October 24, 2019
“There can be no independence without a large share of self-dependence, and this virtue cannot be bestowed. It must be developed from within,” abolitionist and civil rights leader Frederick Douglass once said. That quote sums up Douglass’s approach to a life lived in liberty: We secure the essential rights to which we are entitled by taking on the mantle of responsibility for our actions.
Like the title of one of his most famous lectures, Douglass was very much a self-made man, who deeply understood the need for self-dependence in order to be truly free. Goldwater Institute Vice President for Litigation Timothy Sandefur is the author of the book Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man, and he recently spoke about Douglass’s life and views in a just-released video for Prager University.
Douglass never knew his father, and he never saw his mother after the age of seven. As Sandefur says in video, “breaking family bonds increased dependence on the slave owner,” and so Douglass’s situation was not an uncommon one. He taught himself to read as a teenager, which fomented a love of freedom. When his owner found out, he was sent to live with another slave owner who was known for breaking the spirits of young slaves like Douglass.
He submitted to daily beatings at first, until he decided to fight back one day. His slave owner never touched him again as a result. Douglass considered that experience the most important lesson of his life, Sandefur explains, because it was a reminder of the importance of standing up for yourself and your inherent dignity. Later in his life, he told the story to encourage young black men to enlist in the Union army during the Civil War: “You [will be] defending your own liberty, honor, manhood, and self-respect,” Douglass said—just as he had years earlier.
After escaping from slavery in 1838, he joined the abolitionist movement, quickly establishing his reputation as a powerful orator and writer. While fellow abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison condemned the Constitution for legally protecting slavery, Douglass believed that the Constitution fundamentally opposed slavery, saying that if it were “interpreted as it ought to be interpreted,” the Constitution was truly a “glorious liberty document.”
After the Union’s victory in the Civil War, Douglass devoted the remainder of his life to the defense of civil rights. In Douglass’s eyes, Sandefur says, “it was self-evident that black Americans, as citizens were entitled to full freedom and full legal protection.” However, Douglass also believed that liberty for black Americans could only come “as it comes for anyone: when they took full responsibility for their own fate.” You can watch the full Prager U video above, and for more information on Frederick Douglass, you can pick up a copy of Sandefur’s book here.