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Frederick Douglass

Race and the Rebirth of American Liberalism

Peter C. Myers

February 2008
272 pages, 6 x 9
American Political Thought
Cloth ISBN 978-0-7006-1572-8, $34.95

book cover imageFor Frederick Douglass, the iconic nineteenth-century slave and abolitionist, the foundations for his arguments in support of racial equality rested on natural rights and natural law—and the bold proclamation of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. But because many Americans never observed this principle—and in Douglass’s day even renounced it—he made it his life’s work to move the nation toward this vision of a more noble liberalism. Peter Myers now considers that effort and the natural rights arguments by which Douglass confronted race in America.

Myers examines the philosophic core of Douglass’s political thought, offering a greater understanding of its depth and coherence. He depicts Douglass as the leading thinker to apply the Founders’ doctrine of natural rights to the plight of African Americans—an activist who grounded his arguments on the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and the inherent injustice not only of slavery but of any form of racial superiority.

Myers first reconsiders Douglass’s descriptive analysis of slavery, developing his arguments for its natural wrongness and for its natural weakness in conjunction with the right of resistance. He then examines Douglass’s understandings of civil government in general and of the U.S. constitutional order in particular, exploring his argument on the Constitution’s relation to slavery and his thoughts on the powers and duties of the federal and state governments in the matter of postslavery race relations—including new insight into Douglass’s controversial “do nothing” doctrine.

Myers argues that Douglass’s political thought at its core is both more coherent and more defensible in substance than his critics acknowledge. He maintains that Douglass was right in finding the natural rights principles of the Declaration a sufficient theoretical basis for addressing the nation’s racial problems and contends that his hopefulness for the demise of slavery and white supremacy was marked by moderation and realism.

Myers finds in Douglass’s political thought the foundations of a revitalized argument for the mainstream civil rights, integrationist tradition of African American political thought. His analysis offers a new way of looking at an important thinker, as well as a compelling case for hoping that race relations in America will improve over time.

“A first-rate exposition of Douglas’s political philosophy, and a testament to his personal strength, character, and abiding faith in America.”—Political Science Quarterly

“Taken all in all, Myers’s volume is the best contribution to understanding Douglass in a generation.”—Claremont Review of Books

“Myers’s book is an incisive and comprehensive examination of the political thought of the greatest of all black abolitionists. But it is more than that. As a fervent defense of Douglass’s ‘natural rights liberalism’ it makes a significant contribution to current debates on the meaning of liberty and equality.”—George M. Fredrickson, author of Racism: A Short History

“A beautiful, thoughtful, deeply felt volume that not only gives us the greatness of Douglass as he was in his time, but his continuing relevance in ours.”—Michael P. Zuckert, author of Launching Liberalism: On Lockean Political Philosophy

“A splendidly persuasive new interpretation.”—Wilson J. Moses, author of Creative Conflict in African American Thought

PETER C. MYERS is professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire and author of Our Only Star and Compass: Locke and the Struggle for Political Rationality.

 

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