Lithography of Frederick Douglass by Alexander Hay Ritchie (circa 1875). Smithsonian Museum / Public Area
This speak was introduced on the New College discussion board “American Democracy in Disaster: Views from Tocqueville, Douglass, Wells, Dewey, and Arendt” on October 13, 2022.
Frederick Douglass, the good orator, abolitionist, and fugitive ex-slave, has been seen primarily as a theorist of freedom and a fierce critic of slavery, however he additionally had profound insights about democracy which are particularly related to our current second. His fascinated with U.S. democracy particularly is beneficial given the framing of this panel by way of “disaster.” Douglass was at instances hopeful about U.S. democracy, equivalent to throughout Reconstruction, when he believed a revolutionary second of democratic renewal was underway, however at others he despaired about the opportunity of real U.S. democracy, significantly within the post-Reconstruction period, when white reunion was achieved on the worth of Black rights within the South and lynching and racial violence had been rampant. I’ll focus particularly on three key components of Douglass’s considering on democracy: 1) his ideally suited of multiracial, cosmopolitan democracy, 2) his warnings in regards to the menace racist backlash poses to U.S. democracy, and three) his embrace of institutional experimentation and skepticism about settled regulation knowledgeable by Black fugitivity.
Douglass’s conception of multiracial democracy envisioned the political coexistence on egalitarian phrases of people of “all races and creeds” as fellow residents. He referred to as for a “composite nationality” anchored within the thought of a common human proper to migration and the political legacy of the Americas as a multiracial continent. Douglass’s idea of “composite nationality” envisions an egalitarian democracy during which a number of racial teams can coexist, and during which whiteness just isn’t dominant. He aspired to reshape U.S. democracy, each by extending equal citizenship rights and dignity to oppressed teams equivalent to Black and Indigenous peoples, and by being open to immigrants, significantly nonwhite immigrants.
Douglass’s formulation of an expansive imaginative and prescient of U.S. multiracial democracy within the 1870s, fueled partially by the concept of a human proper to migration, is particularly fascinating in gentle of latest debates about immigration in america. Douglass’s fascinated with a human proper of migration was based mostly on an evaluation of how racial hierarchy had rendered america an uneven democracy, which might be remedied through a dedication to accepting nonwhite immigrants from all corners of the globe and together with them as equal residents.
In the course of the period of Reconstruction, Douglass formulated a cosmopolitan notion of multiracial democracy grounded within the thought of a common human proper to migration and the Americas as a multiracial house. In an 1869 lecture on america’ rising “Composite Nationality,” for instance, he linked the truth that “till lately, neither the Indian nor the negro has been handled as part of the physique politic” to opposition to Chinese language immigration. He noticed that those that objected to nonwhite immigration to america usually puzzled: “Shouldn’t a superior race defend itself from contact with inferior ones? Aren’t the white folks the house owners of this continent? Have they not the proper to say what sort of folks shall be allowed to return right here and settle?” To those critics, Douglass forcefully replied: “There are such issues on the earth as human rights. They relaxation upon no standard basis, however are everlasting, common, and indestructible. Amongst these is the . . . proper of migration . . . which belongs to no specific race, however belongs alike to all and to all alike.” Observing that it was solely by advantage of stated proper that European settlers and their descendants may justify their presence within the Americas, he affirmed: “I need a residence right here not just for the negro, the mulatto and the Latin races, however I would like the Asiatic to discover a residence right here in america, and really feel at residence right here, each for his sake and ours.” Douglass argued that america “ought to welcome . . . all nations . . . tongues and peoples, and as quick as they will study our language and comprehend the duties of citizenship, we should always incorporate them into the American physique politic.”
Douglass was undoubtedly overly optimistic in his hopes that Reconstruction-era racial inclusion would represent a everlasting democratic re-composition of U.S. democracy, however his ringing endorsement of immigration a century-and-a-half in the past is putting in gentle of latest fears about nonwhite immigration. Efforts to enact multiracial democracy throughout Douglass’s lifetime evoked lots of the identical fears and racial resentments elicited right this moment by america’ altering demographics.
This brings me to the second essential perception of Douglass’s considering on democracy that I wish to spotlight: his prescient recognition of the hazard to U.S. democracy posed by white grievance (my time period, not his). Douglass foresaw the opportunity of racist backlash to moments of progress towards racial equality, nevertheless fugitive and inconclusive they’ve turned out to be. White resistance has been a recurrent response to racial progress in america. Emancipation and Reconstruction had been adopted by the consolidation of Jim Crow racial segregation, official adherence to white supremacy, racial terror, political disenfranchisement, and xenophobia within the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Likewise, the civil rights victories of the Sixties had been adopted by the retrenchment of the welfare state (which was justified by racially coded appeals) and the concomitant rise of mass incarceration that continued to make sure materials racial inequality regardless of the absence of mandated racial segregation. And the general public euphoria that greeted the election of a Black president in 2008, which was extensively hailed as proof that the U.S. had lastly turn into the vaunted post-racial society it had supposedly all the time aspired to be, shortly gave strategy to an period of heightened white racial resentment and outright racist backlash.
An early instance of this type of backlash had been the fears of a “black emperor” elicited by the enfranchisement of African Individuals following the abolition of slavery virtually a century and a half in the past. In a speech delivered in 1872–73, “Reminiscences of the Anti-Slavery Battle,” Douglass mocked such fears of “black supremacy,” which fancifully imagined that had been america to finish slavery, “the republic . . . [would] give place to an enormous American empire below the sway of a jet black emperor who shall have a snow white empress—a courtroom of all shades and colours—and a code of legal guidelines considerately enacted to guard the unlucky whites from insults supplied by the insolent and dominant blacks!” Within the nineteenth century the prospect of the top of enslavement and subsequent black enfranchisement conjured “the phantom of black supremacy” and miscegenation for some white observers. By means of the lens of white dedication to political rule, Black equality may solely be imagined because the specter of Black domination. For Douglass, the unchecked racial violence of the post-Reconstruction period was immediately linked to slavery, which had warped the civic capacities of white Southerners by accustoming them to financial and political mastery and to an intensive disregard for Black life. White contributors in lynch mobs had been “introduced up within the train of irresponsible energy,” he argued in “Why is the Negro Lynched” in 1894. Moderately than an issue that African Individuals wanted to unravel, the answer to lynching was to “let the white folks of the North and South conquer their prejudices. . . . Allow them to surrender the concept they are often free whereas making the Negro a slave. Allow them to surrender the concept to degrade the colored man is to raise the white man. . . . They don’t seem to be required to do a lot. They’re solely required to undo the evil they’ve performed.” Democracy, Douglass argued, required that each one teams surrender expectations of political dominance.
Douglass additionally had essential insights about learn how to method the structure of U.S. democracy. There are moments when he endorsed deference to Supreme Court docket opinions whilst he denounced them, equivalent to within the aftermath of the choice that dominated the Civil Rights Act of 1875 (which had barred discrimination in public lodging for Black folks) unconstitutional, however at different moments, equivalent to his 1852 speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?,” he challenged undue deference to unjust legal guidelines. In a context during which slavery was authorized and Black folks enslaved or free weren’t residents, he in contrast self-emancipation, abolitionism, and sanctuary politics to the revolutionary actions of the founding fathers. The U.S. founding fathers, Douglass argued, “most popular revolution to peaceable submission to bondage . . . They believed so as; however not within the order of tyranny. With them, nothing was ‘settled’ that was not proper . . . They seized upon everlasting rules and set a wonderful instance of their defence.” Douglass additionally asserted the proper of abnormal residents to interpret the regulation. He rejected the concept elites had been higher in a position to interpret it. He sketched a democratic method to constitutional interpretation the place “each American citizen has a proper to kind an opinion of the Structure.” As Anne Norton has argued following Douglass, constitutionalism just isn’t all the time the safeguard of democracy, and law-breaking may additionally be a needed democratic advantage in unjust instances.
In sum, Douglass, as a democratic thinker formed partially by the experiences of enslavement and fugitivity, urges us to method democracy from the angle of these most in danger. If his half had been “to inform the story of the slave,” as he wrote in Life and Occasions, his third and closing autobiography, our obligation is to method the present disaster of U.S. democracy from the angle of those that have traditionally been least in a position to reap its advantages. From their perspective this disaster just isn’t new, however an ongoing wrestle.
Juliet Hooker is Royce Household Professor of Educating Excellence in Political Science at Brown College.