A Radical Revolution in Thought: Frederick Douglass on the Slave’s Perspective on Republican Freedom

In Bruno Leipold, Karma Nabulsi & Stuart White (eds.), Radical Republicanism: Recovering the Tradition's Popular Heritage. Oxford, UK: pp. 47-64 (2020)
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While the image of the slave as the antithesis of the freeman is central to republican freedom, it is striking to note that slaves themselves have not contributed to how this condition is understood. The result is a one-sided conception of both freedom and slavery, which leaves republicanism unable to provide an equal and robust protection for historically outcast people. I draw on the work of Frederick Douglass – long overlooked as a significant contributor to republican theory – to show one way why this is so. Focusing the American Revolution, the subsequent republican government established new political institutions to maintain the collective interests of the whole population. The political revolution was held in place by processes of public reason that reflected the values and ideas of the people that had rebelled. The black population, however, had not been part of this revolution. After emancipation, black Americans were required to accept terms of citizenship that had already been defined, leaving them socially dominated, subject to the prejudices and biases within the prevailing ideas of public discourse. Douglass argued that republican freedom under law is always dependent on a more fundamental revolution, that he calls a ‘radical revolution in thought’, in which the entire system of social norms and practices are reworked together by members of all constituent social groups – women and men, black and white, rich and poor – so that it reflects a genuinely collaborative achievement. Only then can we begin the republican project of contestatory freedom as independence or non-domination that today’s republicans take for granted.

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Alan M. S. J. Coffee
King's College London


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