By Timothy Sandefur
Two hundred years ago this month—we’ll never know exactly when, because slaves weren’t told their birthdays—Frederick Douglass was born to an enslaved mother on a Maryland farm. He never saw her after the age of 7, and his memories of her were vague, but he thought he recalled that on that last night, she gave him a heart-shaped ginger-cake and calling him her “Valentine.” And he guessed that she may have been visiting him on his birthday—so he chose February 14 as his birthday. Only late in life did he learn that he’d been born in 1818.
He was raised first on the plantation and then in Baltimore, where he discovered the written word. Forbidden to learn to read, he tricked white children into teaching him, and soon he was secretly reading the words of antislavery authors. When he became too independent-minded for one of his masters, he was sent to a farm run by an infamous “slave-breaker” named Edward Covey, who made extra money beating slaves into submission. After six months of daily brutality, Douglass had had enough: He fought back against Covey—and it worked. Covey never beat him again. From that moment, Douglass adopted as his personal motto a line from Lord Byron: Who would be free must himself strike the blow.
Douglass escaped on the Underground Railroad at the age of 20 and a few years later joined the antislavery cause as a traveling lecturer. Often attacked at his speeches—his hand was broken once, and he was nearly murdered on stage in Boston—Douglass held firm to his belief that the principles of the Declaration of Independence applied to everyone, without regard to race. But he broke with other abolitionists when he decided that the U.S. Constitution was actually not a pro-slavery law—as both pro- and anti-slavery forces believed—but that it was, in his words, “a glorious liberty document.” That theme animated the rest of his long life—he died in 1895, a world-renowned statesman and author. To the end of his days, he believed that America’s constitutional promise of equality and liberty were meant for all—and imposed on us all an obligation to respect the inherent sanctity of the individual’s freedom.
My new book, Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man, tells the life story of one of America’s greatest voices for freedom—emphasizing not just his activism, but also his important work as an intellectual. In his most popular lecture, “Self-Made Men,” which he delivered dozens of times to audiences across the United States, Douglass expressed his belief in the inherent ability of all individuals to rise above their circumstances and to make of themselves something unique and special, if only their freedom was respected. What was great about democracy, he believed, was not the common man—but all the many uncommon men and women, who should be able to realize their gifts and become what they could be.
Douglass remains relevant to us today not just because of his prophetic words on racial equality, or his important constitutional thought—which contributed to the writing and ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments—but because of his emphasis on the virtue of personal pride. Freedom, he believed, depended fundamentally on a spirit of independence and self-worth. It could never be given to people—it had to be claimed, and ultimately deserved, by all of us. At a time when America seems increasingly divided among lines of race, sex, and class—and torn between those who believe government should take care of us or that we should subordinate our selves to the demands of others, Douglass stands as a lesson in what it means to be a free person. As the poet Robert Hayden wrote, in his sonnet “Frederick Douglass,” “When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful / and terrible thing, needful to man as air… / this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro / beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world / where none is lonely, none hunted, alien, / this man, superb in love and logic, this man / shall be remembered.”
Timothy Sandefur is the vice president for litigation at the Goldwater Institute’s Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation.