Frederick Douglass on Economic Inequality

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Historian Matt Karp introduces us to Douglass’s papers “The Accumulation of Wealth” (1856) and “The Land Reformer” (1856).

Here is a taste of his introduction at Jacobin:

No single document, of course, can solve the riddle of Douglass’s complex political ideas. But while doing research at Yale’s Beinecke Library, I came across two articles in the 1856 Frederick Douglass’ Papers that have not, to my knowledge, been reprinted or digitized since. (Most of Douglass’s journalistic writing remains unpublished, though a forthcoming volume in the Frederick Douglass Papers should help address that problem.) Nor have they been excerpted, quoted, or discussed at length in the extensive scholarship on Douglass.

Both articles, “The Accumulation of Wealth” and “The Land Reformer,” help shed new light on how Douglass saw the relationship between economic inequality and political democracy in the 1850s. They also demonstrate that in the age of Trump and Michael Bloomberg, Frederick Douglass has much to teach us today — not only about racism and civil rights, but the acute dangers posed by “the unlimited hoarding of wealth,” and the hard truth, still sidestepped by many liberals today, that true political freedom is only possible under conditions of material equality.

In both pieces Douglass embraces the position, held by many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Americans (though remarkably few establishment Democrats today), that “wealth has ever been the tool of the tyrant, the readiest means by which liberty is overthrown.” He anticipates arguments that “unbridled accumulation” is simply a part of human nature: in fact, the “mighty machine” of capitalist society is an innovation, which compels, rather than reflects, acquisitive behavior. And he rejects the idea that poverty is an unchangeable fact of social life: it is, rather, the “consequence of wealth unduly accumulated.”

What is perhaps most striking here, however, is the underlying assumption that it is the duty of democratic politics to “minister” to the problem of economic inequality. Individual philanthropy, however noble, can never address the root of the problem. In fact, the highest aim of “the true statesman” is to devise measures that eradicate poverty, prevent “the undue accumulation of wealth,” and create an egalitarian economy where “no one” is either rich or poor.

Read the entire introduction and the primary documents here.