Liberty Matters

On Douglass and Righteous Violence

Frederick Douglass was, with Abraham Lincoln, one of the two greatest apostles of the natural-rights doctrine in 19th-century America and certainly the most prominent exemplar of heroic resistance to slavery. In his characteristically reasonable, well-tempered essay, Nick Buccola focuses on Douglass’s arguments on the right and duty to resist injustice. He thereby zeroes in on what to my mind are Douglass’s greatest virtue and his most significant shortcoming as a thinker and activist.
Nick finds Douglass’s resistance argument compelling in important respects and also problematic. So do I. The more troubling of Nick’s concerns, as I see it, is that Douglass’s argument may be overbroad. If we, from our seemingly safe historical distance, applaud Douglass when he says it is right and wise to kill a kidnapper or a slaveholder, then must we endorse the right of all who are conscientiously convinced of the presence of a grievous violation of natural right to take the law into their own hands—to put a stop to the violation by any means necessary? The worrying examples Nick mentions could be easily multiplied.
The core of the issue is a tension inherent in the natural-rights doctrine. As the fundamental criterion of political legitimacy, the natural-rights doctrine at once requires and endangers the rule of law. It requires the rule of law to secure rights that are insecure in their natural condition, and it endangers the rule of law, because in subordinating the actions of lawmakers and law-enforcers to the higher law of natural justice, it licenses popular acts of resistance outside and even against the letter of the law.
At a high level of generality, the only response to this tension is to say that people must be taught and encouraged to judge well—to think soberly and carefully about what counts as a right and as a violation of right, also about the proper means for securing rights. The question for present purposes is whether Douglass by example assists in this teaching and encouragement.
That Douglass provides a salutary example in the identifying of rights and violations of rights needs no argument. “If slavery is not wrong,” as Lincoln put it, “nothing is wrong.”[22] Slavery was a state of war, Douglass repeatedly charged in the language of John Locke, from which follows that it may be resisted by any means necessary. “In all States and Conditions,” Locke maintained, “the true remedy of Force without Authority, is to oppose Force to it.[23]
The serious question, as Douglass properly framed it, is not whether the resistance he advocated was right but whether it was wise. The serious question, in other words, concerns Douglass’s prudence. In general terms: were the acts of resistance Douglass recommended well conceived to secure the good at which they aimed without producing any countervailing evils? More specifically: were those acts well conceived to correct the particular rights-violations at issue without doing intolerable harm to the rule of law?
On Douglass’s Prudence: Resisting the Fugitive Slave Law
An interesting question in political philosophy arises as to how Douglass’s claims of natural duty can be established on the premise of self-ownership, which he took to be the basis of our claims to natural rights.[24] That question I raise only in passing. I focus instead on two respects in which Douglass’s doctrine extends the teaching of the Declaration of Independence. Douglass proclaimed a duty to aid others, as Nick stresses, and he also proclaimed a right of nonrevolutionary resistance in addition to a revolutionary right. He proclaimed, in other words, a right to correct rights-violations in individual cases and also to alter society in ways that fell short of fully abolishing and replacing the existing constitutional order.
In both these respects, opening a broad field of nonrevolutionary resistance and exhorting the zealous to raise arms to succor the oppressed, Douglass significantly heightened the tension between natural rights and the rule of law. Was he wise or prudent in doing so? It seems to me the evidence supports a mixed conclusion.
Was Douglass prudent in advocating violent resistance to enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act? Several considerations make a solid case for the affirmative. First is the particularity of the primary objective: in cases such as that involving Anthony Burns, an individual man’s liberty, indeed his very life, was at stake. Second, there was good reason to conclude that legal recourse was unavailing. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 made a mockery of due process, and in adjudicating it the record of state courts was uneven and the U.S. Supreme Court altogether untrustworthy. Third, abolitionists’ resistance to fugitive-slave renditions had proved successful with sufficient frequency at least to warrant confidence in the attempt.[25]
Moreover, taking a larger view (and echoing, as Nick notes, the lesson Douglass drew from his Covey battle), Douglass contended plausibly that forceful resistance made “an argument in favor of the manhood of our race,” serving the antislavery cause by discrediting a principal prejudice supportive of slavery—to say nothing of deterring would-be slave catchers from seeking their livelihood in that sordid occupation. Although the frequency of such resistance certainly heightened sectional tensions, Lincoln, without approving resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law, observed as the war approached that such resistance presented no serious danger to the rule of law or the stability of constitutional government.[26]
Douglass’s Imprudence: The Case of John Brown
Beyond individual cases, Douglass’s advocacy of violence as a means of furthering the general objective of abolition seems to me more problematic. This is especially evident in his fulsome praise for the character and actions of John Brown.
Granted, Douglass declined to participate in Brown’s Harpers Ferry plot because at the time he thought it imprudent. He sensibly regarded it as a suicide mission, and perhaps independent of that, he thought it unwise to assault a federal arsenal, the effect of which would be to place the antislavery cause in opposition not only to the slave power but to the U.S. government itself. In this respect his objection to Brown’s plan is linked with his objection to William Lloyd Garrison’s disunion position.
Nonetheless, Douglass glorified Brown’s actions and character in terms that surpassed his praise for any other, including Lincoln. He not only called Brown “our noblest American hero,” he compared Brown to Moses, Socrates, and Jesus.[27] Even on the question of Brown’s prudence or imprudence, Douglass qualified and perhaps reversed his initial criticism: “If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did at least begin the war the ended slavery.”[28] The suggestion is that Brown, as things turned out, did not align the abolition cause against the United States. To the contrary, his mini-invasion of the South shocked Northerners’ theretofore-sleeping antislavery conscience into wakefulness, and he and his band of raiders functioned as a vanguard force of the Union army.
Thus understood, Douglass’s praise for Brown is of a piece with his insistence, issuing in some extremely harsh criticisms of Lincoln, on the imperative of prosecuting the Civil War from the outset as an abolition war. Admirers such as Philip Foner have praised Douglass for prescience, considering that the war did become an abolition war. The question, however, is one of timing. As Lincoln insisted and as Douglass himself seems to have later conceded, to make actual war against slavery from the outset, as Brown attempted and Douglass urged, would most likely have resulted in disaster for the antislavery cause. It would have unified the slaveholding states against the Union and made the war impossible to win.
Douglass praised Brown to the heavens for martyring himself in the service of justice for his society’s most abused, downtrodden members, a class to which he himself did not belong. Yet in his empathy for those enslaved, Brown seems to have been heedless of the danger his actions posed to the preservation of the Union—which means, heedless of the rights of all others, the free as well as the enslaved, whose security depended on the maintenance of the rule of law in America’s constitutional, republican union. Douglass’s overestimation of Brown’s virtue and, correspondingly, his somewhat ambivalent appreciation of Lincoln’s virtue constitutes, I believe, a significant failure of prudence on Douglass’s part.
In an 1846 letter[29] Douglass acknowledged a certain bloodyminded enthusiasm for righteous violence as a regrettable element of his character. It is an element of his character, I believe, that continued at times to mar his judgment even in his maturity.
[22.] Abraham Lincoln to Albert Hodges, April 4, 1864, in Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press), vol. 7, 282.
[23.] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government,section 155, in Two Treatises of Government, edited by Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 370-71 (emphasis original). Online version: John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Thomas Hollis (London: A. Millar et al., 1764). </titles/222>.
[24.] Frederick Douglass, “A Friendly Word to Maryland,” November 17, 1864, in The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One, edited by John W. Blassingame and John R. McKivigan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979-1992), vol. 4, 42.
[25.] On these last two points, see H. Robert Baker, “The Fugitive Slave Clause and the Antebellum Constitution,” Law and History Review 30 (2012), 1133-74.
[26.] Thus Lincoln, “First Inaugural Address,” March 4, 1861, in Collected Works, vol. 4, p. 269: “The fugitive slave clause … [is] as well enforced, perhaps, as any law can ever be in a community where the moral sense of the people imperfectly supports the law itself.”
[27.] See Douglass, “John Brown,” May 30, 1881, in The Essential Douglass: Selected Writings and Speeches, edited by Nicholas Buccola (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2016), 262-63, 270, 273.
[28.] Ibid., 275.
[29.] Douglass to Francis Jackson, January 29, 1846, in Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, ed. Philip S. Foner (New York: International Publishers), vol. 1, 135-36.