Frederick Douglass’ Paper
Rochester, Nov. 28, 1856.
The Accumulation of Wealth
The Spartan lawgiver who discouraged the accumulation of wealth, because of its tendency to impair the liberties of his country, was fully justified in the extreme measures he adopted, by the universal experience of nations, and the fate of his own country; the fall of Spartan liberties dating from the introduction of wealth and consequent luxury among her citizens.
His aim to exterminate wealth and refinement entirely, was, perhaps, not wise; it is not wealth of itself that produces the dreaded effects, but its accumulation in the hands of a few—creating an aristocracy of wealth, ready to be the tool of an aggressive tyranny, or to become aggressive upon its own account. With an increase of wealth comes an increase of selfishness, a devotion to private affairs, and a contempt of public—unless politics can be made to minister to all the absorbing selfishness of the individual.
The advocates of unbridled accumulation, claim for their system, that it is founded on nature, that the faculty of acquisition is found existing in man everywhere and in all stages of development; that the world owes much to the enterprise developed by its influence; and that it would be shallow statesmanship to interfere with its action.
We are ready to grant that the condition of man, cast as he is into the world naked, and surrounded by elements unfriendly to his continued existence, renders a degree of acquisitiveness necessary for the security of life; but is it just to plead this moderate degree of accumulation, indicated by nature, in justification of the unlimited hoarding of wealth, and monopolies of land, which has converted almost the entire civilized world into an abode of millionaires and beggars; which renders the enslavement of the peoples of the world possible, and shrouds the future of liberty with gloom?
To look at the treasures of Paris, or London, or New York, and other centres of wealth, one might at first feel disposed to agree in the assertion that man is an acquisitive creature, even in the extreme sense claimed by the defenders of the present system, by which wealth is accumulated by the few, instead of being distributed, as it should be, among the mass, rendering none rich, allowing none to remain poor.— A wider range of observation, however, including man everywhere, will show that with the vast majority of mankind, a satisfaction of the wants of nature is all that is sought; and even in those centres of selfishness spoken of, there are vast multitudes who would be thus satisfied, but that the rush and crash of the mighty machine of society compels them, in self-defence, to join in the rush for wealth. ’Tis the old question, “whether ’tis better to be a victim or a victimizer,” and they decide against being victims. The best men of the world, its exemplars, they who have taught and illustrated by their lives the superiority of virtue over vice, have been almost universally unselfish beings, struggling against the ills of poverty, or if born rich, noted for the prodigality with which their wealth was distributed. Of scholars, we find this, too, the rule; not but what literature has had its Shylocks; but a mercenary Bacon is offset by a generous Goldsmith, ripping open his mattress and crawling into the feathers for warmth, because he had sold his coat to relieve the necessities of one poorer than himself. Finally, we may conclude that no precept of Christianity will violate a principle of nature; and the example of the Savior, as well as the teachings of the Scriptures, are opposed to that undue accumulation of wealth, against which we are protesting.
Wealth has ever been the tool of the tyrant, the readiest means by which liberty is overthrown. A nation starting with free institutions and customs, begins to increase in wealth, and that wealth to accumulate in the hands of a few, and here is the lever by which, eventually and certainly, the liberties gained in a simpler age will be overthrown. Wealth is averse to agitation; it abhors revolutions; it calls for peace, at whatever sacrifice. A tyranny of an individual or a class may be winding its subtle meshes around the wealthy, depriving them of the right of unrestrained locomotion, the right of speech, the right of private judgment; but if it leaves them the privilege of grasping and accumulating gold, they are content—nay, will aid the tyranny to subject those who value their liberties enough to struggle for them; for the agitation might endanger their gains. The skeletons found in the exhumed cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii, grasping their wealth even in death, are a fair type of their class. Convulsions of nature, or of society, are only dreaded because they threaten the permanence of their possessions.
Louis Napoleon holds his seat to-day, and other tyrants with him, because they have enlisted the sympathies of capital, by professions of law and ORDER; encouraging and increasing the facilities for growing rich. Say to one of these blinded instruments of tyranny, that personal liberty, the freedom of speech, of thought, of the press, is overthrown; and they will answer you, that commerce flourishes, manufactures increase, public securities are at par. The golden calf set up, they fall down and worship, and shut their eyes to the foul wrongs perpetrated every day on human rights.
Poverty, the natural consequence of wealth unduly accumulated, plays its part in the drams of national degradation. Wherever the palaces tower highest, and enclose within their walls the greatest accumulations of luxury and wealth, there does the peasant grovel lowest in ignorance and misery; there is tyranny most secure and freedom most hopeless. Blinded or bribed, poverty consents to do the work of wealth, to submit to tyranny, or aid, if need be, in the suppression of liberty.
From whence, in our own country, comes the danger to liberty? Who are the ready tools and apologists of slavery, ready to excuse its evil tendencies, and hide from the people its ultimate tendency to overthrow the liberties of all in the nation? The plain answer is, the wealth and poverty of the nation. Even in localities where the pressure of public opinion would seem powerful enough to compel action against Slavery, we find straight Whigs throwing away precious votes, resolved if they cannot aid Slavery without losing caste with their neighbors, they will not do anything against it. We have the controllers of our commercial centres, blinding or buying the poverty-stricken, ignorant masses that fester in their alleys, to the unblushing support of the policy of the slaveholding tyranny, which essays to destroy the liberties of the nation.
The virtuous middle classes, who have not enough of wealth to render them selfish or oblivious of the true interests of the nation, and are not dependent enough to compel a servile obedience to the will of the wealthy and powerful of the land, they are the defenders and lovers of liberty. The homely simile of Judge Haliburton’s Clock-maker, is a good one; society is like barrelled fish, generally good in the middle, but apt to spoil at both ends. They represent that equable state which a just distribution of national wealth would produce; a state highly favorable to public and private virtue, to promote which should be the statesman’s chief aim; nor is it destructive to enterprise. No nation is so rich, that its inhabitants can all be raised to that degree of wealth destructive to virtue, public and private, if its riches be equitably distributed among its citizens; no nation is so poor that its citizens may not be raised above the temptation and degradation of poverty.
But between the upper and lower millstones of wealth and poverty, this class is ground—rendered powerless to effect the good it desires, or avert the evils it dreads. The world, therefore, oscillates between license and slavery, luxury and barbarism, wealth and poverty, nor has it, as yet, found that true mean, in which human happiness is best secured.
Here is a problem worthy of the attention of that noblest of men, the true statesman; not one that regards position and power, as instruments for the advancement of self or a class, but one who seeks to reach and improve the condition of all subject to his sway, to make that improvement lasting, to render government a blessing, instead of an evil, borne by the subject, because he fears its overthrow may lead to worse.
If such a statesman shall devise measures, which, while they will not hamper private enterprise, shall yet prevent the undue accumulation of wealth in the hands of individuals or associations, he will have merited and secured a fame more lasting than has yet fallen to the lot of man. He will have founded a nation which, though subject to human vicissitudes, will yet possess elements of prosperity and permanence, such as no nation has yet enjoyed.
Frederick Douglass’ Paper
Rochester, August 15, 1856.
The Land Reformer
The land reformers have started a weekly paper, bearing the above title, to which we wish abundant success. “The leading idea of the paper will be Land Reform; by applying the principle of limitation to the tenure, by which ownership of the soil is regulated, whether as referring to State legislation or the disposal of the Public Lands, by the general Government.” Radical reformers, everywhere, will hail its appearance with pleasure. The deep seated evil of poverty, with its attendant ignorance, vice, and squalid misery, which are always found to be in exact proportion to the splendor of the wealthier class, has always, and must always, attract the attention of the philanthropist, who seeks to remove the cause of the ills that afflict mankind, and not rest satisfied, as too many do, with abating the symptoms. Can poverty be prevented? If so, how? Must civilization be always like a whited sepulcher, outwardly fair, but within full of rottenness? Can no care be devised to relieve the poverty-stricken throng, from whose ranks our criminals, male and female, are so numerously recruited? Poor houses, soup societies, Ragged Schools, and Five Point Missions, are looked to by some to stem the tide of poverty. But what we want is not that poverty shall be promptly relieved, but that it shall be at once removed. Like the purchase of one or two individuals from Slavery, as is frequently done by benevolent minded individuals or communities, we are glad to see the manifestation of good feeling; but what we want is a preventative, not an ameliorator. We want the necessity for the purchase of men removed, and so with the necessity for relieving the poor. We want no poor. We conscientiously believe that the welfare of the world demands the abrogation of land monopolies. Earth, air, fire and water, are essential to human existence, and should be free to all men, in virtue of their heaven descended right. What justice is there in the General Government giving away, as it does, the millions upon millions of acres of public lands, to aid soulless railroad corporations to get rich? Or in the laws by which capitalists enter upon the possession of the national domain, and when the thrift and labor of the pioneer has raised the value of the lands, to compel the pioneer, not only to pay the Government price of lands, but also to pay the landlord for the increased value of the land, increased, though it was, by his own labor. We are aware that whenever these agrarian doctrines are broached there is a great outcry of vested rights, &c.; but the rights with which humanity is invested by the Almighty Creator, are far above, far more sacred, than any composed by human customs or laws. In our country there need be no violence committed on the rights of property. All we need is a land limitation law, and an act conferring upon the settlers of the public domain the possession of their land, and defending them against land sharks and speculators. Estates too large for the good of society will, in a few generations, be reduced to moderate dimensions, and none of the violent consequences predicted by the enemies of land limitation be experienced. We believe that with land limitation Slavery would be impossible. Your slaveholder is ever a land monopolist. — We believe the general education of the people would be promoted by land limitation; and the thousands of children who are now toiling in mills and workshops at a time when they should be at school, will be, by their independent parents, placed under instruction and good influences. We believe that the cause of temperance would be promoted by land limitation; the homeless wanderer seeks to drown sorrow in the joy-giving glass. The cause of virtue would be promoted; the want of homes drives thousands of women to prostitution, and other thous- [. . .] Let the means of the young men of the country [. . .] under present arrangements, toil through the best portions of their lives ere they can hope to possess a home; and before a single generation the beneficial effect can be felt. Multiply the free homes of the people; let each man have around him the blessed influences of family and home, and the rampant vice and rowdyism of our country will disappear.