Frederick Douglass’s Radical Abolitionism for Our Times

Yes, Mr. Trump, Frederick Douglass has “done an amazing job” addressing our current chaos. His radical abolitionist commitments resonate powerfully today and foster resistance to the words and actions of your administration. Douglass called slaveholders the hateful enemies of the country, and the Confederacy an experiment in barbarism. The caging of migrant children and separation from their parents is also barbaric and evokes the domestic slave trade of the pre-Civil War years. You call neo-Nazis “very fine people,” and admire Confederate statues and Lost Cause mythology.

If American democracy seems to be regressing to the heyday of slavery and Jim Crow, our politics of resistance today should also look to earlier struggles against racial oppression, following Douglass’ motto of “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!” Douglass called pro-slavery conservatives obdurate racists and misogynists who defied the universal truths of democracy and equality. It is high time to revive his fiery words. In the age of #MeToo and the election of an unprecedented number of women to Congress, the motto of Douglass’ The North Star, “Right is of No Color, Truth is of No Sex” remains timeless.

It’s commonplace for moderates to decry political correctness, identity politics, and incivility in protest. 19th-century abolitionists, too, faced criticism for being uncivil (to slaveholders) and “fanatical.” But they, like some modern-day activists, bore the brunt of racist mob violence and state repression.

Douglass had no compunction in unleashing his righteous wrath on slaveholders and their enablers, making it difficult for them to pose as decent people to cover up heinous crimes against humanity. Abolitionists embarrassed southern slaveholders who sought to reside in, transit or vacation in the north with their enslaved. They confronted them and dragged them before the courts of law and public opinion. In one well-known case, Jane Johnson and her two sons escaped her powerful master, the US plenipotentiary designate to Nicaragua, Colonel John H. Wheeler. Johnson would eventually testify against her enslaver.

The enslaved voted with their feet and sued for their freedom. While the legal system defined them as human property, they still sought the protections of the rule of law and due process. It was their day-to-day claims for freedom and citizenship that would infamize the 1857 Dred Scott decision, which pronounced that a Black man had no rights that a white man was bound to respect. In the face of the Trump administration’s unconstitutional actions that defy international law and human rights, lawsuits across the country seek to hold the powerful accountable for hundreds of missing migrant children and for authoritarian actions like declaring a national emergency to aggrandize power.

Like the free states that passed personal liberty laws to help self-emancipated slaves in defiance of the federal fugitive slave law, 16 states have also sued Trump for his emergency declaration. Trump’s criticism of the national birthright citizenship clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, geared to enfranchise formerly enslaved people, also illustrates how Douglass’ fight for equal Black citizenship in the United States remains salient.

During his 20-month stay in the United Kingdom, Douglass sought to evoke “international moral force” against slavery and the “bastard republicanism” of the United States. And like most abolitionists, he looked to the example of the Haitian Revolution – the only successful slave rebellion in world history that created a modern Black nation – as a transnational model of racial liberation. The internationalism of the abolitionists and Douglass stand in stark contrast to the reactionary provincialism and white nationalism of Trump.

Douglass did not mince words, nor should we. As a formerly enslaved person, Douglass understood that slavery was an unending state of war against Black people, who had the right to strike out against slaveholders, slave traders, and slave catchers in self-defense. In abolitionist print culture and the lecturing circuit, of which Douglass became a master, slaveholders and their barbarity lay exposed. He mercilessly mocked their Christian hypocrisy, their claims to civilization, and their social and cultural pretensions. The politics of the slaveholding republic was based on the “trafficking in the blood and souls of their fellow men,” and its economy on the “gold dripping with gore from the plantations.”

The history of Black people in the United States can be traced like the blood of a wounded man through a crowd, Douglass said in his speech, “A Nation in the Midst of a Nation.” Presciently analyzing American racism, Douglass said that white Americans had sympathy for “the Hungarian, the Italian, the Irishman, the Jew, and the Gentile….but for my poor people enslaved – blasted and ruined – it would appear, that America has neither justice, mercy nor religion.”

Slaveholders and their racist allies, Douglass powerfully noted, were not just the hated enemies of Black people. Their thirst for domination and obsession for power subverted democracy. In his speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” he brilliantly showed how slavery had crippled constitutional democracy and representative government in the United States. Today’s votaries of this deeply anti-democratic and reactionary tradition still traffic in voter suppression, gerrymandering, and disfranchisement. Such odious practices disproportionately affect people of color in those very states where slavery and segregation reigned.

The fight for racial liberation and democracy throughout the globe has always been intertwined with the Black protest tradition that Douglass helped found. His memorable words still speak today: “Our government may at some time be in the hands of a bad man. When in the hands of a good man it is all well enough….We ought to have our government so shaped that even when in the hands of a bad man we shall be safe.”

About the Author

Manisha Sinha is the James L. and Shirley A. Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut. She is the author of The Slave’s Cause, which received several awards and prizes, including the Frederick Douglass Book Prize and the Avery O. Craven Award for Best Book on the Civil War Era. Her first book, The Counterrevolution of Slavery, was named one of the ten best books on slavery in Politico.