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Rich Lowry: Frederick Douglass, self-made man

BY RICH LOWRY Published: July 4, 2013

Frederick Douglass gave one of the great July Fourth orations in American history. Speaking in Rochester, N.Y., in 1852, he hailed the accomplishments and ideals of the Founders, before denouncing the nation's departures from the faith of the Declaration of Independence with the righteousness and fury of an Old Testament prophet.

Congress just placed a statue of Frederick Douglass in the Capitol. It may be the best thing it does all year. Douglass is one of the nation's greatest champions of freedom. The former slave fought for it for himself and for others, and in his speeches and writings left a record of devotion to liberty that will echo through all time.

“Not even such justly canonized Founding Fathers as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson,” the late critic Albert Murray argues, “represent a more splendid image and pattern for the contemporary American citizen. On balance, not even Abraham Lincoln was a more heroic embodiment of the American as self-made man. After all, Lincoln, like Franklin and Jefferson, was born free.”

In his youth as a slave on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Douglass looked at the sailboats on the Chesapeake with envy, as he wrote later in his first memoir: “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!”

Shrewdness, will

Douglass forged his own freedom through shrewdness and will. When the wife of a household he was serving began innocently to teach him to read, her husband rebuked her: “A n----- should know nothing but to obey his master — to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best n----- in the world. Now, if you teach that n----- how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.”

That was all Douglass needed to know. “From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom,” he said. “I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read.” He traded his bread to white boys in exchange for their reading lessons, and devoured the collection of classic speeches, The Columbian Orator. Its writings in opposition to all oppression “gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul.”

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