Selected works from American Political Thought: A Norton Anthology. Kramnick, Isaac and Theodore J. Lowi. W. Wl Norton & Company, Inc. (2009)
Frederick Douglas, “What Are the Colored People Doing for Themselves?” (1848)
“The present is a time when every colored man in the land should bring this important question home to his own heart,” Douglass (1848) passionately writes directly his piece to the black community, (p.589). Douglass (1848) argues, that although white people are challenging slavery, the anti-slavery movement needs black people to join the movement to further progress as a people. “One of the first things necessary to prove the colored man worthy of equal freedom,” Douglass (1848) writes, “is an earnest and persevering effort on his part to gain it,” (p.590). To Douglas (1848), abolition will not be achieved, “unless we, the colored people of America, shall set about the work of our own regeneration and improvement,” and that if not, “we are doomed to drag on in our present miserable and degraded condition for ages,” (p. 590). Douglas (1848) argues it would take more than a law of abolition to free black people, that only through education can the character of a free people be achieved.
“Lectures on Slavery” (1850)
Douglass (1850) tells the history of slavery as first 20 Africans on a small plantation in Virginia, to growing to over three million in his time residing all over the country. “Slavery forms an important part of the entire history of the American Union…and has anchored itself in the very soil of thee American Constitution,” Douglass (1850) writes (p. 591). Douglass (1850) criticizes the lack of Constitutional rights afforded to black people such that slavery, “has thrown its paralyzing arm over freedom of speech, and the liberty of the press,” (p. 591) and has “seduced the church, corrupted the pulpit,” (p. 592) and that Americans, succumbing to its influence, relinquish their conscience and religious beliefs to defend it. Douglass (1850) warns that slavery is so powerful that it threatens to destroy the Union to protect its self-interests.
Douglass (1850) describes the brutalities of slavery, when one man is legally another’s property; “the law gives the [slave] master absolute power over the slave. He may work him, flog him, hire him out, sell him, and in certain contingencies, kill him, with perfect impunity,” (p. 592). “The slave is a human being,” Douglass (1850) pleads, “devested of all rights — reduced to the level of a brute…inserted in a master’s ledger, with horses, sheep and swine,” (p. 592). Douglass (1850) describes that slaves are denied wives, children, commodities, and property and that a slave “labors in chains at home, under a burning sun and a biting lash,” (p. 592) while his exploiters dine in luxury, travel, get educated, live in comfortable shelter, and maintain a high social status. Douglass (1850) describes how slave masters use whips, chains, gags, thumb-screws, knives, pistols, and dogs to torture slaves into compliance. Douglass (1850) condemns, not only the Southern slave states, but the Northern free states as well such that “the whole American people are responsible for slavery, and must share, in its guilt and shame, with the most obdurate men-stealers of the south,” Thus, Douglass (1850) charged, everyone must join the abolition movement and “labor for its utter extirpation from the land,” (p. 594).
“What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” (1852)
While Douglass (1852) commends the Founding Fathers for their bravery and patriotism in writing the Declaration of Independence in the defense of a new nation, and that although Douglass admires them, he criticizes them for their pro-slavery stance. Douglass (1852) asks rhetorically, “Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in the Declaration of Independence, extended to us?” and that regarding the 4th of July commemoration, “I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary,” (p. 595). Douglass (1852) writes, “the rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me…this Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine.” Douglass (1852) argues that to “call upon [the slave] to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony,” (p. 595). Douglass (1852) pleads, “in the name of liberty…in the name of the constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon,” for people to denounce slavery, “the great sin and shame of America,” criticizing proponents of slavery, as morally wrong and unjust hypocrites (p. 596).
Douglass (1852) argues that to deny liberty, which the Union has already determine is a necessity of life, to a black man, you therefore are denying him his manhood and reducing him to an animal. Douglass (1852) criticizes the incredulousness of the slavery debate, “Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery?” such that is “the principle of justice, hard to be understood?” (p. 597). Douglass (1852) argues that the immorality of slavery is obvious given the known brutalities of slavery and that “the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced,” (p. 598). Douglass (1852) asks in summation, “What to the American slave is your 4th of July?” and responds that it “reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim,” (p. 598). To the slave, Douglass (1852) writes, is a fraud, deception, and hypocrisy, and such behavior “would [even] disgrace a nation of savages,” (p. 598).
John C. Calhoun, “Speeches on the Reception of Abolition Petitions” (1837)
In Calhoun’s (1837) view, slave-state citizens and institutions are victims of intense hatred by the free-states that will result in contention “more deadly than one hostile nation ever entertained towards another,” and “burst the Union asunder,” (p. 601). Calhoun (1837) argues that “abolition and the Union cannot co-exist” because, “we, of the South will not, cannot surrender our institutions,” (p. 601). Calhoun (1837) believes slavery to be “good” not “evil” under the argument that “never before has the black race of Central Africa…attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually,” (p. 602). Calhoun (1837) argues that the “low, degraded, and savage condition” of Africans “under the fostering care of our institutions,” have become “comparatively civilized,” (p. 602). Calhoun (1837) argued that slaves were living healthier and more comfortable lives than poor Europeans. If slaves were granted freedom and social equality ending white superiority, Calhoun (1837) warned that white people would be forced into slavery serving black masters.
“Calhoun’s Resolutions” (1838)
Calhoun (1838) argued that forcing States to abolish slavery is an unconstitutional seizure of States rights and southern economical disenfranchisement, endangering peace and crippling to the Union. Calhoun (1838) concludes that the South “will long continue to preserve, our free institutions…which we are called on to defend by the highest and most solemn obligations that can be imposed on us as men and patriots,” (p. 607).
George Fitzhugh, “Sociology for the South: or, the Failure of Free Society” (1854)
Fitzhugh (1854) writes “we do not set children and women free because they are not capable of taking care of themselves, not equal to the constant struggle of society,” (p. 626) arguing both children and women lack the will, virtues, and cunning necessary to survive compete in the labor market, hold property, or have political rights such that they would soon after fall into destitution. Fitzhugh (1854) argues that equal rights results in oppression of the lower classes which are most in need of protection; Fitzhugh (1854) argues the low class’s oppression is caused by their own failures, ignorance, wants, and contention which drives landlords and employers to raise prices and lower wages. Had the Irish been serfs, Fitzhugh (1854) claims, they would have been “cherished and taken care of by those same landlords and employers.” Fitzhugh adds that slaves, unlike the free low-class, “never die of hunger, [and] scarcely ever feel want,” (p. 629).
Fitzhugh (1854) argues that wealthy property owners “are masters of the poor” that, unlike slave masters, hold “none of the feelings, interests or sympathies,” in protecting laborers (p. 628). Fitzhugh (1854) argues that free societies abandon the Christian, golden rule virtue and instead promotes selfishness and the destruction of societal happiness. Fitzhugh (1854) claims equality would effectively abolish the right to private property as well as caused political instability. Slavery, Fitzhugh (1854) argues, is the only “remedy for [the] evil” of the wealthy and strong oppressing the poor and weak, (p. 631) and that slavery has lead to the progress of great civilizations in history. Fitzhugh (1954) argues that slavery is more fair to the laborer because it rewards wants rather than labor input, and slaves, being of cheap and unrefined wants, are satisfied with food, shelter, and clothing.
“Cannibals All! or, Slaves Without Masters” (1857)
To Fitzhugh (1857), low-class labor is effectively white slavery without slave masters, far more exploitative than the black slave trade. Fitzhugh (1857) believes the government does not need the consent of the public but rather uses force; if women, children, and black people are involved in the creation and consent of our government or allowed voting rights, it will cause anarchy. Fitzhugh (1857) believed that governing requires force, not morality, such that when a slave “sees the driver’s lash, becomes accustomed to obedient…the lash is the force that impels him,” (p. 643).
Robert B. Taney, “Dred Scott v. Sandford” (1857)
The Court ruled against Scott, denying him the right to sue, under the argument that constitutionally, Scott was not a citizen of Missouri. The Court questioned if 1) Scott and his family were free in Missouri, and 2) is Scott free given his “removal” to Illinois? (p. Congress passed the Missouri Compromised, which abolished slavery in Missouri among other states, however, the Court discredited the law’s constitutionality such that federal authority within US territory is limited to the States of the Union during the drafting of the Constitution, and therefore could not affect States acquired elsewhere. The Court concluded that the Constitution regards the slave as the private property of the slave owner.
Abraham Lincoln, “Speech at Peoria, Illinois” (1854)
Lincoln (1854) asks how the contention over slavery should be resolved. “What then? Free them all, and keep them among us as underlings? Is it quite certain that this betters their condition?” (p. 651) What about accepting blacks as social equals? “We well know that those of the great mass of white people will not,” and therefore “we can not, then, make them equals,” (p. 651). Lincoln (1854) argues emancipation depends on if the black slave is or is not a man; if he is a man, he should be granted freedom from the despotism of slavery. Lincoln (1854) warns the greedy exploitation of slave labor may destroy the freedoms granted to whites (if the Union dissolves).
“Speech on the Dred Scott Decision in Springfield, Illinois” (1857)
Lincoln (1857) claims that SCOTUS Justice, “Judge Douglas dreads the slightest human recognition of the negro,” and regards them “not human enough to have a hearing,” (p. 659). Lincoln (1857) warns the greedy exploitation of slave labor may destroy the rights and freedoms granted to whites. Lincoln (1857) observes the large proportion of biracial people in slave-states and denies that he is implying slave masters “are inclined to exercise this particular power which they hold over their female slaves,” (p. 659) which grants the slave master the right to rape and forcibly impregnate black women. Lincoln (1857) notes the differing opinions of the political parties — Republicans support abolition and regard “the negro is a man,” while the Democrats protect slavery and “deny his manhood,” (p. 660).
“Letter to Boston Republicans” (1859)
Upon Jefferson’s commemoration, Lincoln (1959) notes the irony of the Jeffersonian argument, holding personal liberty above property rights, to the current ideology that denies “one man’s” (likely Scott) personal liberty, is regarded as secondary to the property rights of another. “All honor to Jefferson,” Lincoln (1859) writes, whose philosophies “shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression,” (p. 662).
“Address Before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society” (1859)
Lincoln (1859) criticizes the Southern “mud-sill” theory that regards low-class labor as more sufferable than slavery. Lincoln (1859) argues that “there is not such thing as a free man being fatally fixed for life,” (p. 663). “Free labor,” Lincoln (1859) argues, is a “just, and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all…[and the] improvement of condition to all,” (p. 664). Lincoln (1859) encouraged the combination of labor and education will ensure “no community whose every member possesses this art, can ever be the victim of oppression in any of its forms,” (p. 666).
“Cooper Union Address” (1860)
Lincoln (1860) recalled George Washington’s decision to abolish slavery in the Northwestern Territory and “his hope that we should at some time have a confederacy of free States,” (p. 666). Lincoln (1860) criticizes Conservatives for their policy decisions on slavery contradicting their Conservative principles; “If you would have the peace of the old times, readopt the precepts and policy of the old times,” (p. 667).
“New Haven Address” (1860)
Lincoln (1860) commends New England which allows labor strikes and freedom to work when and where you want to; “I like the system which lets a man quit when he wants to,” (p. 668). Lincoln (1860) ensures the right to acquire capital, and that he does “wish to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else,” (p. 668). Lincoln (1860) believes that every man, including blacks, is entitled to improve his condition.
“First Inaugural Address” (1861)
Lincoln (1861) assures the South that he would not free their slaves and would continue enforcing fugitive slave laws. Lincoln (1861) regards Southern mobilization as an attempt to disrupt the Union. Lincoln (1861) declares it unlawful to secede from the Union and that “acts of violence, are insurrectionary,” (p. 671).
“Second Inaugural Address” (1865)
Lincoln (1865) remembers his 1st inaugural address, addressing the nation in hopes to preserve the Union, while insurgency sought to destroy it; one party (the South) would make war to end the Union, while the other (the North) would accept war to preserve it. Lincoln (1865) acknowledged the powerful influence of slavery was the cause of the Civil War, such that it sparked rebellion by States that sought to preserve it. Lincoln (1865) questioned how “any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged,” (p. 685). Lincoln credits the abolition of slavery as G-d’s will, and that both the North and South were punished with the sufferings of war for their oppression. Lincoln (1865) believes that if G-d’s will intends to prolong the nation’s suffering “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword,” His judgments are true and righteous, (p. 685). Now let’s “bind the nation’s wounds…[and] do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations,” (p. 685).
Henry Brown and John Marshall Harlan, “Plessy v. Ferguson” (1896)
After the bloody sacrifices of the Civil War, the equal citizenship of blacks was finally granted to them by the Fourteenth Amendment. Decades later, when States enforced racial segregation, blacks challenged that it violated their Fourteenth Amendment rights, in which “States are forbidden from making or enforcing any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States,” (p. 943). The Supreme Court, in the most heinous abuse of the rule of law, restricted black rights for 50 years after it upheld segregation as not in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, despite no lawful consideration of its expressed powers, finding instead Brown’s personal view that segregation is a “reasonable regulation” of States. Brown (1896) went further to defend state segregation by criticizing blacks for calling segregation “a badge of inferiority” and he argued it was a black construct and they have civil and political equality and therefore are not considered inferior. This was a blatant lie; if blacks were truly politically equal, why did they not get equal protection from segregation? Brown (1896) attempts to justify this, by arguing its a social, not political, regulation; he also said Constitutional rights cannot elevate a socially inferior race to the level of a more superior one. Brown (1896) also blames “racial instincts” on social inequality and said integration must be “a voluntary consent of individuals,” not forced legislation to commingle “negro” and white races, (p. 944).
Mr. Justice Harlan Dissenting Harlan (1896) argues that “our Constitution is color-blind”, regarding all races without distinction such that no legislative body may regard race in matters of civil rights, (p. 945). White people view themselves as the dominant race in our society, and are indeed far more wealthy, educated, prestigious, and powerful than blacks, but still equal in civil rights. Therefore, it is with regret that the Court has chosen to deny “the enjoyment by citizens of their civil rights solely upon the basis of race,” (p. 945). “The arbitrary separation of citizens, on the basis of race…cannot be justified upon any legal grounds,” (p. 945). The predicted “evil” results of integration will be greatly overshadowed by State oppression based on race. Segregation is symbolic of black servitude despite their legal equality and the argument that their designated services are “equal” in quality is an obvious ruse that will never compensate for the trespasses of segregation.
W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)
Read this yourself 🙂
1848 – 1865
The Civil War era and debate over slavery was the most contentious period in American history. The Northern free-states and Southern slave-states were deeply divided on the issue of abolition; both sides, unwilling to concede, accepted that without resolution, the Union will likely plunge into civil war. Pro-slavery Calhoun (1837) accused Northern abolitionists of inciting hatred towards Southern people and encouraging violence “more deadly than one hostile nation ever entertained towards another,” (p. 601). Abolitionist Douglass (1850) defended the North’s unyielding attitude, and forewarned that “there can be no peace to the wicked while slavery continues in the land, it will be condemned,” (p. 593). Arguably neutral, Lincoln (1854) blamed the instability of the Union on divisive actions of both the North and the South such that “one side will provoke, the other resent,” (p. 653).
Discussion: What were the most prominent elements of the philosophical debates between pro-and anti-slavery forces before the civil war? Did the war drastically change these philosophical differences, or did the debate basically begin after the war where it left off before the war?
Debate after the Civil War
Debate before the Civil War
Christianity of Slavery –
North: Supports social equality: (Douglas) Although abolition and Constitutional rights are a necessary step for black social and political equality, without access to education for themselves and their children, will never gain the wisdom, character, and strength needed to build and maintain social equality. (Lincoln) argues that communities cannot be oppressed if both educated and labored
Opposes social equality: (Lincoln) Cannot permit blacks social equality because the massive opposition by whites.
South: Opposes social equality: (Calhoun) If black people were elevated to social and political equality with whites ending white superiority, southern white people would be forced into slavery and serve black slave masters. (Fitzhugh) Equality would effectively destroy the right to private property, social equality such as voting rights would result in lawlessness
North: Black Slavery (Douglass) Slave masters lived in prominence and luxury while slaves live like farm animals. Slaves forfeited not only their labor but their free-will; slave masters were permitted full authority to direct every aspect of a slave’s life from prohibiting religious congregation to criminalizing literacy. Slaves parents were robbed of their own children as slave masters sold them into lifetime bondage; slaves masters deny slaves the social securities and virtues of marriage. (Lincoln) warns the greedy exploitation of slave labor may destroy the rights and freedoms granted to whites. Lincoln (1857) observes the large proportion of biracial people in slave-states and while he denies that he is suggesting slave masters “are inclined to exercise this particular power which they hold over their female slaves,” (p. 659) he notes the slave master is granted the right to rape and forcibly impregnate black women.
- Low-class labor – Lincoln (1859) argues that “there is not such thing as a free man being fatally fixed for life,” (p. 663). “Free labor,” Lincoln (1859) argues, is a “just, and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all…[and the] improvement of condition to all,” (p. 664).
South: White Slavery (Calhoun) Slaves, despite their inferiority to poor Europeans, are far more healthy and comfortable. (Fitzhugh) Slave masters are caring, generous, and affectionate and slaves are always fed, while the callous employer ignores the starving low-class. Slavery is more profitable for the laborer than employment because it rewards wants rather than labor input, and slaves, being of cheap and unrefined wants, are satisfied if provided adequate food, shelter, and clothing. Low-class laborers excessively work and are denied sleep and leisure time, while slaves work less hours and allowing time for sleep and leisure
Christianity of Slavery
North: Slavery is morally evil and inhumane: (Douglass) Defied Christian virtues of peace, compassion, and equality in the eyes of G-d,
South: Slavery is morally good and charitable: (Calhoun) Africans were savages, and through slavery, were civilized and improved morally and intellectually, Slavery promotes peaceful coexistence between races. (Fitzhugh) Slavery abides by the Christian golden rule as slave masters are caring, generous, and affectionate and protect slaves from starvation, Slavery is a cure for the “evil” of poor and weak suffering,
Personal rights v property rights
North: (Douglas) The Constitution grants basic human rights to “all men” yet black men are lawfully denied these protections
South: Unconstitutional: (Calhoun) Federal abolition law encroaches on States rights and unlawfully seizes private property, Economically disenfranchising southern States to benefit northern States. (Fitzhugh) Equality would effectively destroy the right to private property