One Week to Save Democracy

Lessons from Frederick Douglass on the tortured relationship between protest and change

An illustration of Frederick Douglass with a checkmark.
Getty / The Atlantic

In America’s house divided, racism—its structures and its individual acts—is tearing us apart in what feel like irreparable ways. On top of that, more than 106,000 Americans are dead from a virus that’s still raging, nearly 40 million others are unemployed, and hundreds of businesses as well as police buildings and vehicles are burning in American cities. As small but violent groups peddle conspiracy theories and wish for some kind of civil war, the country’s civic bonds are threatening to unravel.

At the heart of the protests over the recent police killings that have swept the nation is Donald Trump’s presidency. Trump’s depraved rhetoric, his vile racism, his willful ignorance, his vicious contempt for the free press, his extraordinary mishandling of the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic, and his preening with a Bible while trying to militarize Washington, D.C., are the template on which incidents such as those in Minneapolis; Louisville, Kentucky; Brunswick, Georgia; and New York City’s Central Park have exploded into public consciousness. Authoritarians thrive on chaos and on sowing distrust in institutions, and Trump has done both. We need some historical grounding.

If America is coming apart, the 1850s provide poignant lessons. That decade was the only time in our history when the nation dissolved, militarized, and ultimately went to war over competing visions of the future. It offers a stark warning about what can happen when political and legal institutions lose their hold on public trust and collapse.

In that decade, slavery was tearing America apart, socially and politically. As part of the Compromise of 1850, which temporarily and uneasily settled the question of slavery’s expansion, the Fugitive Slave Act became law. It mandated that any escaped slave who managed to reach the northern free states had to be returned to his or her rightful owner, adjudicated by special magistrates who were paid twice as much for returning a black bondsman to the South as for releasing him. The law struck fear into thousands of fugitives already living in northern states—and it radicalized the American abolition movement. It also led to numerous fugitive-slave rescues, some by violence against the state and police authority. The heroic runaway slave, still property under American law, became more than ever an object of sympathy and protection. The fugitive-slave issue broadened the antislavery movement into open resistance and a politicized crusade. Abolitionists had to act outside and against the law if they truly intended to defeat slavery. Many abolitionists who had previously preferred the strategy of moral suasion—nonviolent advocacy to change of hearts and minds—began to see that the governmental power at the heart of slavery had to be attacked. And some increasingly began to act with physical force and violence.

The great orator Frederick Douglass is a case in point. By the early 1850s, after nearly a decade of practicing primarily as a moral suasionist, the former slave came to embrace action through political parties and even the threat of violence. He called the Fugitive Slave Act the “hydra … begotten in the spirit of compromise” and “legalized piracy,” and he lost his moral ambivalence about violent resistance to slave-catchers and to slaveholders themselves. By his count, he participated in helping at least 100 fugitives escape through western New York State and into Canada over the course of the decade. And his rhetorical rage burst forth with stunning furor.

“I do believe that two or three dead slaveholders will make this law a dead letter,” Douglass declared in a speech in Syracuse in 1851. Although he found himself increasingly desperate for direct action against slavery over the course of the 1850s, and though he morally and financially supported John Brown’s exploits that led to the raid on Harpers Ferry (while himself refusing to join what he deemed a suicide mission), Douglass nearly always preferred radical reform to revolutionary violence. At the same time, he struggled to believe that African Americans could achieve a future in the United States via faith in natural rights alone. His tilting between rhetorical and real violence, between political antislavery and radical organizations operating outside of government, provides a rich, if sobering, cautionary tale about the tortured relationship between protest and change.

Slavery ought not be equated directly with police brutality against African Americans in our own time. But what fugitive slaves, as well as many free blacks and their white allies endured then—the depths of fear and distrust in institutions; the denials of their dignity, of their humanity, of the idea that they possessed natural rights before God and law; and the near impossibility of self-defense in the face of some police action—is akin to what many protesters are experiencing now.

In examining America’s road to disunion and Civil War in the 1850s, we must take great care with analogies. The issue of slavery broke apart the American political party system: The old Whig Party died, and the antislavery coalition then known as the Republican Party emerged nearly overnight amid the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, an attempted compromise that opened the American West to the possible expansion of slavery and inspired a slow political revolution across the North on behalf of free labor.

Next came “Bleeding Kansas,” a brutal vigilante war over whether the new territory would become “pro-slavery” or “free soil.” Millions of white northerners did not as much possess a sense of brotherhood with blacks as they did fear slavery as a labor system that would denigrate or even destroy their hopes for land and livelihood in the West, which inspired the American immigrant’s sense of a future. Both the rhetoric and the reality of violence began to tear apart any center in American politics. The Supreme Court’s Dred Scott v. Sandford decision in 1857 effectively ended moderation in political life—the ruling seemed to open all American territories to slavery’s expansion and, more important, it declared that black people had “no rights” that white people or their governments were bound to respect, and no future as American citizens.

The Republican Party became a coalition of remarkably different political persuasions—old abolitionists of varying degrees of radicalism, former Democrats who were racist yet opposed to slavery’s expansion, and nativists who had launched a powerful movement to restrict immigration and especially Catholicism. But what drew these disparate people together was the struggle to imagine an American future without racial slavery and its stranglehold on labor, the economic system, and the levers of power in every branch of government. The Republican Party’s legacy, sullied by today’s version of the organization—which bears little trace of the egalitarian impulses of its origins—teaches us the great lesson of coalitions. Divergent coalitions, held together by a large common enemy, a shared faith in some essential creeds or goals, and a profound will to win despite the levels of tolerance required to sustain internal unity, are the way to power and great change in America.

We do not want our current shuddering troubles to end as the 1850s ended—in disunion and civil war. We need a “Never again” mentality about that history. But we need to understand the portents of disunion. In the 1850s, in three consecutive general elections, American voters went to the polls in the largest turnouts in our history. As much as 75 or 80 percent of the eligible male voters cast ballots in a still largely rural society. Slavery and its related issues and power drove them to vote, as did a thriving level of hard-nosed partisanship. One lesson of 1850s partisanship—which eventually pitted Republicans and Democrats (who then made up the pro-slavery party) against each other—is that it can be leveraged for power, and used to change the world. Our current distaste for partisanship is understandable, but polarization can be a means to power and for good or for evil. If this be partisanship, make the most of it.

In his 1855 autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass wrote that as long as “heaven” allowed him to do the work of abolitionism, he would do it with “my voice, my pen, and my vote.” In today’s swirling protests, confusion, and strategizing, people—black, brown, and white—are putting their bodies on the line; they are using their voices and, some of them, their pens to make the case against racism and inequality. Some have tipped over into property destruction and violence against authority as they see it. But we cannot forget about the vote; if we do, we may be heading toward disaster.

With that in mind, I make the following modest suggestion. For the week of August 10–16, 2020, just before both parties hold their conventions, the enormous rage and energy now exploding in our streets in response to the killing of George Floyd should be harnessed in a massive mobilization effort, in cities and towns across America, to declare that in the November election the United States must shift the course of its history. These immense demonstrations will not only be a powerful statement that Trump and Trumpism must be defeated, but they will provide an opportunity for Americans to demonstrate their coalitions against structural racism, police brutality, unequal health care, and many other issues. And they would build toward a March on Washington on August 28 (the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington). Call it “Save Our Democracy” week.

How would this actually work? Those who have organized other recent mass gatherings—Black Lives Matter activists, the leaders of the Women’s March of 2017, the students who started the March for Our Lives against gun violence in 2018—could draw on that experience to build a new movement. Protest and activism can be combined to forge the beginning of a national renewal.

Social distancing will likely still be in order to some degree; with careful planning, this can be managed so that events can be attended safely. (Those who can’t attend could watch remotely.) In towns and cities, organizers would erect stages on which citizens read the names of their community’s dead from the coronavirus. They would read the names of the victims of police killings over the past decade. Perhaps people in some communities would even read names of old abolitionists, 20th-century activists, famous fugitive slaves. Social-justice activism could mix with the politics and logistics of voter registration and mobilization. Together, we can mourn and mobilize. On the Saturday night between the conventions, a musical concert can be planned similar to others organized during the pandemic, a celebration of American culture both live and online to bring us together as a civic coalition and as a people.

The rallies may be at times chaotic; focus will not be easy. All rallies would be planned in coordination with police departments in each city. Violent disrupters or accelerationists must be discouraged and suppressed by the organizers. But Americans must stand up, come out, register young people to vote in unprecedented numbers, and make witness before the world that we can still be a democracy, however divided. We have to convert chaos and distrust into political action up and down all ballots.

This would not be merely a series of “unity” rallies—it would not be bipartisan, but it would be open to anyone working to see Trumpism and all its authoritarian allies and cowardly lackeys ushered out via the ballot box. That rage must be harnessed for electoral politics, new legislation, new organizing, and yet another American rebirth of freedom. Perhaps from the ferment would grow a crusade for a new Civil Rights Act focused on criminal justice, policing, a renewal of the Voting Rights Act, and a revitalization of belief in government. The rest of the world needs to see Americans do this if we are ever again to be a model of freedom and equality.

For those who don’t believe that electoral politics can achieve radical and history-turning change, we need to keep teaching about—relentlessly and urgently, if necessary—the elections of 1860, 1876, 1912, 1932, 1960, 1968, 1980, 2000, 2008, and 2016. Look them up! For better or for worse, they changed the country. So can this one. It has to.