On the 199th Anniversary of His Birth, Remembering What Made Frederick Douglass a Great American

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This month of each year, we commemorate the great individuals and events in the history of African-Americans.

Tuesday marked the 199th birthday of perhaps the greatest of them all, Frederick Douglass—a singular exemplar and apostle of the American spirit.

“He was an American of the Americans,” Douglass once said of Abraham Lincoln, in words that apply no less aptly to himself. “Born and reared among the lowly, a stranger to wealth and luxury, compelled to grapple single-handed with the flintiest hardships of life … he grew strong in the manly and heroic qualities demanded by the great mission to which he was called.”

Douglass loved America. He loved it for its principles and for its promise. Nonetheless, the sentiment of patriotism, which he regarded as “pure, natural, and noble,” did not come naturally or easily to him.

“What country have I?” he asked in an 1847 editorial, and he then answered: “None.” As he confessed to his early abolitionist mentor William Lloyd Garrison, the sentiment of patriotism “was whipt out of me” by the slave masters under whose dominion he was born.

Given the circumstances of his youth, it is unremarkable that Douglass, after escaping from slavery, would embrace the teaching of Garrison, who in his abolitionist zeal rejected the Constitution as a pro-slavery “covenant with death” and who would call for non-slaveholding states to sever their association with slaveholders by seceding from the federal union.

What is remarkable is that within a few years, by conscientious study and reflection, Douglass set himself on a different course.

Douglass came to reject the Garrisonian position, and he explained why in a Fourth of July oration delivered July 5, 1852, a speech now recognized as the greatest of all abolitionist speeches.

In it, he praised the Constitution as “a glorious liberty document,” and he extolled the Founding Fathers for their courage and their wisdom alike: “They were brave men. They were great men too. … They seized upon eternal principles and set a glorious example in their defense. Mark them!”

In those principles—the principles of the Declaration of Independence—Douglass found the distinctive promise of America.

“The leading object of [our] government,” Lincoln said in a July 4 message of his own, is “to elevate the condition of men—to lift artificial weights from all shoulders—to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all—to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance.”

Precisely so, Douglass added in the most popular of his post-Civil War speeches:

America is said, and not without reason, to be preeminently the home and patron of self-made men … [The] principle of measuring and valuing men according to their respective merits and without regard to their antecedents, is better established and more generally enforced here than in any other country.

Douglass summarized the nation’s promise a few years after the Union victory. America’s mission, he proclaimed, is to become “the most perfect national illustration of the unity and dignity of the human family that the world has ever seen.”

The converse is still more telling: As Douglass conceived of the virtue of the country in terms of human integration and elevation, he conceived of the main dangers to it as forces of disintegration and degradation, including any and all artificial barriers to the exercise of individual rights and the cultivation of civic unity.

Those forces and barriers were manifold. In the antebellum period, they included not only slavery itself but also Garrison’s disunion proposal, in which Douglass found “no intelligible principle of action.”

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SOURCE: Charisma News
Peter C. Myers, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire