Research Proposal: Douglass Garrison Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd

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Douglass Garrison

Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and Abolition

The economic, social and ideological underpinnings of the American southland during the nation's formative decades were provided by the myriad assumptions which enabled the 'peculiar institution' of slavery. A functionality and permissiveness to the system that predisposed the nation's transplanted African population to servitude and obsequiousness was based not simply on the brutal enforcement of labor and inferiority, but even more fundamentally on the fostering of a sophisticated psychological conditioning centered on a drastic deviation from natural conceptions of that which defines a man and his inherent humanity. To create a reality in which the ownership of one many by another many could serve to promote a relative harmony for white dominance, it was incumbent upon the slave-trader and the slave-master to rule through a form of mental distortion that could train out of the slave his inborn senses of independence, personal purpose and individual will. A central mode of both the works and the life of Frederick Douglass, this is an approach that while widely effective in maintaining a dramatically impractical circumstance throughout the antebellum south, can be evidenced to have run aground at the urging of American blacks determined to assert humanity against the institutional pressures which had sought to deny it. For one of the first great black American intellectuals and an abolitionist on the highest order of importance, this would be part of a revelation that would ultimately allow him to break free not just from the aggressive racist vestiges of slavery but also from the marginalizing politics and white patronage represented in prominent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison which detained him from that elemental independence. In breaking loose from both the barbaric and benevolent forms of racialism which detained blacks as inferior to whites, and in subsequently forging his own political identity, Frederick Douglass forged a path for the philosophical realization of abolition.

At the heart of this accomplishment would be a lifelong academic evolution which would allow him to draw objective consideration of the religious, economic and political implications of the situation facing black Americans. As we consider this in relationship to Garrisonian politics, which though their namesake was a white Bostonian of high regard in his liberal circles, would represent the height of abolitionist radicalism in their time. Douglass, finding himself as a young man in the midst of this influential firebrand, would be vastly influenced by Garrison's hostility toward the falsehood of the American Constitution. We will address this point further hereafter as it will represent the breaking point between to men who were intimate friends and intellectual cohorts at various points in their respective careers. This is an association that would begin just as Douglass had begun his life as a free man, escaped to New England. By fortune and coincidence of cause, "in 1841, he saw Garrison speak at the Bristol Anti-Slavery Society's annual meeting. Douglass was inspired by the speaker, later stating, 'no face and form ever impressed me with such sentiments [the hatred of slavery] as did those of William Lloyd Garrison.' Garrison, too, was impressed with Douglass, mentioning him in the Liberator." (PBS, 1) We may even make the argument that without this guiding force, Douglass may not have taken the path that allowed the inception of his brilliant and crucial literary career. Most importantly, it is this career that would help to define him differently as a uniquely black abolitionist. Not in counterpoint, but in compliment to Garrisonian politics, Douglass would soon establish his political doctrines, derived as they were from a conception of the machinations of slavery from biographical experience.

Thus, in the seminal piece composed by Franklin Douglass the author, 1845's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, there is a clear indication that the very devices which the slaveholding establishment had employed to maintain the declining system were being turned upon them to hasten its deconstruction. The implementation of systematic dehumanization, the distortion of Christian values and the preeminence of the economic questions pertaining to slave labor, as is evident in the purely reasoned literary expressions of such well-educated African-American thinkers as Douglass, would all be emphasized in the rational dismantling of slavery's unnatural logic. Indeed, the eventual declaration of his own freedom comes from an intellectual development which Douglass describes in painstaking detail and which, from discourse on natural rights to the social progress simultaneously denied and implied by the United States Constitution, he examines as the cause for his certainty of slavery's inevitable collapse.

At its core, slavery had been an institution which could survive only by manufacturing a relationship between the slavemaster and the slave that detached itself from the natural order of human existence. To create a circumstance in which one man could be owned by another, the slavery establishment would persist upon claims that the black man was, in some way, less human than the white man. A central aspect of the ownership denoted by slavery would be the dehumanization of the enslaved man as both a matter of conception and action. In the work literary abolitionist antagonists such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, of the equally crucial 1852 text Uncle Tom's Cabin, and in figures such as Frederick Douglass himself, we are made to understand that this necessary dehumanization would fail the inalienable nature of man to wish his own destiny and to respond to the internal call for his own freedom.

By contrast of his eventual rise to independence, Douglass shows in a variety ways how the institution of slavery utilized psychological methods that would be introduced at the earliest ages in order to reinforce a sense among slaves of their human inferiority. In descriptions that draw explicit parallels between the treatment of slaves and that which one might show to an animal, Douglass illuminates the very literal ways in which blacks were conditioned to accept the natural order there implied. During his first eight years on the plantation of Master Lloyd, Douglass describes being dressed only in a single, long cloth shirt and exposed throughout the years to the harshness of the elements. Stabled as would be a farm animal, he makes all the more vivid this impression in his description of 'feeding time,' in which 'Mush' "was put into a large wooden tray or trough, and set down upon the ground. The children were then called, like so many pigs, and like so many pigs they would come and devour the mush." (Douglass, 64) With all respect accorded to Garrison, whom we will record further on the report of Douglass himself to have been well-acquainted with such ideas and practices, Douglass would be of a uniquely compelling disposition as he gradually came to attach his own bright dignity to the critical scrutiny of such practices.

This would allow him the important opportunity to examine the meaning and philosophical implication of such treatment with practical expertise. Through this, he denotes that such treatment was dual in its purpose. On the surface, this would serve the function of informing the slave as to minimalism of his personal rights, including bed, clothing and sustenance. Further though, this treatment would foster the formative understanding amongst slaves that their relative equivalence to livestock was to denote a status as being property rather than individual. Such indignity was intended to sever any connection to innately human instincts desirous of freedom or justice, with such incidents as the plainly described un-trialed executions of 'disobedient' slaves pointing to the extent to which this dehumanization could be employed to the disregard of equality. In the Chapter V murder of Demby, Douglass depicts an incident that indicates the institutional power of such dehumanization, using it to demonstrate that as a being categorized as something less-than-man, he was entitled to no protections by law or government against the subjective wrath of the white man.

This is an important theme to consider as Douglass becomes more learned and eventually more capable of articulating a political response to these conditions. To his ideological discord with Garrison, its centering on the idea of the Constitution, which Garrison was notoriously known to have burned in frequent public demonstrations against its conditional allowance of slavery, would diverge from Douglass here. Particularly, the understanding that the letter of the law should be expected to protect all men from such injustice was pursuant to upholding and amending rather than condemning of the Constitution. As we examine further hereafter the more effective commingling with mainstream political institutions that Douglass would eventually enjoy, it becomes evident that there were some just cause for the approach.

This underscores the emphasis on the powers of the mind that runs generously through Frederick Douglass' personal account. Indeed, as an intellectual, Douglass was made to stand trial on behalf of an entire population of black thinkers, given not the right, freedom, provision or admission toward any type of cerebral capacity. So the manifold struggle that Douglass undertook, simply for recognition as a man and, consequentially, a thinker, owed… [END OF PREVIEW]

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