Great Antidote Extras: Timothy Sandefur on Frederick Douglass

slavery chattel slavery abolition slaveowners abolitionism american history american founding great antidote juliette sellgren great antidote extras us constitution frederick douglass

Christy Lynn for AdamSmithWorks

Frederick Douglass both loved and hated America, but his legacy deserves to live large in American history. Guest Timothy Sandefur and host Juliette Sellgren talk about Douglass’ life, ideas, and long-lasting impact.  
Frederick Douglass holds an honored place in American history (and Sellgren quickly informs us he is also one of her favorite Americans!) but his legacy is contentious. Douglass himself changed his views on many things throughout his lifetime. Timothy Sandefur, the author of Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man, talks with host Juliette Sellgren about Douglass’ life, ideas, and lasting impact.  

Timothy Sandefur is the Vice President for Legal Affairs at the Goldwater Institute’s Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation and holds the Duncan Chair in Constitutional Government. Sandefur is also the author of several other books including Cornerstone of Liberty: Property Rights in 21st Century America (coauthored with Christina Sandefur, 2016) and The Permission Society (2016).

This is Sandefur's second time on the podcast. His first episode, Timothy Sandefur on Privacy, was in July 2021 discussing right-to-privacy, disclosure, and anonymity of donations. 

Some of the big questions Sellgren and Sandefur discuss are: 

  • Where did the philosophy that underpinned slavery (the idea that it was okay to own another person) come from?
  • How did Douglass’ early experience trying to learn to read influence him? 
  • In what ways is slavery also the cause of perversions of white people?
  • Is the U.S. Constitution anti-slavery, pro-slavery, or a mix of both?
  • Is Douglass a patriot? 

Sandefur's first question from Sellgren, as always, is about what young people should know? Sandefur’s answer is about how getting older and talking to older people help you understand the things in your life and history in a better proportion. 

Then they jump in the deep. 

Key Quote (lightly edited)
[T]he modern chattel slavery attitudes that we are familiar with from American history, that really only developed starting between about 1800 and the 1830 or so. Beginning in the 1830s you had what was called the Positive Good School of slavery, which was the idea that slavery was a good thing for society and civilization… what made this attitude distinct was that it was the first anti-capitalist ideology in world history, really, certainly in American history. And this was developed in reaction against the rising tide of the industrial revolution in capitalism in Europe and a little bit in America. And southerners started looking at capitalism and saying, This is terrible because it's all just a bunch of people who agree based on contract, and it's all based on rationality and self-interest, and those are bad things. What we ought to have instead is a communitarian society where everybody knows where they belong. Everybody fills a social role. Everybody has this sense of community and belonging and, and isn't that great? Everybody is in harmony and all this sort of thing, which of course was crap because it was based on subjugation and brutality and discrimination and so forth. 
Sellgren and Sandefur then talk about how the three big things that slavery did were to deprive individuals of their history, lawful treatment, and the fruits of their labor. This was deliberate as slave holders wanted to break down the enslaved people's sense of themselves and their individuality. And Douglass talks about how the “slave breaker” Edward Covey did all of these things to Douglass. William B. Allen on The State of Black America came to my mind here as well. 

Key Quote (lightly edited)
We sometimes we have this idea that law consists of a command from the government to us, and that's absolutely not what law is. Law is a system of rules that allows us to accomplish our own goals vis-a-vi, other people. And so taking that away from slaves and subjecting them to a lawless rule of arbitrariness was really essential to breaking down their sense of self. 

Sandefur also talks about two of the pivotal moments in Douglass’s life: when he realizes the importance of reading and when he’s experiencing the cruelty of Edward Covey. 

Key Quote about  (lightly edited) 
Douglas was born in Maryland, and at the age of seven, he was separated from his family and sent to live with the Old family… Sophia Old who was the wife of his master was very inexperienced as a slave owner. She hadn't had that situation before, so she didn't know the unwritten rules of how to be a slave mistress. And one of those being that you don't teach slaves to read because if they start to read, then they'll start to get ideas and they'll start to wanna run away. And you don't wanna have that, so you don't let them read. So she, out of the goodness of her heart, tried to teach young Frederick how to read the Bible. 

And when her husband Hugh discovered this, he was horrified. If you teach him to read, you know he's going to start having ideas and you give him an inch, he’ll take a mile. And so as soon as Douglass heard that, he tells us that it was the first abolitionist speech he ever heard. He realized immediately that what Hugh was saying was that he needs to learn to read if he wants to be free. So he tricked the neighborhood boys into teaching him how to read and write by saying, I bet you don't know your alphabet. And they would say, Yes, we do. And they would show him by, and then he would practice, the alphabet, and then he would pick up newspapers from the streets where they'd been thrown away and, and this sort of thing in order to practice reading. And reading. Of course, as is always the case, it opened these immense horizons to him. He could read and discover the ideas of generations of past thinkers as well as the abolitionists who were starting their movement at just that time. This is in the 1830s or so. Reading was a, was a huge open door for Douglas as it has been for so many other people since. 
This is just one part of the retelling of Douglass’ life, much of it drawn from Douglass’ autobiography. Sandefur talks about Douglass’ being sold, abused, fighting back, and finally escaping. A particularly moving part that Sandefur relates is Douglass’ realization that, “whoever would be free must himself strike the blow.” Sandefur points out that this is a quotation from  Lord Byron. The poem is Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, an autobiographical poem and the publication of the first two cantos in 1812 are what first made Byron famous. The stanza it’s from is this: 

Hereditary bondsmen! know ye not
Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?
By their right arms the conquest must be wrought?
Will Gaul or Muscovite redress ye?  No!
True, they may lay your proud despoilers low,
But not for you will Freedom's altars flame.

Sandefur also talks about the difference between abolitionists and other who were against slavery.  Abolitionaists called for an immediate end of slavery (not gradual), no compensation to slave owners, and no colonization (shipping blacks away).Sandefur particularly contrasts abolitionists with colonizers like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and James Monroe. Sandefur also talks about the debate between those who see the Constitution as pro-slavery and those who see it as pro-freedom. Sandefur comes down on the pro-freedom side. Readers interested in this might also enjoy See the Liberty Matters online discussion on Frederick Douglass on the Right and Duty to Resist.

Key Quote (lightly edited)
But there's another sense in which you can take the Constitution is an anti-slavery document, and that's the way Lincoln took it. Lincoln said, of course, slavery is in the Constitution and referred to in the Constitution. And he said it even prohibits the federal government from interfering with slavery in the states where it already exists. 

And so he was not, in that sense, an abolitionist, but, he said that the Constitution does allow Congress to take steps to prevent its spread and gradually to lead to its eradication. As he put it, it puts slavery in the course of ultimate extinction, which is a beautiful phrase. That's what it means for the Constitution to be an anti-slavery document in Lincoln's version… 

Even if you don't buy that, you have to admit that both of those arguments are better than the proslavery argument that says that the Constitution is a pro-slavery document, which it very clearly is not. If it were a pro-slavery document, it would include the word slavery somewhere in it. The fact that it does not do that and that its authors acknowledged at the time that slavery was incompatible with what they were doing, including James Madison, who said at the Constitutional Convention that it would be wrong for the document to include any reference to the principle that a person could own another person means that the pro-slavery interpretation of the Constitution is absolutely wrong. 

It was wrong when Roger Tawney said it, it was wrong when William Lloyd Garrison said it, and it's wrong when the 1619 project says it today. 

It’s a difficult thing to know whether to consider someone who has deep reservations about a country as a patriot. It depends on what you mean by patriot and whether seeing terrible flaws in a project means that you can’t be committed to it. But Sandefur says he thinks that Douglass was a thoughtful patriot who loved the best of America while how terrible a place it could be. 

Key Quote (lightly edited)
Douglas had a great love for what he considered to be the heart and soul of America, which was the Declaration of Independence and the principle that all men are created equal and that all people are entitled to liberty. But he also acknowledged how hypocritical the country had been for such a long time and still was toward the end of his life. And in fact, he was rather pessimistic toward the end of his life.

Sellgren talks a little about the new musical about Frederick Douglass, American Prophet, but then closes, as always by asking Sandefur what he’s changed his mind about? Sandfur talks about his changing beliefs about sovereignty, confederacy, and the rights of succession. 

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