Why Frederick Douglass Still Matters



Over at National Review Online, I have a column entitled “The Party of Lincoln, and of Douglass: Rediscovering Frederick Douglass in the Age of Obama.” It begins by explaining the importance — and misunderstood nature — of Douglass’s Fourth of July Oration (1852). Historians treat it as a denunciation of America, pure and simple. In fact, the oration ends with a patriotic belief that America would redeem itself and that slavery’s days were nearing an inevitable end.

In researching Douglass for my new book Race and Liberty in America: The Essential Reader, I found there was nothing “simple” about this giant of a man. We remember him as a fugitive slave and fiery abolitionist, we forget that he developed a coherent classical liberal philosophy based on natural law and natural rights. Far more than a race man, he was a man struggling with the real challenges to classical liberal thought. Taken together, the Douglass speeches in my book offer insight into the core values he shared with other classical liberals: individual freedom, Christianity, colorblind law, the Constitution as a “Glorious Liberty document,” and the bourgeois virtues associated with capitalism (work, self-reliance, limited government interference).

This antiracist, classical liberal tradition dominated various civil rights struggles for most of our nation’s history. Again and again, later figures cited Douglass and his “natural rights liberalism” as argument against Chinese exclusion, against Japanese internment, and for Jewish immigration from Nazi Germany when FDR and Congress said “no.” Neither Left nor Right, the classical liberal tradition stands on its own — and still permeates discussions of race.

For more on Douglass and other classical liberal activists (1776-present), see Race and Liberty in America: The Essential Reader (University Press of Kentucky, in association with The Independent Institute).

Readers particularly interested in Douglass ought to check out Peter C. Myers brilliant book analyzing Douglass as an intellectual (Frederick Douglass: Race and the Rebirth of American Liberalism). He is the first biographer to really “get” Douglass the intellectual.

Damon Root’s review of James A. Colaiaco’s Frederick Douglass and the Fourth of July explores the constitutional thought of Douglass, who broke with those who saw the Constitution as legalizing slavery. Influenced by Lysander Spooner,Douglass began his intellectual career as an independent-minded classical liberal. The Constitution, Douglass concluded, was a “Glorious Liberty document” (on how he could come to this view, read my book).

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