Frederick Douglass: Politics and Reason in the Slavery Debate
My first experience leading a Socratic discussion was during my junior year of college. I had the opportunity to ask the opening question on the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and found myself at something of a loss. In a text with so many good questions, considering so many hard truths–many relating to that Peculiar Institution, slavery– where does one begin? As a junior in college, I had to make a choice. As an educator at The Saint Constantine School, where we are working to begin our blog, I do not have to make that choice. Here begins the first of a few posts on a text that has for a long time been of the utmost importance to me.
In his preface to the Narrative, William Lloyd Garrison gives an impassioned defense of Douglass’ account, providing counter-arguments to its detractors and upholding the righteousness of the abolitionist position. Rather than approaching slavery as a mere political issue, he engages the whole person and asks him to respond to the events of the day.
So profoundly ignorant of the nature of slavery are many persons, that they are stubbornly incredulous whenever they read or listen to any recital of the cruelties which are daily inflicted on its victims. They do not deny that slaves are held as property; but that terrible fact seems to convey to the minds no idea of injustice, exposure to outrage, or savage barbarity. Tell them of cruel scourgings, of mutilations and brandings, of scenes of pollution and blood, of the banishment of all light and knowledge, and they affect to be greatly indignant at such enormous exaggerations, such wholesale misstatements, such abominable libels on the character of southern planters!…Skeptics of this character abound in society. In some few instances, their incredulity arises from a want of reflection; but, generally, it indicates a hatred of the light, a desire to shield slavery from the assaults of its foes, a contempt of the colored race, whether bond or free.
This section points to timeless principles that can help us navigate the perceived disconnect between rational, moral, and political discourse, allowing them to remain harmoniously connected and enlighten our decision-making that we might align ourselves with Truth.
Your political opinion is not immune to the dictates of reason.
The first disconnect Garrison points to is the one between reason and political loyalty. The detractors he writes against not only miss a clear, rational truth, but combat it with a fallacy. To hold another human being as property is itself an injustice, a barbarity, an outrage; this truth is clear to any who uphold the basic tenets of reason. For citizens of a country whose founding document says, “All men are created equal,” this truth should be clearer still.
Moreover, these detractors from the abolitionist cause attempt to reclaim the moral high ground through a bizarre red herring, asserting that the particular narratives of cruelty directed against slaveholders are an unfair character assassination. They argue that individual stories, like those Douglass tells, cannot be reflective of an overarching system, but are used to unfairly paint a negative picture of an entire institution.
This view both denies the facts and ignores the argument the abolitionist presents. Firstly, anecdotal evidence cannot be ignored simply because it is anecdotal. While one slave’s story could be exaggerated and false, it can only be ignored if it is shown to be outside the norm. Secondly, the moral outrage at the besmirching of southern planters’ character does not serve as an adequate response to the abolitionist argument. Even if particular stories of the cruelty of slavery slander a few comparatively innocent slavers, even if the slaves end up being worse people than their owners, the abolitionist argument—that no man is chattel to be bought and sold—remains intact.
We tend to look favorably upon the arguments of those with whom we agree, while being careful critics of those with whom we disagree. This is rationally dishonest and an affront to Truth. It is our responsible to apply ourselves with logical rigor to all arguments in the public space upon which we would choose to comment. It is easy to see when someone is being unfair to your side, but it takes charity and careful reflection to see when your side is being unfair. This brings us to the next point Garrison makes.
Responsible political engagement requires careful reflection.
Garrison points out that skeptics of the abolitionist cause abound, and that some of them exist due to their own lack of reflection. The born and bred, dyed-in-the-wool southerner who loves his community might not have ever taken the time to carefully consider the ethics of slavery. Part of the goal of the Narrative, then, is to force him to reflect on these issues.
This tendency still exists today. When an otherwise kind, thoughtful person who I respect espouses violent rhetoric or unkind opinion, I often wonder whether or not they have reflected on their own stances on these issues. Does the well meaning, charitable Democrat need to simply reflect more on pro-life issues in order to develop more circumspect thought? Does the church-going, Bible-believing Republican need to more carefully consider Syrian refugees in light of the Gospels?
Maybe. But Garrison contends that, more often than not, the denial of righteous causes, such as abolition, comes mostly from a failure of morality, a breakdown in the charity of the person that bleeds out into his politics.
Your morals should inform your politics.
First, to responsibly participate in political discourse, you need a proper moral code. It requires the courage of conviction from a robust code of ethics to stand up against evils in a society. Slavery, segregation and the like were defeated because they were wrong, and those who fought against these evils did so with Truth on their side. As soon as your politics become mere pragmatisms, they are useless. What is right and wrong, good and evil, must take the primary place of consideration as we dialogue about public policy because ultimately, questions like slavery go beyond political considerations.
Second, the moral code you hold must be applied across all issues. An abolitionist who still holds slaves is no abolitionist at all. The Christian who denies the sanctity of human life must do some soul searching. Your moral convictions are not to be held only when they are convenient, but must be held absolutely in all circumstances. As Garrison points out, the majority of those who upheld slavery were not ignorant, but wicked, weak men who prized their own convenience over what was right. If our politics serve to do the same, are we any better than they? We must think rationally and ethically, reflecting with circumspection upon the opinions we hold that they may be found without blemish. Only then can evil institutions, like slavery, be brought down through principled political engagement.