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Frederick Douglass Alive

Douglas

Fredrick Douglass has much to teach us about what slavery and prejudice is, how to combat both and, most importantly, how to secure our human liberty.

A critic once slammed G. K. Chesterton’s view of the world as upside down. Chesterton responded that the world of his day was upside down and, to view it properly, one must stand on one’s head. Douglas stood on his feet and saw within reach a vision of the world that was his constant companion.

Douglas’ letter to Thomas Auld, once his slave master, rights an upside down world. Douglas published his letter in North Star, an abolitionist newspaper he had founded in 1847.

Even at six years old, Douglas, then a slave, was perplexed when he had asked himself why he was a slave. Sometime later, “I heard some of the old slaves talking of their parents having been stolen from Africa by white men, and were sold here as slaves. The whole mystery was solved at once. Very soon after this my Aunt Jinny and Uncle Noah ran away, and the great noise made about it by your father-in-law, [the father-in-law of the slave master] made me for the first time acquainted with the fact, that there were free States as well as slave States. From that time, I resolved that I would someday run away. The morality of the act, I dispose as follows: I am myself; you are yourself; we are two distinct persons, equal persons. What you are, I am. You are a man, and so am I. God created both, and made us separate beings. I am not by nature bound to you, or you to me. Nature does not make your existence depend upon me, or mine to depend upon yours. I cannot walk upon your legs, or you upon mine. I cannot breathe for you, or you for me; I must breathe for myself, and you for yourself. We are distinct persons, and are each equally provided with faculties necessary to our individual existence. In leaving you, I took nothing but what belonged to me, and in no way lessened your means for obtaining an honest living. Your faculties remained yours, and mine became useful to their rightful owner.”

Liberty is a gift of God inbred in human nature and is fully understood only when it is claimed as a personal possession. It is this claim of liberty that shatters forever the chains that tie a man to slavery. The will to freedom and independence is irrepressible and stronger than the will to power.

During his own day, Douglass was the freest man alive in a nation that held men, women and children as slaves. He escaped his slave master and headed north.

Working on the wharves of New Bedford, Massachusetts, Douglas earned his first honest dollar, a liberating experience: “It was there I earned my first free dollar. It was mine. I could spend it as I pleased. I could buy hams or herring with it, without asking any odds of any body. That was a precious dollar to me.”

Marriage was liberating: “I soon, however, learned to count money, as well as to make it, and got on swimmingly. I married soon after leaving you: in fact, I was engaged to be married before I left you; and instead of finding my companion a burden, she was truly a helpmeet. She went to live at service, and I to work on the wharf, and though we toiled hard the first winter, we never lived more happily.”

By chance -- or more likely, Douglass thought, by the hand of God -- he met “Wm. Lloyd Garrison, a person of whom you have possibly heard, as he is pretty generally known among slaveholders. He put it into my head that I might make myself serviceable to the cause of the slave by devoting a portion of my time to telling my own sorrows, and those of other slaves which had come under my observation. This was the commencement of a higher state of existence than any to which I had ever aspired.”

Through such winding pathways, he was introduced to an excellent society of like liberty-loving souls, among whom were notable northern abolitionists – such as Henry David Thoreau, the author of “Slavery in Massachusetts”, Julia Ward Howe, who authored “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” sung to the tune of an older freedom hymn, “John Brown’s Body,” a marching song of northern Civil War troops – and, much later, Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator.

He also met and had some business with John Brown, like him a free man. When he moved from Connecticut to Ohio, Brown astonished his neighbors by giving a pew he had purchased to a black family. In his “A Plea for Captain John Brown”, Thoreau said of Brown, “He would have left a Greek accent slanting the wrong way, and righted up a falling man.”

The excellence of the society Douglass moved in “exerted a beneficial influence on my mind and heart. Much of my early dislike of white persons was removed, and their manners, habits and customs, so entirely unlike what I had been used to in the kitchen-quarters on the plantations of the South, fairly charmed me, and gave me a strong disrelish for the coarse and degrading customs of my former condition. I therefore made an effort so to improve my mind and deportment, as to be somewhat fitted to the station to which I seemed almost providentially called. The transition from degradation to respectability was indeed great, and to get from one to the other without carrying some marks of one’s former condition, is truly a difficult matter.”

On this point, Douglass is unsparing: “Oh! sir, a slaveholder never appears to me so completely an agent of hell, as when I think of and look upon my dear children. It is then that my feelings rise above my control. I meant to have said more with respect to my own prosperity and happiness, but thoughts and feelings which this recital has quickened unfits me to proceed further in that direction. The grim horrors of slavery rise in all their ghastly terror before me, the wails of millions pierce my heart, and chill my blood. I remember the chain, the gag, the bloody whip, the deathlike gloom overshadowing the broken spirit of the fettered bondman, the appalling liability of his being torn away from wife and children, and sold like a beast in the market. Say not that this is a picture of fancy. You well know that I wear stripes on my back inflicted by your direction; and that you, while we were brothers in the same church, caused this right hand, with which I am now penning this letter, to be closely tied to my left, and my person dragged at the pistol’s mouth, fifteen miles, from the Bay side to Easton to be sold like a beast in the market, for the alleged crime of intending to escape from your possession. All this and more you remember, and know to be perfectly true, not only of yourself, but of nearly all of the slaveholders around you.”

The Lincoln-Douglass connection is not often remarked upon.

Lincoln’s most stirring address is not, to my way of thinking, the Gettysburg Address, but rather his Second Inaugural Address, a few lines of which are engraved on the north wall of the Lincoln Memorial. Lincoln showed his address to Douglas before he delivered it, and Douglas nodded approval of the following lines, engraved on the wall by Evelyn Beatrice Longman: “The Almighty has His own purposes. ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’ If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

Among the crowd present when Lincoln delivered his address was his assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

What Thoreau said of Brown – that he fronted the world without fear of men, but trembled only before a merciful and just God – is also true of Douglass, who loved, in this order, his God, his wife and children, honor and strength, and likeminded servants of light and courage. In running away from the bloody lash of his master, he came to himself at last, overmastered slavery, and met a man who loved liberty rather than servitude at the command of immoral men, honor rather than dishonor, and – though no graduate of Harvard, Thoreau’s alma mater – had wit and intelligence enough to know and follow the truth that set him free.

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