The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

150 years ago, Frederick Douglass predicted the United States’ dilemma today

Douglass foresaw three possible paths for an irreconcilably divided U.S. Which will it take this time?

A statue of Confederate Gen. Alfred Mouton is removed July 17 in Lafayette, La. The statue had stood in front of city hall for 99 years. (Scott Clause/The Daily Advertiser/AP)
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The United States is more politically divided now than at any time since the 19th century. So serious and entrenched is the fault line running across the country that pundits regularly ask whether the nation is heading toward civil war.

Such talk may be merely alarmist. But at least one 19th-century political philosopher predicted this moment: Frederick Douglass.

Douglass wrote in equally fractured times, before and after the Civil War. He argued that the United States faced a choice among three options. One was another civil war. Stability, he wrote, would come only at a great moral cost — or it would require the kind of wholesale national reconciliation and reckoning that the country has never yet had.

An existential struggle

Douglass wrote within the same republican political tradition that informed the framers of the U.S. Constitution and continues to shape American political culture. It assumes an ideal of free and equal citizens united around a vision of the common good on which they construct law and public policy. A functioning republic of this kind requires two conditions currently missing. Citizens must both see other citizens as legitimate and be committed to an ideal of “civic virtue.” This includes abiding by agreed norms of dialogue to resolve differences.

In his autobiography, “The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass,” he wrote that citizens were divided into two opposing camps, both of which viewed themselves as committed to freedom and justice and as the heirs to the nation’s founding ideals — while their opponents had betrayed these values and were threatening freedom and justice. Each side, therefore, regarded the other as being both dangerous and illegitimate. Citizens are similarly divided today.

For the purposes of this analysis, it doesn’t matter which side is right about this. (This is not, I should emphasize, a concession to “both-sidesism,” which assumes merits on either side; Douglass blamed slavery and its associated racist attitudes for his era’s split.) Here we’re concerned with the motivating logic of the divide, according to which neither side can afford to compromise with the other. This struggle has a pragmatic and existential rationale. If indeed one side believes in freedom and the other in authoritarian control, those two factions cannot coexist in a stable or viable society.

Basically, each outlook has a fundamentally expansionist character. A free republic, Douglass argues, must be inclusive, because it needs to continually renew the idea of the common good to ensure that it truly represents the population. It is, therefore, always seeking to bring in anyone who has been left out into its scope. An authoritarian state, by contrast, must expand its scope by suppressing the threat of dissent that inevitably accompanies a free society.

Each side, therefore, must work diligently and relentlessly to undermine the other. Douglass puts this in stark terms for the post-Civil War period, characterizing it in terms of slavery. Liberty “must either cut the throat of slavery or slavery would cut the throat of liberty,” he told a convention of the Radical Abolitionist party in July 1856.

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Two contrasting — and demanding — options

Under these conditions, there can be no hope of a simple reconciliation in which the parties meet each other halfway in a spirit of bipartisan cooperation. The struggle’s high stakes and intensity pushes it in either of two directions. First is society’s breakup, possibly through secession or civil war. People profoundly internalize their antipathy toward the other side, developing a sense of identity so strong that, in many cases, they would sooner bring the nation crashing down than cede victory to their illegitimate opponents.

Douglass argues that the only sustainable way to avoid a damaging confrontation is by rigorously overhauling how social groups interact with each other. A thorough restructuring is necessary; otherwise one generation might be reconciled, only to have the social system that gave rise to the division reemerge in the next. Such a complete restructuring, Douglass argues, should have happened during the Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War. But the resistance to and collapse of Reconstruction shows both the difficulty of this task and the implications for failure.

Crucially, Douglass emphasizes, alongside economic and political reforms there must be a cultural reformation in which the national stories, reference points and sense of identity are reevaluated and renewed collaboratively with all sections of society participating.

No one man can tell the truth,” Douglass advises when discussing racial healing in September 1890, “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’ ” and so to remake the nation. In our era, that might include such efforts as removing Confederate statues and teaching about the lingering effects of slavery, Jim Crow, and racism on U.S. economics and politics.

Such a social renewal is a daunting and uncertain task, Douglass explained. Whereas “patriotism and courage” were needed to survive a civil war, he observed, building for a lasting peace would take “a holy philanthropy and a deep insight into human nature.”

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The dangers of the third option

There is a third and much easier option, according to Douglass. Rather than undergo the trauma of either conflict or self-reflection, the rival parties can temporarily set aside their differences. But there’s a caveat. This truce requires that both sides agree to dominate a common enemy: the Black population. After the Civil War, neither the pro-freedom nor the proslavery faction could overcome the other. But they were united in racial prejudice.

In Douglass’s account, then, the Union’s long-term stability has been made possible by all major political factions’ tacit acceptance of the systematic and ongoing subjection of African Americans. Periodically — during Reconstruction, the civil rights era and the current Black Lives Matter uprising — this arrangement may face the fleeting prospect of disruption. But until now, pragmatism, indifference or prejudice has meant that the United States regularly takes the easy way out and continues with the status quo.

If the United States avoids breaking up without confronting and healing its divisions, Douglass said, we can be sure that the price of peace will be continued racial oppression.

Read more analysis on race and ethnic politics and on Black Lives Matter at TMC’s Topic Guides.

Alan Coffee (@AlanMSJCoffee) lectures in global ethics and human values at King’s College London and is the editor of “The Wollstonecraftian Mind,” with Sandrine Bergès and Eileen Hunt Botting (Routledge 2019).