Frederick Douglass, 1870.
George Francis Schreiber/Library of Congress
book review / justice

The Double Battle

A review of David Blight's new biography of Frederick Douglass.
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One aspect of Douglass’s politics that Blight does analyze at length is his belief in self-reliance as a key to black progress. It is hardly surprising that the emblematic self-made man declared that black Americans should be “let alone” after the end of slavery. This statement, Blight notes, has been wrenched out of context by today’s black conservatives, who claim Douglass as a forebear of their own hostility to affirmative action and other efforts to assist the less fortunate.

As Blight makes clear, Douglass’s economic outlook cannot be reduced to simple laissez-faire. To be sure, he was not an economic radical. Throughout his career, Douglass retained his faith that in a society resting on “free labor,” any man could make something of himself by following the path of self-improvement. This applied to all oppressed groups, in his view, not only African Americans. Shocked by the “human misery” he encountered in Ireland, Douglass attributed much of it to the abuse of alcohol, not centuries of oppressive British rule.

Douglass fully understood that pervasive racism and violence, often directed at black Americans who managed to get ahead, posed formidable obstacles to black economic advancement. He was less attuned to other impediments, including his own party’s advocacy of high tariffs and deflationary monetary policies, which disadvantaged farmers of both races. In addition, he feared that special efforts on behalf of African Americans would promote an image of them as privileged wards of the state. (Lincoln’s successor as president, the deeply racist Andrew Johnson, made this claim when he vetoed the Civil Rights Bill of 1866.)

Some admirers chastised Douglass for his emphasis on self-reliance. O.O. Howard, former head of the Freedmen’s Bureau, warned that many impoverished black Southerners would “perish if let alone.” But for Douglass, self-reliance assumed the existence of a level playing field that offered equal prospects of success in what Lincoln called the “race of life.” To create such conditions in the aftermath of slavery, Douglass knew, would require massive political intervention: laws and constitutional amendments guaranteeing civil and political equality; the creation of school systems in the South, where they barely existed before the war; the encouragement of black land ownership; and national protection of former slaves against terrorist violence. This was hardly a formula for a “let alone” approach to race relations.
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