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The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass

The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass: In Pursuit of American Liberty

Nicholas Buccola
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 225
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  • Book Info
    The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass
    Book Description:

    Frederick Douglass, one of the most prominent figures in African-American and United States history, was born a slave, but escaped to the North and became a well-known anti-slavery activist, orator, and author. In The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass, Nicholas Buccola provides an important and original argument about the ideas that animated this reformer-statesman. Beyond his role as an abolitionist, Buccola argues for the importance of understanding Douglass as a political thinker who provides deep insights into the immense challenge of achieving and maintaining the liberal promise of freedom. Douglass, Buccola contends, shows us that the language of rights must be coupled with a robust understanding of social responsibility in order for liberal ideals to be realized. Truly an original American thinker, this book highlights Douglass's rightful place among the great thinkers in the American liberal tradition.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-2540-5
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Frederick Douglass
  4. 1 The Facts and the Philosophy: Frederick Douglass as Political Thinker
    (pp. 1-13)

    By 1860, Frederick Douglass’s patience was wearing thin. After spending nearly two decades as an antislavery activist and enduring the many setbacks of the 1850s—the congressional compromises, theDred Scottdecision, the execution of John Brown—he admitted to reaching a “point of weary hopelessness.”¹ The American people, he wrote, claim to accept the “civic catechism of the Declaration of Independence” and yet with three million people held in bondage around them, they are not moved from “the downy seat of inaction.” Douglass argued that the persistence of this “terrible paradox” was not due to a “failure to appreciate...

  5. 2 “Every Man Is Himself and Belongs to Himself”: Slavery and Self-Ownership as the Foundations of Douglass’s Liberalism
    (pp. 14-40)

    Frederick Douglass developed his views of political morality in the shadow of slavery. Born into bondage, he spent the first twenty years of his life experiencing the perils of an existence dominated by the arbitrary whims of those who claimed him as property. Douglass’s hatred of slavery cannot be overstated. To be enslaved, he said, is to be subjected to “the greatest injury this side of death” because to enslave a man is to “blot out his personality, degrade his manhood, and sink him to the condition of a beast of burden.”¹ In this chapter, I contend that Douglass’s arguments...

  6. 3 From Slavery to Liberty and Equality: Douglass’s Liberal Democratic Politics
    (pp. 41-75)

    On Monday, August 16, 1841 Frederick Douglass went to Nantucket to attend the summer meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. His attendance at this meeting would mark a profound shift in his life; for it was there that he was first “discovered” by antislavery leaders William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Parker Pillsbury, and John A. Collins. After standing up at the meeting and describing some of his experiences as a slave, Douglass’s life would forever be changed as he crossed the threshold into the tumultuous world of political activism. That night is also significant for other, more symbolic, reasons. At...

  7. 4 “Each for All and All for Each”: Douglass’s Case for Mutual Responsibility
    (pp. 76-100)

    So far, I have demonstrated that Douglass responded to the experience of slavery by embracing universal self-ownership and that this basic commitment led him to accept a liberal democratic political framework. In this chapter, I consider how he infused his liberalism with a robust philosophy of mutual responsibility. Throughout his career as a progressive reformer, Douglass had to confront the fact that Americans claimed to accept these liberal democratic principles while at the same time engaging in illiberal and undemocratic practices. His challenge as a reformer was to convince his fellow Americans to close the gap between the principles of...

  8. 5 “Friends of Freedom”: Reformers, Self-Made Men, and the Moral Ecology of Freedom
    (pp. 101-127)

    Frederick Douglass’s philosophy of virtue is captured in two of his most famous exhortations. First, it has been reported that in 1895, when a young man asked the seventy-seven-year-old Douglass for advice on what he ought to do with his life, he responded: “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!”¹ Second, in a speech entitled “Self-Made Men,” which he delivered more often than any other speech in his repertoire, Douglass contended: “[W]e may explain success mainly by one word and that word is WORK! WORK!! WORK!!! WORK!!!!”² The call to agitate captures the essence of Douglass’s view that each of us has extensive obligations...

  9. 6 “Man Is Neither Wood Nor Stone”: Top-Down Moral Education in Douglass’s Liberalism
    (pp. 128-157)

    Frederick Douglass was not a systematic political thinker. He did not offer a detailed account of the role institutions play in the moral development of citizens. He was not, though, completely silent on top-down forms of moral education. By top-down, I mean those forms of moral education that originate with state institutions and officials or that have a more formal character than the matters discussed in the last chapter. In this chapter, my aim is to show that Douglass recognized the importance of top-down mechanisms for securing the conditions necessary for the exercise of personal freedom. More specifically, he thought...

  10. 7 Conclusion: Frederick Douglass in the American Mind
    (pp. 158-170)

    What was Frederick Douglass trying to do and how did he try to do it? These are the central questions I seek to answer in this conclusion. In so doing, I hope to provide my contribution to the interpretive questions with which I began: where does my reading fit within the debate over how best to understand Douglass’s political thought and what does my reading reveal about the significance of that thought for contemporary political theory and practice?

    Douglass’s aims were essentially liberal; he sought to achieve a political community in which each individual was free to author his or...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 171-200)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 201-208)
  13. Index
    (pp. 209-214)
  14. About the Author
    (pp. 215-215)