The Legacy of Frederick Douglass
By Winston Brady
Douglass' legacy is not always comfortable for us today, but it is vital to the American spirit.
This piece is a sequel to yesterday’s author profile of Frederick Douglass.
By “birthright,” we mean the natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Such privileges were due to Frederick Douglass, and indeed every American, simply because they are people, and such a birthright derives from the opening pages of the Bible. There, we see God creating men and women in his image, an reality often referred to by its Latin name, the imago Dei. On the same lines, in the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson grounded the idea of natural rights in our relationship with our Creator: “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Douglass could not help seeing the tension between the founding principles of the country, and the lived reality of a world in which those principles of the Declaration are neither heeded nor respected when it came to African-Americans.
Douglass addresses this tension in a speech he gave in Rochester, New York, titled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Addressing the crowd, Douglass states:
The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.
In the speech, Douglass records “the ten thousand wrongs of the American slave” and laments the barbarity with which real human beings, made in God’s image, are treated. But he does not call for a radical levelling of American institutions; indeed, he describes both the Constitution and the Declaration as documents uniquely suited to maintain and promote liberty. The problem then, as it often is, was the neglect of the founding principles—principally that of the imago Dei and its inclusion in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. For if humans are not really made in God’s image, then they are mere animals, and if they are animals, they can be treated like animals. Douglass repeats this point in his autobiography as he describes the treatment of slaves being no better than that of horses or cattle.
To educators intent on reviving the link between education and virtue, between liberty and literacy, Frederick Douglass’ writings, life, and example are especially important to us. First, an education grounded in the right books can be truly transformative, as it was for Douglass in his own harrowing journey from slavery to freedom. Second, the values and virtues of a Classical education may seem lofty and out-of-touch, perhaps even elitist; but they are of real practical importance in how we treat our neighbors and contribute to a more just and equitable society. If we believe that those who do not look like us are actually not like us, perhaps not even human (as many slaveholders judged their slaves), then we will not respect them or care for them, either. Lastly, Douglass’ life and notably his career as an orator demonstrate the power of rhetoric to positively change culture. Douglass spoke with eloquence, conviction, and grit. He arguably came as close to Quintilian’s “ideal orator,” a speaker as eloquent as he is committed to personal integrity, as any other figure in American history—and all that without ever having received a formal education.
Douglass had to fight tooth and nail to educate himself. We, however, are in a position to pass on the tradition that he struggled to access, the best of what has been thought and taught for four thousand years. Such an education helped Douglass become the moral and inspirational leader America needed then, a kind of leader of which we need more today. Given that we hope to inspire more students to emulate his example, let us close with a contemplation of the same ships, sailing across the Chesapeake, that inspired Douglass in his quest for freedom:
You [ships] are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip! You are freedom’s swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron! O that I were free! O, that I were on one of your gallant decks, and under your protecting wing! Alas! betwixt me and you, the turbid waters roll. Go on, go on. O that I could also go! … Meanwhile, I will try to bear up under the yoke. I am not the only slave in the world. Why should I fret? I can bear as much as any of them. Besides, I am but a boy, and all boys are bound to someone. It may be that my misery in slavery will only increase my happiness when I get free. There is a better day coming.
Winston Brady grew up in Washington DC, and attended a Classical school, to which he attributes his love of reading the great books. He received a Master of Divinity at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and an MBA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has taught at Thales Academy since 2011, and serves as the Dean of Academics at Thales Academy. He and his wife Rachel live in Wake Forest, North Carolina with their two boys, Hunter and Jack.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might some of our other material here at the Journal, such as this author profile of Plutarch, this “Great Conversation” post on the idea of oligarchy, or this series from Dr. Anika Prather on the role of the Classics in the history of Black education.
Published on 2nd February, 2021.