Previewing The Score: Was Frederick Douglass a Libertarian?

David W. Blight is a historian who teaches at Yale University and the author of the 2018 biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, which has received a lot of critical attention (and deservedly so: As President Donald J. Trump said in early 2017, “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.”)

Frederick Douglass prophet of freedom David BlightLast week Blight spoke about his book and how he came to write it at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, where he appeared on a panel with fellow biographer Raymond Arsenault, whose most recent book explores the life of tennis champion and civil-rights activist Arthur Ashe (who, as I like to put it, is the only winner whose statue stands along Monument Avenue in Richmond).

After the panel, which took place in the Jefferson School African-American Heritage Center, I had an opportunity to ask Blight a few questions about Frederick Douglass, whose life spanned most of the 19th century, from 1818 to 1895. He was a slave, self-taught writer, orator, leading abolitionist, newspaper publisher, memoirist, public official, ambassador, and the most photographed person in America during the 1800s.

Our complete conversation will be on the episode of The Score scheduled for this weekend. (Look for it Saturday, March 30.) In this short excerpt, David Blight answers my question about whether Douglass deserves to be held up by modern libertarians as a sort of “libertarian icon.” Blight’s rapid and flat response: “No.”

He went on to explain:

[Douglass] has been, I think, badly misused, particularly by the libertarian wing of the conservative movement, particularly by a book that was published by the Cato Institute called Self-Made Man, where they have seized (they being, in this case, a man named [Timothy] Sandefur, who wrote that book), but he’s not. He’s hardly alone.

Republicans love to embrace Douglass. One, because he was an original Republican but also because they claim he was such a proponent of bootstraps ideology, of self-reliance, and they even claim, of limited government, which is truly nonsense.

He was an advocate of black self-reliance. All black leaders were in the 19th century, but he was never an advocate of limited government. He believed in activist, interventionist federal power to destroy slavery, bringing political rights to black people and to protect those rights.

It is a use of the past, not unlike the way we all do it with historical figures — this is done with Lincoln, this is done with Jefferson. It’s an effort to try to get the most important black voice of the 19th century on the side of the conservative movement as some kind of an appeal to contemporary blacks, but there also are African Americans who are on the conservative side of the spectrum, who have adopted Douglass in this way, as well. They’re a small group, but they have done so as well. To do that you have to ignore about 90% of Douglass’s life and his ideology, which of course was born in radical abolitionism.

I don’t know enough about Frederick Douglass to judge whether Blight’s assessment of him is correct, but I will note that he conflates libertarians with conservatives and then with Republicans. Those are three different categories, three different ways of viewing politics, economics, and society. He also seems to think that “radical abolitionism” is inconsistent with libertarian thought. (It isn’t.) Timothy Sandefur may want to speak for himself, as he does in this Cato at Liberty blog post in response to another’s objection to his characterization of Frederick Douglass as a libertarian.

Listen to David Blight’s reply to my question here:

In our longer conversation, I ask Blight about Frederick Douglass’s rift and rapprochement with leaders of the women’s rights movement and about his career, late in life, as the U.S. Minister to Haiti.

Other authors from the Virginia Festival of the Book who will appear on this weekend’s episode of The Score will include Prudence Bushnell, who was U.S. Ambassador to Kenya in 1998, when our embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam were bombed by al-Qaeda, and New York Times Washington editor Jonathan Weisman, who has written about modern anti-Semitism in his most recent book.

Look for all that and more on The Score.