“Send Back the Bloodstained Money”: Frederick Douglass on Tainted Gifts
By Emma Saunders-Hastings, Ohio State University
Institutions today face calls to return “tainted” donations from controversial donors like the Sackler family. Such critiques of “dirty money,” while gaining in public salience, are prone to charges of puritanism or of hypocrisy. This paper recovers a distinctive position on dirty money, capable of responding to these charges, from the early speeches and writings of Frederick Douglass. In Great Britain in 1846, Douglass delivered a series of speeches claiming that the Free Church of Scotland had “made itself responsible for slavery” by accepting donations from American slaveholders, and he led a public campaign to “Send back the money.” Douglass’s argument centers on the claim that accepting money and other gifts can distort political relationships and subvert political judgment. His rhetoric also shows how criticizing objectionable gifts is an opportunity to shape people’s moral reasoning and political judgment for the better.