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Douglass and Political Judgment

Jack Turner, “Douglass and Political Judgment: The Post-Reconstruction Years," in A Political Companion to Frederick Douglass, ed. Neil Roberts (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2018), 203-235.

This chapter closely analyzes Frederick Douglass’s post-Reconstruction political thought (1878-1895) both because it opposes simplistic portraits of Douglass as a libertarian and because it models an antiracist form of political judgment that can help us combat white supremacy in our own time. It distills four principles of Douglass’s post-Reconstruction political judgment: (1) Sensitivity to power asymmetries, (2) Skepticism toward formalistic arguments that obscure these asymmetries, (3) A presumption of the spirit of slavery’s continuity in American life, and (4) The subordination of constitutional forms to substantive political ends. Perhaps the most powerful feature of Douglass’s political judgment is its incorporation of the perspectives of both white citizens already secure in their enjoyment of freedom and black freedmen still struggling to make their freedom secure. This helps Douglass achieve a racially integrative form of what Arendt called “enlarged mentality.” In contrast to white interpreters who take their own racial subject position as fully authoritative, Douglass insists, “No one man can tell the truth. Not even two men of the same complexion, sometimes, can tell it. It requires a white man and a black man—as black as he can be—to [tell] the whole truth.” Douglass stakes the validity of his judgments on such racially integrative enlarged mentality.

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