2018 marks the 153rd year since the 1865 enactment of the 13th amendment.
This not only abolished slavery but with it, arguably established the long-awaited freedom of black people in America. A freedom which, according to Douglass, is a natural right granted at birth yet stolen and made a ‘selective privilege’ for ‘whites only’ through black American slavery. Douglas’s central critique of slavery is therefore derived from this view of natural freedom and that it belongs to all equally, regardless of ‘irrelevant factors’ such as race. With that, all should have been able to exercise their right to self-determination and personal autonomy. Nevertheless, the systematic and pervasive institution of slavery prevented this. This following essay will, however, critically examine this view of freedom through its two central elements, the exact nature of this freedom and how it must be regained.
Firstly, the notion that freedom is natural, and thus that slavery is unnatural will be critically examined with reference to Aristotle’s concept of ‘natural slavery’, the Church and American Law. This step is vital when recognizing that slavery, which strips one’s freedom, is found throughout history, from the Roman era to the contemporary slavery found in the 21st century, suggesting that it too is natural. Secondly, his idea that education is the “pathway from slavery to freedom” will be scrutinized (Douglass, 1847, p58). Lastly, an examination of the use violence will be done to evaluate the extent to which it will successfully recover the natural freedom withheld from the slave. These measures are vital to critically examine the view of freedom that underpins Douglass’s critique of slavery and with it, serve to show that Douglas’s view of freedom does successfully criticize slavery. Throughout all of his work, Douglass (1852; 1947; 1997) holds onto a positive view that freedom is a natural universal right, granted to all based on the virtue of their humanity. Therefore, slavery was considered to be the exact embodiment of the opposite of freedom as one was sold as mere property; ranked in the same levels as “…horses, sheep and swine” (Douglass, 1997 p35).
Although Aristotle (n.d.) ideas long predate even the establishment of America, his concept of ‘natural freedom’ can be considered as an attempt to challenge this notion of natural universal rights. This is seen in the suggestion that certain people are born to be slaves of which. This, in 16th century America, would have been black people who, “whilst being human… were property” (Aristotle, n.d.
). However, according to Douglass (cited in Chesebrough 1998 and Higgs 2009), this ‘natural slavery’ was simply a misunderstanding of negative tradition. Essentially, though slavery has been around throughout human history it was not something created by nature or God. Slavery instead was manufactured and practiced by humans throughout time upon the understanding that one can profit from the enslavement of another.
This can be supported by the fact that 40% of slaves in America were forced to work on plantation fields whilst 53% worked on farms (Gates, 2014). Here, the slave masters benefitted from the free labor of the slaves whilst the slaves did not. This thus suggests that the enslavement of one group by another came out of the rational understanding that slavery would bring about profitable gains. Therefore, slavery was not a natural development contributing to the maintenance of ‘organic society’ (Durkheim 1893), instead, it was an unnatural development made by profit-seeking egotistical individuals. With that said, one can rationally say that Douglas’s view of freedom does successfully critique slavery as it shows slavery to be unnatural and thus freedom natural.
One argument that was often raised against Douglass’ natural freedom and thus for the idea of natural slavery, came from the church. Some religious institutions attempted to justify slavery by stating that it was made by God and since God made it, slavery, especially the systematic institutionalization of black American slavery, was permitted by God. This can be seen in the numerous biblical passages that were taught to slaves in order for them to obey their “heavenly and earthly masters” (Bible, n.d and Meager, 2006). However, Douglass being a religious man himself sought to oppose this.
He did this through his logical argument that God is divine and slavery is inhumane, however “that which is inhumane, is not divine” and therefore the divine God would not make the inhumane and often violent practice of slavery. This is the case, especially when acknowledging the fact that God, through Moses, demanded the freeing of Israelite slaves in Exodus. Though one could use this to say that it was just the Israelites that were not meant to be slaves but black people were. However, the fact that the biblical freeing of slaves was not taught to slaves by their masters suggest that this was not the case. There was a fear that a ‘black Moses’ would effectively rise up and ‘free his people from slavery’, achieving the natural, God-given right to freedom that Douglass uses to efficiently criticise critique slavery (Langston, 2009). As a result, through religion, slavery is shown to be an immoral and unnatural practice deviating from the will of God to allow man to enjoy his ‘free will’ (Boyed, n.d.
). Although slavery was legal in America, of which can be seen through the numerous laws permitting the buying, keeping and selling of black people as slaves noted in the 1705 Virginia Slave Codes (Finkelman, 2002). However, the 1776 American Declaration of Independence adopted the same view of freedom held by Douglass. This constitution stated that men had equal “inalienable rights” of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (Jefferson et al, 1776). The irrationality of the American legal system can be seen in the fact that despite this supposed equality, only white people were able to enjoy these natural rights. Slaves, on the other hand, could not freely live, expressing their natural right to personal autonomy. Instead, slaves were forced to adhere to the demands of their masters who owned them. Although one could rightly state that many of the laws supporting slavery were made prior to the declaration of independence, however, the paradox of the American system lies in the fact that these laws did not change upon independence.
Slaves were not able to exercise their natural freedom for over 245 years in America, including 89 years after the declaration (History.com, 2009). Abolishing slavery for the establishment of freedom would not have, through Douglass’s view of freedom, threatened the structure of the political society as Higgs (2009) suggests, but it would have returned a freedom once lost slave. From Douglass’ view of the naturality of freedom and thus the artificiality of slavery, his conclusion was the need for the abolishment of the latter. This would require two steps, the first being educating the ‘negro’ which, through the writings of Douglass, would turn the ‘ignorant brute’ into the ‘enlightened man’. This essentially meant that the slave would be able to realize their oppression and with that, the unjust nature of slavery which subjugated the negro population to tiresome violence and humiliation but most importantly, the loss of their natural right to freedom. Through this, as well as the realization of other forms of reality, including the free state of Massachusetts where black people were able to enjoy their natural freedom. Slaves would be encouraged to change their own situation and stand up against their denial of freedom due to their the newfound ability to articulate their views and challenge their masters, bringing an end to the “degrading differences in the culture of understanding between men and their slaves” (Hill, 1995 p185).
Although the slaves who stood up against their masters were almost always punished, further restraining their access freedom. However, Douglass emphasis that the slave, in this situation, would only be a slave in form and not in fact (Douglass and Burns 2005). This is because the schooling of the slave would not only allow them to read and write, but gain a mental sense of ‘psychological freedom’. Here, even in his chains, the slave would be able to freely reason, articulate and comprehend complex ideas that they were previously unable to do due to laws banning the education of a slave.
These laws ensured that the ‘man turned into a brute’ knowing nothing but to “…obey his master” as his thoughtlessness meant a contentedness in his bondage (Douglass 1997, p29). Education, on the other hand, was incompatible to this contentedness and with it slavery as it allowed the slave a sense of freedom that they did not have before, pushing them to fight to entrench it in its physical form. One argument that could be made against Douglass’ understanding of freedom, and thus how it should be achieved, is the 50,000 uneducated slaves that were able to ‘realize their oppression’ (Inmotionaame.org, 2015). These slaves then sought to free themselves from their masters by becoming fugitive slaves. Douglass, however, argued that the life of an uneducated fugitive slave did not bring about the freedom desired. This was because of the constant fear of being recaptured and returned to their bondage, a fact which was not helped by their lack of understanding of how to entrench their freedom.
Thus, according to Douglass, the only way to secure this freedom was firstly the achievement of psychological freedom through education. Secondly, to ensure the physical freedom, and thus recover ones natural freedom in its entirety, would be violence. A just violence which would bring an end to the institution that withheld the natural freedom belonging to the black people.The last element of the view of freedom that underpins Douglass’ critique of slavery is his understanding that; just as violence had been used by slave masters to manage the slaves, it too must be used to recover the freedom once lost. Although not all would be willing to use violence to bring about the emancipation of slaves, according to Douglass, violence was necessary and those who were not prepared to fight for their freedom did not deserve it (Douglass, 1847). Just as in the teachings of Marx, an armed struggle would be required to bring about the end to the subjugation of the oppressed.
The rationale here lies in the idea that the slave owners would not willingly give up their slaves and abolish the acts due to loss of the cheap human labor that they significantly profited from. Therefore, a violent force would have to be taken. Although the violent nature of this ‘struggle’ would bring about bloodshed and death. However, this to Douglass is justified as the emancipation of the slave is the more important outcome, returning to the slave his natural right to freedom. This suggests that, regardless of the negative impacts of the use of violence, such as the death toll of 4,000 in the 1791 Haitian Revolution, this would be a legitimate sacrifice for the achievement of freedom (Shen 2015). Though one could suggest that the 13th amendment which abolished slavery was as a result of piecemeal democratic measures.
In reality, slavery was followed by another 99 years of racial segregation in America, ending officially upon the 1964 civil rights act outlawing all forms of segregation and discrimination. This meant that even with the removal of slavery, black people were still subjected to oppressive conditions. However, through the violent stand against slavery by the slave, through Douglass’ understanding, all forms of discrimination which also prevents men from bringing free such as the lack of suffrage, would have been abolished along with slavery itself. To conclude, although the likes of Aristotle and Dalrymple have suggested that slavery is a natural part of human nature, with some people holding the natural right to liberty and others not.
Through the critical examination of the view of freedom that underpins Douglass’ central critique of slavery, one can easily object to such philosophies. Freedom is a natural right belonging to all equally based on the simple virtue of their humanity. Therefore, slavery, which strips away an individual’s ability to act upon this liberty, must be abolished. Although the process of this may be long and hard, especially due to the laws preventing the education of slaves and the violence that would be necessary bring about their liberation. However, all the measures would be worthwhile; necessary to abolish the systematic and pervasive institution of slavery which is an unnatural and immoral enemy of one’s personal autonomy which deviates from the will of God. With that said, Douglass’ natural view of freedom does effectively and efficiently criticise slavery. Though the use of violence may result in a moral dilemma, seen in the high loss of life that would have come as a result.
However, the overall use of education enlightens the slave, allowing them to realize their oppression and encouraging one to fight against it, achieving both the mental and physical senses of freedom which reflect the true image of natural freedom.