Frederick Douglass and science’s emancipatory power

Credit: Emma Flickinger/ Credit: Emma Flickinger/

Science did not corrupt society; society corrupted science.

This was the key takeaway from Dr. Eric Herschthal’s talk “Frederick Douglass On Science: What He Said, Why He Said It, And What He Thought It Ought To Be,” which he delivered last Tuesday in Porter Hall. Dr. Herschthal, who holds a PhD in history from Columbia University, specializes in the study of African American history and the role that science played in shaping the dynamics of slavery and emancipation, as well as its impact on the society of post-slavery America. While Douglass is not the focus of his research — rather, one of many characters in an elaborate narrative — Dr. Herschthal decided to center the talk around Douglass because the abolitionist had a very complex relationship with scientific inquiry.

Like many fugitive slaves who escaped to the North, Douglass was not free from the shadow of prejudice and racism. It was there that he was introduced to the two intellectual realms that he would continue to grapple with for the rest of his life: racial science and technology.

To Douglass, technology went hand-in-hand with freedom. As opposed to the Southern economy that revolved around slave labor, the North depended on technological innovations such as pulley systems and steam engines to do the heavy lifting. This stark contrast was not lost upon Douglass, who remarked that while the South persevered as a collection of slave states, the North was moving forward, more concerned with economy.

While he disagreed that technology alone could solve the issues of slavery (white anti slavery sympathizers often posited the idea as a “technological fix” for slavery), Douglass believed that it was important for black individuals to receive technical training so that as the world advanced, they would not be left behind. To that end, he advocated for the creation of schools such as the Douglass Institute where African Americans could not only study, but also become confident in their own intelligence.

How Douglass fought the tide of racial science was the most interesting point of Dr. Herschthal’s talk. Racial science in the 1800s revolved around theories like phrenology and craniology, where many believed you could discern someone’s personality and intelligence by feeling the bumps on their skulls. These techniques were leveraged towards maintaining white supremacy and denigrating non-white populations, giving birth to some of the most debasing and ethnocentric publications of the age in the process. These views clashed harshly with Douglass’s principle that all people were created equal, and that any differences arose from their environment.

The inaccurate and offensive claims of these journals prompted many abolitionists to openly criticize the authors, and while Douglass was tempted to join in, he decided to debate those whose views he disagreed with. Douglass saw nothing would be accomplished by calling each other names; refuting science with more science was the only way, and he followed through with this approach in public forums and his own writings. Many of the things that Douglass said may sound crude and racist by modern standards, but his goal was not to undermine the established scientific thought. Rather, he hoped to curtail the spread of scientific inaccuracies insofar as they did not impede his political arguments.

It was racial science that sparked conflict within Douglass. Clinging to enlightenment ideals, Douglass believed that science, if used properly, could help liberate all of mankind, and it astounded him how knowledge was used for nefarious purposes under the pretense of objectivity. Despite the challenges involved, Douglass still maintained the importance of engaging with science and mastering it, believing that banishing ignorance was the only way to achieve true emancipation.

Dr. Herschthal painted a picture of a humble and brilliant man who looked past the barriers of color and race, holding onto unbridled enthusiasm for the transformative power of science. Rather than shun science, Douglass embraced it, and encouraged others to do so as well.

After his presentation, there was a brief Q&A session during which Dr. Herschthal connected Douglass’s ideas to the present moment. In response to the question “what would Douglass say about our society right now,” Herschthal connected the 21st century with the 19th century by showing how the same problems continue to persist, albeit in novel and complex ways. Making it abundantly clear that he was not qualified to speak for Douglass, Herschthal speculated that despite all that has changed in the last 200 years, Douglass would continue with the same core message. It was incredible to see that even though we are nearing the 200th anniversary of Douglass’s birth, his ideas are more relevant than ever in our sociopolitical climate.

It’s important to realize that science and technology do not exist in their own little bubbles. As researchers and thinkers and scholars that live and operate in the real world, we have to recognize that our work has consequences for every other sector of society, and it’s important to recognize how we fit into the broader puzzle to ensure that we leverage the power of our innovations for the common good of humanity. In this way, we can one day achieve Douglass’s vision of the elevation of all mankind, regardless of color and creed.