Martin Luther King Day provides an opportunity to reflect on self-defense by individuals in persecuted minorities.

Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave, published a newspaper out of Rochester, NY, named the Frederick Douglass’ Paper. In 1854, another escaped slave was caught in Boston and eventually returned to his master in Virginia under the federal Fugitive Slave Act. While he was jailed, a crowd of abolitionist intent on liberating him attacked the jail and killed a US marshal trying to repel them. (Nobody was ever condemned for that.) The Frederick Douglas’ Paper of June 9, 1854 (page 2) commented with a piece titled “The True Remedy for the Fugitive Slave Bill.” Although without a byline, it was likely written by Frederick Douglass himself. The first paragraph reads (emphasis in the original):

A good revolver, a steady hand, and a determination to shoot down any man attempting to kidnap. Let every colored man make up his mind to this, and live by it, and if needs be, die by it. This will put an end to kidnapping and to slaveholding, too. We blush to our very soul when we are told that a Negro is so mean and cowardly that he prefers to live under the slavedriver’s whip—to the loss of life or liberty. Oh! that we had a little more of the manly indifference to death, which characterized the Heroes of the American Revolution.

The Library of Congress advises me that that “the ‘true remedy’ theme in connection with slavery is mentioned more than 30 times in various African American newspapers, from ca. 1828-1860” (email of December 28, 2022). I was alerted to Douglass’s statement by Damon Root’s interesting article “The New York Times Is Surprised To Find Public Defenders Championing the Second Amendment” (Reason, August 1, 2022).

The last two sentences of Douglass’s quote above raise what is known to economists as the problem of collective action (see Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action [Harvard University Press, 1971]). If a large number of slaves (assuming they could have owned or obtained revolvers), escaped slaves, and their supporters had shot a sufficient number of slave owners and slave catchers, they would have abolished slavery. The collective action problem is who will start the action and shoot first, for those are themselves likely be killed or punished instead of being liberated. Most people are not willing to die for a cause, even just, that is likely to only benefit others.

If however Douglass had succeeded instilling in a sufficient number of individuals the “determination to shoot down any man attempting to kidnap” or to shoot any slave master, slavery would have unraveled through a simple mechanism of incentives. The way to stop persecution is to increase its cost for persecutors so that they don’t derive any net benefit from it. If that succeeds, the persecutor will back off. Individual self-defense by persecuted individuals or their supporters may not be sufficient by itself to achieve that goal, but it can contribute to it.