Frederick Douglass, Classical Liberal

Frederick Douglass

A new book by Nicholas Buccola offers a fresh look at the political thinking of a man who makes frequent appearances at this blog: Frederick Douglass, the redoubtable 19th century abolitionist and former slave.  In The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass: In Pursuit of American Liberty, Buccola  writes that “Douglass’s arguments against slavery are, in a very important sense, arguments for liberalism.” Douglass enthusiastically embraced a “robust conception of mutual responsibility” and “the ideas of universal self-ownership, natural rights, limited government, and an ethos of self-reliance.”  If that sounds like familiar ideas, then you have probably read the Declaration of Independence and its  list of grievances. Douglass certainly did: His powerful 1852 speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” issues a call to paternalistic white abolitionists to consider what independence truly means. Reason Magazine offers a great review of the book. Remember, classical liberalism is broadly defined as the political and economic ideology of self-reliance, personal independence, and a limited government that secures rights and does not grant rights. It is a far cry from the progressive movement and its post-1960s transformation of the word to mean an embrace of centralized government power, government securing social and economic equality, and dependence and reliance on government to ensure equality of outcome. A dose of Frederick Douglass’s liberalism would be sound medicine for the illnesses wrought by the two major parties today and current national politics.

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1 Comment

Filed under Commentary, History of the Declaration of Independence, Scholarship and Historians

One response to “Frederick Douglass, Classical Liberal

  1. I fear this might lead to inflating the ideas of Douglass at the expense of other people who were perhaps just as relevant as he was. My real worry, however, is that this rhetoric might descend into sentimental tokenism, which panders to the apologist notion of exceptional blacks

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