by Dallin Overstreet
This month marks 200 years since Frederick Douglass’s birth, and so it’s the perfect time to reflect on Douglass’s life and the principles and ideas he stood for. Timothy Sandefur’s new book Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man is a great place to start: It highlights the beliefs and principles that guided Douglass throughout his life, arguing that his beliefs and achievements earn him a place among America’s Founding Fathers. Whatever your personal beliefs and opinions, you will have a deeper respect for Frederick Douglass after reading this book.
Here are five things you might not know about the life and legacy of Frederick Douglass:
1. Symbolic of true liberation, Douglass changed his name after escaping from slavery in 1838.
Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born a slave in Maryland in 1818. After being taught the basics of reading and writing when he was eight years old, he began to develop a curiosity to learn more, which kindled a new sense of self-worth in the young boy. As he grew and learned about abolitionism, Frederick had, as he himself described it, “a deep satisfaction in the thought that the rascality of slaveholders was not concealed from the eyes of the world.” His disgust of slavery and his determination to have a better life drove him to finally escape when he was 20 years old. At this time, he changed his last name to Douglass—he took the name from the hero of Sir Walter Scott’s classic poem “The Lady of the Lake” (which also inspired “Hail to the Chief,” now used as the official theme of the President). It was a truly liberating moment for him: By shedding his old name and choosing a new one, Douglass was truly breaking the last chains of slavery that held him down.
2. Douglass always stressed the importance of self-reliance. In his view, dependence on others robbed people of their freedom.
Sandefur writes, “A self-made man himself, [Douglass] viewed America as a land of self-made people: a place where every person, white or black, male or female, had the right, and would someday have the freedom, to pursue life as he or she chose.” Douglass believed that men and women should be judged by the things they did with their lives, not by the color of their skin or the social class they were born into. He said that when anyone or anything decides for a man or woman when, where, and for what they will work, those decisions basically reduce them to slavery. Even after slavery had ended and the public was trying to decide how to best help black Americans, Douglass told them, “Do nothing with us!… And if the negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs…! If the negro cannot live by the eternal line of justice…the fault will not be yours.” Even after having experienced the pains of slavery firsthand, he stressed the opportunity for self-reliance over retribution. Ultimately, he believed above all else in the potential of the free individual.
3. Douglass was a strong proponent of capitalism and denounced wealth redistribution schemes such as socialism.
From the first job he did as a freeman—putting away a large pile of coal, for which he earned two silver half-dollars—Douglass understood the economic freedom that exists with capitalism. Consistent with his belief in self-reliance, Douglass believed a man should be able to choose when, where, and what he worked in. He was against socialism and communism, believing people would only produce for either private profit or compulsion. Douglass thought that any system other than capitalism would require severe punishments to keep people working, which would resemble slavery. In Douglass’s eyes, capitalism was simply, as his first biographer Frederic May Holland put it, “the only system of labor which a lover of liberty can favor consistently.”
4. Just as Douglass defies the modern categories of “liberal” and “conservative”, he also occupies the middle ground between the two magnetic poles of 20th-century black politics.
When compared to two prominent figures of 20th century black politics, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass stands somewhere in the middle. Like Washington, he was a very hard-working man that focused on self-improvement. But Douglass would have had nothing to do with Washington’s “accomodationist” belief that blacks should just be patient and not use political forces to fight segregation. W.E.B. Du Bois rose to become a spokesman for political activism like Douglass, although Douglass would have not agreed at all with Du Bois’s racial separatism, his renunciation of American citizenship, or his admiration of Joseph Stalin. On the spectrum between the two, “Douglass might best be described as using Du Bois’s methods toward Washington’s ends: black political activism was to him an indispensable means to the pursuit of happiness and self-reliance and to peace, security, and freedom, without regard to race.” Douglass was truly one of a kind.
5. Douglass believed that the Constitution was a “glorious liberty document” and believed deeply in the principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence.
Frederick Douglass separated himself from many of his fellow abolitionists in his belief that that the Constitution was an anti-slavery document. He believed that it guaranteed “all rights for all” and that the Constitution alone was enough to end slavery in the United States. He believed that when the Constitution referred to “We the People,” it meant everyone in the United States. Douglass also declared, “The Declaration of Independence is the ringbolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.” Douglass believed that in order for America to prosper and to remain a symbol of liberty as it was at its birth, it would need to strictly adhere to the principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence. “Apply these sublime and glorious truths to the situation now before you. Put away your race prejudice. Banish the idea that one class must rule over another. Recognize the fact that the rights of the humblest citizen are as worthy of protection as are those of the highest, and your problem will be solved . . . [and] your Republic will stand and flourish forever.”
Nearing the 200th anniversary of Douglass’s birth, it’s worthwhile to examine his life, his beliefs, and his contributions to the country. Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man is a great read for someone who knows nothing about Douglass, but also an incredible resource for someone who knows a lot about him as well. You can pick up your own copy of the book here.
Dallin Overstreet is a Ronald Reagan Fellow at the Goldwater Institute.