Sunday, February 6, 2011

Frederick Douglass and the Principal of Emancipatory Violence

Frederick Douglass was a fiery orator known for messages charged with powerful moral spirit. None of the white Northern abolitionists could speak with the credibility of a man who spent his youth as chattel labor. His words contributed to the moral fervor of the abolitionist movement. However, his unique experience and intellectual integrity also were the seads of an eventual rift with his abolitionist comrade Whilliam Loyd Garrison. Word spread of Frederick Douglass contributions to the cause of justice. His renown would eventual work all the way up to Abraham Lincoln whom he successfully lobbied for greater black participation helping to turn the Civil War into the emancipatory struggle we understand it as today.

Frederick Douglass was born the slave Frederick Bailey. During his slave years, prior to changing his name, he learned the efficacy of resistance. In a biography of Mr. Douglass Sandra Thomas relates the following story:

“In January 1834, Frederick was sent to work for Edward Covey, a poor farmer who had gained a reputation around Saint Michaels for being and expert ‘slave breaker’…

After being on the farm for one week, Frederick was given a serious beating for letting an oxen team run wild. During the months to follow, he was continually whipped until he began to feel that he was ‘broken’. On one hot August afternoon his strength failed him and he collapsed in the field. Covey kicked and beat Frederick to no avail and finally walked away in disgust… Beaten down as Frederick was, he found the strength to rebel when Covey began tying him to a post in preparation for a whipping. ‘At that moment - from whence came the spirit I don't know - I resolved to fight,’ Frederick wrote. ‘I seized Covey hard by the throat, and as I did so, I rose.’ Covey and Frederick fought for almost two hours until Covey finally gave up telling Frederick that his beating would have been less severe had he not resisted. ‘The truth was,’ said Frederick, ‘that he had not whipped me at all.’ Frederick had discovered an important truth: ‘Men are whipped oftenist who are whipped easiest.’”[1]

The fight with the slave breaker Edward Covey was a pivotal moment in Douglass’ life. At age 16 he had resisted a master “slave breaker” and had won. From this time onward Douglass wouldn’t receive another stripe from Covey. The lesson was clear to Douglass. He relates, "I was a changed being after that fight. I was nothing before; I WAS A MAN NOW... A man, without force, is without the essential dignity of humanity."[2] He resolved to be free and planned accordingly.

After a couple false starts, Douglass eventually succeeded in fleeing to the North where he was taken under the wing of prominent abolitionists, including Whilliam Loyd Garrison. Garrison and Douglass became close colleagues and worked together on Garrison’s newspaper the Liberator as well as touring together on lecture circuits. [3] Douglass quickly made a reputation for himself as an exceptional orator:

“‘As a speaker, he has few equals,’ proclaimed the Concord, Massachusetts, Herald of Freedom, the newspaper praised his elegant use of words, and his debating skills. ‘He has wit, arguments, sarcasm, pathos - all that first rate men show in their master effort.’ His flashing eyes, large mass of hair, and tall figure added to his performance.”[4]

Douglass contributed a great deal to the advancement of Garrison’s project as a lecturer on his circuit. However there were tensions and disagreements as Douglass developed intellectually. For instance, white abolitionists asked Douglass to dumb-down his lectures. “They thought it was best to keep a little of the plantation speech.”[5] In fact Douglass spoke so eloquently that people began to doubt the veracity of his stories. They didn’t expect a newly freed slave with no formal education to be capable of speaking so lucidly and with such a high degree of precision and style.

More directly, Douglass differed with Garrison on the use of violence for political ends. At one point Douglass met with the white militant abolitionist, John Brown, and found himself very sympathetic to his politics. Sandra Thomas explains that, “Brown had told him that slaveholders ‘had forfeited their right to live, and that slaves had the right to gain their liberty in any way they could.’” Brown’s rights based theory of politics appealed a great deal to Frederick Douglass. His days on the plantation and particular his epic battle with the slave owner Covey had taught Frederick a critical lesson about the efficacy of violence in achieving the ends of human dignity. Jason Matzke explains:

Covey could no longer stand in a perfect master-slave relation with Douglass—the power Covey held over him was no longer absolute. Douglass claims that human nature is such that we can- not help but fail to honor a person who lacks power. And, given that our sense of self involves seeing ourselves through others’ eyes, it was important that Douglass not only stood up for him- self, but that Covey came to see Douglass as something more than a mere object or animal to be used.”[6]

According to Frederick’s theory on violence, resistance, physical resistance is critical not only for the dignity of the oppressed, but also for the respect of the oppressor. Both parties in the master-slave relation will be unaffected by passive non-violence. “At abolitionist meetings Douglass began telling his audiences that he would be pleased to hear that the slaves in the South had revolted and ‘were spreading death and destruction.’” When John Brown tried to unleash the revolutionary potential in the South, Frederick Douglas turned down his offer to assist him; However, when John Brown died with his sons at the end of his doomed raid on Harper’s Ferry, Frederick Douglas praised him as a “noble old hero.”[7]

However, despite Frederick’s support for violent rebellion, the route Frederick followed was that of active non-violence. He finalized his break from Garrison by moving to Rochester and beginning the publication of his own paper which quickly garnered critical acclaim – although little in the way of financial success. The North Star provided the means for black resistance to slavery to express herself in her own terms.[8] Despite his weekly publication’s limited readership, The North Star was a critically important forum for the development of a uniquely black intellectual culture. Here Frederick Douglas engaged people with words rather with weapons.

Likewise, Frederick Douglas was a conductor on the Underground Railroad and assisted Harriet Tubman in ushering hundreds of black brothers into Canada. “At times, as many as 11 fugitives were hiding in his home.” In the high North freed slaves could be free from bounty hunters and Federal agents who roamed the United States.

Yet, Frederick Douglas continued his insistence on the justice of righteous violence in the face of oppression (when duly supplemented with active non-violent resistance) and put his theory to the test manifested when the outbreak Civil War tested the country’s resolve to defend the principles of the Constitution. From the early stages of the conflict Douglass perceived the emancipatory potential of the coming struggle. He became a strong advocate of direct black participation in the war effort. He said, “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.” He successfully petitioned Lincoln for black participation in the armed forces and began using his office as both a disseminator of recruitment literature and a depot for registering for military service. Among the volunteers were his two sons: Lewis and Charles.[9]

Eventually, Douglass was invited to a meeting with the newly re-elected President Lincoln. Douglass’ reputation preceded him and Lincoln greeted him warmly saying, “Here comes my friend Douglass.” In a private discussion Douglas laid-out his frustration at the slow progress on issues of equal treatment of black soldiers in the North and emancipation of the slaves in the South. Lincoln praised Douglas for his recruiting efforts, promised to address the grievances of black soldiers, and explained his plans for the issuance of the now famous Emancipation Proclamation. Lincolns’ candor and confidence says a great deal for his respect of Frederick Douglass. In fact some historians believe this discussion was critical in cementing Lincoln’s resolve to issue the Emancipation Proclamation despite the protestations of several of Lincoln’s closest advisers.[10] Furthermore, Lincoln asked for Douglass’s assistance in an effort to raise havoc in the South by unleashing the revolutionary potential of the black population still held in bondage. Douglass responded in the affirmative: “I listened with the deepest interest and profoundest satisfaction, and, at his suggestion, agreed to undertake the organizing of a band of scouts, composed of colored men, whose business should be somewhat after the original plan of John Brown, to go into the rebel states, beyond the lines of our armies, and carry the news of emancipation, and urge the slaves to come within our boundaries.”[11]

Douglass was an incredible advocate for the liberation of black slaves, and the betterment of black social conditions. His ideas and contributions, probably more than any other radical abolitionist, resulted in dramatic and substantial changes in the outcome of the abolitionist movement and the Civil War. His departure from the early, sanctimonious, white abolitionists in favor of freedom at all costs – even through violent means – led him down a path towards broad black participation in the Civil War. This in turn helped provide Lincoln with proper context and rationale from which to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, as both a strategic military policy as well as a moral indictment of Southern slavery. In Frederick Douglass’ own words, That every slave who escapes from the Rebel States is a loss to the Rebellion and a gain to the Loyal Cause I need not stop to argue; the proposition is self evident. The negro is the stomach of the rebellion.”[12]

From the moment Douglass made the irrational decision to strike out against Edward Covey his destiny was clear. He won his dignity through struggle. Then as a free-man he turned around and struck-out against white supremacists with every weapon at his disposal. He printed a weekly paper and guided run-aways to freedom. Yet he always realized that this would never be enough. Only through all out violent rebellion would the black population be able to rise from the depths of slavery into the light of human dignity. Frederick Douglass’ struggle and emancipation from Edward Covey mirrored the struggle and emancipation of his people from the Southern slavocracy.



[1] Sandra Thompson. Biography of Frederick Douglass. http://www.history.rochester.edu/class/Douglasss/part1.html. Accessed Feb. 6, 2011.

[2] Anthology of Black Existential Philosophy. Douglasss, My Bondage and My Freedom, 246-47; emphasis in original.

[3] Sandra Thompson. Biography of Frederick Douglass. http://www.history.rochester.edu/class/Douglasss/part1.html. Accessed Feb. 6, 2011.

[4] Ibid. Accessed Feb. 6, 2011.

[5] Ibid.

[7] Sandra Thomas. http://www.history.rochester.edu/class/douglass/part3.html. Accesed Feb. 6, 2011

[8] Sandra Thomas. http://www.history.rochester.edu/class/douglass/part2.html. Accesed Feb. 6, 2011

[9] Mr. Lincoln and Freedom © 2002-2011 The Lincoln Institute. http://www.mrlincolnandfreedom.org/inside.asp?ID=69&subjectID=4

[10] http://americancivilwar.com/colored/frederick_douglass.html

[11] Douglas, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, p. 348-349.

[12] Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter of Frederick Douglass to President Lincoln, August 29, 1864).

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