The three writers succeeded the founding generation of the country. All three were journalists. All three helped formulate a radical new agenda for social justice – an agenda that remains unfinished as we once again prepare to celebrate America’s independence.
The American Revolution was a rights revolution proclaiming the end of monarchy and hereditary aristocracy. The result (at least for wealthy white men) would be a society whose upper ranks would be relatively broad and much less steep than the upper ranks of British society. But after the war, inequalities persisted. Indentured servitude was widespread. Women and girls were still treated as dependencies of men. And the population of people enslaved under chattel slavery remained subject to routine brutality.
In the next generation, between 1845 and 1855, a trio of militant journalists demanded nothing less than an end to sexism, homophobia and racism. They raised their voices to promote the idea that every individual matters and that every individual has an equal right to self-determination. Fuller, Douglass, and Whitman took republican democracy as their starting point and envisioned a “leveling down” of society—more slaves, more second-class citizens. Not all are the same, but all are equal in worth and dignity.
Margaret Fuller addressed the issue of sexism. She understood from experience that a paradox defined the status of most women. They were meant to live up to two conflicting ideals. On the one hand, women, especially white Christian women of the middle and upper classes, were seen as delicate flowers who needed to be protected from the filth and conflict of activities such as business, the military and politics. As mothers, they were expected to be at the center of the home, where they would provide moral uplift and basic education to large numbers of children. Any education they received was for the express purpose of raising educated sons and daughters to follow in their image.
At the same time, women – especially enslaved women and working-class women and poor women, many of whom were non-white – were seen as beasts of burden who had to cook, clean, wash, care for and meet the needs of others day and night. They were alternatively viewed by men as sturdy, dirty, and attractive, whose bodies were not deemed worthy of protection from injury or assault. These women were not considered worthy of education like their supposedly more chaste white maternal counterparts.
In her book “Woman in the Nineteenth Century,” Fuller challenged these assumptions. She argued that men and women were not polar opposites and that one gender was not superior to the other. Instead, she argued that men and women were complementary and that elements of gender extremes were generally present in everyone, to varying degrees. So, she continued, most men were “feminine” to some extent, and most women were “manly” to some extent.
In other words, everyone was a mixed case of attributes. Since the sexes were not fixed at opposite poles, there was no reason to say that a sex was only suited for certain activities – and therefore no reason to deny members of either the opposite sex the chance to find out what they were good at. If given a chance, women could do anything. As Fuller wrote, “Let them be sea captains if they choose! »
In his own way, Walt Whitman addressed the issue of homophobia. Scholars know that Whitman loved men. But nearly every other aspect of Whitman’s sex life is shrouded in mystery, red herrings, misconceptions, clues and rumors, assertions and counterclaims, and sheer fabrications. Why? Because for Whitman, when it comes to love and sex, the stakes were very high – both for his actions and for his words. During Whitman’s lifetime, buggery laws—and the way they were interpreted—made it illegal in New York State for a man to have sex with another man. Moreover, as Whitman was well aware, a significant portion of the population viewed sexual acts between men as immoral and repugnant.
By his own accounts, however, Whitman knew quite a few men intimately during his years as a reporter in Brooklyn. In his first edition of “Leaves of Grass” in 1855, Whitman downplayed the homoerotic elements of his life and poetry. But his poetic masterpiece was pretty bold on sex. He not only praised sexuality in general, but also praised the bodies (and body parts) of both men and women. He also left behind flags and emblems telling readers he wasn’t just heterosexual. He was also what we would today call homosexual, pansexual, and perhaps even beyond sexual.
For all his frankness, however, Whitman could not have written an explicit manifesto for gay rights in the mid-Victorian era. Since gay sex was widely considered a sin, a crime, or both, he boldly told the world to think again — about bodies, love, and sexuality.
The third writer and journalist, Frederick Douglass, identified and challenged racism in American society. Born into slavery, probably in 1818, Douglass essentially learned to read and write, skills forbidden to almost all slaves. At age 20, he freed himself from slavery in Maryland and headed north to New York, then on to Massachusetts.
He joined the organized abolitionist movement, becoming a popular paid speaker testifying to the horrors of the South he had known since his upbringing. He then wrote it down, resulting in the powerful “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”, published in 1845.
Douglass argued for radical abolition. This meant several concrete things. He demanded the immediate emancipation of all slaves (no gradualism, no compensation for white slaves). And he demanded citizenship and full equal rights for freed black people (not colonization or a return to Africa).
That’s why he was also inspired by people like Fuller and traveled to nearby Seneca Falls in 1848 to attend the first convention devoted to women’s rights. Douglass was not the only man at the rally, but he was the only black delegate. For the rest of her life, Douglass remained a public and unwavering supporter of women’s rights, including the right to vote.
In 1851 Douglass merged his abolitionist newspaper North Star with another newspaper and brought out a new publication, which he frankly titled Frederick Douglass’ Paper. For this new newspaper, it has also rolled out a new motto:
“ALL RIGHTS FOR ALL!”
There, in four simple words, Douglass summed up the broadest possible social justice agenda. Taken at face value, this would mean the end not only of slavery, but also of racism, sexism, homophobia and all other forms of oppression.
Going far beyond Jefferson, the new cry of “all rights for all” included not just white men who owned property, but everyone – people of all genders, races, sexualities, economic classes, origins and more.
Taken together, their writings constitute a second declaration of independence, in which Fuller, Whitman and Douglass issued a broad challenge: it was not enough to lower the top of society. They told us that it is just as urgent to go back to the bottom.
Not all people are the same, of course, but all are equal in worth and dignity. This was one of the main meanings of Whitman’s imagery of “leaves of grass”. The company must be broad; it should be diverse. At the same time, none should dominate the others; none should be permanently subjugated and none should be despised for being themselves.
Together, these three radical pre-war journalists defined an agenda for liberation that we are still working to fully realize.
“ALL RIGHTS FOR ALL!”
It was — and remains — the great project of our time.