A Life of One's Own: Slavery, Self-Ownership, and the Foundations of Frederick Douglass's Liberalism

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When Frederick Douglass began his career as an abolitionist orator, his white mentors encouraged him to use his time at the podium to tell stories about his experiences as a slave. "Give us the facts," abolitionist John Collins instructed Douglass, "we will take care of the philosophy." Douglass rejected these instructions. Rather than just giving us the facts of life as a slave, he offered an important defense of natural rights liberalism. Douglass's defense of the idea of self-ownership in the shadow of the experience of slavery constitutes an important chapter in the history of liberalism. Douglass drew on his life as a slave to reveal how the deprivation of freedom denied slaves their "selfhood"-the opportunity to pursue all of those things that make life worth living. Universal self-ownership is required by natural law because human beings want to be free and they are endowed with the capacities that make them fit for freedom. In this essay I reconstruct Douglass 's case against slavery and for self-ownership in order to deepen our understanding of this important liberal statesman. I argue that Douglass 's critique of slavery and defense of self-ownership constitutes an important chapter in the history of liberal ideas.

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