In an inspired choice to write a short biography of this fierce defender of individualism, Washington’s libertarian Cato Institute commissioned the Goldwater Institute’s Timothy Sandefur, who says that Douglass was, in a sense, born when he was 16. After six months of being whipped once a week with sticks and rawhide thongs — arbitrary punishment was used to stunt a slave’s dangerous sense of personhood — Douglass fought his tormentor. Sent to Baltimore, where he was put to work building ships — some of them slave transports — he soon fled north to freedom, and to fame as an anti-slavery orator and author.... Douglass, says Sandefur, was not a conservative but a legatee of “the classical liberalism of the American founding.” His individualism was based on the virtue of self-reliance. “He was not,” Sandefur says, “likely to be attracted to any doctrine that subordinated individual rights — whether free speech or property rights — to the interests of the collective....”
By the time of Douglass’ 1895 death, the nation was saturated with sinister sentimentality about the nobility of the South’s Lost Cause: The war had really been about constitutional niceties — “states’ rights” — not slavery. This, Sandefur says, was ludicrous: Before the war, Southerners “had sought more federal power, not less, in the form of nationwide enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act and federal subsidies for slavery’s expansion.”
Nevertheless, in the South, monuments to Confederate soldiers were erected and Confederate symbols were added to states’ flags. In the North, the University of Chicago’s Charles Edward Merriam, a leading progressive, wrote in a widely used textbook that “from the standpoint of modern political science, the slaveholders were right” about some people not being entitled to freedom. As an academic, Woodrow Wilson paid “loving tribute to the virtues of the leaders of the secession, to the purity of their purposes....” Douglass died 30 years before 25,000 hooded Klansmen marched down Pennsylvania Avenue. That same year, Thurgood Marshall graduated from Baltimore’s Frederick Douglass High School, en route to winning Brown v. Board of Education. Douglass, not Wilson, won the American future.