Socialism was then becoming particularly attractive to many New England reformers. Yet Douglass rejected the socialist case against private land ownership, saying “it is duty to possess it—and to possess it in that way in which its energies and properties can be made most useful to the human family.” He routinely preached the virtues of property rights. “So far from being a sin to accumulate property, it is the plain duty of every man to lay up something for the future,” he told a black crowd in Rochester, New York in 1885. “I am for making the best of both worlds and making the best of this world first, because it comes first.” As Douglass’ glowing description of his first paying job indicated, he also considered economic liberty an essential aspect of human freedom.
Nor was Douglass a fan of organized labor. Since most labor unions at the time excluded blacks from their ranks, while lobbying the government for exclusive privileges, Douglass justifiably saw unions as yet another racist obstacle to black economic independence. As he argued in his 1874 essay “The Folly, Tyranny, and Wickedness of Labor Unions,” there was “abundant proof almost every day of their mischievous influence upon every industrial interest in the country.”
As for Garrison’s pacifism and anarchism, Douglass thought them preposterous in the face of the state-sanctioned outrages perpetrated under the slave system and later under the South’s incipient Jim Crow regime. “Yes, let us have peace, but let us have liberty, law, and justice first,” he declared on Memorial Day, 1878. “Let us have the Constitution, with its thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments, fairly interpreted, faithfully executed, and cheerfully obeyed.”
A highlight of The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass is Buccola’s sharp analysis of how Douglass’ belief in “social responsibility” shaped and informed his political judgments. “Douglass’s hope,” Buccola writes, “was that men could be so devoted to freedom—the value he identified as the center of the northern social system—that they would be moved to action on behalf of their neighbors.” Unfortunately for both Douglass and the country, things didn’t always work out that way, and his optimism diminished as he aged.
Buccola is slightly less persuasive when it comes to Douglass’ complicated relationship to government power. Douglass “had a reform liberal’s sensitivity to the ways in which social and economic inequality can undermine the promise of liberty,” Buccola argues. “As such, he defended an active role for the state to combat inequality and promote fairness.”
Douglass did defend an active role for the federal government, including subsidized land grants by the Freedmen’s Bureau and universal public education for African Americans. But there is an important distinction between his justifications for these programs and the arguments made today by advocates of welfare-state liberalism.
As far as Douglass was concerned, the former slaves had been robbed, not just of the fruits of their labor but of their very minds and bodies. They were therefore entitled to some serious compensation from the federal and state governments that had aided, abetted, and profited from those crimes. So he wasn’t talking about redistribution; he was talking about restitution—paid directly to the victims.