Greg Moses
Copyright 1996
Presented at the 2nd National Conference
of the Radical Philosophy Association
(Purdue) Nov. 17, 1996

Back to Prepub Dir for Dr. Greg Moses

"A Neglected Republican Heritage:
Frederick Douglass on Immigration and Affirmative Action"

As an abolitionist intellectual, Frederick Douglass is well known for his arguments that slavery should be abolished and that the United States Constitution should be interpreted as an anti-slavery document. Thus for good reasons, interest in the philosophy of Douglass has concentrated on his ante-bellum thought.1 In this paper, I will examine two post-war arguments made by Douglass: 1) that immigration should be a human right and 2) that former slaves should be granted compensatory preference in hiring for federal jobs. These post-war arguments might serve to warn us that Douglass was more than an abolitionist, and that his contribution to social and political philosophy goes beyond the substantial and valuable arguments that he framed in opposition to slavery.

In the two speeches considered below, Douglass advances a vision of American justice that would embrace the contours of a "composite" nation, made of groups with distinct histories, cultures, and experiences. This "composite" nationality would mark the American project as distinct and precious, lending to world history an unprecedented and invaluable experiment in democratic achievement. The concept of composite nationality highlights an important dimension of democratic theory, because attention is directed to relationships between groups rather than between individuals. And this collective dimension of democratic theory is elegantly conveyed in the term "Republican" which insists that democracy in America is most properly constructed as a federation of united states.

Given this Republican insistence, it would seem sensible to anticipate a political theory superbly equipped to grapple with the unique problems of democracy posed by the construction of a composite nation. If one were to insist upon a Republican construction of democracy, then group relations would not be evaded or eschewed. Indeed, the two issues considered in this essay present themselves as problems of group relationships. We typically speak of "immigrant groups" because that is how the phenomenon arrives upon American shores--in groups. And affirmative action is also a negotiation of group relationships as seen in the construction of affirmative action classes (women, African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Asian Americans) which are then regarded as legitimate claimants to equitable participation in various forms of American institutions. Thus, a Republican theory of affirmative action insists that each of America's institutions should strive to become Republican in the sense that it represents and reflects a democratic amalgamation of groups.

An over-arching critique of imperialism would also be made available upon these Republican terms of debate, because imperialism would be indicated wherever some particular group has gained a disproportionate share of power in relation to other groups. While the Republican approach to democracy is flexible enough to recognize that some disproportions of power are appropriate--as evidenced in the population-based formulas for the House of Representatives which gives some states more representation than others--it is also clear that a built-in feature of Republican theory would also insist that at some level each group or state must not be denied its status as equal partner--as evidenced in the two-person formula for the Senate. A justification of affirmative action as a generalized ethic of proportional representation between groups might thus appeal to a Republican heritage of thought. And this same Republican heritage might be exploited for its anti-imperialist presumptions, if we view imperialism as a form of unjust group domination.

The reader would be correct to guess that I have selected the topics of immigration and affirmative action also because of relevance to recent political initiatives, emanating from the state of California, that would restrict immigration and abolish compensatory hiring practices altogether. Thus, the work of Douglass provides a precious archive for social and political philosophy that was forged from within the experience of the Republican party, but which arrived at conclusions far different from and, in my opinion, far preferable to the ones being advanced by that party today. So we have three reasons to review what Douglass said about immigration and affirmative action. First, we may better appreciate the breadth of his contribution to philosophy; second, we may explore intriguing implications of a democratic political theory that is rigorously Republican, taking heart from the vision that Douglass offered to an American nation that is inevitably and increasingly "composite"; and third, we may see how Douglass offers perspectives relevant to contemporary debates.

In the first speech to be considered, delivered in 1869, Douglass had been asked to address a Boston audience on the question of Chinese immigration.2 At that time, anti-Asian sentiment was beginning to take virulent form, particularly in California. On that occasion, Douglass treated the general question of "composite nationality," giving reasons why it would be a good idea in general, but especially for America, if a nation would welcome citizens of different races and creeds. In characteristic Douglass fashion, the elder statesman of human rights appealed to the highest principles of justice and equality, taking care to show how these are paramount values for any American dream. Against the pessimists and racists of his day, Douglass reinvigorated the national mission of America as a ship of state whose boat would not be too full to welcome new friends of aspiring democracy, even when they are Confucionists from China. The logic of Douglass' argument suggests that there is an inconsistency between full-boat ideology and what Douglass takes to be the highest calling of American principles.

From the second speech, delivered in 1870, I have extracted only one paragraph. Here, the stalwart Republican declares at a Republican political gathering his conviction that, for some time to come, qualified black applicants should be chosen over qualified white applicants for federal employment. By this declaration, Douglass makes clear that he does not wish to overturn the rule of civil equality for all individuals, regardless of race, but he thinks that circumstances are peculiar enough to require that we also not forget how equality is also relevant to relations between groups. Although Douglass does not explicitly argue the connection between his positions on "affirmative action" and immigration, I think the two positions may be elegantly unified in terms of "composite nationality." Needless to say, the position that Douglass takes with respect to "affirmative action" also becomes important for its historical appearance. It is sometimes stated that the theory of affirmative action begins with Gandhi's policy toward India's untouchables. While there is still much practical force to Gandhi's priority, we find that Douglass had proposed the theory when Gandhi was, literally, in his infancy. We thus affirm the startling fact that affirmative action was a Republican invention in theory. And as David Skrentny reminds us, affirmative action may also be viewed as a Republican achievement in fact, dating chiefly from the presidency of Richard Nixon.

Any survey of Douglass' public philosophy raises another important methodological issue for public philosophy within the United States. For Douglass, the very presence of the United States of America implies unique grounds for philosophical discussion. This hopeful sense of American destiny may be difficult to sustain, especially in leftist thought. Along many fronts indeed, democratic empowerment has been framed in terms that are anti-American in a sense which seeks to be anti-imperialist. America, as a term which collects the history, aspirations, and ideals of rising democracy, appears to have become a quaint concept since Douglass. And yet, who could argue that Douglass was naive or oblivious to the most odious facts of American history? What Douglass did not know about American imperialism may invalidate his philosophical appeal, but he was not naive about American evils. Thus, at the risk of sounding quaint, I would like to revive the methodology of Douglass' Republican theory as a serious alternative to public philosophy in America today.

In their quest for universality of expression, today's American intellectuals may be the ultimate imperialists in their explicit efforts to transcend American terms and contexts of debate. Arguments about affirmative action, for instance, with all their abstract references to "disadvantaged groups" or "advantaged groups", often pay a great tax to loftiness in order to evade the historical contexts which make these debates relevant. Likewise with the much less debated question of immigration. Thus, I would like to stress the manner in which Douglass situates the context of normative questions, squeezing from American ideals the healthiest possible drops of wisdom, but never oblivious to--how could Douglass be oblivious to?--the crude American facts which produce the problems in the first place. Today's American intellectual, in efforts to transcend the specific contexts of history and distinguish themselves on the plane of pure reason, may find themselves doing worse than Douglass, not better.

If we take Douglass' method seriously, we do not need to yield American terms of debate to the forces of pessimism or imperialism. Just as Douglass refused to concede the American Constitution to pro-slavery constructions, we might boldly declare that by the lights of the highest ideals, the Constitution is anti-imperialist. By following Douglass, our declaration would be no more startling today than were his conclusions during the ante-bellum agitations. We may recall how Douglass took even the abolitionists by surprise. But if the American Constitution is pro-democracy, it cannot also be pro-slavery, argued Douglass. In fact, the American Constitution would have to be anti-slavery. Likewise today we may argue that the American Constitution cannot be imperialist. Leaving these prefatory considerations behind, we turn to the speeches.


On Dec. 7, 1869, Douglass delivered to a Boston audience the first instance of a speech on, "Our Composite Nationality." Editors of the collected papers have reported that, during the winter of 1869-70, Douglass repeated the speech in several places, including Chicago.3 The opening paragraph of the speech indicated that Douglass may have been addressing a youthful audience, because he said that nations, "are ever among the most attractive, instructive and useful subjects of thought, to those just entering upon the duties and activities of life."4 By way of preliminary observation, Douglass noted that, "the organization of a people into a National body . . . implies a willing surrender and subjection of individual aims and ends, often narrow and selfish, to the broader and better ones that arise out of society as a whole."5 This consent-oriented theory of nationhood as common interest, which overrides self interest, was an important preliminary consideration as Douglass prepared to discuss the question of citizenship for Chinese immigrants.

Douglass prepares the question of Chinese immigration by outlining a general approach to "composite nationality": "I am especially to speak to you of the character and mission of the United States, with special reference to the question whether we are the better or worse for being composed of different races of men. I propose to consider first, what we are, second, what we are likely to be, and thirdly, what we ought to be."6 As Douglass surveys the prospects of an American nation, he takes issue with "croakers" and "gloomy prophets" who insist that America cannot prosper so long as freedmen are allowed, encouraged, or expected to assume joint partnership in the national endeavor. "You will never see this Government harmonious and successful while in the hands of different races," say these nay-sayers. Douglass compares them to Poe's raven, capable of uttering just one thing.7

In answer to the ravens of doom, who swear that America is spoiled because of racial differences, Douglass poses the challenge of Constitutional principles: "A Government founded upon justice, and recognizing the equal rights of all men; claiming no higher authority for its existence, or sanction for its laws, than nature, reason and the regularly ascertained will of the people; steadily refusing to put its sword and purse in the service of any religious creed or family, is a standing offense to most of the governments of the world, and to some narrow and bigoted people among ourselves." This ironic exposition of America's "offense" continues: "To those who doubt and deny the preponderance of good over evil in human nature; who think the few are made to rule, and the many to serve; who put rank above brotherhood, and race above humanity; who attach more importance to ancient forms than to the living realities of the present; who worship power in whatever hands it may be lodged and by whatever means it may have been obtained; our Government is a mountain of sin, and, what is worse, it seems confirmed in its transgressions."8 Douglass considers the example of, "the late Thomas Carlyle," who, "gloated over deeds of cruelty, and talked of applying to the backs of men the beneficent whip."9 In one general circle, Douglass is rounding up all aristocrats and supremacists, at home and abroad, so that their relationship to America may be clear. America has bold, new principles to uphold, which shall be pried from the grip of old-world hierarchies.

Douglass does acknowledge that perfection, which belongs to no government, obviously has not belonged to the American government, but: "The real problem with us was never our system or form of government, or the principles underlying it, but the peculiar composition of our people; the relations existing between them and the compromising spirit which controlled the ruling power of the country." Once again, Douglass is inclined to elaborate: "We have for a long time hesitated to adopt and carry out the only principle which can solve that difficulty and give peace, strength and security to the Republic, and that is the principle of absolute equality."10 If America had been forged upon a diversity of races, the predicament did not have to result in the violence of slavery, Civil War, or Indian genocide. The preferable, peaceable policy would be the application of American equality across the boundaries of race.

A more perfect union may be attained, says Douglass, so long as America learns from its errors in race relations. As, "the most conspicuous example of composite nationality in the world," America can look forward to even more differences of race and religion.11 With such a future to prepare for, America is one nation which cannot afford to perpetuate its peculiar policy of "race pride": "Until recently, neither the Indian nor the negro has been treated as a part of the body politic. No attempt has been made to inspire either with a sentiment of patriotism, but the hearts of both races have been diligently sown with the dangerous seeds of discontent and hatred."12 The more the diversity of a population grows in fact, the more a policy of equality will be needed in principle. Otherwise, the amount and intensity of disaffection can only grow. If Douglass has misgivings about America, he is not to be confused with a raven of race pride nor a prophet of aristocracy. Douglass would push America toward greater equality, even in the face of group differences. And this encouragement becomes more important with the likely addition of a new bloc of Americans--the Chinese immigrants.

At the time of Douglass' speech, some voices doubted that America would witness an influx of Asian citizens. Chinese immigration was regulated by an agreement which treated the workers as subjects of the Chinese emperor, and which therefore outlawed American citizenship for them. It was even said that a "superstitious devotion to their country" would prevent Chinese immigrants from ever desiring permanent residence in America. Add to these considerations, "the still more stubborn fact that resistance to their coming has increased rather than diminished," and one could argue that the Chinese question was moot.13

Douglass, however, looked forward to a time when Chinese immigrants would stay. First: "The same mighty forces which have swept to our shores the overflowing population of Europe; which have reduced the people of Ireland three million below its normal standard; will operate in a similar manner upon the hungry population of China and other parts of Asia."14 But second, "there is an American motive" in the demand for labor--the same motive which mandated the importation of an African "race." In fact, Douglass speculates that the Old South would scheme to import Chinese labor in an effort to displace black Americans altogether. In any case, a new question arises: "The old question as to what shall be done with the negro will have to give place to the greater question, 'What shall be done with the Mongolian,' and perhaps we shall see raised one still greater, namely, 'What will the Mongolian do with both the negro and the white?' "15 By attending to the question of Chinese immigration, Douglass gives general outline to issues of group relationships that characterize "composite nationhood."

The early signs from California indicated that the new group in America was suffering a continuation of America's unprincipled habits of "repugnance." A newly-formed "Anti-Coolie Association" was attracting help from Democrats and workers alike:

Already has the matter taken this shape in California and on the Pacific Coast generally. Already has California assumed a bitterly unfriendly attitude toward the Chinaman. Already has she stamped them as outcasts and handed them over to popular contempts and vulgar jest. Already they are the constant victims of cruel harshness and brutal violence. Already have our Celtic brothers, never slow to execute the behests of popular prejudice against the weak and defenceless, recognized in the heads of these people, fit targets for their shillalahs. Already, too, are their associations formed in avowed hostility to the Chinese.16

Irish workers, we may recall, had pounded Douglass from work at the Baltimore shipyards in the 1830's. Having been on the receiving end of so many shillalahs himself, Douglass expressed solidarity with the Asian workers as humans who were entitled to exercise the same rights of immigration that had brought the Irish to California in the first place.

Entertaining the views of those who promulgated policies of group prejudice, Douglass, classified their "best arguments" into two sorts: "first, the [alleged] worthlessness of the class against which it is directed; and, second, that the feeling itself is entirely natural."17 But supposing that a group of people were indeed worthless, then the proper response, says Douglass, would be to work for their "elevation," not to contribute to their further denigration. As for the argument from natural feelings, Douglass says, "nature has many sides":18

Nature has two voices, the one high, the other low; one is in sweet accord with reason and justice, and the other apparently at war with both. The more men know of the essential nature of things, and of the true relation of mankind, the freer they are from prejudice of every kind. The child is afraid of the giant form of his own shadow. This is natural, but he will part with his fears when he is older and wiser. So ignorance is full of prejudice, but it will disappear with enlightenment. But I pass on.19

Allusion to racist reaction as childish fear may help us to understand the psychology of bigotry, but it may also lead us toward the unhelpful presumption that time itself will reduce prejudice, as the nation "grows up." For Douglass, however, there are two important ingredients--wisdom and enlightenment--which must be added to the mere lapse of time if maturity is to be the outcome. Efforts must be directed toward education and self-discovery.

Speaking with the higher voice of nature, Douglass declares that he would favor Chinese immigration and naturalization, with full rights of citizenship, jury duty, voting, and elective office. If against all this, one raises questions of self-preservation, common sense, race superiority, or lifeboat ethics-if one declares in short, that, "white people are the owners of this continent"-then Douglass has a characteristic answer: "There are such things in the world as human rights."20 Among "human rights" that are shared by Chinese and Irish alike is the right to "locomotion"--that same right which is asserted by every American, "who stays here", and every ancestor, "who came here."21

There is a more general principle at stake in this debate, and that is the priority of human rights over race or nation. "I know of no rights of race superior to the rights of humanity, and when there is a supposed conflict between human and national rights, it is safe to go on the side of humanity."22 With due respect to, "the blue-eyed and light-haired races of America," Douglass rejects any, "arrogant or scornful theory by which they would limit migratory rights, or any other essential human rights, to themselves, and which would make them owners of this great continent to the exclusion of all other races"23

The speech that began with a promise to examine the question of nationhood now turns to human rights, "inalienable rights" if you will, which no nation may override. If nationhood is founded upon common interest, Douglass shows how such interest must be interpreted in the most inclusive sense. There are, after all, common interests which may be read in a very exclusive way:

Right wrongs no man. If respect is had to majorities, the fact that only one-fifth of the population of the globe is white and the other four-fifths are colored, ought to have some weight and influence in disposing of this and similar questions. It would be a sad reflection upon the laws of nature and upon the idea of justice, to say nothing of a common Creator, if four-fifths of mankind were deprived of the rights of migration to make room for one-fifth. If the white race may exclude all other races from this continent, it may rightfully do the same in respect to all other lands, islands, capes, and continents, and thus have all the world to itself, and thus what would seem to belong to the whole would become the property of only a part. So much for what is right, now let us see what is wise.24

With these words, Douglass confronts the virulent supremacy that attaches America to notions of whiteness. Needless to say, the supremacy trend will persist beyond Douglass' time, and the outline of Douglass' response will remain relevant throughout the 20th Century.

Among the various citizens of the world, Americans have a special mission which is "plain and unmistakable" for Douglass: "to make us the perfect national illustration of the unity and dignity of the human family that the world has ever seen":

In whatever else other nations may have been great and grand, our greatness and grandeur will be found in the faithful application of the principle of perfect civil equality to the people of all races and of all creeds. We are not only bound to this position by our organic structure and by our revolutionary antecedents, but by the genius of our people. Gathered here from all corners of the globe, by a common aspiration for national liberty as against caste, divine right government and privileged classes, it would be unadvised to attempt to set up any one race above another, or one religion above another, or prescribe any on account of race, color or creed.25

Douglass takes this sense of destiny to be advisable against fear and isolation. The fear that America will be overrun is for Douglass unfounded, since immigrants are likely to arrive in a generally weakened condition, and will tend to defer to existing American institutions. Isolation is a greater danger. "The very soil of the national mind becomes in such cases barren, and can only be resuscitated by assistance from without."26

Considering that, "each race of men has some special faculty, some peculiar gift or quality of mind or heart, needed to the perfection and happiness of the whole"; and admitting, "that all races and varieties of men are improvable"; then Douglass embraces a vision of "composite nationhood" where many "races" each contribute to the improvement of all: "If we would reach a degree of civilization higher and grander than any yet attained, we should welcome to our ample continent all nations, kindreds, tongues and peoples, and as fast as they learn our language and comprehend the duties of citizenship, we should incorporate them into the American body politic. The outspread wings of the American eagle are broad enough to shelter all who are likely to come."27 (Douglass then comments upon the diversity which had already worked to build America: black and Irish labor provided a foundation for wealth and refinement; German energies brought vigor, knowledge, and a fierce love of truth; and the French, well, says Douglass, the Frenchman, "gets what he wants and, like a sensible Frenchman, returns to Paris to spend it."28)

The "polygenic" theory of human origins was at the time of Douglass' speech ascendant, claiming that the human species had originated in several separate racial regions. But Douglass had his doubts that it was true. In any event, when faced with the general question of human compatibility, Douglass appealed to the "common nature" of humanity: "The sentiments we exhibit, whether love or hate, confidence or fear, respect or contempt, will always imply a like humanity. A smile or tear has no nationality. Joy and sorrow speak alike in all nations, and they above all the confusion of tongues proclaim the brotherhood of man."29 Yet, voices of prejudice accused the Chinese of inherent dishonesty. Furthermore, these Confucians refused to swear by The Bible. But Douglass observed that honesty was ever necessary to society, and the Chinese in China had certainly maintained a heritage of social achievement. What might be different about the Chinese in America? Douglass appeals to the analogy of slavery, and the ideological stereotypes that help to keep white power alive:

To the mind of superficial men the future of different races has already brought disaster and ruin upon the country. The poor negro has been charged with all our woes. In the haste of these men they forget that our trouble was not ethnological, but moral, that it was not a difference of complexion, but a difference of conviction. It was not the Ethiopian as a man, but the Ethiopian as a slave and a coveted article of merchandise, that gave us trouble.30

Douglass' suppressed conclusion has been amply indicated. When the Chinese laborer is treated honestly and fairly, then an honest relationship may flourish from both sides.

Douglass had been asked to give a few remarks on the Chinese question, and he had treated it with the same kind of illumination characteristic of his work as an abolitionist and advocate of women's rights. And so it came time for Douglass to step down: "I close these remarks as I began. If our action shall be in accordance with the principles of justice, liberty, and perfect human equality, no eloquence can adequately portray the greatness and grandeur of the future of the Republic." Like it or not, Douglass closes with a fair picture of American ambition in the century to come:

We shall spread the network of our science and our civilization over all who seek their shelter, whether from Asia, Africa, or the Isles of the Sea. We shall mould them all, each after his kind, into Americans; Indian and Celt, negro and Saxon, Latin and Teuton, Mongolian and Caucasian, Jew and gentile, all shall here bow to the same law, speak the same language, support the same government, enjoy the same liberty, vibrate with the same national enthusiasm, and seek the same national ends.31

This sort of optimism is meant to be infectious, and may easily serve as a veritable prelude to Whitman. In terms of mood, we have swooped far away from Poe.


It may be remarked that Douglass' opinions on "composite nationality" have limited application to current debates on immigration policy. One might note, for instance, that American resources are comparatively exhausted and no longer in need of imported labor. This variation of the "full boat" analogy might note that the American economy is no longer inclining toward expansion at previous rates of growth. It is difficult enough for America's middle class to maintain its standard of living. Where shall we find room for others?

Whatever else may be said from a strictly economic point of view about the pessimism of the "full boat" theory of America, I would like to address the consequences of the cultural attitude that is indicated. In short, I would like to ask, if the boat is full, what becomes of the American vision so eloquently expounded by Douglass? And I would like to answer that such "full boat pessimism" undermines the logic of American democracy in a pervasive way, with grim implications for national culture. Once we assume the exhaustion of what was once called "Yankee ingenuity" then it seems to me that the principles of freedom, justice, equality, and democracy will also be left hanging at wit's end.

What I am suggesting is that the American project, with all its muddled successes and glaring shortcomings, becomes fundamentally undermined by "life boat" economics at home. A boat too full is no place for thriving democracy. A policy of exclusion cannot advance human equality. And it seems to me that the "prophets of doom" may be criticized for the mood they promulgate, because such a mood cannot sustain an American project of human liberation. The signs are plentiful enough today to indicate that a psychology of retrenchment is still a noteworthy patch in the American fabric, as it was when Douglass spoke in the aftermath of the Civil War. And it seems equally clear that the human-rights implications of such a mood have not much changed.

American optimism seems inextricably bound up with assumptions so clearly articulated by Douglass: that there is a common humanity; that humanity is improvable; that the liberation of human potential cannot abide discriminations of class, race, or creed; that human prosperity is best achieved in a democratic milieu of equal opportunity, etc. Moreover, the promise of America carries its unlimited appeal to any citizen of the world who is willing to roll up her sleeves and pitch in.

True it is that American optimism has always been in a kind of Manichean struggle with superstition, pessimism, and greed. For every Thomas Morton with his maypole, there has been a John Smith with his gun. But this acknowledgment need not enthrone pessimism as the crowned achievement of American culture. What optimists can learn from history is that there is a heritage of struggle which need not be forsaken. The appellation of Vincent Harding applies: "there is a river"! The inglorious traditions of American pessimism need not be handed any victories by default.

For a culture of exhaustion, the words of Douglass ring quaint and naive. But who among the exhausted has worked harder than Douglass or against greater American odds? The words of Douglass are the fighting words of a heavyweight champion. For Douglass, words like justice and equality have heroic, life-giving meaning.

It may be gleaned from this appreciation of Douglass that economic realities, historical realities, global politics, may all be swept aside by sheer force of optimistic will, but that is not the case. Douglass indeed engaged these realities, but he refused to be taken in by a mood. He insisted that there is a high voice of American optimism which encourages a healthy and strenuous approach to whatever obstacles may be thrown in the way. This is the kind of optimism that steers a full boat toward a distressed craft on the horizon. Pessimism, on the other hand, turns away, and begins to draw lots in steerage.

Signs of full-boat pessimism are always apparent in the logic of racism, especially in the contemporary flight from affirmative action. The pessimists of white America argue today, as they argued in 1869, that white folks shall be swamped if others are allowed into the ship. Minorities will take our seats! We will be pushed out onto a wilderness to perish! Underlying the call to abandon affirmative action is the same full-boat pessimism that rejects immigration. But a pessimistic mood cannot serve the American ideals of freedom and justice for all. Like Poe's (or Perot's?) raven, it can only croak an utterance that it never really understands.


As if Douglass were not helpful enough for our continuing struggles to keep the American dream alive, he has also done us the service of outlining the logic of affirmative action. And he did this at Republican political gathering:

While I am for making no distinction, I am one of those who believe that whenever, and wherever, there is an office to be had, and a white applicant equally eligible, and equally available to obtain it; that while I am in favor of no distinctions on account of color, remembering the stripes, remembering the 250 years of bondage in this land, through which the colored man has been dragged, remembering that 250 years he has not had the right to learn the name of the God that made him, and that every man in the land has been at liberty to kick him, and to disregard his rights, he having no rights which a white man was bound to respect-I say, in view of that history, and the history of stripes, of tears, and of blood for the black man's track through this country for two hundred years, may be traced, as O'Connell said of "Old Ireland" long ago, "like a wounded man through the crowd, by the blood itself"-I say, whenever the black man and the white man, equally eligible, equally available, equally qualified for office, present themselves for that office, the black man, at this juncture of our affairs, should be preferred. That is my conviction.32


As with Douglass' opinions about the bounty of America, it may be argued that his view of affirmative action has been outdated by changed conditions. But Douglass was speaking from a rare point in American history-while Reconstruction was in full bloom. By the end of the decade, federal troops would be withdrawn from New Orleans, and with them the national commitment to the civil rights of freedmen. Looming ahead, the Supreme Court would declare a civil rights bill unconstitutional, would declare for "separate but equal" treatment, and would clear the legal path to Jim Crowism. But didn't these reversals end with the civil rights movement of the 1960's? Supposing that indeed, America's sins against its black population ended at last in 1964, then I would argue that we have only to add one more century to Douglass' calculation and speak about 350 years of blood and tears, not 250. Assuming that affirmative action had been vigorously pursued since 1965, would 30 years make up for 350?

Of course, what we know to be true is quite different from the most optimistic assumptions made above. Affirmative action has yet to be genuinely embraced as a national ethic, and its modest achievements have been won in the face of "resentment" and backlash all out of proportion to its gains. In fact, the attitude of white America is the best evidence for redoubling affirmative action. Given the state of white opinion today, who would seriously argue that integration and opportunity are likely to increase after affirmative action is withdrawn. What we face, in my opinion, is something similar to the predicament of reversed Reconstruction. Let the federal government send the signal that affirmative action is no longer law of the land, and what mood is likely to follow?

In summary, the above post-war speeches by Douglass have messages relevant to current debates about immigration and affirmative action. Chief among those messages is Douglass' appeal to the highest voices of nature as we seek a future for America. As there have always been the low voices to defend self interest and race interest as national interest, Douglass encourages the sweeter sound of human rights, both for the benefit of new Americans and old. Indeed, we might then turn to Douglass for help with the broader issue of how we frame the American project and its Constitution for maximum service to human rights.


1. For general orientation to the philosophy of Douglass, see Broadus Butler, "Frederick Douglass," in Philosophy Born of Struggle, ed. Leonard Harris (Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt, 1983). For comments which encourage critical perspective on the "representative" qualities of Douglass, see Wilson J. Moses, "Where Honor is Due: Frederick Douglass as Representative Black Man," Prospects 17 (1992), pp. 177-89. And for theoretical consequences of Douglass as literary figure, see Gregory S. Jay, "American Literature and the New Historicism: The Example of Frederick Douglass," boundary 2 17.1 (Spring 1990), pp. 211-42.

2. Speech texts taken from John W. Blassingame and John R. McKivigan, eds., The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews, Vol. 4 (1864-80) (New Haven: Yale UP, 1991).

3. Ibid., 240. For a discussion of assimilation as Douglass' response to composite nationhood, see Waldo E. Martin, Jr., The Mind of Frederick Douglass (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina, 1984) 219-24.

4. Ibid., 241, emphasis added.
5. Ibid., 241.
6. Ibid., 241.
7. Ibid., 242.
8. Ibid., 243.
9. Ibid., 243.
10. Ibid., 244-45.
11. Ibid., 245.
12. Ibid., 245.
13. Ibid., 246.
14. Ibid., 247.
15. Ibid., 250.
16. Ibid., 250.
17. Ibid., 251.
18. Ibid., 251.
19. Ibid., 251.
20. Ibid., 251-52.
21. Ibid., 252.
22. Ibid., 252.
23. Ibid., 252.
24. Ibid., 252-53. Implications of "full-boat" ethics will be treated below. What is interesting to note, however, is the way Douglass turns the question around. If there is a full boat on earth, then it tends to appear elsewhere than America. If, for instance, "we have a duty to try to prevent and postpone famine deaths," as argued by Onora Nell, then the case for immigration in America is strengthened by famine conditions abroad. Likewise with Peter Singer's argument that philosophers must do everything in their power to avert famine. Any model of world economics demonstrates the relative super-abundance of American resources. See Nell, "Lifeboat Earth," Philosophy and Public Affairs 4.3 (Spring 1975), pp. 273-92; and Singer, "Famine, Affluence, and Morality," Philosophy and Public Affairs 1.3 (Spring 1972) pp. 229-43.

25. Ibid., 253.
26. Ibid., 254.
27. Ibid., 256.
28. Ibid., 256.
29. Ibid., 257.
30. Ibid., 258-59.
31. Ibid., 259.
32. Ibid., 284. Affirmative action has been variously treated by contributors to Philosophy and Public Affairs. See Judith Jarvis Thompson, "Preferential Hiring," 2.4 (Summer 1973), pp. 364-84; Thomas Nagel, "Equal Treatment and Compensatory Discrimination," 2.4 (Summer 1973), pp. 348-63; Robert Simon, "Preferential Hiring: A Reply to Judith Jarvis Thompson," 3.3 (Spring 1974), pp. 312-320; George Sher, "Justifying Reverse Discrimination in Employment," 4.2 (Winter 1975), pp. 159-70; Alan H. Goldman, "Affirmative Action," 5.2 (Winter 1976), pp. 178-95; Owen M. Fiss, "Groups and the Equal Protection Clause," 5.2 (Winter 1976), pp. 107-77; and Bernard R. Boxill, "The Morality of Preferential Hiring," 7.3 (Spring 1978), pp. 246-68.

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