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Rich Lowry: Frederick Douglass, self-made man

BY RICH LOWRY Published: July 4, 2013
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A slave only in firm

In a turning point, he fought back against a slave breaker who sought to beat him. “You have seen how a man was made a slave,” he writes of this act of self-assertion, “you shall see how a slave was made a man.” Eventually, his master hired him out in Baltimore and took the proceeds — but not quite all. He might let him keep 6 cents of the $6 he earned in a week. “I regarded it,” Douglass writes, “as a sort of admission of my right to the whole.”

By now, he was a slave only in form, not in fact, as he puts it. All that was left was to make his escape. In the North, he became a fierce abolitionist and an evangelist for work and self-improvement. In his most popular lecture, titled “Self-Made Men,” he declared, “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.”

In his legendary July Fourth oration, he said this holiday “is yours, not mine,” and lashed the country for the national sin of slavery. But he honored the country's founding, in words that will always be true. “The 4th of July is the first great fact in your nation's history — the very ringbolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny,” he declared. “Cling to this day — cling to it, and to its principles, with the grasp of a storm-tossed mariner to a spar at midnight.”

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