Let Frederick Douglass point our way forward
September 14, 2021
In a striking new portrait of the great anti-slavery campaigner and former slave Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist stares ahead defiantly, sure of himself and his cause. The portrait is being unveiled today by the Union League Legacy Foundation, a charity that supports the values of the Union League of Philadelphia—a club founded in 1862 to support the Union, the abolition of slavery and President Abraham Lincoln.
The timing of this commissioning could not be more opportune, as many people who now claim to speak for justice (or “social justice”)—Douglass’ cause—stand directly opposed to the values he cherished.
Douglass’ potent anti-slavery advocacy bore the influences of biblical religion, classical philosophy and the American brand of Enlightenment thought. The Western canon—stemming from the public squares and pens of Athens, Jerusalem and Philadelphia—provided intellectual grist for the great crusade to end slavery. The new portrait reminds us that we must not forsake Douglass’ values as we address questions of justice—including racial justice—today.
The young Douglass’ first foray into the realm of ideas came while living in Baltimore with Sophia and Hugh Auld, the brother of his owner, Thomas Auld. Mrs. Auld taught Douglass the alphabet and read to him from her Bible, but Hugh abruptly discontinued the lessons for fear that learning would “spoil” Douglass as a slave. This sparked Douglass’ burning desire for knowledge: “the very determination which he expressed to keep me in ignorance, only rendered me the more resolute in seeking intelligence.”
And seek he did.
Soon enough, Frederick discovered the antislavery advocate Caleb Bingham’s The Columbian Orator. The Orator contains speeches and plays from George Washington, John Milton, Benjamin Franklin and others. There, Douglass would read praise for “free government,” odes to “the dignity of man” and even a dialogue between a master and his slave. In it, the slave questions his master: “Look at these limbs; are they not those of a man? Think that I have the spirit of a man too.” The imagination of young Frederick may have exploded with possibilities as he read that the master, moved by the pure reason of the slave’s appeals to his natural right to liberty, frees him.
As a teenager, while still enslaved, Douglass experienced a religious awakening as a member of the black church community in Baltimore and as a student of a devout older black man, Charles Lawson. Douglass drank in sermons on the equality of “bond [i.e. slave] and free” in the eyes of the Lord; the Christian message of inherent and equal human dignity embedded itself in Douglass’ mind right alongside the natural rights convictions espoused in his beloved Columbian Orator.After escaping slavery, the young Douglass travelled on the abolitionist speaking circuit. He consistently appealed to both the Bible and to the concept of natural rights to rebuke slavery, and routinely mocked the Sunday piety and sheer hypocrisy of Christian slaveholders like the Aulds. Rather than forsaking the universalist ideals of Christianity as hopelessly corrupted, Douglass leaned on them in lambasting the hypocrisy of their supposed adherents.
Douglass also turned to the Bible to denounce polygenesis (the idea that different races descend from different first ancestors) and racial separatism. The Bible inspired in Douglass a deep faith in the universal brotherhood of mankind and the inherent dignity of the human person: “The unity of the human race—the brotherhood of man—the reciprocal duties of all to each, and of each to all, are too plainly taught in the Bible to admit of cavil.”
As Douglass routinely turned to the Bible to attack slavery as immoral, so too did he leverage ideals of self-government, civil liberties and natural rights. In a September 3, 1848, public letter to his former owner, Douglass condemned slavery with scathing simplicity: “I am myself; you are yourself; we are two distinct persons, equal persons. What you are, I am…. God created both, and made us separate beings. I am not by nature bound to you, or you to me.”
Over time, Douglass came to recognize that America’s founding ethos embodied the very same principles of natural law and natural rights to which he had already been appealing. In his famous 1852 “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” address, he declared that “The principles contained in [the Declaration of Independence] are saving principles,” and called on his audience to “Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.”
Douglass contrasted the “eternal principles” and spirit of the Revolution with the “degenerate times” of his America. He asked: “Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us [African Americans]?” No—Douglass lamented that he and his fellow African Americans were “not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary!”
Thanks to the bravery and statesmanship of Douglass, Lincoln and so many others, the scope of “the alarming and revolutionary idea” of America has been rightly expanded. It is true that gaps between ideals and reality persist, but if we are to follow Douglass’ lead, we must not abandon the traditions that informed him. Instead, we must honor his ideals by narrowing the gaps.
Yale historian David Blight’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2018 biography of Douglass is aptly subtitled “Prophet of Freedom.” For Blight, Douglass lives up to Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s definition of the prophet as “an assaulter of the mind.” Douglass’ assault was so jarring—and is still—because it adeptly applied the language and ideals of our country, and the broader tradition of Western philosophy and religion, to the most grievous failures thereof. To appreciate the power of Douglass’ prophecy is to grasp first that he was not preaching in a foreign idiom. He was preaching the same political gospel as the American founders, with the same roots in classical thought, the Bible and certain forms of Enlightenment philosophy.
His moral-political creed should be ours. To honor Douglass and heed his prophecy, we must renew our commitment to our nation’s and the Western tradition’s ideals and push back against those aiming to toss them aside. This means standing up to the neo-segregationist impulses embedded in what too often merely masquerades as “anti-racism.” It means upholding the principles of free speech, which Douglass deemed “the great moral renovator of society and government” and “the dread of tyrants.”
We must renew our faith in the teachings that spurred the Revolution, drove forward emancipation and then abolition, and today provides the only truly worthy path towards national renewal and American greatness.
Having renewed that faith, we can stare back into Douglass’ defiant eyes in the portrait, humbly confident that we are staying true to his—and our—highest principles.