Frederick Douglass and the Meaning of Individualism

In our polarized and angry age, most people can at least agree on the brilliance and historical importance of Frederick Douglass. Most of us have more in common than blaring headlines typically indicate, and that is worth remembering.

What first struck me when reading Yale historian David W. Blight’s New York Times critique of Timothy Sandefur’s reflections in Douglass is how irascibly Blight often agrees with Sandefur.

The headline (which may or may not be Blight’s) sets an adversarial tone: “How the Right Co-Opts Frederick Douglass.” Yet Blight echoes many of Sandefur’s themes: Douglass “believed in self-reliance,” “loved the Declaration of Independence” and the “natural-rights tradition” and the Bill of Rights, “forged a livelihood with his voice and pen,” and preached “self-reliance for his fellow blacks.”

Sandefur, Blight writes, “argues that Douglass’s essential legacy lies in his advocacy of liberty, individualism and private property and free enterprise.” So. . . what’s the problem?

Blight thinks the problem is Sandefur’s insistence that Douglass is an individualist. But the real problem is that Blight misunderstands individualism. But Blight is not the only one at fault here; many conservatives and libertarians also misunderstand individualism, at least partly, and their errors make Blight’s criticisms superficially plausible.

Let’s begin by straightening out some of the terms. Blight treats the right, conservatism, and libertarianism as if they were of a piece. They are not. The terms right-wing and conservative are so ambiguous that they can mean contradictory things (as I discuss in Reclaiming Liberalism, which, incidentally Sandefur compliments).

Conservatives who want to deport peaceable immigrants, restrict legal immigration, ramp up the drug war, impose tariffs, and ban all abortion have essentially nothing in common with libertarians who hold the exact opposite beliefs on all those issues and on many others.

The term libertarian can mean anything from the advocacy of a welfare state to anti-state anarchism—the ambiguity of the term is a major reason why I do not identify as a libertarian (although I once did). Unfortunately, Blight is no more careful elsewhere.

Douglass, Blight writes, “strongly believed in self-reliance but demanded an interventionist government to free slaves, defeat the Confederacy and protect black citizens from terror and discrimination.”

Here Blight pits self-reliance against a government that actively protects people’s rights. But these things are complementary, not antagonistic. No one who advocates self-reliance means by that term that no one (including police) should help someone being mugged on the street. Blight does not quote Sandefur or anyone else to the effect that self-reliance means there can be no organized rights protection—because no serious person actually holds that view.

Douglass, Blight claims, “fundamentally was not a self-made man,” because “without many people, especially women (his grandmother, two wives, a daughter and countless abolitionist women who supported his career) as well as male mentors, both white and black, he would not have survived and become Douglass.” Blight continues: “In private, he easily admitted his reliance on friends and associates, and he believed in a theory of . . . collective liberation by God and by events.”

But, again, no sensible person actually believes that a “self-made” person makes himself in every respect, as a God who declares himself into being, fully formed. One need not be dropped on a solitary island on one’s day of birth to become “self-made” in the relevant sense. Of course any successful person is first nurtured by others and benefits by some luck.

What it means to be self-made is to improve one’s self in the areas open to choice. Some people had all of the advantages that Douglass had in his life—and many other advantages besides (such as not being born into slavery)—and did essentially nothing with their lives. Douglass was self-made in the sense that he made the mental and physical effort required to make a good career and life for himself.

Blight next writes: “The radical abolitionist who risked all to use words and politics to free an entire people from slavery was, to Mr. Sandefur, only ‘a radical for individualism’ and never concerned with ‘the interests of the collective.’”

Here Blight misunderstands Sandefur’s meaning. Sandefur denies “collective” interests that somehow transcend the interests of individuals; he does not deny that individuals can have interests in common (such as an interest in escaping slavery). An individualist in Sandefur’s sense is someone who thinks that individuals should have their rights protected, not that they shouldn’t.

Blight: “Douglass believed that freedom was safe only within the state and under law.” But rights-protecting government is an aspect of individualism properly conceived, not opposed to it.

Blight: Douglass “never employed that ‘let alone’ dictum without also demanding ‘fair play,’ and security against terror and discrimination.” Again, no sensible person claims that people should not be protected against the terror of violence, which is why Blight does not quote anyone he’s supposedly criticizing.

Blight: “Douglass, the greatest American abolitionist, also happened to be a Republican in a century when that party stood for using government to free people.” It is unclear what Blight’s point here is, but, again, I’d point out that “using government to free people” is part and parcel of the individualist project. Obviously I agree with Blight that modern Republicans have in many ways forsaken their heritage, but what does this have to do with his thesis? Blight’s suggestion that individualism equals conservatism equal libertarianism equals the right equals the Republican Party is nonsense.

Here is how Blight closes:

[Douglass] wrote: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them.” . . . Douglass’s understanding of power could never confine him to advocacy of individualism alone.

Here again Blight totally misrepresents what individualism means. It does not mean that individuals cannot throw off oppressive power or collaborate to do so; it means that individuals should seek to throw off oppressive power and collaborate to do so. We can debate what sorts of “power” count as oppressive (obviously slavery is a paradigmatic case of oppression), but that doesn’t change the basic point. Or perhaps Blight would care to point to a single person who means by individualism what Blight claims.

Apparently people who visit Yale these days need to take care, lest the raging straw men overtake them, as they have overtaken Blight.

But, as silly as Blight’s op-ed is, hopefully some good will come of it, if it encourages people to learn more about Douglass and his views.