America. For generations, he has lived and worked and died on American soil.” So Douglass was opposed to that, but there were also colonization efforts led by Black Americans themselves, including close associates of Douglass, Martin Delaney, who worked with him on his newspaper for a while, for instance. And Douglass was firmly opposed to it from whatever source throughout his entire life, and I think he may have seen the Exoduster Movement to Kansas as being a sort of miniature form of colonization. He said, “We’re here to stay. Our destinies are twined together on the North American continent, and this notion of moving somewhere else is a cruel fantasy that will not accomplish liberty for anyone.”
36:24 Anthony Comegna: Now I always like to wonder, gee, what would have happened if there had been a Haitian revolution-like event in the Deep South and there was actually a Black nation-state there in, say, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, or whatever, if there was a crescent in North America that was carved out for a black nation-state as a result of a massive slave uprising, how different might American national history be at this point?
36:51 Tim Sandefur: Well, that was of course John Brown’s great dream, that was basically what John Brown hoped to accomplish with his uprising. And Douglass, although he thought Brown’s efforts at Harpers Ferry were suicidal and foolish and refused to join them, nevertheless, Douglass spent the rest of his life lionizing Brown and regarded him as among the greatest Americans to ever live.
37:13 Anthony Comegna: Why exactly do you think it was important to write this book now? And what do you think your big contribution is? Because I also wonder, in the end, or [chuckle] at least up to this point in the story, our point, has Douglass’ version of a colorblind constitutional Republicanism, has that won out, or is the United States really still fundamentally a White supremacist society?
37:43 Tim Sandefur: It absolutely is not fundamentally a White supremacist society and never has been. The essence of America is the Declaration of Independence’s promise and its recognition that all men created equal. And if Douglas teaches us nothing else, it’s that. I think it’s a terrible shame that in today’s society, we are seeing leading Black intellectuals being celebrated for their claim, their false and degrading claim, that the United States is a White supremacist nation and that the promise of the American dream is a falsehood that’s been foisted on black Americans in order to blind them to that reality. That that idea is being given respectability in high cultural corners of our nation today is a disgrace and a betrayal of the countless Black Americans who gave their lives, liberties, and their sacred honor to ensure the vindication of the promissory note that is the Declaration of Independence, and I would hope that Douglass would be celebrated as a great example of why it is such a falsehood. I think it’s a shame, and I can’t denounce it strongly enough.
38:58 Tim Sandefur: Now, whether we’ve accomplished a colorblind society, obviously, we haven’t and we never will. It never will happen. And the reason why is because racism just is always going to be with us in some form or another, because people, sometimes they’re jerks, that’s just the fact of the matter. And what we can do, what we can hope to do, is to create a society which respects individual liberty and protects people’s rights, and then build a better society gradually that shuns such notions. But there’s always going to be yahoos and cruel people out there, and I think Douglass would have recognized that fact. But I think… I’m often asked, “What would Douglas think if he were to come around… If he were to come back to life today?” And I usually have two answers to that. On one hand, the good thing. Douglass would be so happy, I think the primary thing he would be thrilled about is the degree to which interracial marriage is accepted in today’s society, that it really… Yeah, there’s some backwoods corners where interracial couples are still looked down upon, but almost entirely in the United States, it’s regarded as just not a big deal.
40:12 Tim Sandefur: And that is completely opposite from what it was in Douglass’ own lifetime. He himself married a white woman toward the end of his life, which was a shocking thing to do for somebody in the 1880s, and I think he would be really happy to see how much progress we have made in that regard. I think what he would be really upset about, most upset about I suspect, would be the way in which the unconstitutional, immoral, unwinnable war on drugs has, in many ways, perpetuated the same kind of cruelties that he saw in slavery in his own day, and he would be… He would shake his head sadly at the way that that mimics the darker moments of our past.
40:58 Anthony Comegna: Well, that is perhaps some stern medicine, but really, that’s what all good history represents: A stern check on our assumed facts, views, perspectives. Was Douglass really purely self-made? Obviously not, but that isn’t the point. Has America always been a White supremacist society? Well, perhaps, but what about that century or so before race even existed? Douglass reaches across into our own time and challenges us, “Always do your own thinking.”
41:32 Anthony Comegna: Liberty Chronicles is a project of libertarianism.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty Chronicles, please rate, review, and subscribe to us on iTunes. For more information on Liberty Chronicles, visit libertarianism.org.