As scholars such as Bill Lawson and Nicholas Buccola have observed, Frederick Douglass embraced and advocated for many of the central tenets of “classical liberalism” (e.g. individual rights, freedom, equality, and so forth). However, his liminal experience as a slave compelled him to articulate and develop a more consistent, inclusive, and robust liberalism. As Buccola explains, “In order to close the gap between the promises of liberalism and the realities of American life, Douglass infused his political philosophy with an egalitarian ethos of inclusion and a robust conception of mutual responsibility” (The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass, p. 12). For Douglass, freedom is not understood merely negatively as the ability to act without constraint; true freedom must be construed positively as the freedom to flourish and to develop one’s potential in community with others. Thus, human freedom entails a social dimension; it is expressed and lived concretely in relation with others and requires citizens, legislators, and all who participate in our communal life to live an “I am my brother’s [and sister’s] keeper” ethos. In short, Douglass argued that as members of a common human family we must embrace our obligation to stand for those suffering injustice and to stand against institutions and practices that promote and maintain social, political, and economic inequalities.
Although Douglass had been scripted as subhuman property, he refused from a very early age to accept white society’s discourses and engaged in creative and strategic acts of resistance. Such acts included transforming mundane (and extremely harsh) workspaces into educational sites for hisown betterment. Well before Foucault foregrounds the knowledge/power complex, Douglass emphasizes the intimate relation between knowledge and power, knowing firsthand how masters maintained their dominating role by denying slaves formal educational opportunities. In other words, Douglass is acutely aware of the fact that the dominating master/slave relation requires knowledge to flow unidirectionally—from master to slave. The slave must be rendered mute and docile; the master must maintain continually the delicate and unsteady balance between creating a completely passive slave subjectivity and a slave with just enough agency to remain useful to the master. Douglass likewise grasped the co-constitutive character of the master/slave relation. That is, he saw that the master’s authority and socially constructed superiority depends in part upon his ability to keep the slave ignorant. Such an arrangement, of course, allows the master’s dominance in the relationship to rigidify on the personal and societal level. For example, since the master has denied the slave educational opportunities, he will de facto possess more knowledge than the slave. This is in no way to affirm any inherent intellectual inferiority on the part of the slave; it is rather to highlight the concrete, “on the ground” situation, given the fact that slaves were denied access to formal education. Likewise, in light of the structural racism prevalent in nineteenth-century America, the master was able to exercise local as well as socio-political and legal disciplinary actions should the slave choose to rebel.
Given Douglass’s context, he had to devise and “perform” improvisational resistance maneuverings in order to advance his education. For example, as a young boy of twelve, he was required to carry out various errands for his master. In order to make the most of his errand-runs, Douglass made sure to carry along two important items: a book and extra bread. Having completed his task with lightening speed, he would approach poor and often hungry white schoolboys playing along the roads and surrounding areas. He would then offer them bread in exchange for incognito “reading lessons”—unbeknownst to them, of course, as they had no clue that they were working to further his educational program. Through such intentional subversive acts, Douglass was able to transform mundane activities and otherwise socially prohibited activities—i.e. whites teaching slaves to read—into classrooms “on the fly” (see also, Nielsen, Foucault, Douglass, Fanon, and Scotus in Dialogue).
Douglass engaged in similar subversive acts of resistance for his writing lessons. For instance, he was acutely aware of the fact that white schoolboys would find it particularly humiliating to be “shown up” by a black slave. Consequently, Douglass put his social astuteness to work and challenged them to write a letter of the alphabet, stating that he could “out-write” them. As he expected, the white lads took the bait, and Douglass’s ability to write improved with every duel. From the day he overheard Mr. Auld’s commentary on keeping slaves ignorant, Douglass determined to “level the playing field.” Having created improvised classrooms wherever he went, Douglass achieved his goal of literacy over the course of his seven-years with the Auld family.
However, Douglass’s literacy becomes a double-edged sword, piercing his heart with the master’s (Mr. Auld’s) seemingly prophetic words: an educated slave is a discontented slave. On the one hand, Douglass’s ability to read allows him to devour texts such as The Columbian Orator. There he encounters powerful speeches and arguments against slavery. In particular, Douglass singles out a man named, Sheridan, whose speeches he read repeatedly. As Douglass explains, Sheridan’s writings “gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for wont of utterance” (Narrative of the Life, p. 42). Continuing his commentary on Sheridan, Douglass states that his speeches articulated not only “a bold denunciation of slavery,” but also “a powerful vindication of human rights” (ibid.). On the other hand, however, Douglass’s intellectual achievements heightened his sense of lost opportunities—or more accurately, opportunities intentionally blocked, closed off, stolen from him and other slaves, just as his captors had stolen them from their homeland.
In some ways analogous to the “knowledge of good and evil” Adam and Eve gained through their transgressive act of attaining “knowledge” that produced great sorrow—Douglass’s hard-earned intellectual virtues intensified his awareness of his wretched, unjust condition. His inability to return to his former state made him at times envy his uneducated counterparts (ibid.). If only his mind would cease its churning and allow him a reprieve. “It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me. There was no getting rid of it” (ibid.). Describing in eloquent prose the cruel paradox of (inner mental) freedom amidst (outer socio-political) unfreedom, Douglass writes:
Freedom now appeared, to disappear […] forever. It was heard in every sound, and seen in every thing. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm. I often found myself regretting my own existence, and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself, or done something for which I should have been killed (ibid., p. 43).
In short, Douglass’s literacy, while no doubt providing him a new and invaluable mental freedom, nonetheless, was insufficient for a concrete, embodied human being to flourish in this world. As philosopher Lewis Gordon puts it, Douglass’s initial effects to gain freedom through literacy fail to translate into a full-orbed freedom. These early attempts “create an epistemic rupture, but without a material/historical rupture, there is a gap that must be closed” (“Douglass as an Existentialist,” 218).1
Yet his personal experience of unjust suffering did not result in a spirit of resignation or an acceptance of the status quo; rather, just a few years after his escape from slavery and his resettlement in New Bedford, Douglass not only participated in the abolitionist movement but became one of its leading and most profound voices. His own experience of brutal suffering and the social death he and countless others endured fueled his social activism and compelled him to develop and defend a political philosophy whose central components consist in mutual responsibility and a sense of obligation for the other’s good. Stated otherwise and drawing from an instance of Douglass’s reverse discourse par excellence entitled, “What is the Slave to the Fourth of July,” he writes: “the mournful wail of millions, whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday” are today “rendered more intolerable by […] jubilant shouts”—misplaced, triumphalist shouts proclaiming America’s tainted, blood-stained history as something of the past and that true democracy had finally arrived. For Douglass, the “mournful wails of millions” never grew faint but resounded repeatedly in his soul, piercing him with an existential memory that refused to celebrate half-freedoms, partial rights, and second-class citizenship.
In closing, by embracing a positive, full-orbed view of freedom, Douglass was compelled to insist upon a political philosophy of social interdependence and obligation. For Douglass, genuine freedom cannot turn a blind eye to those suffering injustice; my freedom to flourish as a human being is intimately tied to your freedom for the same. Our belonging to one another and the maintenance of our individual moral character require that we act on behalf of others. Failure to do so injects a pollutant into our shared “moral ecology” (Buccola’s phrase), and this pollutant can in turn poison the social body as a whole. Douglass’s experience as an ex-chattel slave made him acutely aware of the detrimental effects of overexposure to a contaminated moral environment. We today would do well to tune our ears and our hearts to Douglass’s political philosophy of mutual responsibility and, as he so aptly and ardently urges us, to live a philosophy of “each for all and all for each.”
1. Gordon goes on to say, “Douglass recognized at a certain level his situation by learning to read and write. But what is more telling is the crucial moment when he fights for his self-respect in his encounter with the slave-breaker Edward Covey” (ibid.).