The Liberal Imagination of Frederick DouglassPrint
Honoring the emotions that give life to liberal principles
By Nick Bromell
March 1, 2008
On a steamy morning in June 1881, a federal cutter slowly makes its way up the Chesapeake Bay into the Wye River. In the bow stands Frederick Douglass, his eyes scanning the shore for the landmarks he once knew so well—signs that he is approaching a place that, with lasting pain and bitter irony, yet also with love and fond remembrance, he stills calls home.
This home, for Douglass, is the Great House Farm where he had been born into slavery 63 years earlier. This home is the vast estate of Colonel Lloyd, the despotic master whom he had portrayed so unsparingly in his best-selling 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. This home, he tells us, was once a “dark domain . . . stamped with its own peculiar iron-like individuality,” where “crimes, high-handed and atrocious, could be committed with strange and shocking impunity!” Now, 43 years after his escape from slavery, with the Civil War over and the Emancipation Proclamation the law of the land, Douglass can see this old home all around him. How many times he had stood just there on the high banks of the river, gazing down at the ships sailing past and dreaming of the day when one of them might carry him to freedom, carry him away!
As the cutter rounds a bend in the river, “the stately chimneys of the grand old mansion” rise into view above the treetops, and Douglass’s heart races within him. “I had left there as a slave,” he would write in his 1893 edition of The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, “and returned as a freeman; I had left there unknown to the outside world, and returned well known.” But would the descendants of his former master treat him with contempt? Would they humiliate him as so many white southerners at the time were humiliating their former slaves by establishing a Jim Crow regime throughout the South? Douglass has been assured by friends that the current Colonel Lloyd is “a liberal-minded gentleman” who “would take a visit” from Douglass “very kindly.” Still, he remains uneasy: how will Lloyd feel about greeting a runaway slave who has written so critically of his grandfather, and who was a leader of the popular insurrection that destroyed the Old South and its ways? At bottom, Douglass wonders: what assurance and protection are promised by that flimsy phrase “liberal-minded”?
And what does it promise today? Most conservatives laugh at liberals as Volvo-driving, latte-lapping, briefcase-toting bureaucrats who are soft on crime, hard on other people’s SUVs, and enemies of traditional Christian values. Many progressives scorn liberals as neoliberal wolves in sheep’s clothing who pretend to care for the world’s downtrodden but actually prosper as servants of power. Both views are oversimplifications, to be sure. But they wouldn’t be so resonant if there weren’t some truth to them.
Over the last 40 years, as many commentators have observed, liberalism has become the mere shadow of its former self. While conservatives have campaigned brilliantly to discredit liberalism in the public eye, liberals themselves have lent a hand by conforming so supinely to the caricature conservatism has forged. They have gradually forgotten what they believe, and they have described themselves in ever narrower and more bloodless terms. Most liberal politicians today take certain positions and advocate for policies merely out of habit; when challenged, they can’t articulate or even remember the deeper values these policies express.
Take John Kerry’s lame reply to Republican accusations in 2004 that he had “flip-flopped” on Iraq. During one of the three debates with George W. Bush, you could actually see him squirm whenever he had to deal with this issue. He stood there chopping logic and splitting hairs as if he were arguing his case before the Mensa Society. Here was Bill Clinton parsing the meaning of is all over again!
What if he had counterattacked instead? What if he had declared that what Republicans called flip-flopping he called changing his mind in the light of new information? What if he had said that a strong leader is one who has the courage to alter course, not one who stubbornly persists in a policy that is failing? What if he had insisted that American voters faced a clear choice about the kind of leadership they wanted: either a liberal who was more open-minded, flexible, and ready to adapt to a changing situation; or a conservative who was more stubborn, more strictly wedded to consistency at any price, more fearful of the future? What if he had dared to embrace and articulate the core qualities of the liberal mind or temperament?
The cutter finally drops anchor at Lloyd’s Jetty, and young Mr. Howard Lloyd, the great-grandson of the old colonel, comes on board and extends to Douglass “as hearty a welcome as we could have wished.” Explaining that his father is away on business, Howard offers to escort Douglass around the estate. Of their tour together Douglass will write: “I found the buildings, which gave it the appearance of a village, nearly all standing, and I was astonished to find that I had carried their appearance so accurately in my mind for so many years.” Here is the garden of earthly delights from which the desperately hungry slaves were so tempted to steal fruit. Here is the window at which his former mistress used to sit “with her sewing, and at which I used to sing when hungry, a signal which she well understood, and to which she readily responded with bread.” Here is “the cabin where Dr. Copper, an old slave, used, with a hickory stick in hand, to teach us to say the ‘Lord’s Prayer.’”
And here, in a detail easily overlooked, is “the little closet in which I slept in a bag.” It had “been taken into the room,” Douglass reports, and “the dirt floor, too, had disappeared under a plank.” That is all he says about it. But the readers of his 1845 Narrative will recall that this exact spot appeared in those pages as “my sleeping-place . . . on the dirt floor of a little rough closet which opened into the kitchen.” They will recall that this was the closet from which Douglass peeped out upon a scene that changed his life—and perhaps theirs as well—forever.
What Douglass saw for the first time was slavery itself. Still a small boy, no more than six, he watched from his hiding place as his own Aunt Esther’s “wrists were firmly tied, and the twisted rope was fastened to a strong iron staple in a heavy wooden beam above, near the fire-place. Here she stood on a bench, her arms tightly drawn above her head. Her back and shoulders were perfectly bare.” When her master began to whip her, he was “cruelly deliberate,” protracting “the torture” like someone who is “delighted with the agony of his victim.” Aunt Esther’s “shoulders were plump and tender. Each blow, vigorously laid on, brought screams from her as well as blood. ‘Have mercy! Oh mercy!’ she cried. ‘I won’t do so no more.’ But her piercing cries seemed only to increase his fury. . . . From my heart I pitied her, and child as I was, and new to such scenes, the shock was tremendous. I was terrified, hushed, stunned, and bewildered.”
Of this terrible event, Douglass wrote: “I shall never forget it whilst I remember anything. It was the blood-stained gate through which I was about to pass . . . the entrance to the hell of slavery.” Now, so many years later, the sun is shining on a hot June day. Douglass is a free man, a distinguished man. Slavery has been abolished, and the 14th and 15th amendments have been ratified. But the closet, though changed, is still there. We can only guess at the feelings that gripped Douglass as he peered back into that little space: back through the blood-stained gate into the hell of slavery itself, back where his own Aunt Esther is still being whipped, back where a boy is still watching in horror.
After the 2004 election, when exit polls from the pivotal state of Ohio showed that voters had no idea what Democrats stood for, the Left scrambled to make up the values deficit. The progressive political blog Daily Kos, for example, identified the Left’s “core values” as “Smart Government, Privacy, Conservation, Opportunity, and U.S. Leadership.” But surely these aren’t values. They’re policy priorities. Values would be the felt beliefs that underlie and motivate the desire for such policies. But what are those felt beliefs? Why does the Left favor government, privacy, conservation, and the like? Daily Kos isn’t saying.
We find the same hollow silence at the other edge of the Left. The platform of the Democratic Party of Texas proclaims that “Texas Democrats believe we should employ the common sense and wisdom of the people to preserve and practice proven ideas and polices that work, as well as new ideas that reflect our most enduring and sacred American values—opportunity, responsibility, family and community, freedom and fairness.” But why do Texas Democrats value family and community? Why do they value opportunity? No one is saying.
If the writers of Daily Kos and the Texas platform know the answers to these questions, they are plainly afraid to spell them out. They worry, I suspect, that explaining their belief in, say, privacy, would mean digging deeper. It would require them to say something like: We value privacy because we have a profound respect for the dignity of each individual. This respect for human dignity is why we believe that individuals can handle the responsibility of being left alone. And if pressed further to explain why they have such respect for the dignity of each individual, they would have to admit: We just do. We can’t prove that this is the way humans are, but this is the way we feel about what it means to be a person. The same goes for explaining why they value family, opportunity, and community. A searching answer would lead them down a slippery slope to the disturbing realization that many of their political positions rest on feelings, not reason. This makes them so nervous that they prefer not to search.
Thomas Jefferson, however, would have been puzzled and even alarmed by their skittishness. The Scottish philosophers who profoundly influenced him insisted that our moral sense derives from our feelings, not from our reason. We do not calculate what is good, they argued; we feel what is good. As David Hume wrote in A Treatise of Human Nature: “The approbation of moral qualities most certainly is not derived from reason, or any comparison of ideas; but proceeds entirely from a moral taste, and from certain sentiments of pleasure or disgust, which arise upon contemplation and view of particular qualities or characters.” Jefferson frequently expressed this view in his own writings: “Morals,” he wrote in a letter to his friend Maria Cosway, “were too essential to the happiness of man to be risked on the uncertain combinations of the head. She [Nature] laid their foundation therefore in sentiment, not in science.”
But sentiment has become a bad word, much as liberal has. Liberals and most others on the left side of the political spectrum prefer to describe their beliefs as ideas, or principles. Principles, especially, has a clean, silvery ring to it, so much more modern sounding than faith or belief or feelings. But the truth is that a principle is something we hold. We don’t just agree with it the way we assent to the proposition that the earth is round or that two plus two equals four. We believe our principles feelingly. We are committed to them. We get hot under the collar and raise our voices to a higher pitch when others question them. Our caring infuses our principles, runs through them and enlivens them with a warmth that distinguishes them from our rational assent to reasonable propositions. So if there are liberal principles, there must also be liberal feelings. But what are they? How do liberals (and progressives) tend to feel about the world?
Lloyd and Douglass stop next at the family cemetery. While Douglass strolls pensively among the mossy headstones, Lloyd gathers for him “a bouquet of flowers and evergreens from different graves around us”—a bouquet Douglass finds so touching that he will take it back to his new home in the Washington suburb of Uniontown and preserve it as a memento of his visit. Finally, Lloyd leads them into the Great House itself and onto “its stately old verandah, where we could have a full view of its garden, with its broad walks, hedged with box and adorned with fruit trees and flowers of almost every variety. A more tranquil and tranquilizing scene I have seldom met in this or any other country.”
Here, then, is the former slave, the flesh of his back scarred by the master’s whip, relaxing now in the master’s chair and gazing through the master’s eyes not at a “dark domain” but at a “tranquil and tranquilizing scene”—tranquilizing precisely because its peace and beauty conceal its crimes and horrors. And here, too, is the great-grandson of that former master, waiting on Douglass and showing him every possible courtesy. He has gathered him a bouquet of flowers and then invited him to occupy the symbolic and almost sacred center of plantation gentility—the verandah.
The reasons Douglass so carefully depicts and dramatizes this visit are complex. But one of them surely is that he is explaining to himself and his readers what the temperament he calls liberal-minded might be. In his portrait of young Lloyd, it signifies a willingness to set aside social prejudice and stand in another person’s shoes—to acknowledge and feel the depth of Douglass’s mourning for the victims of slavery and for his own traumatic childhood, to respect and even honor Douglass’s mingled feelings of rage and grief. Why would Douglass have preserved the bouquet if it did not carry such meanings for him?
Indeed, Douglass includes three such portrayals of liberal-minded reconciliation in Life and Times. In all of them, the former slave and his former masters relinquish their resentments, recognize each other’s vulnerabilities, and behave with empathic compassion. In the most emotional of these scenes, Douglass is invited suddenly to pay a call on his old master Captain Auld, now infirm and confined to his bed. Douglass tells us that he was stunned by the invitation: “To me, Captain Auld had sustained the relation of master—a relation which I held in extremest abhorrence. . . . He had struck down my personality, had subjected me to his will, had made property of my body and soul. . . . I, on my part, had traveled through the length and breadth of this country and of England, holding up this conduct of his . . . to the reprobation of all men who would hear my words.” Nonetheless, Douglass agrees to visit Auld because, as he explains, “He was to me no longer a slaveholder either in fact or in spirit, and I regarded him as I did myself, a victim of the circumstances of birth, education, law, and custom.”
Douglass relates that when he entered Auld’s room, the two men “addressed each other simultaneously, he calling me ‘Marshal Douglass’ and I, as I had always called him, ‘Captain Auld.’” (Douglass at this time held the position of Marshal of the District of Columbia.) Douglass is deeply moved by the Captain’s generous gesture of calling him Marshal, for he immediately reciprocates with his own generous gesture: “Hearing myself called by him ‘Marshal Douglass,’ I instantly broke up the formal nature of the meeting by saying, ‘not Marshal, but Frederick to you as formerly.’”
Consider the risk to his own dignity that Douglass is taking here, inviting Auld to call him Frederick, his former name tied so closely to his former identity—and so dangerously close to boy. And consider the risk also to his political reputation: Douglass was later criticized by members of the black community when they read in the newspapers about this visit. Nonetheless, Douglass allows concern for dignity and outward propriety to give way to spontaneous feelings of kindness and vulnerability. “We shook hands cordially,” Douglass writes, “and he, having been long stricken with palsy, shed tears as men thus deeply afflicted will do when excited by any deep emotion. The sight of him . . . his tremulous hands constantly in motion, and all the circumstances of his condition affected me deeply, and for a time choked my voice and made me speechless.”
Speechless. So deep is his sympathy for his former master that one of the greatest orators of the 19th century is rendered speechless. This weakness, however, is actually a sign of strength, for only by relinquishing the fortress of one’s own ego can one move to identify with another’s. It takes great courage to risk empathizing with the man who was your master, and it takes great delicacy to identify with the man who was your slave. These are the meanings of liberal-minded that Douglass is presenting in these scenes.
It may be tempting today to dismiss these meanings as facile or sentimental, the painless acquiescence of a man too ready to forgive. But history tells us otherwise. Douglass was always adamant that the South should not be quickly and easily forgiven. “Fellow citizens,” he declared in a speech in 1894, “I am not indifferent to the claims of a generous forgetfulness, but whatever else I may forget, I shall never forget the difference between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery; between those who fought to save the republic and those who fought to destroy it.” Douglass was infuriated by the nation’s adulation of Robert E. Lee and by its rush to forget the past in the spirit of sectional reconciliation. “I am no minister of malice,” he told an audience in 1871, “but . . . may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I forget the difference between the parties to that . . . bloody conflict. . . . I may say if this war is to be forgotten, I ask in the name of all things sacred what shall men remember?”
Set against this background of Douglass’s 30-year campaign against “national forgetfulness,” the moments of personal reconciliation he stages in Life and Times must be read with keen interest in his purpose. Douglass is not suffering here from an uncharacteristic lapse into sentiment or amnesia. Rather, he is exhibiting through his personal history what a more responsible national reconciliation might look like.
“The South has a past not to be contemplated with pleasure, but with a shudder,” he wrote in 1870, when the nation was already beginning to succumb to nostalgia for Dixie and its plantation life. “She has been selling agony, trading in blood and in the souls of men. If her past has any lesson, it is one of repentance and thorough reformation.” Repentance and reformation, however, were exactly what the leaders of the South refused to undergo as they resisted radical Reconstruction and fought hard to restore the past—celebrating their culture of mean-spirited racist prejudice and enacting restrictive laws to protect it.
But as Douglass portrays them, young Lloyd and old Auld cannot be numbered among those leaders. Before Douglass himself is willing to recognize their humanity, both have already demonstrated in their very first glance and gesture that they recognize Douglass as a free person of great dignity and accomplishment. Both will also signal—Lloyd with his flowers, Auld with his tears—that they recognize the evils of slavery and seek Douglass’s forgiveness for them. Auld even stands in Douglass’s shoes, confiding that “had I been in your place, I should have done as you did.” Doubtless, Douglass would have been more pleased if they had given more explicit signs of reformation and repentance. Still, he is willing to meet them halfway because he, too, has a generous spirit, a courageous and liberal-minded spirit.
The word liberal has a history that lets us see even further into what Douglass is doing here. In the 18th and early-19th centuries, liberal simply meant generous. A liberal person gave unstintingly, and his opposite was a person who was mean—grasping and slow to give. This distinction shaded gradually into another, and liberal generosity began to imply an open stance toward life and a broad-minded attitude toward other people’s ideas and values. Meanness, by contrast, suggested a strict, close-minded disposition that could become mean-spirited—prejudiced, unkind, or even cruel.
The semantic thread that winds its way through these first meanings of liberalism originates in the Indo-European root leudh-, which in turn is closely associated with leu-, meaning to loosen” or “let go.” Liberal generosity and broadmindedness are at bottom a kind of looseness and self-abandonment. As a liberal person, you let yourself go; you set aside your personal self-interest, and you open yourself to life and the world.
Douglass shows us in his stories of repentance and reconciliation that being open like this also means being vulnerable; you are loosening yourself and giving rather than maintaining a defensive posture of holding and restricting. In turn, this vulnerability requires you to trust others, which further suggests that you must have a certain confidence and hope. This is why liberal and generous were strongly gendered terms in the 19th century, closely linked to nobility, wealth, and property. Liberal meant having enough to give some of it away. It meant being autonomous. It meant having property rights. And usually only white men of some means—like young Howard Lloyd—were able to have all of these qualifications for liberality.
What Douglass is doing, then, is expanding the reach of this word to include, along with young Lloyd, himself as a freed black man and Captain Auld as a feeble and dependent white man. Indeed, one of the purposes of Life and Times is to make a case for such a broadened understanding of the word liberal and to show how its new meaning has relevance in the public as well as the private sphere. Douglass painstakingly crafts these scenes not just because they are important events in his life, but because they dramatize the qualities of mind and feeling that would make possible a genuinely ethical reconciliation on a national scale. These qualities animate the politics he espouses, the legislation he favors, and the laws he defends.
The concrete political ramifications of Douglass’s liberal-mindedness become clearer when we read further in his book and arrive at his attack on the Supreme Court’s 1883 decision to overturn the Civil Rights Act of 1875. By claiming that the 14th Amendment did not authorize such a law, the Court had effectively robbed the amendment of its force and cleared the way for the legalized segregation that would define life in the South for the next 70 years.
Of course, Douglass was outraged. “There are tongues in trees,” he wrote, “sermons in stones, and books in the running brooks. This law [the 14th Amendment] . . . did speak. It expressed the sentiment of justice and fair play common to every honest heart. Its voice was against popular prejudice and meanness. It appealed to all the noble and patriotic instincts of the American people. It told the American people that they were all equal before the law; that they belonged to a common country and were equal citizens.”
For Douglass, then, the 14th Amendment is not grounded in something like self-evident truth, much less in principle or reason, but in “sentiment,” in the “heart” and in the “instincts” of “patriotic Americans.” The amendment is a “moral standard” that expresses “the sentiment of justice and fair play common to every honest heart.” It is a defense of “American liberty” by the “American people.” Douglass explicitly contrasts these sentiments with the feelings of “prejudice and meanness” animating the Supreme Court, which “has seen fit in this case affecting a weak and much-persecuted people, to be guided by the narrowest and most restricted rules of legal interpretation. It has viewed both the Constitution and the law with a strict regard to their letter, but without any generous recognition and application of their broad and liberal spirit.”
Clearly, the language he uses to affirm the value of the 14th Amendment and to criticize the Supreme Court’s ruling echoes the language he uses to recount his private meetings with his former masters. In both public and private realms, he contrasts conservatism’s strictness, meanness, and prejudice with the “broad and liberal spirit” and its “sentiment of justice and fair play.”
Liberal politics, for Douglass, arises from the temperament that comprises this spirit. Such a temperament is like the 14th Amendment because that amendment is an expression of it. It is broad and generous, not narrow, strict, or mean. Douglass would have agreed with Justice Learned Hand’s famous observation that “the spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right,” but he would also have added that such a spirit is also loose, generous, trusting, vulnerable, optimistic, and courageous. Douglass’s final autobiography is certainly a bildung in which a slave becomes a great man; but it is also a bildung in which he becomes a particular type of man, a man who comes to value a particular set of emotions and attitudes, among them the sentiments that constitute what he calls the liberal spirit.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was as comfortable as Douglass in speaking a political language of liberal feelings. Some of these figure prominently in the greatest of all his speeches, his acceptance of the Democratic Party nomination in 1936:
We do not see faith, hope and charity as unattainable ideals, but we use them as stout supports of a nation fighting the fight for freedom in a modern civilization.
Faith—in the soundness of democracy in the midst of dictatorships.
Hope—renewed because we know so well the progress we have made.
Charity—in the true spirit of that grand old word. For charity literally translated from the original means love, the love that understands, that does not merely share the wealth of the giver, but in true sympathy and wisdom helps men to help themselves.
We seek not merely to make government a mechanical implement, but to give it the vibrant personal character that is the very embodiment of human charity.
One source of Roosevelt’s understanding of charity was Abraham Lincoln’s own second inaugural address and its immortal phrase “With malice toward none, with charity for all.” For both presidents, charity is a grand old word that means a particular kind of love. It expresses liberality and generosity, an impulse to “share the wealth of the giver.” But it does so “in true sympathy,” cognizant that the receiver of such love wants above all to be able to requite such love, to be a giver himself; this charity works, therefore, to strengthen others and to help them help themselves so that they, too, can find fulfillment in giving. It is not charity that condescends; it is charity that tries to stand in the other person’s shoes.
What Lincoln and FDR both knew, then, is that political values are ultimately the expression of a political temperament. They understood that liberal values remain meaningless abstractions unless they are infused with liberal feelings. But you won’t find this awareness expressed in the position papers of the Democratic Leadership Council, the mission statements of liberal think tanks, or the speeches of most Democratic candidates for the presidency. Ever since Louis Hartz’s influential Liberal Tradition in America (1955), most experts on liberalism have unduly emphasized its roots in the political writings—and contract theory—of John Locke. Hartz, indeed, uses the words Lockean and liberal interchangeably. But while Locke is certainly an important strand of the American liberal tradition, along with the Scottish “common-sense” philosophers, liberals would be foolish indeed to ignore the other important tributaries to their tradition, including African-American experience and writing. When it comes to articulating a liberal temperament that could infuse liberal values with meaning and drive liberal politics today, these other sources are in fact more helpful than most political theory.
Barack Obama appears to be the only Democratic candidate for president in 2008 who knows these sources. In his famous 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, he repeatedly invoked “a generous America,” forthrightly declaring that “it’s that fundamental belief—I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper—that makes this country work.” Obama went on to speak about another crucial liberal feeling: “The audacity of hope: In the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation, the belief in things not seen; the belief that there are better days ahead.”
Since then, without ever explicitly mentioning the L word, Obama has continued to articulate what a liberal temperament is. In a major foreign policy address given in April 2007, he underscored the importance of humility and empathy when he said that the United States should deal with the world “not in the spirit of a patron, but the spirit of a partner—a partner that is mindful of its own imperfections. Extending an outstretched hand to these states must ultimately be more than just a matter of expedience or even charity. It must be about recognizing the inherent equality and worth of all people.” Obama sounded this theme again in a speech in Atlanta this January, insisting that the essential problem in America today is “a moral deficit,” which he defined as “an empathy deficit,” as “an inability to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we are our brother’s keeper; we are our sister’s keeper; that, in the words of Dr. King, we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.” In the same speech, Obama went on to admit that “it’s not easy to stand in somebody else’s shoes,” and to affirm that true political change “starts with a change in attitudes—a broadening of our minds, and a broadening of our hearts.” This is language that Roosevelt and Douglass would have recognized and honored.
But most liberal and progressives today don’t follow Obama’s example. Many would be downright embarrassed to embrace Douglass’s “heart” and “sentiment” and FDR’s “love” and “charity” and “sympathy” as key terms in their political vocabulary. They have forgotten a legacy that is their legacy. They have forgotten that a fairly consistent cluster of feelings and a steady habit of mind have constituted a particular political temperament in America since the time of Thomas Jefferson. This temperament is composed of generosity and flexibility, a predisposition to respect and identify with others, and a willingness to be vulnerable in order to do so. It is based on a deeply felt conviction of the common humanity of all people, and it serves as a powerful check on our inclinations toward arrogance, meanness, and prejudice. The political movements it has energized have called themselves by various names, including democratic, antislavery, Christian, populist, progressive, and radical. But whatever label we affix to it, this temperament is what Douglass would have deemed to be the essence of the liberal spirit.
If Douglass were alive today, he would be dismayed by the reluctance of most liberals and progressives to connect programs with values, values with beliefs, beliefs with feelings. He would insist on their knowing what kind of temperament underlies and what spirit animates their politics. He would ask why they find particular values enduring and sacred—a question that would set them on a path leading back to how they feel about the world and themselves and other people, back to a recovery of words that breathe life and passion into an otherwise static list of clichés.
Aren’t Americans today impatient for liberals to rediscover what they stand for? Aren’t they eager for a liberalism that speaks out of its deepest wellsprings, a liberalism that speaks reason from the heart? The Left will not prevail by aping the anger, righteousness, and meanness of Ann Coulter and Bill O’Reilly. If liberals really believe in human dignity, they must remain as dignified as Douglass was. But that does not mean cutting themselves off from their emotions. Quite the opposite. As Douglass urged his readers to understand, a liberal’s deepest convictions are more than just ideas, values, or principles. They are also feelings—feelings “of justice and fair play common to every honest heart,” feelings that revolt “against popular prejudice and meanness,” feelings that are told to man by “tongues in trees, sermons in stones, and books in the running brooks.”
Nick Bromell is an affiliate scholar of the Center for American Progress and teaches American studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He also has written for The Boston Review, The Georgia Review, and Harper’s.
Comments are closed for this post.