Frederick Douglass's Master-Slave Dialectic


Margaret Kohn ( is assistant professor of political science, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611-7325.


This article explores the issues of violence, recognition, and freedom in the work of Frederick Douglass. It analyzes the contradiction between Douglass's defense of pacifism in his speeches and articles (before 1847) and his celebration of the redemptive effects of violence in his autobiographies, most notably in his account of his fight with the slave breaker Edward Covey. One thing that distinguishes this article from other interpretations of Douglass is that it draws upon another famous account of the struggle between master and slave—Hegel's dialectic of lordship and bondage—in order to offer a novel resolution to this interpretive puzzle. By reading these two nineteenth-century accounts together we see how the texts illuminate, complicate, and challenge one another.