New Works in the Field / Philanthropy / Philanthropy and Historical Research

Frederick Douglass and the Political Theory of Dirty Money

Editors’ Note: Emma Saunders-Hastings introduces her new article in American Political Science Review on Frederick Douglass and his political theory of ‘dirty money.’

In 1844, the newly-formed Free Church of Scotland sent a fundraising mission to the United States. It raised about £3,000, largely from southern Presbyterian donors. Abolitionists in the United States and abroad were quick to criticize the Free Church for accepting money from slaveholders and for preserving ties of fellowship with pro-slavery churches. Of course, abolitionists at the time had many other targets to choose from, and so the incident might quickly have faded from public notice. But the Free Church was unlucky. For several years, American abolitionists traveling in Great Britain worked assiduously to keep the controversy alive, leading a campaign for the Free Church to “Send back the money” and break fellowship with its American patrons.

Especially unlucky for the church leaders was the arrival in Scotland of a young Frederick Douglass, in January 1846. The previous year, Douglass had published his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. He embarked on a lengthy tour of Great Britain and Ireland in order to promote the book and the abolitionist cause, as well as to evade the heightened risk of recapture that his new celebrity entailed. Douglass quickly made the Free Church issue his own, and the acceptance of “blood-stained money” became a leading theme of his public lectures all over Great Britain. Douglass’s skill and draw as an orator gave the “Send Back the Money” campaign added salience and longevity. As Douglass wrote to a correspondent back home, shortly after his arrival in Scotland, the Free Church “thought to get the gold and nobody see her. It was a sad mistake.”

Douglass’s Scottish speeches are magnificent as political rhetoric. They are also important as political theory. As I argue in a new article in the American Political Science Review, they provide us with an early example of a major thinker deploying a political and not merely ethical theory of “dirty money.”

The terms “dirty money” and “tainted gifts” refer to philanthropic donations that are controversial because of their provenance (whether because of objections to how the money was made or to other kinds of wrongdoing by the donor). Activists and critics today, as in Douglass’s time, call for institutions to refuse or return tainted donations. But to other people, such demands themselves seem open to moral objections. A focus on dirty money can appear puritanical: perhaps it is self-indulgent to prioritize keeping one’s own hands clean and overlook the good that even wrongdoers’ money might do. Criticism of dirty money can also appear fetishistic, in treating money itself as clean or dirty. In cases like the “Send Back the Money” campaign, where the relevant taint (profit or benefit from American slavery) pervaded the global economy, this can invite the further charge of inconsistency or hypocrisy. If it is impossible to distinguish morally pure from tainted money, criticism of the latter may seem opportunistic—an effort to shame some individuals or institutions for sins in which many more are complicit.

I argue that critics often mistake the goals of dirty money rhetoric, in interpreting activists as offering (or purporting to offer and failing consistently to apply) absolutist moral constraints on accepting money, based on its provenance. Douglass does deploy nonconsequentialist rhetoric in his speeches criticizing the Free Church. He often uses imagery of “filthy lucre,” moral taint, and defilement by association. He also points out that, by accepting slaveholders’ money, the Free Church had in effect received stolen goods. However, his focus is on the politics of tainted gifts: how such gifts shape the status, relationships, and motivations of different actors, and how perceptions of money as clean or dirty are constructed in ways that can reinforce or challenge injustice. This affects his account of what is wrong with accepting dirty money; his understanding of the point of criticizing tainted donations; and his rhetorical strategies in the “Send Back the Money” campaign.

On Douglass’s analysis, the Free Church’s acceptance of slaveholders’ money had two closely related political effects. First, taking the money expressed a damaging political message, to audiences in both Scotland and the United States. The church was officially opposed to slavery, but Douglass charges that accepting slaveholders as benefactors gave them (and, by extension, slavery itself) added public legitimacy: “What would be thought of the man who said he was diametrically opposed to slavery, while he went and took the money which was wrung from the blood, bones, and sinews of the slave, to build his church and pay his stipend?,” Douglass asked during a speech in Paisley, Scotland. “We would say he aided and abetted slavery.” Beyond elevating the status of slaveholders, accepting the money amounted to a denial of the moral status of enslaved people. It communicated that the crimes committed against enslaved people were not sufficiently serious to warrant refusing a close association with the perpetrators. While the Free Church denied that its actions gave moral sanction or cover to slavery, Douglass emphasizes evidence that slaveholders themselves thought the contrary. (Indeed, he often uses slaveholders’ perceptions as a negative heuristic.)

Second, accepting the money had a corrosive effect on the political judgment of the Free Church’s leaders and members. In a series of London speeches, in May 1846, Douglass claimed that the Free Church “can never remonstrate against the slave holder while they hold on to the money.” Dirty money creates both external and internal obstacles to appropriate forms of political engagement with slaveholders or enslaved people. The external obstacles are more obvious. Recipient institutions have clear incentives against criticizing their patrons. Patronage relations also can weaken the efficacy of criticism, even without preempting it entirely. Even if the Free Church had shown an inclination to criticize slavery, “All their rebukes fall powerless on the slaveholders while they retain the money”: the slaveholders would treat with contempt any remonstrances from their previously eager supplicants.

In fact, Douglass suggests, the latter problem did not arise, since the acceptance of dirty money subverted more than external criticism of slavery. It also had a powerful distorting effect on the sympathies of Free Church leaders who, in seeking to justify their own decisions, were incentivized to minimize or excuse the moral wrong of slaveholding. (As the Free Church founder Thomas Chalmers put it, in a statement that Douglass repeatedly quotes in scathing tones, “Distinction ought to be made between the character of a system, and the character of the persons whom circumstances have implicated therewith.”) Douglass is deeply attuned to motivated reasoning and the damage it can do. The problem is not just that the Free Church was greedy and operating in bad faith when it defended taking the money. Rather, they had “worked themselves up to believe that it would be wrong to send it back, or at least that it would be humiliating.”

It is important to see the close and dynamic relationship between the expressive and psychological (or outward- and inward-facing) effects of accepting dirty money: the destructive effects on sympathy, moral perception, and political judgment spur a further round of harmful public interventions. (Hence Douglass’s suggestion, during an April speech in Glasgow, that the Free Church had “committed more sin in attempting to defend certain principles connected with this question, than in accepting the money.”) By late summer 1846, in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, he was tying the threads of his critique together explicitly, arguing that the Free Church leaders “have stabbed the cause of abolition, and corrupted their own church,” for “they would never have put forth the defences, the apologies, and excuses, for the slave-holder, that we have witnessed, but that they took the blood-stained gold and were polluted by it … having done so, they feel they must make the best defence they can for the character of the slave-holder.”

If this characterization of Douglass’s critique is correct, how does that help us to understand his political strategy? What was the point of calling on the Free Church to “Send Back the Money?”

The answer to the latter question does not follow obviously from Douglass’s critique. After all, if much of the damage that the Free Church had done concerned the public messages that its actions communicated, then advertising the Free Church’s offense (even to denounce it) might well compound the harm. Even granting the arguments against taking the money, it might seem that there was a case for letting them slink away unnoticed. (Similarly, some people take the position that tainted donations should only be accepted on condition of donor anonymity: the absence of publicity is thought to reduce the harm.[1]) What good did Douglass expect to come from his campaign? Correcting the corrupted reasoning of church leaders might be one salutary effect, but the moral improvement of Scottish churchmen could hardly be Douglass’s main concern. When he gives the Free Church’s blood money such prominence in so many speeches, he is seizing an opportunity to shape the moral imagination and political judgment of a much wider transatlantic audience.

Here we need to return to the charge that criticism of “dirty money” is fetishistic and see how—in Douglass’s case, at least—it gets things almost exactly backwards. In fact, Douglass uses activism around dirty money to subvert fetishism and call his audiences’ attention back to unjust social and political relations. In his speeches, he continually insists on imagining the Free Church emissaries on their mission to the southern states. Who did they visit? What did they see? What did they say—and what didn’t they say—when soliciting donations from slaveholders? Most dramatically, in a virtuoso Dundee address, Douglass (anachronistically) imagines himself back in slavery at the time of the mission and narrates an extended dialogue between his “old master” and the Free Church emissary George Lewis:

I can almost imagine I see brother Lewis calling on the slaveholder. I can almost go down south, and see him, when I was a slave, calling on my old master, Mr. Thomas Auld… . When brother Lewis knocks at the door, I answer, and he asks, “Well, my lad, is your master in?” (Laughter.) “Yes, Sir.” Well, he walks into the house, sees my master, and introduces himself thus…“My object in making this call this morning is to see if you would do something for the cause of religious freedom in Scotland.”… My master would reply, “Brother Lewis, I deeply sympathize with your efforts … I’ll tell you what I will do. I have a fine young negro who is to be sold, and I will sell him to-morrow and give you a contribution to the cause of freedom… Come about nine o’clock, brother, and I will see what I can do for the cause of freedom in Scotland.

The absurd scene continues, with Douglass “on the auction block” and an auctioneer joining the cast of characters: “Who bids for this comely stout young negro? He is accustomed to his work… he is not sold for any bad quality. His master has no desire to get rid of him, but only wants to get a little money to aid the cause of religious freedom in Scotland.” The imaginary narrative ends with Douglass being “sold for 600 dollars” and Brother Lewis pocketing the money with “not a word…as to the sin of the auction.”

Douglass’s aim here is not to make a distinction between clean and dirty money; indeed, he pointedly refuses to specify conditions under which donations are morally unobjectionable or to engage in “sophistical arguments” and casuistic reasoning. Rather, he uses money as an opportunity to force a more vivid consideration of unjust social and political relations. From this point of view, it is acceptance of the money—made possible by the view that the money stands separate from the injustice of the relations that produced it—that looks fetishistic. Douglass works to break this illusion. To audiences in Dundee and Arbroath, in some of his earliest speeches on the Free Church, he reads a New Orleans newspaper’s praise of the church’s founder Chalmers. He then reads from the same newspaper an advertisement for fugitive slaves, including graphic descriptions of their scars and injuries, hoping that “this advertisement would be copied along with the eulogy of Dr. Chalmers, to show the people of Scotland what influence was being exerted to uphold slavery in the United States…Well might the Doctor exclaim, ‘What have I done that the wicked speak well of me?…What have I done that the slaveholders eulogize me?’” The answer: he had “sanctioned the taking of the blood-stained money to build churches; and for this he was eulogized by the New Orleans Picayune.” Again, he uses the money to expose rather than distract from social and political relationships, and to expand rather than limit responsibility for injustice.

Douglass’s speeches reveal the ways that dirty money is constructed through activists’ efforts to shape people’s moral imagination and political judgment. In Douglass’s speeches, the presence of blood money in Scotland is both a source of shame and an opportunity. On the one hand, money is a useful symbol of transmissible moral responsibility and therefore a helpful rhetorical device for rousing British audiences’ feelings of complicity in (and motivation to oppose) American slavery. But the money also allows for an actionable call: a tangible way to demonstrate solidarity and engage in the same political project activists are participating in. The Free Church did not avail itself of this chance and so, as Douglass wrote in My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), “She lost a glorious opportunity for giving her voice, her vote, and her example to the cause of humanity.” But the invitation remains open. The ease with which money can change hands is, in Douglass’s speeches, a marker both of moral danger and political hope.

-Emma Saunders-Hastings

Emma Saunders-Hastings is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the Ohio State University. Her book, Private Virtues, Public Vices: Philanthropy and Democratic Equality, will be published in April 2022 by the University of Chicago Press.


[1] See for e.g. Lawrence Lessig’s response to the controversy surrounding MIT’s acceptance of gifts from Jeffrey Epstein. In his initial reflections (later qualified), Lessig writes that “universities should not be the launderers of reputation. I think that they should not accept blood money. Or more precisely, I believe that if they are going to accept blood money… or the money from people convicted of a crime…they should only ever accept that money anonymously.”

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