Frederick Douglass: the Social Justice Hero who Would Confound Today’s Liberals


As a libertarian blogger and author who lives in Edinburgh, it was fascinating to learn this week that Frederick Douglass, a true American hero who escaped slavery and became a remarkably eloquent antislavery campaigner and author in the 19th century, had spent time in Edinburgh. He delivered hundreds of public lectures in buildings across the city, many not far from where I live, and apparently fell in love with the city himself. In 1846 he wrote, “I am now in Edinburgh…It is a beautiful city, the most beautiful I ever saw.”

It’s 200 years since Douglass was born and The National Library of Scotland has just opened an exhibition of never-before-displayed letters, manuscripts and photographs on loan from the Walter O and Linda Evans collection in the USA. It tells the story of Douglass’s time in Scotland and how Edinburgh was a “city of freedom for black social justice campaigners born into slavery in the USA.”

As delighted as I was to learn this previously unknown part of my home city’s history, I couldn’t help but wonder what Douglass would think of Scottish society today if I could go back in time and bring him forward to the present day. In 1846, he wrote about how happy, free and equal he felt in Edinburgh society.

“I feel myself almost a new man…Everything is so different here from what I have been accustomed to in the United States. No insults to encounter, no prejudice to encounter…I am treated as a man an equal brother. My colour, instead of being a barrier to social equality – is not thought of as such.”

Douglass would certainly find that nothing has changed for the worse in regards to how black people are treated in 21st century Scottish society. In Edinburgh, he would be extremely unlikely to experience any malevolent prejudice or any insults based on his colour. He would, I’m sure, be delighted to hear that such behaviour has come to be considered entirely socially unacceptable and deeply shameful.

There can be little doubt, however, that Douglass would have been perturbed to learn of the existence of hate-speech laws and that someone could be put in jail for being rude to someone because of their skin colour. In regards to this, he probably would have said something along the lines of, “Don’t your lawmakers understand that this is folly? Putting a white man in jail for insulting a coloured person isn’t going to persuade him he’s wrong or that the poison of his beliefs seeps into his own soul. If anything, it’ll only strengthen his fear and loathing, which doesn’t help society – or him.”

Douglass once remarked, “the binding quality of law is its reasonableness.” Is it reasonable to lock a man up or brand him a criminal for life for calling someone names, even if his abuse was racially motivated? Douglass surely wouldn’t have thought so. He probably would have regarded today’s hate-crime laws as unreasonable, unnecessary and counterproductive.

Unlike today’s politicians and mainstream intellectuals, Douglass seemed to grasp that laws don’t persuade people just because they threaten. He understood that, even if it was made illegal, slavery wouldn’t truly end in the United States until the American public mind came around to the same truth the British public mind had. Namely that black people weren’t inherently intellectually and morally inferior to white people and therefore it was only right for them to have the same legal rights.

That’s why he focused on making the argument from morality against slavery. He mostly argued that slavery was not God’s will and that it was unconstitutional. He questioned how Americans could rightfully claim to be good Christians when they were enslaving their brothers. He said as long as there was legal slavery in the United States it was dishonest of Americans to claim America was the ‘land of the free.’ His words seemed to hit home.

As sound and persuasive as his moral arguments were at the time, I suspect what persuaded some or even many white Americans to change their convictions about blacks was Douglass himself. After all, who could listen to Douglass or read his books and still believe that blacks weren’t capable of reaching the same intellectual heights of whites or that American society wasn’t worse off by oppressing its black population? According to an American observer, Douglass’s presence as a speaker was singular:

“He was more than six feet in height, and his majestic form, as he rose to speak, straight as an arrow, muscular, yet lithe and graceful, his flashing eye, and more than all, his voice, that rivalled Webster’s in its richness, and in the depth and sonorousness of its cadences, made up such an ideal of an orator as the listeners never forgot.”

Douglass was living proof that, with freedom and the opportunity to educate themselves, black people could become good, great or even brilliant Americans. His career implicitly demonstrated that the black population of America wasn’t a part in a machine of fixed and limited use, but instead an unlimited source of untapped creative human energy that if unleashed could only enrich society. Slaves wasn’t the most blacks could be. It was the least they could be.

Douglass knew that giving black people the same rights to life, liberty and property as white Americans had would enable black people to live as their own ends and not as white people’s means. Unlike today’s politicians and mainstream intellectuals, who are almost disdainful of property rights, Douglass recognised that property rights were the key to human flourishing and progress.

“Property will produce for us the only condition upon which any people can rise to the dignity of genuine manhood … Knowledge, wisdom, culture, refinement, manners, are all founded on work and the wealth which work brings … Without money, there’s no leisure, without leisure no thought, without thought no progress.”

Douglass’s approach to changing the world required him to maintain faith in white people as good people who wanted to do the right thing and who would respond to reason. Unlike many self-proclaimed social justice campaigners today, Douglass kept his faith in humanity. He resisted the urge to dismiss the white man as an evil being who simply enjoyed causing suffering to black people. That would have been the easy conclusion, the most satisfying perhaps, but Douglass seemed to know that was the wrong path and a dead-end.

He understood that people who were resistant to the idea of abolishing slavery weren’t evil, but rather merely flawed human beings who were mistaken in their beliefs about the morality of chattel slavery. Douglass kept the faith that there could and would come a time when white people would consider blacks their equals and black and white people would be equal before the eyes of the law. If he hadn’t, he might have encouraged a violent uprising which would only have ended in bloodshed and a counterproductive reaffirmation of the white man’s belief that blacks were not fit for civilised society.

The most wonderful thing about bringing Douglass to the present day, if it were possible, would be showing him that his faith in humanity was well-founded and that the racial equality he experienced in his two years in the UK and Ireland eventually came to the United States as he believed it could. Not through violence, but as a result of himself and other black antislavery campaigners dedicating their lives to persuading people to change their convictions. It took a century or so, but great moral advancements usually do.

For a man who spent the first two decades of his life as a slave, as an object ‘owned’ by other human beings, maintaining his faith in humanity was a truly astonishing feat of moral and intellectual courage. Such faith in humanity from a man who had every reason to abandon it puts to shame today’s politicians and mainstream intellectuals, whose every idea involves expanding state power and shrinking liberty because they have little faith in human freedom and far too much in Authority.

One of my favourite Douglass quotes is on free speech. In a speech in Boston in 1880, he said, “To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.”

It’s true. It’s not just that people have the right to say what they want, but it’s also that we have the right to hear whatever arguments, opinions or jokes we want to hear. If the former freedom is removed, then the latter goes with it.

Douglass also reminded us that “human government is for the protection of rights, and not for the destruction of rights.”

We can be certain, then, that Douglass would have been appalled to learn of the conviction of Mark Meechan aka ‘Count Dankula’. This is the man who was convicted earlier this year by a Scottish court of being ‘grossly offensive’ and fined £800 for posting a YouTube video of his girlfriend’s dog performing a Nazi salute (i.e. raising its paw).

Douglass might have thought the young man a fool, but he certainly would have condemned his conviction as a flagrant violation of Mr Meechan’s right to express himself freely and of the right of anyone else to watch him doing so. He, like today’s libertarians and other civil liberty defenders, would surely have been horrified to hear that online speech was being policed and that every day people were being ‘warned’ by police about things they had said on social media.

Douglass became smitten with Edinburgh and so he probably would have been delighted to learn that Edinburgh University has a centre for African studies. However, he surely would have been dismayed to learn that the University’s governing body and its Students’ Association have been censoring speech and ideas on campus for at least the last four years. According to a nationwide study of the state of free speech on campus:

“The University of Edinburgh and the Edinburgh University Students’ Association collectively create a hostile environment for free speech. The university, which has moved to an Amber ranking [Amber = ‘has chilled free speech through intervention’], places restrictions on ‘inappropriate speech’, urges students to use transgender pronouns and has cancelled a speaking event. The students’ union, which has maintained its Red ranking [Red = ‘has banned and actively censored ideas on campus’], has banned the Sun and offensive fancy dress, among other restrictions. The institution’s overall ranking remains Red.”

Douglass once wrote: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favour freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without ploughing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning…” He was referring to human progress in general, but his point also applies to the pursuit of knowledge and truth – which is the essence of university education.

Edinburgh University and its Students’ Association are depreciating intellectual agitation by banning ‘right-wing’ speakers and newspapers and policing speech on campus. People in authority at Edinburgh University and almost every other university in the UK are all to some extent trying to deliver the crops of a university education by preventing anyone or anything from ploughing up the intellectual ground of their students’ minds. In doing so they can only fail their students and corrupt the idea of education. As in the United States, all this is a consequence of the near total dominance of academia by liberals and the ideology of modern liberalism.

In a speech in 1857, Douglass declared:

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

Overall, I suspect Douglass would be amazed and yet dismayed by 21st-century society. He would surely be astonished and delighted with the material and moral progress of free society. To know that racism has become shameful and uncommon and that white people treat blacks as their equals would warm his heart. But he would surely be dismayed by the free-speech-restrictions that the public and university students are quietly submitting to in 21st-century society and saddened by just how much government coercion people are willing to endure in their lives. But ultimately, I think Douglass would remain optimistic. Douglass was a great believer in the power of knowledge. He once famously said that “Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.”

For the first twenty years of his life, Douglass had nothing but scraps of knowledge to grow his mind, but against all odds, he managed to grow it enough to free himself from his intellectual cage. He lived in a society that tried to deny him access to knowledge and wanted to prevent him from educating himself. Our world is very different. Knowledge has been liberated and decentralised. The sum of all human knowledge is available to everyone and anyone can learn about virtually anything for free or at little cost. And people in power are power-less to stop them.

That’s why I suspect Douglass would have been optimistic about the future of humanity in the 21st-century, but at the same time, he would have recognised that knowledge is nothing without action. Once the young Douglass knew that was being done to him was a grave evil, he acted upon that knowledge by escaping.

“Man’s own greatness consists in his ability to do and the proper application of his powers to things needed to be done.” ~ Frederick Douglass

On a final note, there are a couple of other things about UK society and UK politics today that we can be confident of Douglass’s position on. Firstly, as a Republican and a believer in democracy, we can be quite sure he would have been in favour of the UK leaving the EU. He once astutely observed, “The thing worse than rebellion is the thing that causes rebellion.”

Secondly, Douglass would have been strongly opposed to the UK’s gun control laws and he would have considered it a profound injustice that the law was preventing people from defending themselves, their families and their property. (When he visited the UK in the mid 19th century, there were no gun laws). As Douglass once famously said, “A man’s rights rest in three boxes. The ballot box, the jury box, and the cartridge box.”

They’re right to do so, of course, but there’s a certain irony to today’s liberals celebrating Douglass as one of history’s greatest campaigners for social equality. If Douglass were alive today, his patriotism and his strong positions on issues like gun ownership would make him the kind of person that today’s typical liberal would brand as ‘right-wing’ and would run screaming from.

Douglass’s conception of social justice was the equality of all human beings before the eyes of the law; equality of opportunity. The modern liberal notion of social justice is equality of outcomes, which in practice must render people unequal in the eyes of the law because it requires the government to coercively redistribute money from one group of people to another. Douglass certainly didn’t want black people (or any group of people) to have the right to indirectly steal from white people via government coercion. He would not have considered willing dependence on white people as a progression from unwilling dependence on them.

Some ideas like liberalism may have been corrupted so badly that they now represent virtually the opposite things, but the political wisdom in Douglass’s writings and speeches is immutable and timeless.

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