Friday, November 26, 2021

Why I Love Frederick Douglass and the 1619 Project Wants to Erase Him

Frederick Douglass is the most important black American and one of the most important abolitionists of the 19th century. I admire him for the same reason I admire Malcolm X: he started with almost everything against him and rose because he was a brilliant speaker who could admit his mistakes and transcend them.

Yet Douglass was left out of the 1619 Project for at least two reasons. Regarding the ancient controversy about whether the Constitution is fundamentally pro- or anti-slavery, Nikole Hannah-Jones claimed, “advances for minority groups have almost always come as a result of political and social struggles in which African-Americans have generally taken the lead, not as a working-out of the immanent logic of the Constitution.” Douglass’s work refutes both parts of that. He wrote about white abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison who took him in and helped him build a new life, and Douglass believed, “interpreted, as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document.” To Hannah-Jones, the Constitution’s later amendments were radical transformations. To Douglass, they were clarifications of the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that we are all created equal.

Identitarian liberals like the creators of the 1619 Project ignore Douglass because he was a universalist whose criticism of racism and slavery was based on class instead of race. He did not see the fight against slavery as a fight against “whiteness” but as a fight against the southern slavocracy—Douglass knew there were black people who supported slavery and white people who opposed it. He knew the world’s problems came from the powerful exploiting the powerless, as he made clear in a letter to Garrison (boldface mine):

During my stay in Dublin, I took occasion to visit the huts of the poor in its vicinity — and of all places to witness human misery, ignorance, degradation, filth and wretchedness, an Irish hut is pre-eminent. ... Men and women, married and single, old and young, lie down together, in much the same degradation as the American slaves. I see much here to remind me of my former condition, and I confess I should be ashamed to lift up my voice against American slavery, but that I know the cause of humanity is one the world over. He who really and truly feels for the American slave, cannot steel his heart to the woes of others; and he who thinks himself an abolitionist, yet cannot enter into the wrongs of others, has yet to find a true foundation for his anti-slavery faith.

Here are more of his observations:

on justice and privilege

“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where only one class is made to feel that society is in an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, no other persons nor property will be safe.”

on Africans in the slave trade and the problem with colonization

“The savage chiefs of the western coasts of Africa, who for ages have been accustomed to selling their captives into bondage and pocketing the ready cash for them, will not more readily accept our moral and economical ideas than the slave traders of Maryland and Virginia. We are, therefore, less inclined to go to Africa to work against the slave trade than to stay here to work against it.”

on the people to blame for slavery and the Confederacy

‪“The six million of free nonslaveholding whites are but freight cars full of cattle, attached to the three hundred and fifty thousand slaveholding locomotives. Where the locomotives go, the train must follow.”

on poor whites

“I had very strangely supposed, while in slavery, that few of the comforts, and scarcely any of the luxuries, of life were enjoyed at the north, compared with what were enjoyed by the slaveholders of the south. I probably came to this conclusion from the fact that northern people owned no slaves. I supposed that they were about upon a level with the non-slaveholding population of the south. I knew they were exceedingly poor, and I had been accustomed to regard their poverty as the necessary consequence of their being non-slaveholders. I had somehow imbibed the opinion that, in the absence of slaves, there could be no wealth, and very little refinement.”

on the goodness of people

“…we seldom called in vain on whig or democrat for help [to get runaway slaves to Canada]. Men were better than their theology, and truer to humanity, than to their politics, or their offices.”

on suffrage and feminism

“In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world.”

on racism as a tool of the rich

“Those masters secured their ascendency over both the poor whites and the blacks by putting enmity between them. They divided both to conquer each.”

“Both are plundered and by the same plunderers. The slave is robbed by his master, of all his earnings above what is required for his physical necessities; and the white man is robbed by the slave system, because he is flung into competition with a class of laborers who work without wages.”

on wealth, equality, and capitalism

“…wealth has ever been the tool of the tyrant, the readiest means by which liberty is overthrown.”

“Louis Napoleon holds his seat today, and other tyrants with him, because they have enlisted the sympathies of capital”

“wealth is accumulated by the few, instead of being distributed, as it should be, among the mass, rendering none rich, allowing none to remain poor.”

“Say to one of these blinded instruments of tyranny, that personal liberty, the freedom of speech, of thought, of the press, is overthrown; and they will answer you, that commerce flourishes, manufactures increase, public securities are at par.”

on house slaves and politicians

“Few privileges were esteemed higher, by the slaves of the out-farms, than that of being selected to do errands at the Great House Farm. It was associated in their minds with greatness. A representative could not be prouder of his election to a seat in the American Congress, than a slave on one of the out-farms would be of his election to do errands at the Great House Farm. They regarded it as evidence of great confidence reposed in them by their overseers; and it was on this account, as well as a constant desire to be out of the field from under the driver’s lash, that they esteemed it a high privilege, one worth careful living for. He was called the smartest and most trusty fellow, who had this honor conferred upon him the most frequently. The competitors for this office sought as diligently to please their overseers, as the office-seekers in the political parties seek to please and deceive the people.”

on slave songs

“I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.”

on insults

“A gentleman will not insult me, and no man not a gentleman can insult me.”

“I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and to incur my own abhorrence.”

on free speech

“Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants. It is the right which they first of all strike down. They know its power.”

“To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.”

on the Irish being white

“Every hour sees us elbowed out of some employment to make room for some newly arrived emigrant from the Emerald Isle, whose hunger and color entitle him to special favor. These white men are becoming house-servants, cooks, stewards, waiters, and flunkies.”

on Christianity in the US

“I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels…”

on Lincoln

“His great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he must have the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow-countrymen.
Without this primary and essential condition to success, his efforts must have been vain and utterly fruitless. … Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.”


Frederick Douglass in Ireland

Frederick Douglass Railed Against Economic Inequality