What Frederick Douglass tells us about today

Mr. Lincoln’s election breaks the enchantment, dispels this terrible nightmare, and awakes the nation to the consciousness of new powers and the possibility of a higher destiny than the perpetual bondage to an ignoble fear.

— Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was one of the great people’s leaders of the 19th century. And yet his towering intellect and multifaceted political experience have been insufficiently appreciated.

My objective here isn’t to reclaim Douglass’s legacy (see Henry Winston, “Strategy for a Black Agenda,” and Philip Foner, “The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass,” both from International Publishers), but more modestly to point to some of his strategic and tactical ideas that retain contemporary relevance in a moment marked by enormous fluidity and promise.

Douglass’s political life began in the Garrisonian wing of the abolitionist movement, named after William Lloyd Garrison, the formidable anti-slavery leader and editor of The Liberator. This wing rejected legislative and electoral struggles, considered the Constitution a corrupted document that sanctioned slavery (a “pact with the devil”), advocated the dissolution of the union (“no union with slaveholders”) and relied solely on direct action and moral suasion.

Above all, the Garrisonians insisted on the immediate abolition of slavery — immediatism — and refused to entertain measures that fell short of this goal.

Douglass, however, bid farewell to this wing of the abolitionist movement early on and embarked on a political journey over the next two decades that took him from the Liberty Party (an abolitionist party) in the early 1840s to the Free Soil Party in the mid-’40s and in 1856 to Lincoln’s Republican Party, where he remained.

All of which begs the question: why did Douglass distance himself from the Garrisonians? Why did this great abolitionist, this former slave, join the Free Soil and Republican parties, both of which only opposed slavery’s extension to new territories, not its abolition in the states of the South where it existed? Why did he defend a Constitution that in the eyes of the Garrisonian abolitionists breathed legitimacy into the “peculiar institution” — slavery?

Mobilizing a majority

The simple answer is that the politics of the Garrisonians, no matter how morally righteous their message, were too narrow and too sectarian to mobilize a majoritarian multiracial, multiclass coalition that had the capacity to overthrow slavery. The abolition of slavery, in Douglass’ view, required several things — participation in the main organizations in which millions of people of varied political outlooks gather; engaging slave power on more than one level of struggle; skillful combination of partial demands, such as prohibiting slavery in new territories, with the overarching demand for slavery’s complete abolition; drawing inspiration from the revolutionary traditions and founding documents of a young republic; readiness to operate within as well as outside of state structures; and an unyielding determination to wrest those same structures from the grip of the planter class and, in turn, to utilize them to effect the weakening and eventual abolition of slavery.

Agitation and abolitionists had a place in the antislavery struggle to be sure — in fact an important place. But both had to be embedded in a larger political process and movement that would draw millions into the “irrepressible conflict.” To expect large sections of white people to be won to a consistent antislavery posture by agitation alone Douglass considered naïve and wrongheaded.

Douglass said:

“We may stand off and act the part of fault finders — pick flaws in the Free Soil platform, expose the weakness of some persons connected to it — suspect and criticize their leaders, and in this way play into the hands of our enemies, affording the sticks to break our own heads.” (“Life and Writings,” vol. 2, p. 71)

And on another occasion: “[A man is not] justified in refusing to assist his fellow-men to accomplish a good thing, simply because his fellows refuse to accomplish some other good things which they deem impossible assuredly. That theory cannot be a sound one which would prevent us from voting with men for the Abolition of Slavery in Maryland simply because our companions refuse to include Virginia. In such a case the path of duty is plainly this; go with your fellow citizens for the Abolition of Slavery in Maryland when they are ready to go for that measure, and do all you can, meanwhile, to bring them to whatever work of righteousness may remain and which has manifest to your clear vision.” (same source, p. 84)

In both these passages, Douglass was criticizing the Garrisonians. What Douglass possessed and what the Garrisonians and their followers lacked was strategic depth. That is, the knowledge that a broad array of forces with diverse motivations and in varied organizational forms could be (and had to be) assembled, if the slave system was to be vanquished and extirpated. From this followed his tactical flexibility and unsurpassed ability to articulate a path of struggle that would transform antislavery politics from protest to power.

From protest to power

Better than anyone else, Douglass understood (Lincoln to his great credit came to understand this later), that a struggle to prevent the expansion of slavery where it didn’t exist could easily transform and grow into a struggle to abolish slavery where it existed, given the slaveowners’ resistance to any infringement of their power and the logic and dialectics of the antislavery struggle.

For instance, while Douglass wasn’t a great supporter of Lincoln in the 1860 elections (he later became, in fact, a great admirer), when asked what he thought about Lincoln’s election that year, Douglass astutely said: “Not much, in itself considered, but very much when viewed in the light of its relations and bearings. For fifty years the country has taken the law from the lips of an exacting, haughty, and imperious slave oligarchy. The masters of slaves have been the masters of the Republic. Their authority was almost undisputed, and their power irresistible. They were the President makers of the Republic, and no aspirant dared to hope for success against their frown. Lincoln’s election has vitiated their authority, and broken their power. It has taught the North its strength and the South its weakness. More important still, it has demonstrated the possibility of electing, if not an Abolitionist, at least an anti-slavery reputation to the Presidency of the United States. The years are few since it was thought possible that the Northern people could be wrought up to the exercise of such startling courage. Hitherto the threat of disunion has been as potent over the politicians of the North, as the cat-o’-nine tails is over the backs of the slaves. Mr. Lincoln’s election breaks the enchantment, dispels this terrible nightmare, and awakes the nation to the consciousness of new powers and the possibility of a higher destiny than the perpetual bondage to an ignoble fear.” (“Life and Writings,” vol. 2, p. 528)

It is correctly said that all analogies suffer to one degree or another. Nevertheless, I would argue that the same dialectic would operate today. Just as Lincoln’s election broke the spell, dispelled the terrible nightmare, and awakened the country to the consciousness of new powers and the possibility of a higher destiny than the perpetual bondage of an ignoble fear, the election of Barack Obama — symbolizing and carrying forward the legacy of slaves who toiled from sunup to sundown, who possessed no political rights whatsoever, and who were instrumental in the Union’s victory over the Confederacy — would dispel the nightmare and break the grip, in this case, of Republican right-wing extremist rule and awaken the consciousness of the American people to new powers and possibilities of progressive advance.

This article is from the People’s World archives, originally published Sept. 8, 2008, and republished Feb. 14, 2011, as part of Black History Month celebration and Doublass’s birthday. Feb. 14, 1818 was the birthday of Frederick Douglass.



Sam Webb
Sam Webb

Sam Webb is a long-time writer living in New York. Earlier, he was active in the labor movement in his home state of Maine.