Tuesday, December 21, 2004


The lives of Douglass: Part II

As I explained in Part I, Frederick Douglass's Narrative marked the highpoint of his collaboration with the radical abolitionists who identified with William Lloyd Garrison, the fiery editor of the Liberator. Both Garrison and Wendell Phillips, another prominent white abolitionist, wrote glowing prefaces for the Narrative, which they rightly identified as a powerful new weapon in their armory of antislavery polemics. The Narrative also catapulted Douglass to fame, first as a Garrisonian lecturer but then as a celebrity in his own right. As James McCune Smith put it in the introduction to Douglass's second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, "It is not too much to say, that he formed a complement which [the Garrisonians] needed, and they were a complement equally necessary to his 'make-up.'"

Yet by the time My Bondage and My Freedom was published in 1855, both complements and compliments had given way to open conflict between Douglass and the Garrisonians. Part of the blame belongs to the persistence of racial prejudice among some white Garrisonians -- a condescension of which Douglass became acutely aware while he toured Great Britain in 1846. Yet prejudice alone does not explain the rift between Douglass and his former friends. Nor should we patronize Douglass with the condescension of posterity by assuming that he was but a passive victim, who played no active role in the rift. As McCune Smith also suggested in his foreword to My Bondage and My Freedom, one of Douglass's own personality traits may have been an extreme sensitivity to any hint of patronization -- a trait that certainly would have been understandable in a man with his history and in his circumstances. "The same strong self-hood," wrote Smith, "which led him to measure strength with Mr. Covey," (the slave driver immortalized by the famous fight scene in Douglass' Narrative) "and to wrench himself from the embrace of the Garrisonians, and which has borne him through many resistances to the personal indignities offered him as a colored man, sometimes becomes a hyper-sensitiveness to such assaults as men of his mark will meet with, on paper."

It may be impossible, however, to judge finally whether Garrisonians' insensitivity or Douglass's sensitiveness was most to blame for the complex personal friction between the two parties. What is clear is that the friction only encouraged Douglass's desire for independence. And however justified or understandable that desire might have been, it is also clear that Douglass framed his break with the Garrisonians in the most provocative of ways by publishing My Bondage and My Freedom. The title itself was edgy. It claimed Douglass's narrative, his life, as his own property: "My Bondage and My Freedom." In the introduction, Smith's implicit comparison between Covey and the Garrisonians also suggested that Douglass's "Freedom" from Southern "Bondage" would not be the book's only plot. The book would also conclude by framing Douglass's relationship with the Garrisonians as itself a kind of "Bondage," and his decision to found his own newspaper in Rochester as a new birth of "Freedom."

Sparks flew in the closing chapter of the book, when Douglass recounted the objections that many Garrisonians had to his newspaper. These objections were interpreted by Douglass as accusations that he was "ambitious and presumptuous." Such words certainly had not been unknown in Garrisonian circles when the subject of Douglass's new venture came up. Although he tried hard to convince his former allies that he knew what he was doing, Douglass wrote that he was "not sure that I was not under the influence of something like a slavish adoration of my Boston friends." Douglass knew that the Bostonians would be pricked by the word "slavish," no matter how carefully it was swaddled in awkward syntax (the double negative that began the sentence) and qualifications ("something like" ... "adoration" ... "friends"). The inflammatory word was "slavish." And in the years after 1855, Douglass fanned the flame. In 1857, he declared:
I know, my friends, that in some quarters the efforts of colored people meet with very little encouragement. We may fight, but we must fight like the Sepoys of India, under white officers. This class of Abolitionists don't like colored celebrations, they don't like colored conventions, they don't like colored Anti-Slavery fairs for the support of colored newspapers. They don't like any demonstrations whatever in which colored men take a leading part. They talk of the proud Anglo-Saxon blood, as flippantly as those who profess to believe in the natural inferiority of races. Your humble speaker has been branded as an ingrate, because he has ventured to stand up on his own right, and to plead our common cause as a colored man, rather than as a Garrisonian. I hold it to be no part of gratitude to allow our white friends to do all the work, while we merely hold their coats. Opposition of the sort now referred to, is partisan opposition, and we need not mind it. [From "West India Emancipation," in The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, ed. Philip S. Foner, vol. 2, pp. 436-37.]
Comparing Garrisonians to the colonial officers of the British empire? These were strong words indeed, especially when one considers that they were uttered in the year of the "Sepoy Mutiny" in India. (That quote was for you, Sepoy!) But Douglass's 1857 speech also brings us to a second important dimension of the Garrisonian rift, for it suggests that the break had to do not only with personal offense, but also with "partisan opposition." Douglass's break occurred at the same time that the antislavery movement as a whole was fracturing, and not just along faultlines dividing white and black reformers.

In the 1840s, many white abolitionists, like Gerrit Smith, James Birney, and Lewis Tappan, increasingly disagreed with the Garrisonians about major strategic and dogmatic issues, like the question of whether violence could be used in the service of antislavery goals. Many black abolitionists also broke with Garrisonians on precisely this issue. Another major disagreement revolved around the Garrisonians' opposition to forming political parties to run antislavery candidates for local and national offices. Some Garrisonians opposed politics because they were near-anarchists who believed that all human governments were sinfully coercive. A larger number opposed antislavery parties because they believed the Constitution itself was a proslavery document, a "covenant with death" as Garrison put it. Any political action within the existing framework -- even voting, according to some -- was corrupted before it began. Beginning in 1842, Garrison and many of his supporters carried this logic to its fullest extreme by calling for "disunion" between the North and the South.

In 1854, a year before My Bondage and My Freedom was published, Garrison dramatized the radicalism of these positions by publicly burning a copy of the Constitution at a Fourth of July picnic for abolitionists. Long before that act, however, Douglass had already dissociated himself from such incendiary views. Against the Garrisonians, he agreed with Gerrit Smith and others that the Constitution was not necessarily proslavery, but had only been made so by misinterpretation. He believed that political action was not only justified on behalf of abolition, but positively required if it could be effective. In My Bondage, Douglass spelled out his change of opinion on these subjects. Even after he had moved to Rochester to start his new paper, Douglass continued to be "on the anti-slavery question, a faithful disciple of William Lloyd Garrison, and fully committed to his doctrine touching the pro-slavery character of the United States, and the non-voting principle." But in 1851, following the passage of an even more stringent Fugitive Slave Law by Congress, Douglass "became convinced that there was no necessity for dissolving" the Union, and "that to abstain from voting, was to refuse to exercise a legitimate and powerful means for abolishing slavery." Douglass also concluded that the Constitution, far from being a pact with the devil, as Garrison called it, was "an anti-slavery instrument."

These conclusions placed Douglass firmly on the side of the Garrisonians' opponents within the antislavery movement, and they reopened the wounds of earlier schisms. Douglass's close friendship with McCune Smith and Gerrit Smith and his complicated relationship with John Brown (see this book) made the wound wider. By 1853, Garrison wrote to his friend, Samuel J. May, that "with Douglass, the die seems to be cast. I lament the schism, but it is unavoidable." It was made unavoidable partly by Douglass's commitment to positions on which Garrison could admit no compromise. And as the years wore on, the wounds only festered. By 1860 Garrison wrote in another letter to May that Douglass's plans to be at an upcoming meeting "powerfully repel me from attending. I regard him as thoroughly base and selfish, and I know that his hostility to the American Anti-Slavery Society and its leading advocates is unmitigated and unceasing. ... In fact, he reveals himself more and more to me as destitute of every principle of honor, ungrateful to the last degree, and malevolent in spirit. He is not worthy of respect, confidence, or countenance."

Garrison is notorious for his unflinching positions, and his tendency to impute false motives to anyone who disagreed with him. In that sense, he was an equal opportunity offender. His public reproaches of white enemies within the movement could be as harsh as those that he uttered privately against Douglass in 1860. So what should we make of such hard words? We might turn again to what Douglass made of them in the concluding pages of My Bondage and My Freedom.
Here was a radical change in my opinions, and in the action logically resulting from that change. To those with whom I had been in agreement and in sympathy, I was now in opposition. What they held to be a great and important truth, I now looked upon as a dangerous error. A very painful, and yet a very natural, thing now happened. Those who could not see any honest reasons for changing their views, as I had done, could not easily see any such reasons for my change, and the common punishment of apostates was mine.
How, then, should we settle the question of what caused the rift between Douglass and the Garrisonians? Were the causes as simple as racism among white abolitionists? Or did Garrisonians prove that they thought of Douglass as equal to their white opponents by dignifying him with "the common punishment" that they meted to all "apostates"? As I suggested before, these are the kinds of questions I want to raise and keep provisionally open in my classes.

Collective Improvisation:
Oh Caleb, that's wonderful. Thank you. 

Posted by Sharon

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 12/22/2004 03:45:00 AM : Permalink  

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 12/23/2004 04:13:00 PM : Permalink  

The deleted comment above was my first ever piece of comment spam. Hopefully it's also the last! 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 12/23/2004 04:19:00 PM : Permalink  

The desire to be apolitical, to transcend political stuff is one that has plagued faith-based political activism for a very long time and it still does.


Posted by dlw

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 12/26/2004 02:09:00 PM : Permalink  

What an outstanding post! A few thoughts:

Douglass, of course, explains in the (long version of) his speech "What To The Slave Is The Fourth of July" (http://douglassarchives.org/doug_a10.htm) that he came to believe that the Constitution was not only inconsistent with slavery, but also positively required the abolition of slavery. He referred to the works of Gerrit Smith, Lysander Spooner and others, which sources have been collected at this eccentric but helpful website: http://medicolegal.tripod.com/slaveryillegal.htm

See also Randy Barnett's article, "Was Slavery Unconstitutional Before the Thirteenth Amendment? Lysander Spooner's Theory of Interpretation" (http://www.randybarnett.com/PUB1_1.htm).

Like Barnett, I find this argument remarkably convincing. But convincing or not, it was certainly politically more helpful to the abolitionist cause than the uncompromising separatism of the Garrisonians. As Douglass himself put it, the Garrisonian demand for separation meant that abolitionists started out to free the slave, and ended up leaving the slave to free himself.

I think this difference between Garrison and Douglass is very relevant to modern political movements, particularly libertarianism, which is divided between uncompromising anarchists and "centrists" like myself who say libertarians should revere the Constitution. Also, in my article Liberal Originalism, 27 Harvard Journal of Law & Pub. Policy 489 (2004), I contrast Douglass' views with those of 20th century black nationalists. 

Posted by Timothy Sandefur

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 1/14/2005 04:25:00 PM : Permalink  

Thanks for the comment and the links! Another excellent book that deals with the question of the Constitution and slavery is the late Don Fehrenbacher's The Slaveholding Republic (Oxford).

As for who was more helpful to the slave, political abolitionists or Garrisonians ... well, there we are necessarily leaving the realm of historical analysis and asking a philosophical, political, or legal question (or a combination of all three).

In the Garrisonians' defense, though, I might say that many political abolitionists simply left the slave to free himself (to use Douglass's words) a little later than they did. After passing the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, most Republicans considered the Constitution reformed, the deed done, and made a rapid retreat from a Reconstruction South full of unreconstructed racists. Both camps had their faults: that's my only point.

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 1/17/2005 08:43:00 AM : Permalink  

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