The Mind of Frederick Douglass

By Waldo E. Martin Jr. | Go to book overview

7. The Philosophy and Pursuit of Social Reform

Douglass's philosophy of social reform vividly reflected his American cultural and social roots. Like most nineteenth- century Americans, he firmly believed in a necessary, though complex, relationship between a moral universe and the imperfect world of human events. Slowly yet inevitably, human progress was bringing the latter into conformity with the former. Not only did social change ultimately conform to moral law, but it also conformed to an evolutionary vision of human betterment. Douglass once described the process of reform as "a kind of Jacob wrestling with the angel for larger blessings." According to this Christian metaphor, reform was inseparable from man's innate desire to improve his life. Besides improvement in man's personal condition, the concerted pursuit of social reform meant, Douglass stated, working to realize the best in man's "moral, intellectual, [and] social universe." 1 Social reform thus encompassed concern for society as well as the individual.

A reformist approach predominated among nineteenth-century black leaders. Unlike white social reformers who inevitably possessed some measure of racial privilege, regardless of their reform commitments, black social reformers inevitably fought the stereotype of innate racial inferiority. The distinction proved pivotal, often determinative. While black social reformers, like their people, clearly understood white racism to be the most serious social problem in nineteenth-century America, precious few white social reformers, not to mention their people, understood it as clearly, if at all. Themselves afflicted with racism, white social reformers at best could only mount an ambiguous assault against it. Most sided with racial privilege. Even those who fought racism, notably many abolitionists, could never fully see beyond its blinders. 2

The tradition of black social reform paralleled and dovetailed that of white social reform. The conflict between black social progress and white racism perpetuated and sometimes widened the gulf between the two traditions. Douglass's philosophy and pursuit of social reform drew upon both traditions attempting, in the process, to overcome the differences between them and to unite them. Racism remained the chief impediment to such attempted unions. Both the black social reform cause and the social reform cause in general needed progressive white allies not to promote racism, but to struggle against it. Notwithstanding the utility of alliances with progressive white colleagues,

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The Mind of Frederick Douglass
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface ix
  • Part One - The Shape of a Life 1
  • 1 - The Formative Years and Beyond 3
  • 2 - Abolitionism: the Travail of a "Great Life's Work" 18
  • 3 - The Politics of a Race Leader 55
  • 4 - Humanism, Race, and Leadership 92
  • Part Two - Social Reform 107
  • 5 - The Ideology of White Supremacy 109
  • 6 - Feminism, Race, and Social Reform 136
  • 7 - The Philosophy and Pursuit of Social Reform 165
  • Part Three - National Identity, Culture, and Science 195
  • 8 - A Composite American Nationality 197
  • 9 - Ethnology and Equality 225
  • Part Four - The Autobiographical Douglass 251
  • 10 - Self-Made Man, Self-Conscious Hero 253
  • Epilogue 281
  • Notes 285
  • Bibliography 309
  • Index 317
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