One of America’s greatest orators was once an illiterate slave who had to escape his master in order to find freedom in the northern United States. Through his own efforts, he not only educated himself, but also developed a mastery in vocabulary and public speaking. Wielding the power of the pen and the spoken word, he used his God-given and self-cultivated communication abilities to decry the gruesomeness of the slave’s plight in America. Today, he should be remembered as one of the greatest Christian intellectual defenders of human liberty.
His name was Frederick Douglass.
In 1862, there was much debate about what should be done to help the negro slaves in the event that they would be emancipated under the leadership of President Lincoln. Some people argued that society was going to have to fund a number of programs to help the slaves establish themselves financially with their new-found freedom. It was considered impossible for four million uneducated slaves to find themselves loosed on society without some necessary resources to sustain themselves.
However Douglass, himself a black man and former slave, took on this question from a different perspective. In 1862, he wrote a brief piece that was meant to answer the question, “What shall be done with the four million slaves if they are emancipated?” His answer will probably confound the conventional wisdom of our times, which would agree with the advocates of social relief programs and welfare policies. Instead of arguing that the black man was in need of financial handouts and social assistance, Douglass argued that nothing should be done for the slaves once they were emancipated. Specifically, in answer to this question, he eloquently stated that:
“This question has been answered, and can be answered in many ways. Primarily, it is a question less for man than for God; less for human intellect than for the laws of nature to solve. It assumes that nature has erred; that the law of liberty is a mistake; that freedom, though a natural want of human soul, can only be enjoyed at the expense of human welfare, and that men are better off in slavery than they would or could be in freedom; that slavery is the natural order of human relations, and that liberty is an experiment. What shall be done with them?
“Our answer is, do nothing with them; mind your business, and let them mind theirs. Your doing with them is their greatest misfortune. They have been undone by your doings, and all they now ask, and really have need of at your hands, is just to let them alone. They suffer by ever interference, and succeed best by being let alone.”
The flow of logic behind Douglass’s argument blasts through the fundamental issue related to the question of taking care of the slaves once emancipated. Douglass reminds his audience that the question of provision of material needs is not one for governments, but rather one for God’s almighty sovereignty. The miracle of Adam Smith’s invisible hand is not simply an observed man-made phenomena, but rather a gift of God manifested in the intelligence that He has given to free and morally responsible individuals. Moreover, out of respect for the dignity and liberty of the newly emancipated slaves, Douglass believed that it would be hypocritical to set slaves “free” only to bring them into reliance upon government handouts. After all, it was the fact that people thought they could “do something” with the slaves before that made them slaves in the first place.
The beauty of the simple phrase, “do nothing with them,” represents Douglass’s core political philosophy that a liberty under God’s righteous authority was the best type of society. Douglass believed that all people of all ethnic groups were dignified human beings, capable of rational choice and individual responsibility and subject to the final judgment of God. To assume that individuals needed the help of the state assumed that they were somehow incapable of fulfilling their functional capability as soul-bearing people with independent cognitive faculties. It was not the place of any man to assume responsibility for a whole group of men simply because of misplaced good intentions. Douglass accused such an attitude as being a form of benevolence without justice, which in reality eradicates the latter:
“We would not for one moment check the outgrowth of any benevolent concern for the future welfare of the colored race in America or elsewhere; but in the name of reason and religion, we earnestly plead for justice before all else. Benevolence with justice is harmonious and beautiful; but benevolence without justice is mockery.”
Thus, Douglass did not desire to tell people to cease caring about the plight of the black man, for to do so would be to contradict his core beliefs as an abolitionist and as a Christian. However, he wanted to check the propensity of well intentioned individuals to rush blindly to the aid of the black man armed only with an emotional passion for the slave’s well-being–absent an earnest consideration of the long-term ramifications of such actions for justice. Douglass didn’t believe that slaves deserved special privileges upon emancipation, but that the only necessary privilege was emancipation:
“What shall be done with the Negro if emancipated? Deal justly with him. He is a human being, capable of judging between good and evil, right and wrong, liberty and slavery, and is as much a subject of law as any other man; therefore, deal justly with him. He is, like other men, sensible of the motives of reward and punishment. Give him wages for his work, and let hunger pinch him if he don’t work. He knows the difference between fullness and famine, plenty and scarcity. “But will he work?” Why should he not? He is used to it. His hands are already hardened by toil, and he has no dreams of ever getting a living by any other means than by hard work. But would you turn them all loose? Certainly! We are no better than our Creator. He has turned them loose, and why should not we?”
Perhaps the most beautiful thread that weaves throughout Douglass’s argumentation is his realization that human freedom only exists as a gift from God. Thus, true freedom is always exercised under his righteous authority. Why should men struggle for power over other men if they knew that God would conduct man’s affairs in such a manner as to confound the wisdom of the wise and throw off the cunning schemes of central planners and politicians. In this beautiful, but brief, argument regarding the emancipation of the slaves, Douglass explained what the French philosopher, Frederic Bastiat, had meant only 12 years before when he decried the vain arrogance of those men who would seek to mold humanity in their own image rather than allowing man to submit himself to God in the exercise of his liberty. True liberty was not only consistent with just human conduct, but also an expression of faith in God’s authority, the only true source of human liberty.
“And now that the legislators and do-gooders have so futilely inflicted so many systems upon society, may they finally end where they should have begun: May they reject all systems, and try liberty; for liberty is an acknowledgment of faith in God and His works.” – Frederic Bastiat, The Law