Deliberative Democracy and the American Slave Narrative: When Norms Collide
Keith M. Smilie
Illinois State University
[It is difficult to imagine the irony Frederick Douglass must have contemplated when authoring his know well known address entitled What to the Slave Is the 4th of July. Writing as a former slave and at the apex of the American Slavery experience, Douglass must have considered the plight of those who had yet to gain their freedom despite living in a nation formed and informed resting upon the notions of equality and freedom. Having joined the abolitionist movement and subsequently formed his self-edited news publication, Douglass devoted much of his life to the cause of eliminating both slavery and inequality based upon the moral principles which were enshrined in the nation’s constitution. Among the central themes of this essay is to examine this critical intersection between contemporary normative practices as defined by societal ‘consensus’, and the ability of democratic deliberative models to address urgent and controversial issues of the day grounded predominantly in questions of moral values. The dilemma which Frederick Douglass faced as he participated in the slavery deliberative provides fertile ground from which to understand this intersection more clearly. While providing a lens from which to view this intersection between morality and deliberation, the American Slave Narrative, as represented by Frederick Douglass’s What to the Slave Is the 4th of July?, also provides a substantial platform to inform as to the deliberative model’s treatment of inequality of voice within the forum of public debate.]
It is difficult to imagine the irony Frederick Douglass must have contemplated when authoring his know well known address entitled What to the Slave Is the 4th of July?1. Writing as a former slave and at the apex of the American Slavery experience, Douglass must have considered the plight of those who had yet to gain their freedom despite living in a nation formed and informed resting upon the notions of equality and freedom. Having joined the abolitionist movement and subsequently formed his self-edited news publication, Douglass devoted much of his life to the cause of eliminating both slavery and inequality based upon the moral principles which were enshrined in the nation’s constitution.
Speaking and writing as he joined the contemporary deliberations, Douglass vehemently rejected what had become generally accepted as the ‘institution’ of slavery. As Douglass and other abolitionist would frequently remind the American public the institution of slavery was perpetuated based upon a gross injustice highlighted by a false morality which rationalized the concept of enslavement while clinging to the notion that the nation provided the comforts of equality and freedom for all of its’ ‘citizens’. Indeed, Douglass was confronting a culture which had not only accepted slavery, but had permitted it to become a normative rationale. To be sure, the conditionality of morally conflicting concepts imposed upon Douglass as he sought to have his voice heard on the stage of ‘deliberative democracy’ proved to be a powerful normative obstacle.
While the environment and political landscape confronting Douglass was unique both in time and by circumstance, many of the theoretical challenges he faced as he interacted with the deliberative model have been the focus of ongoing debate among multiple scholars. The fabric of America’s slavery experience presents an important and substantive challenge to the democratic deliberative model. While the contemporary deliberative model has enjoyed a substantial period of supremacy among democratic theory scholars, it is important to consider the specific challenges confronting its’ theoretical foundations and the ability of deliberation to resolve matters of inequality or lack of agency in the public forum as well as the difficult task of mediating the collision of current societal morals and norms and public debate which would challenge these norms.
Among the central themes of this essay is to examine this critical intersection between contemporary normative practices as defined by societal ‘consensus’, and the ability of democratic deliberative models to address urgent and controversial issues of the day grounded predominantly in questions of moral values. The dilemma which Frederick Douglass faced as he participated in the slavery deliberative provides fertile ground from which to understand this intersection more clearly. While providing a lens from which to view this intersection between morality and deliberation, the American Slave Narrative, as represented by Frederick Douglass’s What to the Slave Is the 4th of July?, also provides a substantial platform to inform as to the deliberative model’s treatment of inequality of voice within the forum of public debate.
Emerging as a reincarnation of earlier deliberative models, the current iterations have, seemingly, supplanted the liberal democratic model as the focus of scholarly debate. Proponents of this model continue to champion the flexibility of its theoretical basis and its adaptability. Proponents point to the elastic nature of the model as it lends itself to the cause of citizen deliberation. Operating in an unfettered environment guided by equality of voice and procedural purity, supporters posit that this model engenders a plausible setting for the building of societal-majoritarian consensus.
The central focus of this essay is to provide an assessment of the deliberative model’s capabilities to rectify both the challenges of inequality (and/or lack of agency) as well as its’ ability to inform and accommodate the deliberation of civic issues grounded in moral arguments which are inconsistent with contemporary prevailing norms and practices. To do so, in the interest of framing this assessment, I will, articulate the operational foundations defining deliberative democracy as theorized by scholars who have provided substantial work in their treatment of the deliberative model. Additionally, having defined the deliberative model ‘rules of the game’, I will introduce the American Slave Narrative as represented by Frederick Douglass’s What to the Slave Is the 4th of July? The rationale for the introduction of both Douglass and his narrative is based on my desire to provide a lens from which to assess the deliberative model as it interacts and informs debate centered on moral confrontation as well as the ability of actors to participate in this debate while lacking agency and the benefit of equal standing in the public forum. And, finally, I will assess the central questions of this essay.
The Deliberative Model and the American Slave Narrative – Frederick Douglass’s What to the Slave is the 4th of July?
Of the great historical debates in American history, slavery is certainly considered to be a transformative instance. The modes, methods, and certainly the context in which the slavery debate was shaped is the subject of a great deal of scholarship. Certainly the very notion that slavery, in fact, existed at all within a nation founded on the democratic principles of liberty, equality and justice is a vexing question. It is the intent of this essay to more carefully review this question within the context of democratic theory. More specifically, my interest here is to understand the capabilities of democratic theory to both inform and account for the debate of slavery as it unfolded within the realm of public discourse.
Although the concept of deliberative democracy can be traced to Aristotle and Rousseau (among others), the recent incarnation took shape as a critique of liberal democracy. Formulations of deliberative democratic theory gaining scholarly attention in the 1980’s and 1990’s (Habermas, Dryzek, Bohman, Benhabib, Fishkin, Gutmann, Thompson among others) suggested a participatory account of an engaged citizenry, coming together in a deliberative public forum guided by a deliberative process resting upon fundamental notions of impartiality, recognition and respect for alternative opinion, equality of voice and the ultimate prospect that individual moralities and issue positions may undergo a transformative process yielding a consensual position of governance and justice. While the nuances and operational specifics of the deliberative model continue to be debated among contemporary scholars, the core assumptions largely remain as the foundational frameworks for the general theoretical model.
It is not my intention here to provide a full rehearsal of deliberative democratic theory. However, it will be necessary (as a basis to form an opinion regarding the central questions of this essay) to locate the concepts of morality and equality (agency) as they are informed by the more general model of democratic deliberation.
In its early iterations in the 1980’s, deliberation stood in contrast to notions of aggregation and competitive pluralism as a particular ‘the forum’ of discussion was developed as a distinctive rationale. Rather than encouraging a simple compromise, the goal of deliberation was consensus – the agreement of all parties to a decision. The attractiveness of the deliberative model was the prospect that the assumptions outlined in the theory would expand the notions of liberal democracy and insist on the democratic ideal as government truly guided by public reasoning which would transform a myriad of policy positions into a consensual ‘will of the people’2.
Although countless scholars have joined the conversation, each offering comment as to their interpretation, a broad definition as formulated by Habermas would suggest that public deliberation of free and equal citizens forms the core of legitimate political decision making and self-government. In particular the ideal of public reason, legitimate decisions are those that are accepted by all parties to the decision outcome, and most importantly organized around an ideal of political justification requiring free public reasoning of equal citizens3.
Habermas further defined political justification as a process requiring citizens to see beyond their self-interests and assimilate themselves with the common good. Habermas reasoned that this ‘public orientation’ will “ensure a fair system of mutual cooperation without presupposing an already existing condition4.”
For others such as Rawls, the concept of ‘public reason’ requires “guidelines of inquiry” (including the appropriate use of judgment, inference and evidence) and “virtues of reasonableness and fair-mindedness5.” For Rawls, the guidelines of inquiry take the shape of procedural conceptions of justification, allowing the deliberative model to support both a moral and epistemic improvement of the common good. In that Rawls expresses this connection between moral and epistemic considerations in describing his ideal of public reason he understands deliberative democracy to be a “well ordered constitutional democracy6.”
For Habermas and Rawls the concept of ideal procedures (while each advocating nuanced differences) makes the features of consensus consistent and impartially informed. Each see procedural integrity as a vehicle for legitimacy and issue outcomes which are normatively acceptable due to their lack of contextual conditionality. To this end, Habermas posits that “the legitimacy of law depends on the democratic character of the process that makes possible a consensus of all citizens7.”
Deliberative theorists Gutmann and Thompson enter the procedural argument and place less privilege to its’ importance as it informs the overall framework of public discussion. For Gutmann and Thompson “proceduralists build what are substantive values into the conditions that define adequate deliberation. On our view, these values, including the value of the practice of deliberation itself, should be made explicit, and the subject to deliberative challenge. We think it better not to characterize deliberative democracy” as procedural8.
Gutmann and Thompson are much less absolute in their conception of deliberative democracy. Seeing deliberative democracy as a ‘second-order theory’, Gutmann and Thompson seemingly make room for a wide variation of deliberative methodology and conceptualization. “Second order theories are about other theories in the sense that they provide ways of dealing with the claims of conflicting first-order theories. They can be held consistently without rejecting a wide range of principles expressed by first-order theories9.” For Gutmann and Thompson, much more essential is a robust definition as to both who is included as deliberators and to whom the deliberators must justify their reasons or outcomes. An ongoing theme that is consistently addressed in the scholarship of these theorists is the fact that the deliberative model should be free from exclusion and restriction either as a product of procedure or formal and informal norms.
Indeed for a great many deliberative theorists, the framework of this genre is thematically consistent. Privileging access to the deliberation and the equality, and in some cases, the morally transformative powers, of the public forum is essential to deliberative issue orientation and the consensual outcome of public policy.
Having established an operational concept of deliberative democracy, I will now turn to my discussion of the American Slave Narrative viewed through the lens of Frederick Douglass and his speech What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? The principle effort here will be to consider the Douglass speech as it is situated (or perhaps not) within the previously described model of deliberative democracy.
Despite the widely acclaimed historical accounting of Frederick Douglass’s oratory skill as a public speaker and commanding influence on the debate of slavery, the literary and political accounts of his significance in nineteenth century discourse are somewhat dismissive of the deliberative attributes of his rhetoric. Historically categorized as a genre belonging mainly to the African American slave narrative (although the oratory of Douglass replaces the written narrative), Douglass’s public appearances are largely viewed as a subject of ‘appearance’ reduced largely to a commentary of style evidenced through the less important element of speechmaking10.
The reduction of Douglass’s rhetoric to ceremonial function is no doubt a factor in the treatment of his works as substantial examples of political discourse. The dismissive nature of this treatment can be located and rooted in Aristotle’s classifications of rhetoric in which epideictic oratory, in relation to deliberative discourse, is viewed as less important as it features ceremonial rhetoric and style of delivery of the orator rather than the invention of the speech itself11.
More contemporarily, and as a suggestion of deliberative theorists, deliberation ‘breaks down’ in a large scale forum and often is evidenced with “speech making” replacing conversation and rhetorical appeals replacing reasoned arguments12. For these theorists, Aristotle’s treatment of oratory provides evidence that, in their view, speech making detracts from meaningful discourse and can therefore, no longer be classified as deliberative.
Here I will submit that the oratory of Douglass was in fact deliberative as I reclaim the rhetorical significance of his 1852 address, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” I suggest that his address more accurately reflects political deliberation as it represents a collective appeal emanating from a population of enslaved and disenfranchised members of American society. More importantly, as Dryzek explains “the pursuit of reasoned consensus and the ‘civilising’ norms of deliberative democracy submerge the genuine injustices suffered by ‘other voices’. What is often required to make these voices heard is deliberate acts of speech: protests, resistance, emotional speech making and rhetoric designed to move the dominant consensus into perceiving what it has been blind to. Indeed emotional appeals may sometimes be the only things that can reach across the difference, ‘to reach a particular audience by framing points in a language that will move the audience in question13.” Here, it is clear that Dryzek recognizes the value of rhetoric as it is utilized in the public forum, when the context of the debate makes it implausible to follow the ‘procedural’ conceptions as discussed in Habermas and others.
As Aristotle’s conceptualization of oratory was introduced above to rationalize the historical treatment of Douglass’s position in the public forum, I will once again bring in Aristotle to now support my position. In Rhetoric, Aristotle provides additional insight into what he posits as his ‘third branch’ of rhetoric. Specifically, the three divisions of oratory are political or deliberative (which “urges us either to do or not do something”); forensic (which “either attacks or defends somebody”) and the ceremonial or epideictic oratory of display (which “either praises or censures somebody or something”)14.
Here it is clear that in emphasizing his separateness from the audience, and speaking to them, not as an equal, but as a dialogic other, Douglass squarely distinguished his position not as simply a speechmaker, but an orator who clearly meets the requirements of political or deliberative discourse as outlined in Aristotle’s third branch. In clearly articulating in his 4th of July Speech that the celebration “is yours not mine” and asking his audience “do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today? To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems is inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony15.” This passage seems to point clearly to a political and deliberative appeal designed to be much more than a ‘ceremonial display’.
Douglass’s refusal to identify himself (and perhaps his race) within the context of his current day America, when he intones – “Fellow citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why I am called to speak today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This seems to counter Aristotle’s notion that a ceremonial display of an epideictic nature must show some affinity to the audience, Quite the contrary, here Douglass is clearly distancing himself from his audience in his inability to locate himself within the audiences celebration of an event that is clearly denied to him. Within the context of his deeper messages and topics, Douglass’s expresses the political position which describes his present treatment of the African American slave community. Douglass clear critique of the hypocritical nature of the celebration paints a clear deliberative picture in which he introduces the problem of slavery and racial identity into the public forum.
Leaving little doubt that Douglass’s intentions are political, he directly confronts his audience with the less than ceremonial praise for the days’ celebration in stating “My subject, then, fellow citizens, is American Slavery. I shall see this day, and its popular characteristics from the slaves’ point of view16.” That Douglas would brazenly introduce such a culturally controversial topic at a 4th of July celebration is clearly a challenge to his audience to review his work by his words and consider these words as a call for a national dialog regarding the hypocritical and morally bankrupt notion of slavery.
Douglass’s treatment of the constitution as it relates to the ‘issue’ of slavery is a clear indication of a well-conceived strategy to break with abolitionist (who believed the constitution to be an ‘evil’ pro-slavery document) and suggest that the constitution is, in fact, anti-slavery17. Here Douglass utilized this political strategy to construct an argument that the Constitution demanded “emancipation”. This strategy allowed Douglass the opportunity to demand moral justification for the continued practice of slavery. More importantly, it allowed Douglass to challenge “white” America to respond to the higher authority of the Constitution (or provide sufficient justification for non-compliance). Again evidenced in his 4th of July speech, Douglass challenges his audience to uphold the honor and integrity of following the wishes of the founding fathers in stating that not to do so “is slander upon the founding fathers’ memory.” He poses the question “Let me ask…if the Constitution were intended to be, by its framers and adopters, a slave-holding instrument, why neither ‘slavery’, ‘slaveholder’, or ‘slave’ can be found in it18”. Quite the contrary “it will be found to contain principles and purposes entirely hostile to the exercise of slavery19
As a deliberative method, it is clear that through the content of the 4th of July Speech, Douglas was aware of the moral position of the ‘public’ which allowed them to not only justify slavery, but allow it to become a cultural norm. His consistent efforts to prod and significantly change the prevailing norms are evidence of a clear strategy. Pointing out the hypocritical nature of the “public” morality Douglas states, “Americans, your republican politics, no less than your republican religion, are flagrantly inconsistent… The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense, and your Christianity as a lie20.”
It is certain that Douglass not only moved from the standard American Slave Narrative mechanics towards a more deliberative process of engaging and challenging his audience to enter the dialog with him. While literary and perhaps political scientist theorists may debate the utilitarian nature or functionality of oration as a form of deliberation, it cannot be disputed that Frederick Douglass’s 4th of July Speech and his larger body of work is consistent with a grand historical tradition of political discourse in the form of a delivered speech.
Although advocates of procedural integrity as a framework for deliberative democracy may raise objections that Douglass’s oratory lacks conformity, I have and will continue to maintain (as others have) that deliberation cannot be distilled into a strict instrumental outcome of carefully controlled mechanics. A single set of procedural principles, surely cannot capture the myriad of effective deliberative typologies. Insisting on a strict interpretation of proceduralism and its regulating effect on deliberation, would simply reduce the dialectic to a simple matter of deductive argumentation --- hardly the outcome imagined by deliberative democracy.
On another level, while not addressed at length here, as Sandra Gustafson has suggested, there seems to be somewhat of an academic gridlock in discussions of deliberation itself. Gustafson suggests that “on one hand we have Habermas’s Kantian, rational public discourse, while on the other hand we have postmodernism’s trademark: an impassioned embodied, contestatory discourse informed by identity politics. To help resolve the fundamental ongoing challenge of deliberative politics: the need to develop practices and institutions capable of framing multilingual, transcultural deliberations that are inclusive and just21
The important practice of rhetoric as embodied in the work of Frederick Douglass cannot be overlooked as a deliberative methodology. Douglass’s rhetoric and appeal to the public forum at minimum, sought to level the ‘deliberative playing field’ through his insistence that all who might otherwise be relatively disempowered be enabled to achieve agency of voice as they passionately appealed their case. In essence, Douglass’s work challenges deliberative democracy to live up to its basic provisions, and to be --- deliberative democracy.