Frederick Douglass (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

1. Slavery

In his three narratives, and his numerous articles, speeches, and
letters, Douglass vigorously argued against slavery. He sought to
demonstrate that it was cruel, unnatural, ungodly, immoral, and
unjust. He laid out his arguments first in his speeches while he was
with Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society, and then in his
first autobiography, the Narrative. As the U.S. Civil War
drew closer, he expanded his arguments in many speeches, editorials,
and in his second autobiography, My Bondage and My

In his own words he worked to pour out a “scorching irony”
to expose the evil of slavery (1852b, FDLW v.2: 192). His rebellion
against slavery began, as he recounted, while he was a slave. In his
narratives, this depiction of early recognition, and general
recognition among blacks and some whites, of the injustice,
unnaturalness, and cruelty of slavery is a major element of his

It marks his first argument against slavery. Some of the apologists
for slavery claimed that blacks were beasts, subhuman, or at least a
degenerated form of the human species. These arguments go back to at
least Sepulveda’s arguments in the fifteenth century, which
Bartolomé de las Casas famously countered (1552; see also,
Frederickson’s review of the early history of racism [2002]),
and were common in the American British Colonies and then the United
States; for example, Thomas Jefferson famously intimates this point in
his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785: Query 14). Douglass
argued that blacks were fully rational humans, and mocked
slavery’s apologists for its hypocrisies and contradictions when
it claimed otherwise. In his Fourth of July Address, he derides the
very idea that he would even need to argue this point (1852b).

Against the claim that blacks were beasts, he argued that rather
slavery had brutalized them. He pointed to the obviousness of the
humanity of blacks, and to the hypocrisy of the apologists for slavery
in America on this question: why should there be special laws
prohibiting the free actions of blacks, such as rebelling against the
master or any other white person, if slaves were bestial and incapable
of independent, responsible behavior? Why, indeed, had slave masters
encouraged their slaves’ Christianization, and then forbade their religious
gatherings? Along with this hypocrisy, American slaveholders feared
and banned the education of blacks, while demanding and profiting from
their learning and development in the skilled trades. Thus, Douglass
argued the accusation that blacks were beasts was predicated on the
guilty knowledge that they were humans. Additionally, it subverted not
only the natural goodness of blacks by brutalizing them, but it also
did so to white slaveholders and those otherwise innocent whites
affected by this wicked institution. Slavery, Douglass pointed out,
making reference to Jefferson’s anxieties in Query 18 of
the Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), that slavery was a
poison in the body of the republic.

Second, since blacks were humans, Douglass argued they were entitled
to the natural rights that natural law mandated and that the United
States recognized in its Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
Slavery subverted the natural rights of blacks by subjugating and
brutalizing them: taking men and turning them, against God’s
will and nature, into beasts. Third, as an affront to natural law,
slavery contradicted God’s law. Douglass cited biblical passages
and interpretations popular with abolitionists. As a witness and
participant of the second Great Awakening, he took seriously the
politicized rhetoric of Christian liberation from sin, and, as with
other abolitionists, saw it intrinsically wrapped up with liberation
from slavery, and indeed national liberation. Fourth, he argued that
slavery was inconsistent with the idea of America, with its national
narrative and highest ideals, and not just with its founding
documents. Fifth, drawing on the ideas of manifest destiny, as well as
the idea of natural law realized in historical progress, he argued
that slavery was inconsistent with development: moral, political,
economic, social, and ultimately historical. America was on the wrong
side of history on the question of slavery.

To defend slavery, some of its apologists drew on the idea of
historical progress to offer the defense that slavery was a benevolent
and paternal system for the mutual benefit of whites and blacks.
Douglass countered by drawing on his experiences, and the experiences of
other slaves, that American slavery was in no way benevolent. It
brutalized blacks, subjecting them to debilitating, murderous
violence; to rape; to the splitting up of families (another crime
against nature); to denying them education and self-improvement; and
to the exploitation of their labor and denying them access to their
natural right to property. Black slaves were not happy Sambos
benefiting from the largesse of kind, gentile white masters—they
were brutalized against all justice and reason. Neither were they
lacking in agency or self-respect, nor were they, for all intents and
purposes socially and morally dead, subjected to natal
They were moral beings, fully aware of the rights and capabilities
they were unjustly deprived of, and most of all they wanted freedom,
independence, the recognition of their full personhood, and their
rights as U.S. citizens (McGary and Lawson 1992).

Howard McGary and Bill E. Lawson’s Between Slavery and
Freedom: Philosophy and American Slavery
(1992), is an
indispensable source for philosophical analyses of these arguments,
and the engagement of normative philosophy with historical and
sociological theories of U.S. slavery, and Nicholas Buccola’s
The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass: In Pursuit of
American Liberty
(2012), provides an excellent analysis of how
Douglass’s critical examination of slavery fits into his
liberalism and dominant conceptions of liberty of his time. An early,
key contributor to the philosophical literature on Douglass, and to
American philosophical literature on Douglass was Angela Davis, who of
course is a key figure in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and the
emergence of both the black power movement and black feminism since
the 1960s. Her groundbreaking essay on Douglass, “Unfinished
Lecture on Liberation-II”, argued for an active rather than
static conception of liberty, drew on and criticized Rousseau’s
conception of slavery, and applied her analysis to the Civil Rights
struggles she was involved in during the late 1960s and early 1970s
([1971] 1983).[7]

2. Natural Law

As was mentioned in the above section, Douglass drew on the idea of
natural rights and the natural law tradition in his argument against
slavery. Douglass was an Enlightenment thinker and a nineteenth
century modernist (Moses 1978; Martin 1984; Myers 2008). As such, he
had a firm faith in the progress of man, civilization, and Western
Christendom; hence, he saw American slavery as a brutal backwardness
that ran counter to the progress of history. God and the forward march
of history, Douglass believed, would bring the realization of truth,
justice, and the brotherhood of man.

His sources for his belief were many. The obvious sources include
sources such as the American founding documents, popular
intellectuals, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his colleagues and
acquaintances in the American Abolition movement, and the allies he
encountered abroad; a particular source of his conception of natural
law theory was George Combe’s The Constitution of Man,
from 1834 (in Van Wyhe 2004). However, given the numerous religious
references in his speeches and writings, and his drawing on the
language of the King James Bible, and the rhetoric of manifest
destiny, a primary source for his employment of the idea of natural
law seems to be his adoption of the American Protestantism of the
Second Great Awakening, with its democratic, republican, and generally
independent spirit.

He believed that there were forces in operation, which must inevitably
work the downfall of slavery:

“The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of
slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope.
While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the
great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions,
my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.
(1852b, FDLW v.2: 203)

Relying on the deus ex machina, however, was not enough for
Douglass. His vision of human rights involved action (Myers 2008).
Here he echoes the civic republican tradition by stressing the need
for active participation to claim, or earn one’s rights and
status as a citoyen (Pettit 1997; Gooding-Williams 2009;
Rousseau [SC]). Humans resist providential justice; this could be
seen in the resistance of the slave-holding states of America to the
abolition of slavery and the apathy of many other Americans about
slavery; thus, the end of slavery requires action: agitation, protest,
and if needed military intervention. Douglass longed for God to cast
his thunderbolts at the United States, but he knew that to achieve the
abolition of slavery in America, action was needed. His view of
providence is on full display at the end of his famous Fourth of July
oration of 1852. Douglass uses Psalm 68:31 and pairs the idea of
God’s fiat with the image of Africa and Asia rising:

The far off and almost fabulous Pacific rolls in grandeur at our feet.
The Celestial Empire, the mystery of ages, is being solved. The fiat
of the Almighty, “Let there be Light,” has not yet spent
its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice,
can now hide itself from the all-pervading light. The iron shoe, and
crippled foot of China must be seen, in contrast with nature. Africa
must rise and put on her yet unwoven garment. “Ethiopia shall
stretch out her hand unto God”. (1852b,
FDLW v.2: 203)[8]

There are many concerns about Douglass’s view of natural law,
manifest destiny and providence—these concerns are on display in
the last quotation, and it is not merely the supernaturalism, the
belief in a historical teleology, driven by cosmological
ontological-theological determination; it is also the costs of the
assumptions of such a conception of historical development (McCarthy
2009); namely, his adoption of nineteenth century conceptions of the
backwardness (or in kinder terms, underdevelopment) of non-Western
European groups; thus his relative silence about the United
States’s destructive actions against and policies toward Native
American groups. Douglass’s views have lead Wilson Jeremiah
Moses to characterize him, along with other early black political
figures, as a Moses figure: he is an exodus leader, recipient of the
natural law for chosen peoples—African Americans in their
travail for freedom as well as the American Republic as a
whole—and he (paired eternally with Abraham Lincoln) is a law
giver (Moses 1978).

His monumental, world-historical vita aside, Douglass’s
faith, much abused as it was, resulted in his inability to understand
the extent to which the United States was a racial republic
(Frederickson 2002). He did not prognosticate, before or after the
U.S. Civil War, that the progress he believed in would move at a
glacial pace, and that for many of his black country men there would
be no justice all. Nevertheless, Douglass had no time for this
shortsightedness; which comes only with the luxury of the liberty he
fought for, and, of course, time. Douglass was not looking behind him;
he was fully engaged at every moment since his emancipation working to
bring and end to slavery. Moreover, his view of natural law led to his
critique of American slavery, and undergirded his arguments for active
resistance to slavery and his interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.
It is also worth noting, that natural law theorists have not ceded the
field; thus Douglass is an important American historical figure in the
intellectual history of natural law.

3. The U.S. Constitution

In 1851 Douglass broke from Garrison’s position that the U.S.
Constitution was a pro-slavery document, and that the free states
should peacefully secede from the union. In a letter to Smith he
reported that he was “sick and tired of arguing on the
slaveholder’s side…” (Douglass 1851). Douglass
sided with Gerrit Smith and the Liberty party’s position that
the United States’ founding documents were anti-slavery.

In his most famous speech, “What To the Slave Is The Fourth of
July?”, he detailed what would come to be regarded as his
signature positions, such as the view that slavery was
unconstitutional and contrary to natural law, that blacks were
self-evidently human and entitled to natural rights, and that slavery
was contrary to the U.S. Constitution, American Republicanism, and
Christian doctrine. He also began to defend violent resistance to
slavery. Douglass’s second autobiography, My Bondage and My
reflected these changes, and his expanding intellectual
independence (FDAB; for a stand-alone edition, see the 1987 version
edited by Andrews).

Although he initially acknowledges that the intentions of the framers
was to allow slavery to continue in the states where it was
established, he reported that he was convinced by Smith’s
argument that the meaning of the document was not set by the intention
of the framers but by rules of legal interpretation that focused on
natural law. By the following year he even altered his position on the
framers’s intentions: they meant the U.S. Constitution to be an
anti-slavery document.

Douglass depended heavily on the U.S. Declaration of Independence, as
well as the documented disagreements and cross-purposes, of the
founders. He was guided by his view of natural law, and argued that
the general ideas of America’s founding documents, as part of
the history of Western democracy and republicanism, pointed toward an
interpretation of the U.S. Constitution as an evolving document that
could potentially be in tune with civilizational development.

Douglass’s position on original intent, as it evolved through
his life, is part of the critical discussion about the assimilationist
tradition, and whether that tradition, and Douglass, squarely
recognized the racialized character of the nation, how deeply embedded
race and racism were in its institutions, and that it was in many
respects a racial
This key critique of Douglass was given by Charles W. Mills, in his
“Whose Fourth of July? Frederick Douglass and ‘Original
Intent’” (Mills 1999). In short, Mills argues that
Douglass fails to apprehend America’s racial contract. The
practical problems of Douglass’s view aside, which U.S. history
revealed in the Great Compromise and the end of Reconstruction after
the Civil War, Douglass’s interpretation of the U.S.
Constitution is reasonable and not blind to the facts; that Americans
did not live up to the ideals of their founding documents is another

4. Violence and Self-Respect

As already noted above, Douglass was active in the years leading up to
the U.S. Civil War, vigorously protesting the Dred Scott decision,
agitating against laws that protected the property rights of
slaveholders over their slaves in the Free States and the spread of
slavery into new U.S. territory. He lobbied the newly formed
Republican Party (the party of Abraham Lincoln) to support
abolitionism, and met the militant abolitionist, John Brown. Although
Douglass declined to join Brown’s militia—he sensed the
deadly potential of Brown’s zealotry and the likelihood of its
failure—he defended Brown’s ideals and denounced claims
that Brown was merely mad. Douglass quickly appropriated Brown’s
ideals, while distancing himself from the particular of Brown’s
fatal actions, and used the raid at Harper’s Ferry to launch
further criticisms against President Lincoln for his reluctance to
support abolitionism.

Douglass’s rejection of pacifism and his support for Federal
military intervention—Civil War—to end slavery was a major
turning point in his thought, and part of his developing ideas about
natural law, divine providence and manifest destiny, and
constitutional interpretation. Douglass’s defense of jus ad
had a tremendous effect, not just on his contemporaries,
but also on the resulting debate on slavery, struggle, and
self-respect. The modern debate in African American philosophy,
critical race theory, and black political theory begins with
Douglass’s narratives, and in particular his famous fight with
the “Negro breaker”, Edward Covey. This incident plays a
major role in all of Douglass’s narratives: Covey represents the
brutalizing institution of American slavery and Douglass’s fight
and victory represents the assertion of
self-respect, dignity and freedom. Douglass’s time with Covey
and the suffering he endured by Covey’s hand is given a
lengthier description in My Bondage and My Freedom than in
the Narrative; moreover, Douglass adds his own political and
theological interpretation to the later account. In My Bondage and
My Freedom
the fight stresses how Douglass’s struggles
reflect the struggles of the slaves around him, and that it is an
instance of a general phenomenon; lest someone think that Douglass
narrative is too particular and peculiar to represent the attitudes of
other black Americans. Additionally, his fight is given explicit
national political connotations (Gooding-Williams 2009; Myers 2008).
The scene as Douglass writes it in each version is powerful, and is
indicative of the narrative (literary, rhetorical, and philosophical)
brilliance of Douglass’s narratives, and so deserves to be
quoted at length.

In the Narrative (1845), Douglass wrote:

The battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a
slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived
within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed
self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be
free. The gratification afforded by the triumph was a full
compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He
only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has
himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I never
felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery,
to the heaven of freedom. My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice
departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that,
however long I might remain as slave in form, the day had passed
forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it
be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in
whipping, must also succeed in killing me. (FDAB: 65)

In My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), he gives the following
expanded interpretation:

Well, my dear reader, this battle with Mr. Covey,—undignified as
it was, and as I fear my narration of it is—was the turning
point in my “life as a slave.” It rekindled in my
breast the smouldering embers of liberty; it brought up my Baltimore
dreams, and revived a sense of my own manhood. I was a changed being
after that fight. I was nothing before; I WAS A MAN NOW. It
recalled to life my crushed self-respect and my self-confidence, and
inspired me with a renewed determination to be a FREEMAN. A man,
without force, is without the essential dignity of humanity. Human
nature is so constituted, that it cannot honor a helpless
man, although it can pity him; and even this it cannot do
long, if the signs of power do not arise. (FDAB: 286, original

The first passage displays Douglass’s romantic and religious
influences; it swells with the longing for the freedom of the soul.
The second passage, written without demands of Garrison’s
pacifist politics directing his pen, screams independence and force,
it recommends violence—it advocates for the coming U.S. Civil
War—to throw off tyranny and to claim, to defend, even fulfill,
one’s honor and humanity. The fight with Covey has inspired a
number of philosophical interpretations about Douglass’s
intentions and the meaning of his struggle; some have seen it an
exemplar of conceptions of the state of war within liberal political
theory (Davis [1971] 1983; FDN-Davis 2010), as deontological (Boxill 1997,
1998; see also Boxill 1984 [1992]), as existentialist (Gordon 1999), or as
fruitfully understand using a number of political and social
theoretical positions (Buccola 2012: 14–40; McGary and Lawson
1992: 163–209; Willett 1998, 2001: 188–202). Across these
approaches, Douglass’s narrative of his fight with Covey stands
as a vibrant reference point in debates regarding violence,
self-respect, and dignity.

5. Assimilation and Amalgamation

Douglass’s conception of providence, with its American themes of
individualism, anti-supernaturalism, and activism, and his view of
natural law influenced his view of universal human
This doctrine, with its religious and philosophical roots, was dearly
held by Douglass. He argued that the idea of universal human
brotherhood was consistent with the high ideals of American
Republicanism and Christianity, and it was offered as a response to
the rise in the United States of the racial theory of
polygenesis, supported by the American School of ethnology,
and argued for originally by Samuel Morton (1799–1851) and
popularized by Josiah Nott and George Glidden’s Types of
(1854; Martin 1984; Myers 2008).

Douglass put considerable effort into countering arguments that blacks
were subhuman, intellectually and morally inferior, and fit to be
dominated as children, forever to be a race in nonage. Although he
flirted with historical developmental arguments that black
civilizations had developed, he saw such arguments as too loosely
related to the conditions of black Americans in his time, so he
increasingly turned to his natural law arguments. He argued that by
the high standard of Christian theology, blacks, as humans and
creation of the divine, were all equally the children of God, no
matter their present condition. One of his slogans got to the point:
“A man’s a man for a’ that”. He used rhetoric
that appealed to the piety of the nation that the Christian Bible had
to be correct on this score, and that—just as the soul of the
nation depended on emancipation—the authority of the biblical
text depended on the affirmation of the unity of the human family:

What, after all, if they are able to show very good reasons for
believing the Negro to have been created precisely as we find him on
the Gold Coast—along the Senegal and the Niger—I say, what
of all this?—“A man’s a man for a’
”. I sincerely believe, that the weight of the argument
is in favor of the unity of origin of the human race, or
species—that the arguments on the other side are partial,
superficial, utterly subversive of the happiness of man, and insulting
to the wisdom of God. Yet, what if we grant they are not so? What, if
we grant that the case, on our part, is not made out? Does it follow,
that the Negro should be held in contempt? Does it follow, that to
enslave and imbrue him is either just or wise? I
think not. Human rights stand upon a common basis; and by all the
reason that they are supported, maintained and defended, for one
variety of the human family, they are supported, maintained and
defended for all the human family; because all mankind have
the same wants, arising out of a common nature. A diverse origin does
not disprove a common nature, nor does it disprove a united destiny.
(1854; FDP1 v.2: 523)

Douglass emphasized that not only was slavery against natural law and
Christian morality, but that the very arguments concerning the
subhuman status of blacks that slavery’s apologists used to
justify attempted slavery, contradicted the Bible and was heretical.
Douglass, in short, leveraged the Bible, and obviously America’s
reverence for it, against the rising tide of polygenesis race theory.
He stated:

The unity of the human race—the brotherhood of man—the
reciprocal duties of all to each, and of each to all, are too plainly
taught in the Bible to admit of cavil.—The credit of the Bible
is at stake—and if it be too much to say, that it must stand or
fall, by the decision of this question, it is proper to say,
that the value of that sacred Book—as a record of the early
history of mankind—must be materially affected, by the decision
of the question. (1854, FDP1 v.2: 505)

The doctrine of universal human brotherhood for Douglass, and the
abolitionists, was based on the Bible’s creation story and Acts
17:26: “And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to
dwell on all the face of the earth” (King James Version).

These words were not mere words for Douglass and the abolitionists;
they were not just-so stories. The Christian doctrine of the unity of
the human family or human brotherhood (as the sexist language that
marked the idea at least since the Enlightenment), contained the world
historical insight of equal human dignity, which
implied—unleashed, as was seen in several revolutions in the
18th and 19th-century—the uncompromising
demand for equal rights.

Douglass’s belief in the evil of slavery, universal human
brotherhood, and the inevitability of human development, as well as
his observation of the mixing of the so-called races in the United
States, led his to support racial amalgamation. It is important to
note here that he thought that there were races to amalgamate, and he
affirmed the basic idea that there were biologically distinct races
(1854, FDP1 v.2: 497-525). As should be clear from his view of universal human
brotherhood, he did not however think that much followed from that
admission. The existence of biological race did not in his view negate
the theological-philosophical insight of universal human

Douglass understood that the sexual boundaries between the races were
thin, and that indeed, the conditions of slavery led to a great deal
of mixing. Recall that he held that his unacknowledged father was his
white master. Beyond recognizing this condition, he began to promote
amalgamation, although, obviously, between free peoples. He believed
that blacks and white ought to be free to intermarry and indeed they
should intermarry. Why should they marry? Douglass, sensing the
transformation of the black and Native American population in the
United States, believed this process was natural, that it would
continue, and that a new third race, an American race, would emerge in
this land. During his time such views were highly inflammatory and
served, and continued to serve, as one reason offered against the
emancipation of black slaves, and later as a justification for
segregation (Sundstrom 2008: 11–35 and 93–107).
Nonetheless, in the 1860s he boldly advocated for amalgamation between
the races. He remarked to a journalist, the day after his second
marriage to Helen Pitts, who was white,

…there is no division of races. God Almighty made but one race.
I adopt the theory that in time the varieties of races will be blended
into one. Let us look back when the black and the white people were
distinct in this country. In two hundred and fifty years there has
grown up a million of intermediate. And this will continue. You may
say that Frederick Douglass considers himself a member of the one race
which exists. (1884, FDP1 v.5: 147)

Douglass’s amalgamation is sometimes conflated with his support
for assimilation. Amalgamation is conceptually distinct from
assimilation; one does not have to accept amalgamation to support
assimilation. Assimilation concerns various degrees of social and
cultural adoption, adaptation, and absorption. It can theoretically go
in either direction, say from black to white or white to black, or it
can involve a subtle blending. In the United States, the assumption
has been that non-whites or white Ethnics would and should enter the
“melting pot”, and assimilate to dominant white Protestant
mores (Sundstrom

Douglass was not exceptional in his support of assimilation. A number
of Douglass’s contemporaries, and several black leaders that
followed him all supported some degree of assimilation. Some of
Douglass’s early critics, such as Edward Blyden
(1832–1912), Martin Delany (1812–1885), and Alexander
Crummell (1819–1898), who did not support amalgamation, and in
fact were separatists and racial nationalists, supported the
assimilation by black Americans of Christianity and many of the
standards and values Western civilization (Moses 1978).

6. Integration versus Emigration

Douglas, as an advocate of assimilation and amalgamation, was by
extension a supporter of what would be come known as integration. He
is considered by some political theorists to be a primary example of
the political ideal of integration as distinct from separatism.
Douglass’s amalgamationist-assimilationist views of the 1860s
and on are not the integrationist ideas adopted in America of 1950s
and 1960s; those views were influenced by cultural nationalists, like
Du Bois, who advocated for social and political integration while the
group maintained its own ethnic-racial ideals and identity. Yet,
Douglass is a fitting hero for the integrationist impulse in

Douglass criticized the creation of separate societies, with distinct
“negro pews, negro berths in steamboats, negro cars, Sabbath or
week-day schools,…churches”, and so on (Douglass
1848a,b). Separatism, for Douglass, was in the interest of the
defenders of slavery, and after the U.S. Civil War, he regarded
separatism as a counter-ideal of the abolition movement.
Self-separation, according to Douglass, served the interests of whites
who wanted to deny blacks their right to integrate into society, to
improve and develop, and to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

For similar reasons he opposed plans for black American emigration to
Africa, the Caribbean, Mexico, or Latin America. He criticized the
emigrationist visions of the American Colonization Society, founded by
whites, and the African Civilization Society, founded by blacks. He
had four reasons to oppose emigration schemes: First, for slavery to
end, Douglass argued that black Americans needed to struggle against
it in America. Second, Americans had no other home but the United
States; they were uniquely American, and products of American history.
Third, black Americans had a right to the property their labor had
produced. By abandoning the United States, they were abandoning the
land they built. He wrote,

The native land of the American Negro is America. His bones, his
muscles, his sinews, are all American. His ancestors for two hundred
and seventy years have lived and laboured and died, on American soil,
and millions of his posterity have inherited Caucasian blood. It is
pertinent, therefore, to ask, in view of this admixture, as well as in
view of other facts, where the people of this mixed race are to go,
for their ancestors are white and black, and it will be difficult to
find their native land anywhere outside of the United States.
(Douglass 1894b, in Brotz 1992: 329–30)

Fourth and finally, the real solution, according to Douglass, was not
emigration, and separation, for that was contrary to historical
progress, providence, and the emergence of the new American race. All
the same, Douglass was not opposed to efforts of blacks in collective
self-help and self-defense. Nonetheless, his opposition to emigration
displayed the downside of his commitment to his natural law and
manifest destiny-inspired principles. He did not understand how
immigration might be, in the eyes of the black Americans that wanted
to flee anti-black oppression and especially life-crushing oppression
and murderous anti-black violence, a more than reasonable act of
self-preservation and self-determination (much like his escape from
His opposition to emigration was such that it extended to the
internal migration of black Americans from the south to the
north—the Great Migration or Black Exodus; he initially opposed
the individual choice of black Americans to flee the American South
after the rise of Black Codes, Jim Crow laws, and the development of
agricultural peonage, which for all practical purposes reduced the
lives of black Americans to slavery and certainly devastated their
life chances (Wilkerson 2010; Myers 2008). Douglass moderated his
position on migration only at the end of his life when his
disillusionment with the United States grew (Douglass 1879, 1888,

7. Leadership

The relation between Douglass and the topic of black political
leadership is wrapped up with his life, activities, and writing. He
was a leader among black Americans, and served as an unelected
spokesperson for free and enslaved blacks during a monumental time for
He was presented as a victim of and witness to slavery by the
Garrisonian abolitionists, but he freed himself from their restraints,
just as he freed himself from slavery. He wanted to speak for himself,
to be his own man and to be a leader among men. In his
self-emancipation from slavery, his efforts to shape his own story,
and to speak his mind, he stands as an exemplar of leadership and its

His example was quick to be seized and claimed by other prospective
black leaders and spokespersons. The most significant example of this
was the conflicting claim between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T.
Washington (1856–1915) over the meaning of Douglass’s
legacy. Indeed both men competed for the opportunity to publish a
biography of Douglass with the publishers George W. Jacobs &
Company in their series The American Crisis Biographies
(Sundstrom 2008: 11–35). Du Bois’s bid for this task was
rejected in favor of Washington’s (Washington 1907). Du Bois
was, instead, given the project of writing a biography of John Brown,
which includes large sections on Douglass (Du Bois 1909).

After the death of Douglass, Du Bois published an elegiac poem,
“The Passing of Douglass” (c. 1895), and incorporated his
narrative in The Souls of Black Folk (1903, [1999: xxii),
John Brown (1909), and
Black Reconstruction in America (1935). Du Bois presented
Douglass as a freedom fighter and a leader of an activist community
that demanded full social and political liberty, equality, and
inclusion. Du Bois’s Douglass was vigorous and fought for
freedom through self-assertion. Douglass, according to Du Bois, was no
accommodationist: he was not given to offering obeisance to white
demands to maintain white political, social, and economic superiority
over blacks. Du Bois made this pointed interpretation very clear in
his The Souls of Black Folks. In the second chapter of that
book Du Bois argues against Booker T. Washington’s
accomodationism in favor of his and Douglass’s demand for, and
assertion of, black political and social equality and rights. Economic
liberty is not enough, and any gains in the economic sphere would be
hampered and vulnerable without the protections and opportunities
provided by social and political liberty and rights. And, of course,
economic considerations aside, the fight for equal rights and liberty
is not solely about economic opportunity—it is about equal
dignity and one’s full humanity.

It is important to note, however, that Du Bois takes on
Douglass’s mantle of leadership after he argued against
Douglass’s view of assimilation and amalgamation. Du Bois, in
the “The Conservation of Races”, rejects amalgamation,
which Douglass supported, and argues for the conservation of a
distinct black identity and community (Du Bois 1897). Here is his
reduction of the amalgamationist position:

It may, however, be objected here that the situation of the our race
in America renders this attitude impossible; that our sole hope of
salvation lies in our being able to lose our race identity in the
commingled blood of the nation; and that nay other course would merely
increase the friction of races which we call race prejudice, and
against which we have so long and so earnestly fought. (Du Bois 1897,
in Brotz 1992: 488)

Du Bois argues that black Americans ought to embrace a “stalwart
originality” that follows “Negro Ideals” and not
dissolve into a general American identity (Du Bois 1897, in Brotz
1992: 488). His view is sometimes referred to as cultural pluralism,
and his arguments in that early essay, are important landmarks in
debates in African social and political thought over separation versus
assimilation (Boxill 1992 [1997];
1984 [1992]: 173–85; 1999; McGary 1999a; Pittman 1999; McGary 1999b:
43–61), and the conservation of
Because of his cultural pluralism, it is tempting to think that Du
Bois rejects Douglass’s view of assimilation and integration;
that would be a serious mistake. He rejects Douglass’s vision of
total assimilation in favor of the retention of some black ideals,
which he too easily assumes that all blacks qua blacks share, but his
cultural pluralism has at its end the creation of a community that are
“co-workers” in the “kingdom of culture” (Du
Bois 1903 [1997: 39]).

In response to the amalgamationist objection quoted at length above,
Du Bois offers an early version of his brilliant conception of black
American double consciousness, and through his rhetorical questions at
the end of the passage presages his arguments against Douglass’s
hopes of amalgamation and for his view of black political, social, and
cultural solidarity:

No Negro who has given earnest thought to the situation of his people
in America has failed, at some time in life, to find himself at these
cross-roads; has failed to ask himself at some time: What, after all,
am I? Am I an American or am I a Negro? Can I be both? Or is it my
duty to cease to be a Negro as soon as possible and be an American? If
I strive as a Negro, am I not perpetuating the very cleft that
threatens and separates Black and White America? Is not my only
possible aim the subduction of all that is Negro in me to the
American? Does my black blood place upon me any more obligation to
assert my nationality than German, or Irish or Italian blood would?
(Du Bois 1897, in Brotz 1992: 488)

Du Bois’s answers to these questions directly contradict
Douglass’s view about amalgamation, though their views about
assimilation share some similarities, such as the co-production and
enjoyment of a common American higher culture. In the end, however, Du
Bois’s image of Douglass is skewed toward his own political
projects of elite leadership, racial solidarity, and uplift.

Booker T. Washington’s Douglass is equally a work of art that
reflects the image of the artist. Washington’s The Life of
Frederick Douglass
presents an image of Douglass that is contrary
to Du Bois’s, and, unfortunately, clearly contrary to many of
Douglass’s views (Washington 1907). It is a work of
self-promotion; although he does accurately and fruitfully point out
the similarities between Douglass and himself (they both were born
slaves, criticized the North’s complicity in slavery, and valued
industrial education—however, Douglass did not denigrate higher
education for black Americans, as Washington did), he fails to mention
Douglass’s frequent and scorching demands for equal social and
political rights, skews his relationship to John Brown and the
Harper’s Ferry raid, and most of all he fails to mention
Douglass’s view of amalgamation. Washington’s claim over
Douglass’s legacy of leadership falls short of the facts.
Douglass was a radical Republican, and demanded full inclusion of
black Americans in the life of the nation, and the opening up of all
opportunities for education and advancement for blacks, and Washington
did not.

Du Bois’s claims over Douglass, however, also fall short.
Despite Du Bois’s assumption that he has inherited the mantle of
black political, social, and (he would add) cultural leadership from
Douglass, Douglass’s leadership style and politics is markedly
more democratic than Du Bois’s. Douglass did not envision
himself as the embodiment of the spirit or culture of his people
(Gooding-Williams 2009: 19–65). Although he probably saw himself
as an instance of what Emerson called a “representative
man”, (Emerson 1850: title) and certainly as a self-made man
(Douglass 1860, 1893; Howe 1997: 137–56)—understood as
moral rather than a commercial ideal—he did not envision himself
as the embodiment of the spirit or culture of his people. He was a
democratic thinker, and understood that particular individuals and
especially leaders could fail to follow the guidance of the ideals
natural law and civic republicanism.

Douglass’s political activities, however, do provide a model
of sorts of democratic politics in action. He worked with a variety of
groups, some underground while he was a slave, for example, eventually
after becoming literate he, unbeknownst to his master, participated in
at least one Sabbath School, and several other groups after his escape
and emancipation (Douglass, 1852a, FDAB: 298). Some of these groups
were all black, due to the condition of slavery, but as a free man he
worked with integrated groups as well. These groups would have
cross-cutting interests, such as in his work with the American Equal
Rights Association, an organization devoted to universal suffrage. At
no point did he think of himself as the singular spokesman for the
movement or a group or his race. His politics were principled, in that
his views were strongly directed by his acceptance of a liberal
conception of natural law, and the related ideas of natural law, human
liberty and equality, and the wrongness of slavery. He never shied
away from pushing or arguing his views, but in terms of his practical
politics, he supported active, participatory, and democratic action
(Douglass 1848a).

His ideal of leadership was heavily influenced by his view of natural
law, and his assumption that the role of heroes should be to stand up
for what was mandated by that law. This did not lead him to a view of
authoritarian, paternalistic liberalism. The principles of natural law
and rights must be processed through a participatory democratic
system. However, the role of the hero leadership, the political or
social outsider, the heretic or eccentric, who stands against the
tyranny of the majority or minority to defend human rights was
absolutely valuable. In defense of the actions of John Brown, for
example, Douglass wrote, putting him into heroic terms (with overtones
of Carlyle and Emerson):

He believes the Declaration of Independence to be true, and the Bible
to be a guide to human conduct, and acting upon the doctrines of both,
he threw himself against the serried ranks of American oppression, and
translated into heroic deeds the love of liberty and hatred of
tyrants, with which he was inspired from both these forces acting upon
his philanthropic and heroic soul. (Douglass 1859, FDLW v.2:

Thus, we see in his elegies to John Brown and Abraham Lincoln
(Douglass 1876), in particular, the value he places on Emersonian
representative men and the ideal of the statesman guided by the
principles of American Civic Republicanism, and his belief in natural
law, and the moral progress of the universe.

8. Women’s Suffrage

Throughout the duration of the Civil War, and in the years that
followed, Douglass remained active in Republican Party politics. He
was a staunch supporter of the full, uncompromising Reconstruction of
the Union, and advocated for economic and education investment in free
and newly-freed black Americans. He pressed for the expansion of and
guarantee of civil rights for blacks, and in particular for the
defense of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which the Supreme Court
declared unconstitutional in 1883 (Douglass 1883a).

In keeping with his civil rights efforts, and his view of natural
rights and the development of the United States into a just Republic,
he was was an early advocate of women’s suffrage (FDWR). The
abolition and women’s suffrage movement, along with the
temperance movement, were deeply intertwined. Douglass became involved
with the American Equal Rights Association (E. DuBois 1978), and
supported its dual platform of racial and sexual equality. He joined
other prominent leaders in the abolition movement, such as Sojourner
Truth, and emerging leaders in the suffrage movement, such as Susan B.
Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in these efforts.

There were simmering divisions in the American Equal Rights
Association, due to cross-cutting and conflicting interests, and the
latent racism within the organization, which was largely lead by
middle-class and wealthy white women. The tensions with the American
Equal Rights Association, and the suffrage movement generally, erupted
over the passing of the fifteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The 15th amendment franchised all male citizens, although,
as U.S. history so brutally revealed, it did so in word but not in
deed. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony demanded that black
men and all women be enfranchised simultaneously, and opposed the
fifteenth amendment on that principle. Some among the suffrage
movement based their arguments for women suffrage, and against the
enfranchisement of blacks, on racist grounds. Although the white women
who lead the association were abolitionists, they also, and not
inconsequentially, held that blacks, and in particular, black men,
were inferior to white women and neither as ready for nor deserving of
the vote as themselves. Occasionally even Stanton lowered herself to
draw on these claims (Stanton 1997a: 194-99; 1997b: 236-38).

Douglass communicated his sympathy with the cause for the universal
franchise; however, he condemned the arguments for women’s
suffrage, such as those offered by the likes of Stanton, that were
predicated on assumptions of black inferiority and degrading claims
that black or “Oriental” men, and by extension black and
Asian women—i.e., Stanton’s nasty references to
“Sambo” and “Yung Tung”—were not as
deserving as white women (Douglass 1869; Stanton 1997a: 194-99).
Douglass did not want to delay black male suffrage to resolve this
question over suffrage for all women. He believed it a practical
matter to quickly get some protections for black Americans while the
fight for suffrage for black and white women continued. Moreover, he
argued it was imperative to obtain some measure of political, legal,
and social rights for blacks to confront the rising level of horrific
anti-black violence that was sweeping the United States. Douglass
firmly made this claim in his speech at the American Equal Rights
Association in 1869:

I must say that I do not see how any one can pretend that there is the
same urgency in giving the ballot to women as to the negro. With us,
the matter is a question of life and death. It is a matter of
existence, at least in fifteen states of the Union. When women,
because they are women, are hunted down through the cities of New York
and New Orleans; when they are dragged from their houses and hung upon
lamp-posts; when their children are torn from their arms, and their
brains dashed out upon the pavement; when they are objects of insult
and outrage at every turn; when they are in danger of having their
homes burnt down over their heads; when their children are not allowed
to enter schools; then they will have an urgency to obtain the ballot
equal to our own. (Douglass 1869, FDP1 v.4: 216)

When asked if this did not apply to black women, Douglass replied that
it did but because they were black and not women (Douglass 1869, FDP1
v.4: 216). He did not, however, have ready answers to concerns about
how well black men, including elite black men, represented and
protected the rights and interests of black women. Nor did he fully
appreciate the need for women to represent themselves and to be fully
autonomous and independent moral agents and citizens. His
shortsightedness was repeated by generations of black male leaders. It
was Anna Julia Cooper (c. 1859–1964), along with other black
women leaders, who best articulated that argument (see Lemert and Bhan
1998; for a general history of early black feminism, see Hine

The controversies around the passage of the fifteenth amendment, and
the divisions and the eventual splitting of the American Equal Rights
Association, lead to the famous criticisms of “first wave
feminism” by black women leaders such as Mary Church Terrell and
Anna Julia Cooper, and has continued relevance today in debates about
race in feminist and black feminist philosophy (Guy-Sheftall 1995;
Hine 1994).

9. At the Dawn of Jim Crow

During and after the Reconstruction, Douglass remained deeply
concerned about the prospect that the U.S. would compromise on the
civil and human rights of black Americans. He became increasingly
concerned about the denial of black civil rights and the rising waves
of anti-black violence. He, thus, criticized the growing practice of
black peonage in agriculture, and over time he expressed sympathy with
blacks who were fleeing the American South, although he did not
support the black Exodus
(see Section 6).
He did not support the Exodus as a policy because he judged it bad
for black labor, and that it did not address the institutional
problems that caused the Exodus: peonage and exploitation, unequal
justice, unrestrained violence, lack of resources and opportunities,
and in particular, education. He received a great deal of criticism
for his position for failing to support the individual choices of
black Americans who sought to flee the inhospitable, degrading, and
deadly conditions in the American South. He also criticized
inequitable and unfair treatment of blacks in state criminal justice
systems, in particular criticizing the Convict-Lease system (Davis
1999). And he joined with Ida B. Wells (1862–1931) in raising
alarm over the growing practice of anti-black lynching in the United
States (Wells-Barnett 2002; see also Lott’s “Frederick
Douglass on the Myth of the Black Rapist”, in Lott 1999) He saw
America’s failure to support the civil rights, and the very
lives, of black Americans as indicative of its moral and political
failure, and as evidence as he provocatively claimed that the
Emancipation was a stupendous fraud. Douglass’s later-day
activities are an important and impressive part of his record and
life, and indeed a part of the evolving debates in African American
philosophy and critical theory about the carceral society (Davis
1999). Notably, Angela Davis, who was a pioneer of Douglass research
in philosophy in the United States, has lead the inquiry in this area;
her scholarship continues to be ground-breaking, not only in relation
to Douglass’s early role in this debate, but also on the issue
of criminal justice, punishment, and incarceration in philosophy.

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