By his own best estimate, February marks the anniversary of Frederick Douglass’s birth. As is commonly known, Douglass was born a slave, into a system where he could at best hope for physical survival. Yet, by the end of his life, he had traveled from starvation to relative prosperity, from ignorance to intellectual achievement, and from chattelhood to manhood. He set a goal of seeing the centuries-old institution of slavery abolished. This was a goal that would require massive political, legal and social upheaval–and he worked relentlessly to contribute to its realization.
What is less commonly known and appreciated is Douglass’s intellectual contributions to the cause of abolition, and his role as a voice for reason in the years leading up to, during and after the Civil War. His thoughts on the meaning and nature of slavery, the role of government, the evils of racism and the appropriateness of political action are clear and refreshing, indicating a strong respect for the individual and his rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. His story is a source of inspiration for anyone who believes, as he did, that each individual is a sovereign being, and that the proper role of government is to protect individual rights.
A person, a mind, and a cause worthy of celebration.
Frederick Douglass rose from slavery to become the leading African-American voice of the nineteenth century. At an early age, he realized that his ability to read was the key to freedom. All of his efforts from then on focused on achieving freedom.
To grasp on one’s own, in such a context as Mr. Douglas grew up in (abhorrent, violent, bestial slavery), that reading and reasoning was key to independence and freedom, and to proceed to educate himself in them, shows heroism and (at least an element of) genius.
The Library of Congress‘ “America’s Story from America’s Library” corroborates Mr. Douglas recognition of reading and reasoning as key to freedom and independence. They say:
Frederick Douglass once told a group of African American students from a school in Talbot County, Maryland, “What was possible for me is possible for you. Do not think because you are colored you cannot accomplish anything. Strive earnestly to add to your knowledge. So long as you remain in ignorance, so long will you fail to command the respect of your fellow men.”
But that is a principle. It applies to all men in all places.
The NPS also says:
The antislavery crusade of the early nineteenth century served as a training ground for the women’s suffrage movement. Douglass actively supported the women’s rights movement, yet he believed black men should receive suffrage first. Demonstrating his support for women’s rights, Douglass participated in the first feminist convention at Seneca Falls in July of 1848 where he was largely responsible for passage of the motion to support female suffrage.
Together with abolitionist and feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Douglass signed the Declaration of Sentiments that became the movement’s manifesto. His newspaper, the North Star masthead once read “Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color.” A women’s rights activist to the end, Douglass died in February 1895, having just attended a Woman’s Council meeting.
Mr. Douglas grasped individual rights as a principle.
The History Department of the University of Rochester has some information about Mr. Douglas’ life, as well. (I have not looked at the quality of what they say, so I’m not recommending, I’m just providing the link.
The son of a slave woman and an unknown white man, “Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey” was born in February of 1818 on Maryland’s eastern shore. He spent his early years with his grandparents and with an aunt, seeing his mother only four or five times before her death when he was seven. (All Douglass knew of his father was that he was white.) During this time he was exposed to the degradations of slavery, witnessing firsthand brutal whippings and spending much time cold and hungry. When he was eight he was sent to Baltimore to live with a ship carpenter named Hugh Auld. There he learned to read and first heard the words abolition and abolitionists. “Going to live at Baltimore,” Douglass would later say, “laid the foundation, and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity.”
Douglass spent seven relatively comfortable years in Baltimore before being sent back to the country, where he was hired out to a farm run by a notoriously brutal “slavebreaker” named Edward Covey. And the treatment he received was indeed brutal. Whipped daily and barely fed, Douglass was “broken in body, soul, and spirit.”
Mrs. Ghate reports in a lecture she gave on Mr. Douglas that, one day, Mr. Douglas decided to fight back when Mr. Covey came after him. Mr. Douglas was 16 at the time, Mrs. Ghate reported. Mr. Douglas ended up “breaking” the “slavebreaker!!!”