Frederick Douglass, a champion of American individualism

tags: Black History Month, Black History, Frederick Douglass, individualism

George F. Will writes a twice-weekly column on politics and domestic and foreign affairs. He began his column with The Post in 1974, and he received the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1977.  Follow @georgewill

It was an assertion of hard-won personal sovereignty: Frederick Douglass, born on a Maryland plantation 200 years ago this month, never knew on what February day because history deprivation was inflicted to confirm slaves as non-persons. So, later in life, Douglass picked the 14th, the middle of the month, as his birthday. This February, remember him, the first African American to attain historic stature.

In an inspired choice to write a short biography of this fierce defender of individualism, Washington’s libertarian Cato Institute commissioned the Goldwater Institute’s Timothy Sandefur, who says that Douglass was, in a sense, born when he was 16. After six months of being whipped once a week with sticks and rawhide thongs — arbitrary punishment was used to stunt a slave’s dangerous sense of personhood — Douglass fought his tormentor. Sent to Baltimore, where he was put to work building ships — some of them slave transports — he soon fled north to freedom, and to fame as an anti-slavery orator and author. His 1845 “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” is, as Sandefur says, a classic of American autobiography.

Abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison said there should be “no union with slaveholders,” preferring disunion to association with slave states. They said what the Supreme Court would say in its execrable 1857 Dred Scott decision — that the Constitution was a pro-slavery document. Douglass, however, knew that Abraham Lincoln knew better.

“Here comes my friend Douglass,” exclaimed Lincoln at the March 4, 1865, reception following his second inauguration. After the assassination 42 days later, Lincoln’s widow gave Douglass her husband’s walking stick. After Appomattox, Douglass, who had attended the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention on behalf of women’s suffrage, said: “Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot.” If so, slavery ended not with the 13th Amendment of 1865 but with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Douglass opposed radical Republicans’ proposals to confiscate plantations and distribute the land to former slaves. Sandefur surmises that “Douglass was too well versed in the history and theory of freedom not to know” the importance of property rights. Douglass, says Sandefur, was not a conservative but a legatee of “the classical liberalism of the American founding.” His individualism was based on the virtue of self-reliance. “He was not,” Sandefur says, “likely to be attracted to any doctrine that subordinated individual rights — whether free speech or property rights — to the interests of the collective.” ...

Read entire article at The Washington Post

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