The Powers of Dignity

The Black Political Philosophy of Frederick Douglass

Book Pages: 288 Illustrations: Published: February 2021

Author: Nick Bromell

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism, Politics > Political Theory

In The Powers of Dignity Nick Bromell unpacks Frederick Douglass's 1867 claim that he had “elaborated a political philosophy” from his own “slave experience.” Bromell shows that Douglass devised his philosophy because he found that antebellum Americans' liberal-republican understanding of democracy did not provide a sufficient principled basis on which to fight anti-Black racism. To remedy this deficiency, Douglass deployed insights from his distinctively Black experience and developed a Black philosophy of democracy. He began by contesting the founders' racist assumptions about humanity and advancing instead a more robust theory of “the human” as a collection of human “powers.” He asserted further that the conscious exercise of those powers is what confirms human dignity and that human rights and democracy come into being as ways to affirm and protect that dignity. Thus, by emphasizing the powers and the dignity of all citizens, deriving democratic rights from these, and promoting a remarkably activist, power-oriented model of citizenship, Douglass's Black political philosophy aimed to rectify two major failings of US democracy in his time and ours: its complacence and its racism.


The Powers of Dignity is an impressive, thorough, and detailed reconstruction of Frederick Douglass as political philosopher, and should immediately become a major reference text not just for Douglass scholarship but also for the broader project of retrieving and theorizing a distinct African American political tradition. Nick Bromell's book distinguishes itself by his impressive interdisciplinary ambition to bring together philosophy, literary studies, political theory, cognitive science, and new materialism. This is an exciting reconceptualization of the political cartography.” — Charles W. Mills, author of Black Rights/White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism

“Nick Bromell writes beautifully, and he has an illuminating story to tell about Frederick Douglass's political imagination from the 1840s to the 1890s. As Bromell shows, Douglass's political thinking about race and democracy was constantly in flux, mediated by his experience in slavery and his commitment to the Black freedom struggle. This is an exemplary contribution to our understanding of one of the most important figures in American history.” — Robert S. Levine, author of The Lives of Frederick Douglass


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Nick Bromell is Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and editor of A Political Companion to W. E. B. Du Bois and The Time Is Always Now: Black Thought and the Transformation of US Democracy.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments  vii
Introduction. "The Thing Looked Absurd": The Black in Douglass's Political Philosophy  1
1. "To Become a Colored Man": Proposing Black Powers to the Black Public Sphere  17
2. "A Chapter of Political Philosophy Applicable to the American People": Human Nature, Human Dignity, Human Rights  38
3. "One Method for Expressing Opposite Emotions": Douglass's Fugitive Rhetoric  55
4. "Assault Compels Defense": Douglass on Black Emigration and Violence  82
5. "A Living Root, Not a Twig Broken Off": Douglass's Constitutionalism and the Paradox of Democracy's Foundations  101
6. "Somebody's Child": Awakening, Resistance, and Vulnerability in My Bondage and My Freedom  124
7. "Nothing Less Than a Radical Revolution": Douglass's Struggle for a Democracy without Race  159
8. "That Strange, Mysterious, and Indescribable": The Fugitive Legacy of Douglass's Political Thought  188
Notes  207
Bibliography  243
Index  263
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Paper ISBN: 978-1-4780-1126-2 / Cloth ISBN: 978-1-4780-1022-7