by Jon Guze
Senior Fellow, Legal Studies, John Locke Foundation
The title comes from a memoir by Frederick Douglass, a self-taught escaped slave who was born two hundred years ago this month. During his life, Douglass was celebrated as one of the 19th century’s most learned, eloquent, and passionate defenders of freedom and individual rights in the classical liberal tradition.
By the time of his death in 1895, however, that tradition was being rapidly displaced by progressivism, an antithetical philosophy promoting government power over the individual that would dominate American political thought throughout the coming century. The triumph of progressivism over classical liberalism may, in part, explain why Douglass is so woefully neglected as a thinker and as a writer, and it may also explain why—despite the official creation of a federal Frederick Douglass Bicentennial Commission—so little has been done to commemorate the anniversary of his birth.
Fortunately, Douglass’ bicentennial isn’t passing completely unnoticed. This week, the Cato Institute published a new biography by Timothy Sandefur called, Frederick Douglass, Self-Made Man. Here’s Cato’s description:
Born into slavery in 1818, Frederick Douglass rose to become a preeminent American intellectual and activist who, as statesman, author, lecturer, and scholar, helped lead the fight against slavery and racial oppression. Unlike many other leading abolitionists, Douglass embraced the U.S. Constitution, believing it to be an essentially anti-slavery document guaranteeing that individual rights belonged to all Americans, of all races. Furthermore, in his most popular lecture, “Self-Made Men,” Douglass praised those who rise through their own effort and devotion rather than the circumstances of their privilege. For him, independence, pride, and personal and economic freedom were the natural consequences of the equality that lay at the heart of the American dream—a dream that all people, regardless of race, gender, or class, deserved a chance to pursue.
This biography takes a fresh look at the life and inspirational legacy of one of America’s most passionate and dedicated thinkers. As detailed in this compact and highly compelling work, Douglass—in some ways a conservative, in other ways a revolutionary—espoused and lived the central idea of his work: we must be free to make ourselves the best people we can be.
In addition to being Vice President for Litigation at the Goldwater Institute, Sandefur is a prolific author who has published books and articles on a wide range of subjects including slavery and the Civil War. I’m looking forward to what I’m sure is an insightful biography.
Reason.com also commemorated Douglass’ bicentennial with a long blog post by Damon Root discussing Douglass’ evolving view of the U.S. Constitution:
This month marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest figures in American history. Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland, sometime in February 1818. At the age of 20, he made his escape from bondage, traveling north to Philadelphia, New York City, and finally to New Bedford, Massachusetts. … In less than a decade, he had established himself as one of the most singular and influential voices in the most pressing debate of his time: the debate over slavery.
Arguing about slavery was a combat sport in those days, both figuratively and literally, and the field was crowded with skilled combatants. Among them was John C. Calhoun, the legendary South Carolina statesman who proclaimed slavery to be a positive good, fully sanctioned by the letter and spirit of the U.S. Constitution. There was also the militant Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who burned his copy of the Constitution, damning it as a pro-slavery “covenant with death and an agreement with hell.”
Douglass would face them both down. “Garrison sees in the Constitution precisely what John C. Calhoun sees there,” Douglass observed. He saw something different: “Interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document.”
At a time when the principles of the Declaration of Independence were under assault, Douglass waved the banner of classical liberalism, championing inalienable rights for all, regardless of race or sex. At a time when socialism was on the rise, Douglass preached the virtues of free labor and self-ownership in a market-based economy. At a time when state governments were violating the rights of the recently emancipated, Douglass professed the central importance of “the ballot-box, the jury-box, and the cartridge-box” in the fight against Jim Crow.
Douglass, the former slave who secretly taught himself how to read, would teach the American people a thing or two about the true meaning of the Constitution.
He could still teach us a thing or two. Let’s hope the bicentennial of Frederick Douglass’ birth inspires more people to take an interest in the man and his ideas.