Frederick Douglass: The Original Audacity of Hope

Peter C. Myers, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire
October 18, 2008

Peter C. Myers is Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He is the author of two books, Our Only Star and Compass: Locke and the Struggle for Political Rationality and Frederick Douglass: Race and the Rebirth of American Liberalism, and of numerous essays and reviews on Locke and in American political thought and literature.

Session One (10:00am):

Focus: Douglass’s mature thinking in the pre-Emancipation period centers on two interrelated sets of issues: (1) his interpretations of America’s founding principles and history; and (2) his strategy for bringing about the abolition of slavery. Contrary to the Garrisonian faction of abolitionists, Douglass took a strongly positive view of the principles and actions of America’s Founders, and his positive view of the Founding in turn shaped his ideas concerning the proper strategy for ending slavery. These are our questions. For what reasons did Douglass affirm that the Declaration of Independence contains the true, universally inclusive principles of natural justice? For what reasons did Douglass affirm that the U.S. Constitution is “a glorious liberty document”? In the face of the series of setbacks encountered in the 1850s, for what reasons did Douglass affirm that slavery’s abolition is imminent? Why did he believe that the Civil War was an inevitable, “irrepressible conflict”? Why did he believe that the Union must and would prosecute the war as an abolitionist, not merely restorationist, war? How persuasive are Douglass’s arguments on all these points?


Session Two (12:15pm):

Focus: The general problem in the post-Emancipation, postwar period, as Douglass saw it, was to complete the work begun in the Civil War——to move the U.S. to become a fully unified nation and thereby to achieve its distinctive national mission as the world’s great exemplar of human unity. The pressing particular problem was to secure for the freedpeople and all other African Americans full and equal civil and political rights and to promote their fruitful exercise of those rights. To address the latter problem, Douglass of course spent much energy in this period agitating for voting rights and for full governmental protection of persons and property. But I want to focus our afternoon discussion on his arguments concerning broader and more enduring issues of political culture and national and racial identity. For what reasons did Douglass believe that the law of nature mandated the progressive unification of humankind? Why did he think his notion of a “composite nationality” was essential to civilizational progress? How did he respond to charges in his own day that policies of racial integration and open immigration would degrade America’s political culture? How would he respond to charges in our day that his vision of composite nationality entails for African Americans and other minority groups a degrading surrender of their particular racial, ethnic, or cultural identities? Why did he oppose proposals for emigration as destructive of African Americans’ fundamental, long-term interests, and why did he believe that they should cultivate a deep sense of identification with America, despite the injustices that they continued to suffer at both state and national levels? What sort of education did he advocate as the best preparation for African Americans to play their indispensable role in American reform? How persuasive are his arguments on all these points?


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