Frederick Douglass and the Meaning of Freedom

 Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

Guest Blog Post by Dr. David Lucander.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” presents the most comprehensive vision of freedom articulated by an American President, but one of this nation’s foremost philosophers on this subject comes from the unlikely source of a runaway slave from a broken home.  Despite his obvious disadvantages, Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) rose to greatness as a leader of the abolitionist movement.  His rich record of writings and speeches documents what exactly freedom meant to a man who risked everything to have it.

Douglass knew little of his parentage, but there is some evidence that one of his masters was also his father.  “My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant,” and she would visit at night to “lie down with me, and get me to sleep, but long before I waked she was gone.”  Slavery couldn’t extinguish Harriet Bailey’s love for her son, but harsh reality separated the two and left him motherless.

Douglass successfully escaped Maryland by impersonating a sailor.  Before settling in Massachusetts with Anna Murray, a free Black woman who helped him run away and who later became his wife, Douglass stayed in New York at a safe house run by the anti-slavery activist David Ruggles. Comparatively few enslaved people attempted to run away, and even fewer succeeded.  Douglass accomplished both.  The fire of liberty burning in every person’s breast cannot be extinguished by the degrading conditions of servitude, and Douglass seized on the unique opportunity before him to risk what little he had for the sake of freedom. 

Leading the abolitionist movement made Douglass the most recognizable Black person of his era, but things didn’t have to turn out the way they did.  He could have taken up the quiet life of a clothier or found work in the whaling industry – both common jobs for African Americans in the north.  Douglass could have chosen to settle in Canada, far beyond the reach of professional slave catchers that were enabled by the Constitution (Article IV, Section 2) and empowered by the notorious Fugitive Slave Act.  Instead, he chose a different path.  

 Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

Personal freedom wasn’t enough for Frederick Douglass – he wanted everyone to be free.  His powerful convictions were not born out of Enlightenment philosophy or inspired by abstract treatises.  Personal experience taught him the evils of slavery and how it negated all freedom.  Indeed, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s concept of “freedom from fear” would resonate with him.  Douglass intimately knew “the slave cannot be held without cruelty,” and he condemned the system because of the way that it sought to annihilate the human personality.

 Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

Because Douglass’ vision of freedom was expansive, he fought for far more than just the eradication of slavery.  He was one of the few men to attend the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, New York , an event that many historians identify as the symbolic beginning of organized efforts to attain voting rights for women. Douglass exemplified a commitment to a version of freedom that recognized citizenship, promoted equal justice, and respected voting rights. Likewise, he also supported equal rights for immigrants, universal public education, and the end of capital punishment.

Douglass’ impressive accomplishments are an enduring example of how to successfully transform protest into meaningful reform within our democracy.  His incisive intellect continues to inspire all who will listen.  “If there is no struggle, there is no progress” rings true to anyone that has ever gotten by on grit and stamina.  Those who stand up to the status quo and speak truth to power get a blunt reminder from Douglass that “power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will.”

Freedom and liberty are concepts that form the foundation of America’s political values, and what exactly these words mean has been subject of many bitter divisions throughout history.  In Douglass’ time, many believed that freedom conferred a right to own another human being and to enjoy the liberty of disposing that property at one’s behest.  Douglass saw things differently.  All freedom loving Americans owe a special debt to those who worked to eradicate freedom’s gravest enemy, slavery, from our world. 

Dr. David Lucander is Associate Professor of Multicultural Studies at SUNY Rockland.  He is the author of Winning the War for Democracy: The March on Washington Movement, 1941-1946 and co-editor of For Jobs and Freedom: The Speeches and Writings of A. Philip Randolph.