The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass: In Pursuit of American Liberty, by Nicholas Buccola, New York University Press, 225 pages, $49
IN APRIL 1865, as the Civil War was reaching its bloody climax, the abolitionist leader and escaped former slave Frederick Douglass stood before the Massachusetts Antislavery Society and delivered a rousing speech entitled "What the Black Man Wants" "The American people have always been anxious to know what they shall do with us," Douglass told the crowd."I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief." In fact, he continued, "if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall.... All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone!"
To modern ears, statements like "let him alone" and "do nothing" may sound suspiciously libertarian. Frederick Douglass has long been accused of harboring certain libertarian tendencies. University of Virginia historian Waldo Martin, for example, charged that Douglass' "do nothing" rhetoric revealed an unfortunate "procapitalist bias" in his otherwise commendable thinking. Yale University historian David Blight, meanwhile, has criticized Douglass for preaching "a laissez-faire individualism that echoed the reigning Social Darwinism of the day"
It's true that Frederick Douglass simultaneously championed both civil rights and economic liberty. But the proper term for that combination isn't Social Darwinism; it's classical liberalism. The central component of Douglass' worldview was the principle of self-ownership, which he understood to include both racial equality and the right to enjoy the fruits of one's labor.
Consider the remarkable 1848 letter Doug lass wrote to his old master, the slaveholder Thomas Auld. It rings out repeatedly with the tenets of classical liberalism. "You are a man and so am I," Douglass declared. "In leaving you, I took nothing but what belonged to me, and in no way lessened your means for obtaining an honest living" Escaping from slavery wasn't just an act of self-preservation, Douglass maintained; it was an affirmation of his unalienable natural rights. "Your faculties remained yours," he wrote, "and mine became useful to their rightful owner."
Douglass struck a similar note in his powerful 1852 speech "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" Evoking John Locke's famous description of private property emerging from man mixing his labor with the natural world, Douglass pointed to slaves "plowing, planting and reaping, using all kinds of mechanical tools, erecting houses" as proof that they too deserved the full range of natural rights. "Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? That he is the rightful owner of his own body?" Douglass asked his mostly white audience. "There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him."
"Douglass's arguments against slavery are, in a very important sense, arguments for liberalism," writes Linfield College political scientist Nicholas Buccola in The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass, his engaging new study of the great abolitionist. Taking seriously Douglass' dual commitment to both a "robust conception of mutual responsibility" and "the ideas of universal self-ownership, natural rights, limited government, and an ethos of self-reliance," Buccola offers a nuanced portrait that illuminates both Douglass and his place in American intellectual history.
Born in February 1818 in Tuckahoe, Maryland, to a slave mother and a white, likely slaveholding father, Frederick Douglass escaped from bondage at the age of 20, making his way first to New York City, where he got married, and then to the whaling port of New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he changed his last name (he had been known as Frederick Bailey until then) and found a job loading ships. "I was now my own master--a …