Frederick Douglass in Newcastle upon Tyne, England

Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne banner in the Library of the Great North Museum: Hancock, Newcastle, England

Wednesday, August 29th, 2018

Since my work on Frederick Douglass took me to the University of Edinburgh to live and study, I had expected to open my Douglass in the British Isles series in Edinburgh or at least one of the many cities in Scotland where Douglass traveled, lived, and worked. I have lots of that research already done and am raring to go. But there are some exciting things happening this fall and winter throughout Scotland in celebration of this bicentennial year of his birth that I’d like to include in my story, so I’m going to plan my trips around them and tell you all about that I’ve learned and experienced there. It just so happened, in the meantime, that I had the opportunity to travel to Newcastle for a couple of days. Since an especially important thing happened for Douglass in Newcastle, I decided to take the opportunity and start this series here.

I have a list of sites and events to explore for this story but my geographical information is very incomplete. So, I begin my inquiry at the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne. It’s located in the Library on the top floor of the Great North Museum: Hancock at Newcastle University. I head east and north from Newcastle Central Station, taking my time and exploring a bit along the way. I know that this journey will take me to sites that are all pretty centrally located since Newcastle was much smaller then, later growing outwards from the older parts of town in all directions. I check out many of the city’s major historical structures, the Castle and its Black Gate, the Cathedral Church of St. Nicholas, remaining sections of its ancient city walls, and Grey’s Monument, making mental notes of the layout of old Newcastle along the way. I veer east from the monument and eventually, I approach the University from King’s Walk and admire the Arches, which access the Quadrangle from King’s Road across from the end of the King’s Walk. It’s a handsome red brick, three-story building with lovely details topped by a castellated decorative roof. It was erected in 1911 when this place of learning was still called Armstrong College. I turn right at the King’s Road and continue past campus buildings, ascending a short rise across the road where, to my left, I find a classical, clean-lined cream stone building with ‘The Hancock Museum’ engraved in the grey stone-edged roof. I pass museum case after museum case, exhibit after exhibit, of all manner of things with of scientific, historic, and cultural interest. I make a mental note to make time to return next time I’m in town.

The Arches, King’s Road, Newcastle University

A few floors up, I find a small cozy library stuffed with old histories, directories, and all manner of local records and documents. First another patron who, as she explains, spends a great deal of time in the collection, then the librarian, help me in my search. I’m here, first, to find out the precise locations of sites associated with Douglass in Newcastle. For three of them, I only have the name or description and the street that they’re on. For one of them, the street no longer exists under that name, so I’ll have to do some more digging. With the patron’s help, I locate an 1847 Newcastle directory. The directory gives me names and addresses of people associated with this story, but there are no maps or atlases to locate them on so that I can compare them with current street names and addresses. For maps, the librarian refers me to Newcastle City Library on New Bridge Street. It turns out to be an excellent resource, with a wealth of maps, directories, and more. By the time it comes to leave and rejoin my travel companion for dinner, I’ve gathered a good deal of information about the city, the places I’ve seen thus far, and the sites I’m seeking for my Douglass journey, though I have a bit more digging to do before I go and visit those sites tomorrow. On my way back, I chance to see a historical plaque, high up on near the corner of a building over a shop window, related to the stories I’m following. I make another mental note to return the next day, and I’ll tell you all about it then.

Summerhill Grove, looking east with Summerhill Park to the left, Newcastle

Thursday, August 30th, 2018

I begin my day with lots of coffee and more research, mostly online following up on yesterday’s discoveries at Newcastle City Library, and putting two and two together with previous Douglass research I’ve done. It’s a lovely day with a blue, puffy-cloud-scattered sky, balmy, with just enough coolness in the air to keep one from getting too warm on a brisk walk. I make my way north and east from the coffeeshop near Central Station, passing sections of the ancient city wall. At Westgate Road, I turn left. It’s a wide thoroughfare which takes me uphill past tree-lined Blandford Square and shops and eateries. At Elswick Road, I find I’ve overshot the mark a bit and make my way back west through a lovely old neighborhood. My destination, 5 Summerhill Grove, is on a quiet, pretty little street across from Summerhill Park. Part of the three-story red brick house is under repair, its left side fronted by scaffolding.

Frederick Douglass plaque at 5 Summerhill Grove, Newcastle

There’s a round black plaque to the right of the doorway. Placed by the City of Newcastle upon Tyne, it’s dedicated to Frederick Douglass. It commemorates the time he stayed here with the Richardson family, who spearheaded the effort to ‘formally buy his freedom in 1846.’ This was the home of Anna and Henry Richardson. Anna, her husband Henry, and his sister Ellen were abolitionists who aided others who had escaped from slavery as well. In addition to welcoming Douglass into their home and raising the money to purchase his freedom, they did the same for Douglass’ abolitionist colleague, fellow self-liberated slave, and fellow author William Wells Brown.

The Richardsons’ and their fellow abolitionists’ payment to Hugh Auld for Douglass’ freedom was controversial. Many abolitionists and fellow self-liberated slaves believed that buying Douglass’ freedom was tantamount to participating in the slave trade and acted as a tacit recognition of the legitimacy of trafficing in human flesh, regardless of intentions. Abolitionist and fellow activist in the ‘Send Back the Money!’ campaign Henry C. Wright made these arguments in a strong letter of rebuke to Douglass for accepting these arrangements on his behalf. Douglass responded affectionately but firmly to Wright. As Douglass saw it, this payment was no different in kind to the payment of a ransom or handing over money to an armed robber. The fault was not with those who pay such forms of ransom, the fault was with those who extorted money so that their fellow human beings could enjoy the life and freedom they were naturally entitled to.

Frederick Douglass inscription to Ellen Richardson, 1860, in a copy of My Bondage and My Freedom in the Fliegelman Collection at Stanford University (image credit S.U.)

The Richardsons were a well-to-do Quaker family who dedicated themselves to all manner of religious and moral societies and causes including antislavery and temperance work, making goods available not produced through slave labor, education for poor and working-class children, and religious improvement. Anna also visited prisons to offer cheer, comfort, and spiritual support. The Richardsons and their extended family, women and men alike, took leading roles in the church; for example, Ellen was an Elder for a time until her failing eyesight made it too difficult to fulfill that role. In accordance with Quaker beliefs, the women of the family were well-educated and very active in religious and public life even as they were responsible for keeping a well-run family home. Though city directories list mostly male members of the Richardson family as prominent members of religious and moral societies, Jonathan Mood of the University of Durham describes Anna, Ellen, and other women in the family as generally even more involved, especially in the correspondence and day to day running of things.

Like many others who benefited from their good works and generosity, Douglass never forgot what the Richardson family had done for him. In 1860, he sent Ellen a copy of his second autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom, dedicating it to her as his ‘friend and benefactress.’

5 Summerhill Grove in its row of houses, red brick with cream and white trim, Newcastle, England

Anna Richardson of Newcastle, image via Newcastle ChronicleLive.co.uk

5 Summerhill Grove, with scaffolding, Newcastle

I find the door of the house ajar, with a large black extension cord passed over the doorsill. I ring the doorbell, but there’s no answer. I knock and call, but still, no answer. Since the door’s open and there’s construction work apparently going on, it seems to me at first that the house is unoccupied. I enter and stop in the foyer, again calling out again to announce my presence and ask if I could take a look around. But only a few seconds reveal that, though the door was open and new appliances are in the foyer awaiting installation, the house appears to be occupied, or soon to be. From where I stand, it’s an attractive home with a high foyer, steep winding stairway through tall-ceilinged stories, and well-cared-for old wood floors. I can see, through an open door, a large windowed entryway to a sunny, tree-filled back garden. It looks like a cozy, cheerful home with lots of natural light. My history detective instincts have me agog with curiosity but since I’m still unable to discover anyone here after a few more calls and rings of the doorbell, I depart.

From here, I head to my next destination via St James’ Blvd, where I cut over to the narrow green park that runs along a long section of the ancient city walls and towers (including Morden Tower), past Chinatown, then east on Gallowgate, then north on Percy St. I’m led here by an entry in Hannah Murray’s site Frederick Douglass in Britain and Ireland which describes and maps out Douglass’ travels in the British Isles.

Leazes Park Rd, formerly Albion St, showing the approximate site of George and Ellen Richardson’s house in Newcastle. The nearest brick building on the right of the photo stands on or near where that house once stood.

One of the map’s entries for Newcastle reads: ’28 Dec 1846: Music Hall, Albion Street, evening. Meeting of the Newcastle branch of the Antislavery League. 700 people there.’ The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One, Volume I also lists two late December speeches in Newcastle, one on December 28th with no listed location, and one on December 29th at the Music Hall. Try as I might, I can find no evidence of a Music Hall on Albion Street in directories, maps, or other contemporary documents about the people and places in Newcastle. The only listed music hall in Newcastle is elsewhere, and I’ll tell you about that location shortly. However, I have found other intriguing clues which indicate that Douglass may have visited, attended a meeting, or given a talk at a location on this street.

From White’s General Directory of the Town and County of Newcastle-upon-Tyne…, 1847, Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne Library

First, I consulted an 1847 Newcastle directory yesterday at the Antiquities Society for listings of locations on Albion St. There is no music hall or other public building listed there. It does, however, show that three George Richardsons lived at 9 Albion street, one ‘sen.’ (senior), one ‘jun.’ (junior), and one ‘gentleman.’ This likely describes a grandfather, father, and a grandson not yet employed, or perhaps a nephew or cousin. Then this morning, I found two more sources of information about the Richardsons of Newcastle: a website by a Benjamin S. Beck which has a series of pages detailing the genealogy and history of his family, especially the page ‘Children of George and Eleanor Richardson,’ and Mood’s journal article  ‘Women in the Quaker Community: The Richardson Family of Newcastle, C. 1815-60‘. The first of these list Ellen Richardson as living first at 9 and then at 21 Albion St. When Douglass was at Newcastle in 1846, Ellen was still living at no. 9. Though there are two address for Albion St over time, all of the sources I’ve consulted indicate that the family lived in the same home for a very long time. I suspect, then, that the two different addressed reflect only a change in the numbering over the years rather than a move to another nearby location.

Ellen and her sister-in-law Anna’s leadership in the anti-slavery movement in Newcastle may very well have meant that antislavery society meetings may have been held at Ellen’s family home on Albion St, and if so, Douglass would surely have attended if he was in town. However, an entry in the Newcastle Courant of Friday, Jan. 1st, 1847 specifies that the speech Douglass delivered for a soiree of the ‘the Newcastle branch of the Anti-Slavery League’ for 700 ‘members and friends’ was held at the ‘Music-hall’ on ‘Monday evening.’ December 28th, 1846 was a Monday, so it appears that both the December 28th and 29th speeches listed in the Frederick Douglass Papers were held at the Music Hall. This does not preclude Douglass giving a talk at an event held at the Richardsons’ home on Albion St, however, if such an event took place.

Albion St, Newcastle upon Tyne, from Thomas Oliver’s 1830 plan of the city at the National Library of Scotland

Even given the address at 9 Albion St, however, I still would not have enough information to find this location. That’s because, first, there is currently no Albion St in Newcastle. The man who helps me find sources at the Newcastle City Library, however, is able to help me with that one. He just so happens to have recently read something which informed him that the street once named Albion is now called Leazes Park Road. The maps room of the National Library of Scotland is able to provide the final piece of the puzzle. When I visit Albion St, I can only guess at the exact location given the maps, plans, and directories of Newcastle I find during my visit. In the following days, Louise and Rosemary help me locate a city plan and its guide for 1830-1831, also published by Thomas Oliver, which show that George Richardson lived at plot 352. The street has undergone very little change, if any, in its layout, and the nearest cross-street retains its old name. By comparing the location of the old map to Google Maps, I find that the Richardson family home used to stand on or near the place where 23 Leazes Park Road now stands, just south of the parking lot at the southwest corner of Leazes Park Road and Strawberry Place.

At the other side of the street at Leazes Park Rd and Strawberry Pl, there’s a nice roomy bar called Soho. The tablet I’m using for maps and photography is nearly out of power and I’ve forgotten to bring my portable charger, so I take a break with a pint of Guinness while it’s plugged in. As I wait, I read more about the Richardson family.

From William Whellan & Co.’s History, Topography, and Directory of Northumberland… and a History of the Town and County of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, National Library of Scotland

As mentioned earlier, Ellen, her sister in law Anna, her brother Henry, her brother George, and her father George were all very active in various societies. In addition to Ellen and Anna’s anti-slavery and charity work, the Richardsons were active in promoting their Quaker religion. White’s 1847 directory lists George Richardson, senior (or rather, his house), as the ‘depository for the bible society’ and Whellan’s 1855 History of Northumberland and Newcastle lists George (presumably junior) as treasurer of the Bible Society, with George Sr. serving as accountant and ‘depositary.’ Ellen, who never married, cared for her father after the death of her mother in 1846 (the same year she and Anna organized Douglass’ ‘ransom’) and dedicated herself to education and other worthy causes. She worked for the school for impoverished children called, quaintly to modern sensibilities, the Girls Ragged School, and made other efforts on behalf of impoverished members of the community as well. On November 5th, 1859, for example, she wrote a letter to the editor of the Newcastle Guardian and Tyne Mercury about the plight of a large Jewish family, explaining why they were appropriate and worthy recipients of ‘parochial charity.’ She signed her letter ‘Ellen Richardson, Secretary to the Jubilee School.’ It just so happens that there’s a link between Ellen and two of the places I visited yesterday: in 1864, at a meeting held in the Castle, she donated a book of Arabic prayers and a document containing the seal of Elizabeth I to the Newcastle Society of Antiquaries. She lived a long life, dying at the age of 87 after a long-time chest ailment worsened as she developed other ailments. Mary Spence Watson wrote of her recently departed cousin ‘I believe she is the last proper Quakeress in Newcastle, & the last who wore the Quaker’s dress, & she was so splendid.’

Building at the corner of Grainger and Nelson Streets with a Giuseppe Garibaldi, Louis Kossuth, and William Lloyd Garrison historical plaque, Newcastle

Once my tablet has charged sufficiently, I continue my tour by heading east and south toward Grey’s Monument, erected honor of the second Earl Grey, who was instrumental in the passage of the Reform Act of 1832 and namesake of that delicious bergamot-flavored black tea. Besides vastly expanding the electoral franchise in Britain, the Reform Act also led directly to the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire in 1832. At the monument square, I turn south down Grainger St then stop at the corner of Grainger and Nelson Streets. This is the place I spotted yesterday with the historical plaque above the shop window. The plaque reads: ‘To commemorate visits to this city and to a book shop in this house by Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1854, Louis Kossuth in 1856, W. Lloyd Garrison in 1876.William Lloyd Garrison was, famously, the abolitionist colleague and eventual ideological rival of Douglass who had given him his start in the movement only to later oppose Douglass’ moving on from Garrison’s abolitionist society to found his own paper The North Star, and Douglass’ newfound commitment to political activism and armed resistance to slavery. Since this city had a vibrant antislavery movement, Garrison visited Newcastle more than once in his multiple tours of the British Isles, including at least twice in 1846, so it’s a delight but no surprised to stumble across this plaque. I less expected to find, and am very interested to have done so, this link to Louis Kossuth, the revolutionary 19th-century Hungarian president lauded by Douglass and his colleague James McCune Smith as a great freedom fighter.

Facade of the old Music Hall at 10-12 Nelson Street, Newcastle, England

Behind me on the other side of the road and a few buildings west, I find my next destination: the facade of the Music Hall I mentioned more than once earlier in my story, at 10-12 Nelson St. According to Thomas Oliver’s reference book for his 1844 plan of Newcastle, it stood to the ‘east of the Primitive Methodist Chapel,’ which can still be seen in the 1896 Ordnance Survey I find later at the National Library of Scotland. According to Oliver, the Lecture Room was located underneath the Music Hall. It was in that room that Douglass delivered his 1860 speeches. Today, the only remnants of the Nelson St Music Hall and its rooms is its arch-windowed facade with the name and date carved in the front door’s pediment. There’s a City of Newcastle upon Tyne historical plaque on the building to the left of the doorway, like the one at 5 Summerhill Grove, but unfortunately The Alchemist, the bar and restaurant now occupying the spot, has placed a big umbrella right in front of it. I could crane my neck from under the umbrella just enough to read the plaque: ‘Music Hall, Nelson Street, Charles Dickens 1812-1870. Charles Dickens gave public readings of his works in this theatre during 6 visits to Newcastle between 1852 and 1867. “A finer audience is there not in England.” City of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Frederick Douglass ca. 1847-52, Samuel Miller, American 1822-1882, Art Institute of Chicago, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

This is where Douglass almost certainly spoke at that 700-person antislavery event in December 1846, and where he did speak on February 19th and the 23rd, 1860. Douglass had returned once again to the British Isles that year, fleeing possible arrest and prosecution in connection with his militant abolitionist friend John Brown‘s unsuccessful raid on Harper’s Ferry. While he was back in Britain, he embarked on another abolitionist speaking tour. In 1860, Douglass was dismayed to find that anti-black prejudice, which he was so grateful to find nearly absent during his last visit to the Isles fourteen years before, had become more commonplace in British sensibilities. Nevertheless, the talk was so highly anticipated that the event space was packed as full as could be and many who sought tickets had to be turned away. Douglass told the crowd that he feared that the ‘malign influence’ of the American slave system and its apologists were infecting the mother country even though she had already abolished it. Yet Douglass was here once again to seek British support for the cause. American slavery was proving so difficult to eradicate that American abolitionists needed the moral and religious example and support of their freedom-loving British counterparts more than ever.

Even with that support, however, it seemed that armed resistance may have been necessary to end slavery, and in that, Britain could lend its support by withdrawing its trade with and support to slaveholding states. Douglass ended his speech with a defense of Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in hopes of inciting a slave insurrection. Though Douglass had, in person, turned down his friend’s plea to assist the raid on the grounds he thought it unlikely to succeed, Douglass defended the raid’s practicability and propriety to his Newcastle audience. For one thing, he said, the location of Harper’s Ferry was in proximity to a series of mountain ranges perfect for insurrectionists to hide, plan their course of action, and attack from. For another, the raid and planned guerrilla war to follow was not the cruel and criminal attack on peaceable citizens as it was generally portrayed. Slavery was essentially a cruel and bloody system of oppression that placed all involved in it in a state of war already. Slave resistance was merely the counterattack by those who had been savaged in the first place.

Ordnance Survey of Newcastle upon Tyne, Gateshead and Environs 1896, showing the location of the Music Hall on Nelson St, here designated Central Hall, and the apparent site of the Salem Methodist Chapel, here designated Church of England Institute, at the National Library of Scotland

My last destination leads me just a little ways south and east to Hood Street. According to Oliver’s reference to his 1844 city plan, the Salem Methodist Chapel ‘forms the centre building to the north side of Hood Street; the front is of polished stone, with a recessed Grecian Doric portico of four columns, approached by stone steps.’ It opened its doors in 1836. There is a building at number 11, at about the right location but a bit further west than I’d expect from the 1896 ordnance survey, which has a small portico supported by two full Doric columns and two pilasters, with three steps leading to the modest-sized front entry. However, the building doesn’t seem otherwise to have the appearance of a church. Photos I find of old Hood St online from 1912 and onward, few as they are, don’t appear to show a church or other building with a Doric-column-decorated entryway. It appears to me that there’s nothing left of the old Salem Chapel.

Buildings on the center north side of Hood Street around the approximate site of the old Salem Chapel, Newcastle, England

Douglass spoke at the Salem Chapel on August 3rd and 13th of 1846 at meetings of the Newcastle Antislavery Society. On the first occasion, the 1200-capacity church was packed nearly to overflowing, evidence of the strong popular support in Britain, particularly Newcastle, for the abolitionist cause. Douglass, the only lecturer at the August 3rd event, opened his speech by pointing out the danger of characterizing too many things as forms of slavery that were not, in fact, comparable to American chattel slavery, with all its depredations and horrors, its thorough denial of the rights and humanity of a certain class of human beings. Since chattel slavery was far away and out of sight in the free British Isles, he could see how some Britons might tend to conflate slavery with such practices as the exploitation of workers, unjust taxation, or political disenfranchisement. However, Douglass stressed, to do so undermined the message and urgency of the antislavery cause.

Douglass’ impassioned plea against equating actual slavery with other forms of exploitation, coercion, or cruelty reminds me of the trend I see so often in our hyperbolic age with its outrage culture run amok. So many things are characterized as assaults, as rape, as silencing, or as other trespasses on human rights and dignity that in some ways serve to equate minor with egregious forms with minor or less egregious forms, or at least serve to confuse them in the public consciousness. For example, speaking disrespectfully to or groping women, however deplorable, is not akin to physically raping them. Aggressive speech, leering looks, and insults are not akin to physical assault. Promoting one set of views, however loudly, meanly, or distastefully is not akin to silencing competing views. There are plenty of grounds for demanding we treat each other in ways that respect human rights and dignity without conflating these important issues. In fact, conflating the less egregious wrongs we do one another with more egregious ones undermine human rights causes. When it’s not clear what precise harms we are arguing about, the degree to which they damage ourselves and others, and the rights we are violating when we inflict them, then the arguments against them are hard to craft and defend, and our efforts to counteract them are rendered scattershot and ineffective.

Constitution of the United States, first page of the original, provided by the National Archives and Records Administration, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Douglass went on to criticize the various ways the legal system of the United States systematically supported and protected the institution of slavery, from the federal Constitution to the laws of states and municipalities. To remove any doubts in the minds of his audience that he might be embellishing his rhetoric with hyperbole, he read out example after examples of such laws so that they could judge for themselves. Over time, Douglass changed his mind about the Constitution as a proslavery document. To Douglass, interpreting the Constitution correctly as an antislavery document meant it could no longer be used as a tool by proponents of the slave system. It also made local laws supporting slavery that much more egregious, since they not only infringed on the natural rights of black people, they infringed on Constitutionally guaranteed rights as well. Armed with this Constitutional interpretation, Douglass went on after his early years as an abolitionist moral suasionist in the United States and the British Isles to focus on political and social activism.

My search for Douglass in Newcastle has proved to be an invigorating and fascinating one, and he has led me to learn about and appreciate not only more about his own work and his circle of friends and colleagues, but about the history of one more great city as well. I look forward to my next adventure following Douglass in the British Isles, stay tuned!

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Sources and Inspiration

Alston, Charlotte. ‘William Lloyd Garrison visits Newcastle.’ Mapping Radical Tyneside website

Beck, Benjamin S. ‘Children of George and Eleanor Richardson.Ben Beck’s Website

Black Plaque № 48714.Open Plaques website

Richardson, Ellen. ‘The Board of Guardians: To the Editor of the Newcastle Guardian.‘ Newcastle Guardian and Tyne Mercury. Saturday, 12 November 1859

Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey.‘ History: Past Prime Ministers at GOV.UK

Douglass, Frederick. ‘Antislavery Principles and Antislavery Acts.Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews Volume 2: 1847-1854

Douglass, Frederick, annotated by Henry L. Gates. Autobiographies: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: Written by Himself (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1893). New York: The Library of America, 1996

Douglass, Frederick. ‘British Racial Attitudes and SlaveryFrederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews Volume 3: 1855-1863

Douglass, Frederick. ‘Frederick Douglass to Henry C. Wright, Manchester, 22 Dec 1846.’ Frederick Douglass Papers, Series Three: Correspondence Volume 1: 1842-1852

Douglass, Frederick. ‘Men and Brothers.‘ Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews Volume 2: 1847-1854

Douglass, Frederick. ‘Slavery, the Free Church, and British Agitation Against Bondage.’ Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews Volume 1: 1841-1846

Frederick Douglass Speaks: 3 August 1846.’ Mapping Radical Tyneside (website)

Garrison, William Lloyd. ‘Letter from Mr. Garrison, Oct 1846.’ The Liberator, October 30, 1846

Garrison, William Lloyd. ‘Letter from Mr. Garrison, Liverpool, Oct 20, 1846.’ The Liberator, Nov 20th, 1846

General Directory of the Town and County of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Gateshead. Francis White & Co, 1847

Greenspan, Ezra. William Wells Brown: An African American Life. W. W. Norton & Company: 2014

Hodgson, Barbara. ‘Former Slave ‘Freed’ by Newcastle Couple is to be Honoured in Martin Luther King Anniversary Year.ChronicleLive, Nov 5, 2016

Hood Street.‘ Co-Curate (website)

Levine, Robert S. The Lives of Frederick Douglass. Cambridge, Massachusetts ; London, England: Harvard University Press, 2016. (Online via DiscoverEd)

‘Local & General Intelligence.’ Newcastle Journal, 25 February 1860.

‘London, Thursday December 31.’ Newcastle Courant, 1 January 1847.

Macartney, Carlile Aylmer. ‘Lajos Kossuth.’ Encyclopædia Britannica

Mood, Jonathan. ‘Women in the Quaker Community: The Richardson Family of Newcastle, C.1815-60.‘ Quaker Studies: Vol. 9: Iss. 2, Article 5

Murray, Hannah. Frederick Douglass in Britain, website http://frederickdouglassinbritain.com/

The Nelson Street ‘Music Hall’ of 1838.’ Gen UKI: UK and Ireland Geneology

O’Connor, Peter. ‘The Richardson Family Help Free Frederick Douglass: Oct 1, 1846 to 31 December 1846.’ Mapping Radical Tyneside (website)

Oliver, Thomas. Plan of the Town and County of Newcastle upon Tyne and the Borough of Gateshead… From an Actual Survey by T. Oliver. 1830

Oliver, Thomas. Reference to a Plan of the Town and County of Newcastle upon Tyne and the Borough of Gateshead… From an Actual Survey. Thomas Oliver, 43 Blacket Street: 1831.

Ordinance Survey, Newcastle, 1861-62

Ordnance Survey, Newcastle upon Tyne, Gateshead and Environs 1896 (revised 1894)

Pettinger, Alasdair. Frederick Douglass and Scotland, 1846: Living an Antislavery Life. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019 (forthcoming)

A Plan of the Borough of Newcastle Upon Tyne, Thomas Oliver,1844.

Quandrangle Gateway (The Arches).Historic England website

Reference to A Plan of the Borough of Newcastle Upon Tyne. Thomas Oliver, 1844

Society of Antiquaries.‘ Newcastle Journal, 3 November 1864

To commemorate visits to this city and to a book shop in this house by Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1854, Louis Kossuth in 1856, W. Lloyd Garrison in 1876.’ Open Plaques website

Tyne and Wear HER(7109): Newcastle, Nelson Street, Nos. 10 and 12, Music hall – Details.SiteLines (website)

Ward, Brian. ‘Frederick Douglass: The Ex-slave and Transatlantic Celebrity Who Found Freedom in Newcastle.The Conversation, Feb 21, 2018

Whellan, William & Co. History, Topography, and Directory of Northumberland… and a History of the Town and County of Newcastle-upon-Tyne… London: Whittaker and Co, 1855

White, Francis & Co. General Directory of the Town and County of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Gateshead… Francis White, 1847

Wright, Henry C. ‘Henry C. Wright to Frederick Douglass, Doncaster, 12 Dec 1846.‘ Frederick Douglass Papers, Series Three: Correspondence Volume 1: 1842-1852

Following Frederick Douglass in the British Isles

Hello, friends of Ordinary Philosophy!

From time to time, I take a trip to some corner of the globe, to explore the lives and ideas of great thinkers in the places where they lived and worked. For this series, I follow in the footsteps of thinkers who are no longer alive, since those who are still telling their own stories. But those who are no longer alive in the body live on in the ideas that they pass on, and in the example they provide for us to follow.

I’m pleased and excited to announce my ninth philosophical-historical themed adventure following in the footsteps of Frederick Douglass throughout the British Isles. This series continues from and builds on my first Douglass series in the United States.

Frederick Douglass’s life story is inspiring and humbling in the strength, character, and dazzling intellect he reveals, rising to such greatness in the midst of such adversity. Born a slave on the eastern shore of Maryland in the early 1800’s, he was an autodidact, having overheard his master say that learning to read leads to learning to think, rendering a slave too independent-minded to submit to domination by another. Hearing this, young Frederick knew what he had to do. Attaining literacy and learning a skilled trade gave him the wherewithal to escape to New York City in 1838 at about 20 years of age. A few years later, as a result of an impromptu but impassioned and eloquent speech about the hardships of a life enslaved, he was recruited as a public speaker for the abolitionist cause. Douglass spent the rest of his life as an activist for all manner of human rights causes, from the abolition of slavery to universal suffrage to women’s rights and beyond.

Douglass is an especially compelling subject for a student of history and philosophy; observing the true nature and ramifications of slavery led him to think deeply about the most essential questions in human life, which, in turn, spurred him on to a life of thought and action on behalf of oppressed peoples. In these roles, Douglass had a heavy influence on American thought and on the course of American history. He asked, and answered: What does it mean to be a person? What does it mean to be a person of conviction and of faith? What are rights, and why are we entitled to them? What is dignity, and does possessing it entail certain obligations to ourselves and others? Given the frailties and strengths of human nature, how can we best live together and form just societies? What do the Constitution, its Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence really say about slavery, equality, and other human rights issues?

Following Douglass’ life and thought led me on a journey that took me much further than I could have imagined. I first came to Edinburgh as a student of philosophy following David Hume; now I live here, pursuing my higher education at the University of Edinburgh with Douglass as one of my primary subjects of inquiry. So I’ll continue my journey, which began in Oakland, CA and took me on a broad tour of the East Coast of the United States, then here to the British Isles. As I follow Douglass, I’ll visit landmarks associated with his life, places where he lived and died, worked, thought, wrote, studied, and rested, to see for myself how the places informed the man, and vice versa.

Frederick Douglass in Newcastle upon Tyne, England

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Happy Birthday, Ida B. Wells!

Ida B. Wells, head-and-shoulders portrait, published, 1891, Image retrieved from the Library of Congress LC-USZ62-107756, public domainIn the course of my journey following the life of Frederick Douglass in 2016, I was so glad to have the opportunity to visit the place in New York City where he may have first met the great Ida B. Wells. It was late 1892, and this fiery young newspaperwoman had published her very controversial piece of investigative journalism in the New York Age on June 25, 1892. It was expanded and published as a pamphlet later that year as Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.

Many people at that time thought of lynching as an unfortunate and somewhat rare excess of race-hatred by frustrated Southern whites. And many more saw it as a lawless but not entirely unjustified species of vengeance against black men who had raped white women. But Wells (born in Mississippi on July 16th, 1862) would change all that. In early 1892, three of Wells’ friends were lynched after a dispute between themselves and white owners of a rival business. She was outraged and began an investigation of the practice and history of lynching.

When Wells wrote Southern Horrors, she had already been an activist and writer promoting black rights for many years. In 1884, she resisted being forced out of the first class train car into the ‘colored car’; she later sued the train company, won the first suit, then lost on appeal. This incident (which echoes Douglass’ train protest in 1841) led to many other lawsuits, articles, and activism against anti-black laws and social practices. In 1892, her investigation of lynching revealed to Wells that lynching was far from just vengeance for rape or other violent crimes; it served as vengeance for or a public warning against alleged insubordination or impertinence, petty crimes, idleness, drunkenness, and so on. It was also put to such uses as eliminating business competition (as was the case for Wells’ friends), getting rid of inconvenient owners of coveted land, or scapegoating black people for the crimes of others. She discovered that lynchings were not all that rare, either, and came to the conclusion that they constituted a form of social control that replaced the terrorism (the system of coercion which included whippings, deprivations, and threats of being sold ‘down the river’) of slavery.

Douglass was inspired and energized by Wells’ writing and anti-lynching work, and his letter in praise of Southern Horrors served as the pamphlet’s introduction. He visited her in New York City where she was living for a little while as a writer for and part owner of the New York Age, which was (probably) published at the site I visited in Harlem. I also visited a second site that happened to be associated with Wells two days after my New York visit: she delivered one of her hard-hitting speeches in her speaking tour following the publication of Southern Horrors at Tremont Temple in Boston on Feb 13th, 1893.

Education was another driving force in her life. Her first job was as a teacher at age 14, and she taught for many years, over time supplementing her teaching with journalism, writing and editing for the Evening Star, The Living Way, and the Free Speech and Headlight. Another of her most controversial, consciousness-raising articles was published in 1891 in the Free Speech about the conditions in black schools: the poor quality of the buildings which housed them, and of the education and morals of the teachers and school boards who administered them. She was not fired outright, but the school refused to hire her for the next school year. She then went on to work full-time for the newspaper, promoting the Free Speech from city to city and writing articles along the way, until the Free Speech‘s offices and printing press were destroyed by angry whites after the publication of her ‘Lynch Law’ piece. Adversity only served to strengthen Wells’ resolve, each attack causing her to re-double her efforts on behalf of her people.

Wells went on to have a long and distinguished career in writing, investigative journalism, and activism for black rights and women’s suffrage. She worked with Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois, toured the United States and Europe as a speaker and activist, founded Chicago’s Alpha Suffrage Club, served as secretary of the National Afro-American Council, founded and became the first president of the Negro Fellowship League, and helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), among many other things.

For a long time, Wells thought of marriage and romantic relationships as oppressive, where women were expected to defer to men and flatter their vanity. But one day, she met a man who must have made her feel very differently, an attorney, writer, and fellow advocate for black rights named Ferdinand Barnett. She married him and they raised four children.

If I ever manage to accomplish the tiniest fraction of what she did in my own life, I would consider myself a great success!

Here are some excellent resources for learning more about the brilliant and irrepressible Ida B. Wells:

Barnett, Ida Wells (1862-1931) ~ by Tyina Steptoe for BlackPast.org

Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. ~ by Ida B. Wells, Ed. Alfred Duster. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett ~ by Beckett Graham and Susan Vollenweider, The History Chicks podcast episode 51

Ida B. Wells-Barnett ~ by the editors of Encyclopædia Britannica

Ida B. Wells: Crusade for Justice ~ by Jennifer McBride for Webster University’s website.

New York Age ~ by Heather Martin for the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance: K-Y

Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases ~ by Ida B. Wells (1892) via Project Gutenberg

*A version of this piece was previously published in Ordinary Philosophy

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O.P. Recommends: Richard Wilkinson on How Inequality is Bad

Justice et Inégalité – Les Plateaux de la Balance, by Frachet, 2010, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Dear readers,

I’m still hard at work on my master’s dissertation and therefore still have little time to write or read much of anything outside of its scope. One way I can readily catch up on what’s going on in the world, though, is by listening to podcasts while I take my daily breaks, usually consisting of a good brisk hill walk up Arthur’s Seat and around the hills and crags of Holyrood Park. So let me share another one with you that especially struck me.

In this podcast episode, social epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson discusses the evidence he and his partner Kate Pickett gleaned from thirty years of research, with host David Edmonds. Their research reveals a wide range of ill effects from very high levels of income inequality: higher rates of imprisonment, obesity, drug abuse, mental illness, and homicide to name a few, as well as lack of social cohesion and trust in other people, lower life expectancy, and so on. The poor and wealthy alike suffer these effects, but the poorer are hit hardest. Since we humans have a strong instinct to compare our status with others’, we tend to resent those who do much better. We’re therefore driven to signal that we, too, have worth. For example, we buy expensive things whether or not we can afford them, especially in a place where wealth and its trappings are considered markers of proper work ethic, intelligence, ability, and good character while having less is considered evidence of laziness and general lack of intelligence, ability, and good character. These stereotypes hold true whether the wealthy or the less wealthy work or not.

Recognize this situation anywhere?

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Should Life in Jail be Worse than Outside, on Principle? By Chris Barker

Sheriff’s House and Jail in Easton, Maryland, c. 1881

Approximately 2.3 million people in the United States are currently in prison or jail. (Prisons are run by federal or state authorities; jails are run locally.) China, a non-democratic regime with a population four times larger than the US, incarcerates fewer persons in per-capita and absolute terms. What’s more, most people in US jails today have not been convicted, meaning that they are being punished without trial. Since US jail admissions number approximately 11 million per year, pre-trial incarceration is, arguably, the real problem of ‘mass incarceration’.

The crucial concept governing carceral practices is something called ‘less eligibility’. The idea dates back to the English Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which codified English practices of dealing with the indigent. In 1832, the economist Nassau William Senior described how the ‘first and most essential of all conditions’ in administering relief to the poor (often by moving them into a workhouse) is that the indigent’s ‘situation on the whole shall not be made really or apparently so eligible as the situation of the independent labourer of the lowest class’. That is, the conditions in the workhouse should be awful: worse even than the poorest of the poor.

But even before Senior’s famous line, a different carceral ideal was afoot: equality. In 1791, writing specifically about criminal offenders, the English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham argued that ‘the ordinary condition of a convict doomed to a punishment that few or none but the individuals of the poorest class are apt to incur, ought not to be made more eligible than that of the poorest class of subjects in a state of innocence and liberty’. As the historian Janet Semple observed in Bentham’s Prison (1993), his rule of severity is not ‘less eligibility’ but a more commonsense equality principle – offenders should have access to no more resources than they had while free. ‘Bentham,’ Semple wrote, ‘did not envisage grinding his convicts down to below the level of the poorest of the poor.’

Other countries do not run their jails and prisons according to a principle of less eligibility. German prisons operate under an ‘approximation’ principle, wherein offenders’ rights to privacy, dignity and property are protected. Norwegian prisons use a similar ‘normality principle’, which holds that daily prison life should be, as far as possible, no different from ordinary life. Fellow Englishman and Bentham disciple James Mill embraced the normality principle in 1825 by arguing that inmates in pre-trial incarceration should be allowed to lead the same life that they enjoyed prior to arrest, including access to employment and freedom to make small purchases with their own money. Today, US jails and prisons have rejected these examples in thrall to ‘less eligibility’, and not just for the poorest of the poor.

Why are the carceral practices in the US so harsh? Part of the reason is the vestige of a Christian-inspired desire to reform the offender’s soul. Around the time of the Revolution, the penitentiary’s ‘unsocial manner of life’ based on order, obedience and silence could seem plausible only to those who thought that they could achieve a ‘new victory of mind over matter’. Today, prolonged solitary confinement is coming to be seen for what it is: torture. Another reason, identified in James Whitman’s book Harsh Justice (2005), is populism. Elected prosecutors and judges are guided by popular, punitive attitudes in a way that unelected bureaucrats in countries such as Germany (or Canada) are not. Survey research shows that Canadian and US attitudes about punishment are similar, but Canada has much more lenient sentencing policies than the US because bureaucratic appointees, not elected officials, make decisions about punishment. Another layer is race. Warehousing black males is clearly an outcome, and perhaps also an important aim, of US criminal justice. The result of this grab-bag of influences is segregation without soul-craft, and discipline and surveillance without reform.

If, as I think, the aim of punishment is rehabilitation, it is hard to justify less rather than equal eligibility. But not all agree that rehabilitation is the primary aim of punishment. Deterrence theorists think that controlling crime is the most important aim of punishment. Retributivists hold that punishment should repay the harm done to another in a like manner: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

As evidence that precisely the opposite happens in US prisons, The End of Punishment (2013) by the present-day retributivist Robert Blecker’s recounts an interview with a Tennessee Death Row correctional officer who feels like a waiter, and a guard who complains that Florida’s Death Row is ‘the best deal in the building’. Blecker is right that we should classify offences and offenders according to the severity of their crime. Perhaps the ADX Florence supermax prison should even be, as its ex-warden described it to CNN, ‘far much worse than death’ for the worst of the worst. But think about this: county jail is ‘hard time’, and harder than state prison, as I am told by a local jail administrator. Almost 500,000 held in US jails are being held pre-trial. The average jail time served is short. Offenders quickly return to their communities, but they are not prepared for re-entry. Even the average jail and prison time might actually help offenders to become worse.

Too often, the US conversation about criminal justice is about principles and theories of punishment: rehabilitation, retribution, deterrence. What I am arguing here is that these theories amount to little if we ignore less eligibility, or how we punish. Visiting a jail without an outdoor yard, where offenders have no physical contact with friends and family during their incarceration, or a prison where life unfolds within coils of obtrusive razor wire, is not a normal life, and doesn’t prepare you to return to normal life. As opinion in the US starts to move away from some punitive strategies such as solitary confinement, we should reconsider which of our other carceral practices meet or violate the crucial secondary principles (leniency, proportionality, egalitarianism) of a just criminal justice system.

In Germany, there are restrictions on types of uniforms, on partitioning visitors from offenders, and on the use of bars and peepholes in cells. There are also protections of offenders’ rights to privacy, information, public exposure, and leisure and culture, that do not exist in the US. In the US, courts have upheld the constitutionality of expressive punishments that demean offenders, pre-trial incarceration that looks punitive, and denials of privacy and dignity.

It is a tragedy if the attempt to have a just society with a suitable criminal justice system has been transformed into criminogenic warehousing, based on surveillance and discipline, which achieves few or none of the goals of punishment. It is foolishness to countenance such a system merely because it has not yet touched you. The road to the present state of affairs leads through less eligibility, which, on the surface, is a principle that makes sense: treat offenders to a life that is worse than life on the outside. After all, why should offenders have air conditioning if the farmer ‘living in innocence and liberty’ does not? But the answer is that it is too easy to forget the other constraints on the dignity, privacy and autonomy of those incarcerated in jails and prisons.

Our present system is costly and ineffective; it creates aberrant economies and empowers prison gangs that in turn influence street gangs. Prisons reproduce the cultural inadequacy of life on the inside on our streets and in popular culture, and when offenders are released into communities, their lack of rehabilitation justifies further segregation and other collateral consequences, such as employment and housing discrimination.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Chris Barker is assistant professor of political science at Southwestern College in Kansas. (Bio credit: Aeon)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Are Human Rights Anything More than Legal Conventions? by John Tasioulas

Eleanor Roosevelt and The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

We live in an age of human rights. The language of human rights has become ubiquitous, a lingua franca used for expressing the most basic demands of justice. Some are old demands, such as the prohibition of torture and slavery. Others are newer, such as claims to internet access or same-sex marriage. But what are human rights, and where do they come from? This question is made urgent by a disquieting thought. Perhaps people with clashing values and convictions can so easily appeal to ‘human rights’ only because, ultimately, they don’t agree on what they are talking about? Maybe the apparently widespread consensus on the significance of human rights depends on the emptiness of that very notion? If this is true, then talk of human rights is rhetorical window-dressing, masking deeper ethical and political divisions.

Philosophers have debated the nature of human rights since at least the 12th century, often under the name of ‘natural rights’. These natural rights were supposed to be possessed by everyone and discoverable with the aid of our ordinary powers of reason (our ‘natural reason’), as opposed to rights established by law or disclosed through divine revelation. Wherever there are philosophers, however, there is disagreement. Belief in human rights left open how we go about making the case for them – are they, for example, protections of human needs generally or only of freedom of choice? There were also disagreements about the correct list of human rights – should it include socio-economic rights, like the rights to health or work, in addition to civil and political rights, such as the rights to a fair trial and political participation?

But many now argue that we should set aside philosophical wrangles over the nature and origins of human rights. In the 21st century, they contend, human rights exist not in the nebulous ether of philosophical speculation, but in the black letter of law. Human rights are those laid down in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the various international and domestic laws that implement it. Some who adopt this line of thought might even invoke the 18th-century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who contemptuously dismissed the idea of natural rights existing independently of human-made laws as ‘rhetorical nonsense – nonsense upon stilts’.

Now, it is true that since the middle of the previous century an elaborate architecture of human rights law has emerged at the international, regional and domestic levels, one that is effective to wildly varying degrees. And for most practical purposes, it might be that we can simply appeal to these laws when we talk about human rights. But, ultimately, this legalistic approach is unsatisfactory.

To begin with, the law does not always bind all those we believe should abide by human rights. For example, some states have not ratified human-rights treaties, or have ratified them subject to wide-ranging exceptions (‘reservations’) that blunt their critical edge. A country such as Saudi Arabia can have a seat on the UN Human Rights Council yet persist in severe forms of gender discrimination – for example, prohibiting women from driving – because it made its acceptance of human-rights treaties subject to an override in the case of conflict with Islamic law.

Moreover, the international law of human rights, like international law generally, almost exclusively binds states. Yet many believe that non-state agents, such as corporations, whose revenues in some instances exceed the GDP of all but the wealthiest nations, also bear grave human-rights responsibilities. When manufacturers such as Nike use 12-year-olds to stitch soccer balls in Pakistan, or internet service providers such as Yahoo secretly hand over the emails of dissidents to the Chinese government, many critics decry not just corporate malfeasance but human-rights violations. And this is so even if the corporation has complied with the laws of the country in which it is operating.

It is precisely in response to the threat to human rights posed by corporations that the ‘Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights’ (2011), the brainchild of the Harvard political scientist John Ruggie, were established. Endorsed by the UN, the principles are not legally binding either on states or corporations. Instead, they aim to provide an authoritative statement of human-rights responsibilities that apply directly to corporations, quite apart from any legal obligations they might also bear. Ruggie’s ambition is that the principles will eventually inform corporate decision-making at all levels, illustrating the fact that human rights go beyond law and its enforcement.

Yet there is a deeper problem with identifying human rights with existing laws. Laws are the creations of fallible human beings. They might be good or bad, and so are always subject to interpretation and criticism in terms of independent moral principles. The international law of human rights, on this view, does not establish which human rights exist; instead, its goal is to implement moral rights we already possess, simply by virtue of our humanity. Slavery, torture and racial discrimination did not suddenly become human-rights violations only when they were legally prohibited. It is the other way round: we have human-rights law in order to give force to human rights that in some sense pre-exist their legal recognition. Unfortunately, no consensus has yet emerged among philosophers or anyone else on how human rights are to be defended as objective truths, independent of law.

The late American philosopher Richard Rorty sought a way out of this impasse. Although a staunch liberal, he turned his back on the philosophical enterprise of attempting to give a rational justification for human rights. He judged that activity to be pointless now that human rights are a deeply embedded fact of our culture, not just our law. How can we justify human rights when they seem more compelling to us liberal Westerners than any other idea we might use to justify them? The real task that confronts us, Rorty thought, was the practical one of enhancing compliance with human rights worldwide, not the intellectual one of grounding rights in the fabric of reality.

A similarly dismissive attitude is adopted by Ruggie, who conceives of his Guiding Principles not as reflecting ‘true’ moral demands, but as rooted in empirically measurable ‘social norms and expectations’. At a more sophisticated level, the late American political philosopher John Rawls, in his last work The Law of Peoples (1999), insisted that in a pluralistic world we cannot build our public commitment to human rights on any controversial account of the ‘truth’ about humanity or the good. We have to return, instead, to shared ideas embedded in the culture of a liberal democracy.

But is it enough to rely on the supposed fact that human rights are embedded in a liberal democratic culture? Or do we need to be able to step back from that culture and offer an objective justification for the principles embedded in it, as the philosophers have long supposed? The problem is that social expectations and cultural assumptions not only vary significantly across societies, but that they are fragile: various forces ranging from globalisation to propaganda can cause them to change dramatically or even wither away. Would rights against gender or racial discrimination disappear if sexist or racist attitudes come to predominate?

The question is not fanciful. Once apparently settled beliefs about the impermissibility of torture or the rights of refugees have recently suffered a backlash. There can be backsliding as well as progress, with no guarantees either way. Social expectations and deep cultural assumptions are no more a sufficient basis for human rights than the law is. There is a fatal contradiction in defending human rights against the rising authoritarianism of a ‘post-truth’ era while simultaneously abandoning the belief that our commitment to those rights is itself grounded in the truth, and being prepared to defend it on that basis.

My own view is that human rights are rooted in the universal interests of human beings, each and every one of whom possesses an equal moral status arising from their common humanity. In other words, in defending human rights, we will need to appeal to the inherent value of being a member of the human species and, in addition, the interests shared by all human beings in things like friendship, knowledge, achievement, play, and so on. And we will need to ask whether these considerations generate duties that are owed to each and every human being. This proposal is hardly uncontroversial. The appeal to the inherent value of humanity will be contested by some as a brute prejudice – a ‘speciesism’ on a par with racism. Similarly, the appeal to universal interests will be contested by those who think that human rights are ultimately about respecting individual freedom regardless of whether it advances the right-holder’s well-being.

Whether I’m right or not, I am convinced that we cannot sustain our commitment to human rights on the cheap, by invoking only the law or the assumptions of our liberal democratic culture. Only a deeper justification can explain why we are right to embody them in the law, or maintain a liberal democratic culture, in the first place. This has precisely been the aim of philosophical defences of human rights from the 12th century up until very recent times. To keep our human rights culture in good order, we cannot avoid engaging with the question of justification. And we should think of this not as the exclusive domain of professional philosophers, but as a process of public reasoning to which all citizens are called to contribute.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ John Tasioulas is the inaugural Chair of Politics, Philosophy and Law, and director of the Yeoh Tiong Lay Centre for Politics, Philosophy and Law at King’s College London. He is working on his latest book, Human Rights: From Morality to Law (forthcoming, OUP). (Bio credit: Aeon)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

On the Recent Intelligence Squared U.S. Debate About Basic Income

The Moneylender and his Wife by Quinten Massijs (detail)

This weekend, on the BART ride to San Francisco and on the walk to and from my destination there, I listened to this fascinating debate on Intelligence Squared U.S.:  The Universal Basic Income Is The Safety Net Of The Future. (It’s also available as a podcast.) It was so thought-provoking that my walk turned into a rather long one, as I stopped every few blocks to sit down and scribble some notes in response to what I heard.

The debaters in favor of the motion are the libertarian political scientist Charles Murray, infamous in many circles for co-authoring The Bell Curve, and labor leader Andrew Stern. These two make surprising debate partners, but of course, that’s part of the fun!

The debaters against the motion are Jared Bernstein and Jason Furman, both economic advisors to the Obama administration, and both more on the liberal / progressive end of the economic spectrum, which also adds to the interesting contrasts between audience expectations and the arguments made.

Here’s the summary of the debate from the IQ2 website:

Imagine getting a check from the government every month. $600 guaranteed. It’s happening in Finland, where a pilot program is being launched to test what’s known as a “universal basic income.” As technology transforms the workplace, jobs and income will become less reliable. The idea is that a universal basic income could serve as a tool to combat poverty and uncertainty in a changing society, and provide a cushion that empowers workers, giving them latitude to take risks in the job market. But some argue a guaranteed income would take away the incentive to work, waste money on those who don’t need it, and come at the expense of effective programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Is the universal basic income the safety net of the future?

I’ve written about basic income before in light of Thomas Paine’s case for a social welfare system, broadly distributed to the point that we’d call it basic income today, in his pamphlet Agrarian Justice of 1796. I’m broadly sympathetic to the case for basic income especially insofar as I’m convinced by two of his major arguments.

One, Paine argues that the right to private property is not an intrinsic right or derived from nature, or even from moral convictions about deservingness or our duties toward those less fortunate. Rather, property rights are artificial rights we’ve created for efficiency’s sake: it’s a way to incentivize people to be as productive as possible to the benefit of both individual and society. But whatever efficiencies property rights promote, Paine observes just as we observe now, they too often deprive people of the very thing they promise to provide. Economies based on property rights deny most people direct access to the world’s natural resources while sometimes failing to reward them proportionally.

This is true not only of those who produce the most necessary, useful goods and services such as growing and preparing food, building and maintaining our cities, towns, and homes, and caring for the disabled and sick; they are often the ones who receive the lowest wages. In the meantime, others who create such frivolous and even arguably harmful things as casinos, violent video games, and poor quality trinkets that become trash almost as soon as they’re made can often make money hand over fist. Some people are not able to make money even if they were willing: they may be disabled or aged, or the skilled work they’ve done all their lives becomes obsolete. Worst of all, those who raise children, care for the disabled and aged, and otherwise keep the home generally receive no pay, though their work benefits society most of all. The amount of money we can bring in generally determines the resources we have access to, so if we have no money, we have no property. Property rights, then, guarantee us the right to property without any consideration as to whether or not we actually end up be able to obtain or keep any. Therefore, Paine argues, we owe every person compensation for denying them their natural right to equal access to the world’s resources.

Two, Paine argues that a universal income is better than discretionary welfare, such as that based solely on need, because it prevents the inevitable jealousies and complaints of unfairness that can erode social cohesion and undermine mutual trust. If everyone starts out at the same basic level, we may not have all of the same chances in life just as we don’t now, advantages or disadvantages that we can’t do much about: we may have rich parents, poor parents, or none at all; we may be able-bodied or we may not; we may be beautiful, smart, or have other attributes that society rewards. But, we’ll all have the same basic chance that we can give one another: the freedom and well-being guaranteed by a basic level of economic security.

But back to the debate…. Why this digression, you might ask? I return to Paine because he makes the first sustained modern argument (that I’m aware of) in favor of a basic income and because his basic points, or closely related ones, are brought up throughout this debate. In the question and answer session, Andrew Stern refers to the way perceived unfairness, such as Paine discusses, has long politically undermined need-based programs, from publicly-funded unemployment benefits to health care insurance for those with low income. Stern also points out that many people already enjoy ‘undeserved’ basic income, such as those born to parents who can afford to provide it. If we have no problem with those people reaping the benefits of work they didn’t do, why not everyone? Charles Murray adds the element of personal responsibility to the question of perceived unfairness of needs-based welfare. If everyone were given the same basic level of resources, people could no longer justly claim victimhood for not having the same chances as everyone else. If we collectively provide the same benefits to everyone, we can hold people to a basic equal accountability for all who could work and contribute more than they do.

Murray, as you may guess from his emphasis on opportunities for traditional marriage and the preeminence of personal responsibility, is much more conservative than the other participants in the debate, and introduces a free market argument that many political conservatives might like just as well as pro-labor liberals and progressives. This argument is founded on the importance of competition in a well-functioning economy. To harness the benefits of competition, Murray proposes that if people have ‘walking – away’ money, employers will have to compete with one another for employees, and in doing so, they will have to innovate to make jobs appealing. Employers would have to offer good wages, provide a pleasant and safe working environment, and make the work seem meaningful and appreciated. This is a sort of competition that serves drives wages, standards, and productivity up, not sending wages and working conditions spiraling in the race to the bottom that so many unregulated job markets, mostly competing to lower prices, have exhibited throughout the history of capitalism.

Jared Bernstein repeats the argument throughout the debate, like a mantra, that a dollar given to someone that doesn’t need it is a dollar taken away from someone that does. Many in the audience seem to find this argument convincing, but I don’t, at least without much more justification than he provides. For one thing, neither Bernstein nor his debate partner Jason Furman addresses the vast expenditures of time and money of a bureaucracy required to administer large-scale need-based welfare. It’s expensive for government as well as for individuals, who are required to provide proofs of their need, which is multi-dimensional and subjective and therefore difficult and time-consuming to demonstrate. (Murray does address problems with this kind of bureaucracy, but he emphasizes its unpleasantness and the way it re-introduces a form of serfdom, creating a class of people whose freedom is limited by this system.) For another thing, neither Bernstein nor Furman directly addresses the fact that universal basic income would vastly expand the number of people with disposable income for the first time, much more vastly than needs-based programs do. Most of this money, in turn, would go straight back into the economy, rather than into the ever-inflating bank accounts of the ever-fewer, ever-wealthier wealthiest individuals who are now gobbling up an ever-larger share of the economic pie. Our targeted redistribution system has been entirely unable to resolve this inefficiency, and in fact, may exacerbate it.

The side arguing in favor of the motion, which, as I’ve already mentioned, I’m more sympathetic to for aforementioned reasons, does not, in the end, convince the audience. They’re handily defeated, as the side arguing against the motion not only convinces most of the undecided but also wins over some of the basic income supporters. I suspect that Murray hurts his side a bit by spending too much time on arguments that I think are beside the point, such as whether more people could afford to get married (it doesn’t have to be expensive!) and on very subtle, not-very-well expressed arguments that were lost among the rest. But I would like to hear another major debate in which basic income is supported by stronger arguments, more convincing answers to objections, and most of all, better evidence. As Stern points out, there are small-scale and short-term experiments in basic income happening all over, in Alaska, Finland, and Toronto, for example, but the results are not in yet. I agree that such a major social program should be rolled out with some caution, given the potential fallout from unforeseen as well as foreseen potential side effects. But perhaps smaller experiments can’t reveal the benefits that a complete reinvention of a large economy would reveal, especially if effectiveness is entirely a matter of scale. For example, such a well-balanced, sturdy, and beautifully functioning thing as a termite mound couldn’t happen without an incredibly large number of factors contributing, namely the weather, millions of termites, many square miles of dirt, and so on. If you took a small pile of dirt and a small number of termites, a well-functioning termite mound would not result.

Our American re-invention of government was another such experiment founded on the idea that people can govern themselves and on the ideal of universal human rights (the ideal, mind you, not yet the reality). Many societies before and for some time since had tried to correct abuses and oppressions with one reform here, one reform there, or with a wholesale chaotic and violent overthrow after societal cohesion had already collapsed through famine and extreme corruption (such as, famously, the French Revolution). But it took a large number of fair-minded people to come together and lay the foundation for an entirely new system of government based on the ideal that all human beings have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or as John Locke originally formulated it, life, liberty, and property. Or in the case of universal basic income, to actual property.

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Sources and Inspiration:

Labor Theory of Property.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government, 1689

Paine, Thomas. Agrarian Justice, 1796.

Paine, Thomas. The Rights of Man, 1791.

The Universal Basic Income Is The Safety Net Of The Future. Intelligence Squared U.S. Debate, March 22, 2017