Frederick Douglass lithograph by Alexander Hay Ritchie ca 1875

Lithography of Frederick Douglass by Alexander Hay Ritchie (circa 1875). Smithsonian Museum / Public Domain

This talk was presented at the New School forum “American Democracy in Crisis: Perspectives from Tocqueville, Douglass, Wells, Dewey, and Arendt” on October 13, 2022.

Frederick Douglass, the brilliant orator, abolitionist, and fugitive ex-slave, has been viewed primarily as a theorist of freedom and a fierce critic of slavery, but he also had profound insights about democracy that are especially relevant to our present moment. His thinking about U.S. democracy in particular is useful given the framing of this panel in terms of “crisis.” Douglass was at times hopeful about U.S. democracy, such as during Reconstruction, when he believed a revolutionary moment of democratic renewal was underway, but at others he despaired about the possibility of genuine U.S. democracy, particularly in the post-Reconstruction era, when white reunion was achieved at the price of Black rights in the South and lynching and racial violence were rampant. I will focus in particular on three key elements of Douglass’s thinking on democracy: 1) his ideal of multiracial, cosmopolitan democracy, 2) his warnings about the threat racist backlash poses to U.S. democracy, and 3) his embrace of institutional experimentation and skepticism about settled law informed by Black fugitivity.

Douglass’s conception of multiracial democracy envisioned the political coexistence on egalitarian terms of individuals of “all races and creeds” as fellow citizens. He called for a “composite nationality” anchored in the idea of a universal human right to migration and the political legacy of the Americas as a multiracial continent. Douglass’s concept of “composite nationality” envisions an egalitarian democracy in which multiple racial groups can coexist, and in which whiteness is not dominant. He aspired to reshape U.S. democracy, both by extending equal citizenship rights and dignity to oppressed groups such as Black and Indigenous peoples, and by being open to immigrants, particularly nonwhite immigrants.

Douglass’s formulation of an expansive vision of U.S. multiracial democracy in the 1870s, fueled in part by the idea of a human right to migration, is especially interesting in light of contemporary debates about immigration in the United States. Douglass’s thinking about a human right of migration was based on an analysis of how racial hierarchy had rendered the United States an uneven democracy, which could be remedied via a commitment to accepting nonwhite immigrants from all corners of the globe and including them as equal citizens.

During the era of Reconstruction, Douglass formulated a cosmopolitan notion of multiracial democracy grounded in the idea of a universal human right to migration and the Americas as a multiracial space. In an 1869 lecture on the United States’ emerging “Composite Nationality,” for example, he linked the fact that “until recently, neither the Indian nor the negro has been treated as a part of the body politic” to opposition to Chinese immigration. He observed that those who objected to nonwhite immigration to the United States often wondered: “Should not a superior race protect itself from contact with inferior ones? Are not the white people the owners of this continent? Have they not the right to say what kind of people shall be allowed to come here and settle?” To these critics, Douglass forcefully replied: “There are such things in the world as human rights. They rest upon no conventional foundation, but are eternal, universal, and indestructible. Among these is the . . . right of migration . . . which belongs to no particular race, but belongs alike to all and to all alike.” Observing that it was only by virtue of said right that European settlers and their descendants could justify their presence in the Americas, he affirmed: “I want a home here not only for the negro, the mulatto and the Latin races, but I want the Asiatic to find a home here in the United States, and feel at home here, both for his sake and ours.” Douglass argued that the United States “should welcome . . . all nations . . . tongues and peoples, and as fast as they can learn our language and comprehend the duties of citizenship, we should incorporate them into the American body politic.”

Douglass was undoubtedly overly optimistic in his hopes that Reconstruction-era racial inclusion would constitute a permanent democratic re-composition of U.S. democracy, but his ringing endorsement of immigration a century-and-a-half ago is striking in light of contemporary fears about nonwhite immigration. Efforts to enact multiracial democracy during Douglass’s lifetime evoked many of the same fears and racial resentments elicited today by the United States’ changing demographics.

This brings me to the second important insight of Douglass’s thinking on democracy that I want to highlight: his prescient recognition of the danger to U.S. democracy posed by white grievance (my term, not his). Douglass foresaw the possibility of racist backlash to moments of progress toward racial equality, however fugitive and inconclusive they have turned out to be. White resistance has been a recurrent reaction to racial progress in the United States. Emancipation and Reconstruction were followed by the consolidation of Jim Crow racial segregation, official adherence to white supremacy, racial terror, political disenfranchisement, and xenophobia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Likewise, the civil rights victories of the 1960s were followed by the retrenchment of the welfare state (which was justified by racially coded appeals) and the concomitant rise of mass incarceration that continued to ensure material racial inequality despite the absence of mandated racial segregation. And the public euphoria that greeted the election of a Black president in 2008, which was widely hailed as evidence that the U.S. had finally become the vaunted post-racial society it had supposedly always aspired to be, quickly gave way to an era of heightened white racial resentment and outright racist backlash.

An early example of this kind of backlash were the fears of a “black emperor” elicited by the enfranchisement of African Americans following the abolition of slavery almost a century and a half ago. In a speech delivered in 1872–73, “Reminiscences of the Anti-Slavery Conflict,” Douglass mocked such fears of “black supremacy,” which fancifully imagined that were the United States to end slavery, “the republic . . . [would] give place to a vast American empire under the sway of a jet black emperor who shall have a snow white empress—a court of all shades and colors—and a code of laws considerately enacted to protect the unfortunate whites from insults offered by the insolent and dominant blacks!” In the nineteenth century the prospect of the end of enslavement and subsequent black enfranchisement conjured “the phantom of black supremacy” and miscegenation for some white observers. Through the lens of white commitment to political rule, Black equality could only be imagined as the specter of Black domination. For Douglass, the unchecked racial violence of the post-Reconstruction era was directly connected to slavery, which had warped the civic capacities of white Southerners by accustoming them to economic and political mastery and to a thorough disregard for Black life. White participants in lynch mobs had been “brought up in the exercise of irresponsible power,” he argued in “Why is the Negro Lynched” in 1894. Rather than a problem that African Americans needed to solve, the solution to lynching was to “let the white people of the North and South conquer their prejudices. . . . Let them give up the idea that they can be free while making the Negro a slave. Let them give up the idea that to degrade the coloured man is to elevate the white man. . . . They are not required to do much. They are only required to undo the evil they have done.” Democracy, Douglass argued, required that all groups give up expectations of political dominance.

Douglass also had important insights about how to approach the architecture of U.S. democracy. There are moments when he counseled deference to Supreme Court opinions even as he denounced them, such as in the aftermath of the decision that ruled the Civil Rights Act of 1875 (which had barred discrimination in public accommodations for Black people) unconstitutional, but at other moments, such as his 1852 speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?,” he challenged undue deference to unjust laws. In a context in which slavery was legal and Black people enslaved or free were not citizens, he compared self-emancipation, abolitionism, and sanctuary politics to the revolutionary activities of the founding fathers. The U.S. founding fathers, Douglass argued, “preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage . . . They believed in order; but not in the order of tyranny. With them, nothing was ‘settled’ that was not right . . . They seized upon eternal principles and set a glorious example in their defence.” Douglass also asserted the right of ordinary citizens to interpret the law. He rejected the idea that elites were better able to interpret it. He sketched a democratic approach to constitutional interpretation where “every American citizen has a right to form an opinion of the Constitution.” As Anne Norton has argued following Douglass, constitutionalism is not always the safeguard of democracy, and law-breaking may also be a necessary democratic virtue in unjust times.

In sum, Douglass, as a democratic thinker shaped in part by the experiences of enslavement and fugitivity, urges us to approach democracy from the perspective of those most at risk. If his part had been “to tell the story of the slave,” as he wrote in Life and Times, his third and final autobiography, our obligation is to approach the current crisis of U.S. democracy from the perspective of those who have historically been least able to reap its benefits. From their perspective this crisis is not new, but an ongoing struggle.

Juliet Hooker is Royce Family Professor of Teaching Excellence in Political Science at Brown University.