The Undercurrent

Frederick Douglass, Self Made Man: An Interview with Timothy Sandefur

Timothy Sandefur is Vice President for Litigation at the Goldwater Institute and author of the new book: Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man. Recently, I sat down with Mr. Sandefur to discuss his book and the inspirational life of Frederick Douglass. The following is a transcript of that interview.

When most people discover Douglass for themselves, they find his personal story of escaping slavery and making a life for himself inspiring. In your view, what kind of virtues did Douglass cultivate in himself that made his amazing achievements possible?

Well, Douglass was in a position that’s pretty hard for us to relate to today in the United States, where even the poorest person is in nowhere near the state of deprivation that Douglass was born into. He had to build his character, you might say, from the ground up. And that meant he had to discover principles of character—he didn’t have a parent to watch out for him and he had few role models. And although he had a personal strength that led him to do things like learn to read in secret, nobody could have the strength to withstand the overwhelming, crushing power of the slave masters. So when he was 16 and he was sent to the farm of Edward Covey, who made extra money by breaking the wills of rebellious slaves, he tells us that Covey’s regimen of torture and deprivation worked. He lost the will to escape or to read or to dream of his freedom, and there’s good reason to think he began to drink to excess at the time.

It was only after that, when he was finally driven to the end of his tether by Covey, after a savage beating in August of 1834, that he fought back. He was never really able to explain how he managed that. But it was the beginning for him—it was how he discovered the most basic virtue he needed to survive, which was the will, the commitment, to stand up for himself. That became a lesson he taught others for the rest of his life. He liked to phrase it in the words of the poet Byron: Who would be free must themselves strike the blow. Nobody’s going to do it for you. You have to stand up for yourself if you want to survive as a free person, which is the same as saying, as a person at all. And he built on that first discovery of virtue to the broader and more complex virtue of self-esteem: that if you are to survive as a free person, you must believe yourself worthy of that freedom, and that belief must be justified. That then encompassed a variety of virtues necessary to make him worthy of freedom in his own judgment: things like curiosity and perseverance and dignity. This last, especially.

Douglass was a man of great dignity—just look at him! The man’s pictures look like a sculpture by an artist trying to make a metaphor for dignity! One of my favorite stories about Douglass is that when he went to visit President Lincoln, and he was waiting in the outer office for his turn, and of course he was the only black man there. And another man came up to him and in a sort of casual racist joke said “Are you the President?” And Douglass simply looked back and said “I am Frederick Douglass.” That’s it. I love that story about him—it perfectly embodies that quality about him that said, I don’t have to be anything other than who I am because I have proven myself worthy of dignity. And that means that if you treat me rudely, then you’re only reflecting badly upon yourself.

Inspirational as his story was, Douglass was also an intellectual with unique views about politics. If he were alive today, would he be part of the modern liberty movement or would he fit in more with the political mainstream?

Douglass would certainly be within the modern liberty movement, whatever term one uses for that. I’m comfortable with the term “libertarian,” but “classical liberal” or whatever will do. He certainly would not fit within today’s Republican or Democratic parties at all. He rejected socialism and other schemes of wealth redistribution. He was emphatic about the importance of self-reliance and opposed the idea of government “aid” in all but the rarest circumstances. He was a fervent supporter of gun rights. These are all things associated with the political right today. But he also rejected the prohibition of alcohol, although he himself did not drink and urged others not to. He supported women’s suffrage, literally until the day he died (not long after having spoken at a women’s suffrage convention). And he married across the color line—in 1884, married a white woman, which was quite shocking. These are very much the opposite of conservative. So he cannot be classified as a conservative or a liberal in today’s terms. But that’s because today’s political universe is so perverted, with one side favoring freedoms they like and opposing freedoms they don’t like, and the other doing the opposite, and then both sides switching their views depending on who’s in power—Douglass would have had none of that. He was a principled thinker who consistently favored legal equality and individual liberty.

But there’s also a sense in which Douglass was lucky to die when he did, in 1895, just before the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, just before Booker T. Washington gave the infamous Atlanta address in which he appeared to accept racial segregation. It was not long afterwards that W.E.B. DuBois began attacking Washington, and you have this intense debate between the two of them, which represented sort of the left and right wings of black political thought in America. Since Douglass died before that, he stands above them like the blimp at the Superbowl, and never really has to take sides. Both sides can claim him as their figurehead. Douglass would have been on board with Washington’s belief in personal responsibility and limited government—and he would have been on board with DuBois’s belief in intellectualism and the need for political agitation. If he had lived another twenty or thirty years, where would he have come down? I don’t think we can even begin to answer that question.

In the book, you describe William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist party as very misguided. Can contemporary activists learn from their mistakes?

So here’s a point where I am more comfortable in saying what side was right. Garrison was a great man, no doubt—a genuine hero. But he was also, I think (and Douglass thought) deeply misguided in his belief that the Constitution was an evil document because it protected slavery and his belief that Americans should refuse to vote or participate in politics because that only lent moral credibility to an evil system. Douglass at first agreed with that, but when he was 33 he changed his mind and announced that he believed the Constitution was actually a fundamentally anti-slavery document that should be used to abolish slavery, and that anti-slavery activists should run for office and vote and participate in politics. As a legal matter, I think he was right about the Constitution being fundamentally an anti-slavery document. And as a moral matter, I think he was right about political non-involvement being a dead end. In fact, it prioritizes one’s own moral purity over the much more complicated and morally necessary task of making a freer world. As Douglass said, it’s like being among pirates and robbing and pillaging people and then jumping into the lifeboat and saying you’ll be pure and good and have nothing to do with pirates anymore—when your real responsibility is to restore the lost treasure.

If you want to have nothing to do with politics, fine. But don’t call yourself an abolitionist, because to be an abolitionist means to use the tools at your disposal to free the slaves. Now, I think this tension—between the Garrisonian non-involvement anarchist view and the Douglass view of political engagement—is a real one today. You encounter a lot of libertarians who believe that it’s immoral to vote or to participate in politics except perhaps to protest, and they insist that all you’re doing when you work within the system is to perpetuate a system that is irredeemably bad. And you encounter others who are more of Douglass’s persuasion, that it’s more important to do what you can in the existing world to make real people freer than they were before. Personally, I’m of Douglass’s view, even though I acknowledge its downsides. I think it’s more important to do what we can today to make the world freer, even just a little bit, than to stand on the sidelines and demand that the entire thing be torn down and rebuilt. There may come a day when we do need to tear it down and rebuild it. I don’t think we’re anywhere near that. And I think it’s wrong to prioritize one’s own clean hands over the actual work of building a freer tomorrow. Some people think that that’s an Objectivist attitude—I don’t owe the world anything, so why should I be involved in politics? And I agree you don’t owe the world anything. But I also think that a free person of self-esteem naturally wants to share the blessings of freedom with others, which is why I do the work that I do. And the idea of “making the perfect the enemy of the good” represents a perverse sense of moral priorities, I think. It means waiting for the world to be perfect before taking action—which, of course, will never happen. That’s not a healthy way of thinking about self-esteem, it seems to me.

The title of your work is a reference to Douglass’s speech: “Self-Made Men,” which he delivered frequently throughout his life. How would you respond to the passage from the speech below:

Properly speaking, there are no such men in the world, as self- made men. It implies an individual independence which does not exist. Our best and most valued acquisitions have been obtained either from those who stand about us, or from those who have done before us in the field of thought and discovery. We have all begged, borrowed, or stolen; reaped where others sowed–gathered where others strewed. It may not accord will with self-conscious individuality to say it, but in truth it must be said, that no possible native force of character, no depth of originality, can lift a man into absolute independence of his fellow men.

Douglass’s meaning is made clear by the context of this paragraph, where he’s saying that of course there’s no such thing as a literal self-made man, since we all have parents and, more abstractly, we have influences from our experiences and the people we know. But that’s true of everyone, he says—and what he’s interested in is those special individuals who go on to make something unique of themselves—who “are the men who owe little or nothing to birth, relationship, friendly surroundings…who are what they are, without the aid of any favoring conditions by which other men usually rise in the world and achieve great results…. If they have ascended high, they have built their own ladder.” Nowadays it’s popular to say that people don’t ever really make themselves—and that they therefore owe it to society to serve others or to sacrifice their earnings to the government, and so forth.

What President Obama meant when he said “You didn’t build that” was that no matter what you accomplish, no matter how much sweat and hard work you put into running your business or building something great or becoming a brilliant scholar or artist or poet, that ultimately you’re really the creation of society, really the creation of the state, and therefore you really owe it to other people to serve them. That’s exactly the opposite of what Douglass meant. He meant that people who accomplish something great without having it handed to them deserve to be honored. And he goes on to say that we all have this ability within ourselves if we will work hard enough and strive enough to make ourselves the best we can be.

Lastly, what else do you think students today should learn from Douglass’s life? Do you have any reading recommendations?

There’s a story—a legend—that when Douglass was an old man, a young man visited him and asked him what he should do with his life, and Douglass’s answer was “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!” He certainly did believe this, but Douglass’s kind of agitation was a very specific kind of agitation. It was intellectual, and moral agitation. It was carefully chosen, thoroughly thought-out, intellectually weighty agitation. It was agitation that was deeply familiar with history and literature and philosophy and respected the lessons of the past and the possibilities and the limits of the future. Douglass was an intellectual activist—which isn’t to say he didn’t get into the thick of things. He was a fighter, too. Mobs often attacked him. On one occasion, an angry mob broke his hand. On another occasion he had to fight off a group of attackers with a stick when they almost killed a white friend of his. On another occasion, he was very nearly murdered on the stage at Tremont Temple in Boston when he spoke in defense of John Brown, whom he idolized. He really almost didn’t escape that one alive. So he was a brave man who put his life on the line for his beliefs. But he wasn’t just out there to fight. He respected scholarship and intellect and he saw that ideas were what really changed the world. That’s something that’s often lost today, I fear. If Douglass teaches us nothing else, he teaches us this.

As for recommended reading, my book is meant to be an introduction to Douglass. It’s a short book, shorter than his own memoirs, in an effort to just convey the essence. But Douglass is such a great writer and so much fun to read and so interesting to read, that I would urge students to read his own writings—and not just his autobiographies. It’s a big mistake to just read his Narrative (which is very short) or his later, much longer versions of it, My Bondage and My Freedom and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, and to ignore his speeches and essays. You’re missing out on the real meat of it if you only read the memoirs. His essays and speeches are beautifully written examples of the highest-quality rhetorical style. Sophisticated and clever and witty and powerfully written—and expressing a true vernacular American writing style.


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