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Opinion: Columnists

Frederick Douglass, champion of individual liberty

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Opinion,Philip Klein,Columnists,John Boehner

"Liberty," Frederick Douglass once declared, "is not a device or an experiment, but a law of nature dating back to man's creation."

On Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner hosted a dedication ceremony for a statue honoring Douglass in the Capitol's Visitor Center, providing a welcome opportunity to reflect on his legacy as an escaped slave, abolitionist, civil rights leader and political thinker.

In his book, "The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass," Nicholas Buccola cautions that Douglass's political ideology was complex. But one common thread was his belief in individual liberty and advocacy for personal responsibility.

Douglass himself embodied these principles. Born into slavery in 1818 on Maryland's eastern shore, Douglass covertly learned how to read and write. Lacking a pen or proper notepad, he practiced the alphabet by scribbling with chalk on fences, brick walls and the pavement.

When 20 years old, he was able to make a daring escape from bondage. Eventually, he used his own freedom as an opportunity to fight for the freedom of millions of others. His passionate lectures and first-person accounts drew attention to the brutality of slavery while exposing the lie that blacks were an inferior race.

As Buccola details, Douglass explained his opposition to slavery in terms of self-ownership and natural law. Douglass insisted that "man has by nature a right to his own body, and that to deprive him of that right is a flagrant violation of the will of God."

During the antebellum era, the abolitionist movement included anarchist and socialist strands. But Douglass staked out his own path.

Consistent with the classical liberal tradition, he argued that a state of anarchy could not truly secure individual freedom because some government was necessary to prevent people from doing harm to one another.

At the same time, he rejected socialist descriptions of capitalism as "wage slavery," drawing a clear distinction between actually being in bondage and cheap free labor, even while acknowledging the difficult working conditions confronting the poor.

He also consistently argued for personal responsibility and the importance of hard work, confident that if slaves were just given freedom, they would prove themselves.

"What I ask for the Negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice," he told a Boston crowd months before the end of the Civil War. "The American people have always been anxious to know what they shall do with us. ... I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us."

In an 1894 speech celebrating "Self-Made Men," Douglass denounced the connection people often make between luck and success, arguing that "it divorces a man from his own achievements, contemplates him as a being of chance and leaves him without will, motive, ambition and aspiration."

Instead, Douglass said, "we may explain success mainly by one word and that word is WORK! WORK!! WORK!!! WORK!!!! Not transient and fitful effort, but patient, enduring, honest, unremitting and indefatigable work into which the whole heart is put, and which, in both temporal and spiritual affairs, is the true miracle worker."

There's a long-standing debate over how to place Douglass in the modern political context. Some argue that his commitment to equality would have eventually led him to embrace a more active role for the federal government, despite his many classical liberal positions.

Though that issue will continue to be a subject of debate, what's beyond dispute is that Douglass's inspirational biography and powerful words earn him a place as one of history's greatest Americans.

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Author:

Philip Klein

Commentary Editor
The Washington Examiner