In Defense of Liberty

Did Frederick Douglass change his mind? And if so, so what?

by Timothy Sandefur

A few weeks ago, Nicholas Buccola challenged my contention in Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man that Douglass is best classified as a classical liberal or libertarian. One reason for his disagreement, said Buccola, was that although Douglass opposed the redistribution of property in the wake of the Civil War, he later reconsidered this view. I’m not so sure that’s accurate—but even if it is, my question is, what does that mean for us?

Consider this example: for most of his life, Douglass was an opponent of the prohibition of alcohol—quite a hot subject in his day. Douglass was himself a teetotaler and a temperance man, and in the 1850s he worked briefly in support of a prohibitionist candidate for governor of New York. On the other hand, Douglass’s first biographer, Frederic Holland, who knew Douglass personally, quoted him in 1891 as saying “While as a temperance man, I should be glad to see every grogshop in the land abolished, I am not inclined to adopt the prohibition doctrine,” and as referring to prohibition as “manifestly wrong and abundant in its mischief.” Then again, Buccola quotes Douglass in his book as saying in 1883, “For a long time I refused to commit myself to the doctrine of absolute prohibition…because I thought it interfered with the personal liberty of the citizen. But the sober contemplation of the evils of intemperance…has compelled me to go the whole length of prohibition.” So which was Douglass’s real view? And what does it mean as far as the legitimacy of the arguments for or against prohibition?

It’s not uncommon to hear tales of some prominent atheist or other supposedly experiencing a deathbed conversion—as if this proves that the arguments he endorsed all his life were actually logically flawed or factually false. Of course, it does no such thing. If, indeed, Douglass embraced prohibition of alcohol, rather than temperance, we should understand why, and learn what we can from it—but it certainly doesn’t prove that his opposition to it had been wrong all along, or that his later embrace of it was right.

Buccola’s comments were inspired by my mention in Self-Made Man that Douglass did not endorse efforts by post-War Republicans to confiscate land from the plantation aristocracy and give it to former slaves. Douglass didn’t oppose such efforts, as far as I can tell—he just didn’t endorse it. But, writes Buccola, “[w]hat Sandefur does not tell us…is that Douglass changed his mind. In the 1880 Emancipation Day speech, Douglass said the threat to liberty presented by economic inequality was ‘seen and felt by Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, and leading stalwart Republicans, and had their counsels prevailed, the terrible evils from which we now suffer would have been averted.’ It is hard to imagine Douglass stating this more clearly. By 1880, he was looking back and saying, they were right, I was wrong. His ‘theory of freedom’ had evolved.”

But is that really so? The speech Buccola refers to is this one in which Douglass says,

In the hurry and confusion of the hour, and the eager desire to have the Union resored, there was more care for the sublime superstructure of the Republic than for the solid foundation upon which it could alone be upheld. To the freedmen was given the machinery of liberty, but there was denied to them the steam to put it in motion. They were given the uniform of soldiers, but no arms; they were called citizens, but left subjects; they were called free, but left almost slaves. The old master class was not deprived of life and death, which was the soul of the relation of master and slave. They could not, of course, sell their former slaves, but they retained the power to starve them to death, and wherever this power is held there is the power of slavery. He who can say to his fellow-man, “You shall serve me or starve,” is a master and his subject is a slave. This was seen and felt by Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, and leading stalwart Republicans, and had their counsels prevailed, the terrible evils from which we now suffer would have been averted. The Negro today would not be on his knees, as he is, abjectly supplicating the old master class to give him leave to toil….

How are we to understand this? It seems to me that to read these words as repudiating classical liberalism—or showing that Douglass’s views “evolved” to a degree larger than is experienced by all of us as we grow and time passes, is to do just what Buccola accuses me of: “read[ing] [Douglass’s words] selectively to serve our own agendas.” This speech does not endorse the forcible redistribution of property. It does not, in fact, refer specifically to that effort by name at all. Douglass does not say he was wrong, or that he regrets his position, or even that he has changed his mind. Douglass did sometimes change his mind—on whether the Constitution was pro- or anti-slavery, for example, or on the issue of the Exodusters—and when he did so, he was quite open about the fact. But here, he’s not doing that. Instead, he’s sayings that if a different course had been taken, a different result would have obtained; if something else had been done, the world would have been different. Douglass certainly was not foolish enough to have imagined that a different course would have led to utopia—he was simply saying that some things could have been done differently; some perhaps wiser, some more foolish. It is precisely as if someone today were to say “If Barry Goldwater had won in 1964, things would have been different,” without actually thinking it would have led to some specific better outcome, and without regretting having voted for LBJ.

Neither here nor in any other writing does Douglass abandon his lifelong belief in private property rights, of course, or in the other principles of classical liberalism. But even if he had, what would that prove? There’s a pretty strong libertarian argument in favor of the forcible redistribution of the plantation lands, which were essentially stolen from the slaves—with the decades-long support of state and federal governments—to the freedmen. Of course Douglass wasn’t a card-carrying member of the Libertarian Party, and I never pretended he was. Many libertarians divert somewhat from what other libertarians consider orthodoxy. That doesn’t prove that it’s wrong to classify them as essentially libertarian in their outlook.

Looking at the context of Douglass’s words and career makes two things clear: first that he easily fits within the category of classical liberal, and second, that however much his opinions may have changed over time, he didn’t abandon his fundamental belief in individual freedom and the right to pursue happiness without interference by others. And, as I’ve said before, the right name for that belief is libertarian.

Timothy Sandefur is Vice President for Litigation at the Goldwater Institute.