In 1854, Frederick Douglass addressed the Philozetian Society of Western Reserve College, Ohio on the then-contentious question of whether “negroes” are human beings.
As those denying the “claims of the negro” readily admitted, humanity is accompanied by certain inalienable rights and liberties, the denial of which constitutes “the greatest wrong and robbery” on the part of society.
In order to exonerate the elites then dominating American life, not only politicians but intellectuals of all stripes, including physical scientists, were eager to assert that “the negro has no such right” (to liberty), “because he is not a man!”
Douglass, whose own liberal education was obtained by hook and crook (in violation of the laws and prejudices of his time), modestly denies that his own remarks on the subject will be “scientific.” In the speech that follows, however, Douglass shows himself intimately familiar with the works of leading scientists, and more than capable of casting a critical light on their findings and opinions.
By means of his “clear and definite” presentation, the audience is enabled to “form an intelligent judgment respecting” what we would now call the settled science of the mid nineteenth century.
The key to Douglass’s command of the question is his recognition that what we have come to call “science”—a set of fields sharing similar empirical methods—is nothing more or less than a tool by which human beings seek to answer certain questions.
There are certain questions “science” can answer, and certain it cannot. And whatever “science” tells us, that information is no more or less useful than the use we put it to as human beings.
Since the ultimate guides to a happy human life are “wisdom, manned with truth,” checked against “common sense,” these are the criteria against which the proclamations of scientists, however eminent, must be weighed.
As Douglass, an expert in human nature, explains: “Scientific writers, not less than others, write to please, as well as to instruct, and even unconsciously to themselves, (sometimes), sacrifice what is true to what is popular.”
With reference to a healthy and holistic combination of sources, Douglass demonstrates that Holy Scripture and intelligent observation jointly testify to the unicity of the human race, and the membership of the “negro” therein.
“Tried by all the usual, and all the unusual tests, whether mental, moral, physical, or psychological, the negro is a man—considering him as possessing knowledge, or needing knowledge, his elevation or his degradation, his virtues, or his vices—whichever road you take, you reach the same conclusion”—contrary to “all the scientific moonshine that would connect men with monkeys.”
Douglass is readily able to distinguish the facts that scientists unearth, from the prejudices by which they (sometimes) misinterpret or misrepresent those facts.
Given their humanity, there will always be a subset of scientists ready to sell us moonshine (and oppressors willing to pay them the going price). In the absence of Douglass’s liberal and critical spirit, that deadly drink will continue to undermine our ability to perceive and defend the natural rights and liberties of men.
I would suggest we respond by (re)learning, by hook or by crook, the art of subjecting elite opinion to the tests of wisdom, truth, and common sense!
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