I want to start with a story about cancel culture—the cancel culture that existed on a cold December night in 1860 in Boston, Massachusetts. In our popular imagination, Boston in 1860 was a good place, the heart of abolitionism and unionism. But not that night. That night a mob silenced a great man.
Frederick Douglass was supposed to address a meeting called, “How Can American Slavery Be Abolished?” It was a tense time in the United States, at the beginning of the most extreme and violent national test in our history. Abraham Lincoln had just been elected. In less than three weeks South Carolina would secede. The rest of the South would fall like dominoes, and then would come our most brutal war.
Douglass could not speak. A mob stormed the stage, with police looking on. Abolitionists tried to restore order, but violence reigned. Eventually, the police moved–not to clear the mob to protect speech, but rather to clear the meeting hall and end the event.
In one condensed moment, we saw the kind of mob action and police passivity that we sometimes still see today. Private citizens mobilized to block speech, and rather than protect liberty, the police saw fit to restore “order” instead. But American order requires the protection of liberty.