Frederick Douglass' enduring lessons

Frederick Douglass once said that from his "slave experience" he was able to "elaborate quite a lengthy chapter of political philosophy, applicable to the American people." In addition to his slave experience, the Eastern Shore native elaborated quite a bit of political philosophy from his nearly 60-year career as an abolitionist, civil rights activist and statesman. Today, on the anniversary of his death in 1895, we would do well to ask: What ideas were at the core of that political philosophy? How might Douglass' ideas be useful to us today?

Douglass' experiences led him to a political philosophy rooted in four basic ideas: "self-ownership," the doctrine of "true virtue," self-reliance, and fair play. The physical and psychological cruelties of slavery — the horrific beatings, the sexual violence, the destruction of families, and the denial of autonomy — led Douglass to embrace the idea of self-ownership, which he described as the belief that every human being is the "original, natural, rightful, and absolute owner of his own body." A society where the self-ownership of each individual was respected, he believed, would be one in which all human beings are free from the arbitrary restraint and control of others. With this freedom, each individual would be given the space necessary to "author" his or her own story.


Douglass' experience as an abolitionist and civil rights activist led him to embrace a second core idea: true virtue. In the face of slavery and other forms of oppression, Douglass said the United States was haunted by a "terrible paradox." Americans, he said, claim to love liberty, but they allow so many individuals around them to be denied its promises. The American love of liberty, he concluded, was "infected" by a "narrow and wicked selfishness." In the face of this "infected" political culture, Douglass tried to convince Americans to replace this selfishness with a belief in equality and a feeling of responsibility to combat injustice. In sum, Douglass set out to cultivate an ethos of true virtue, which he described as a "disposition of the heart" that prompts us to remedy evils when we see them. In order for universal self-ownership to be realized, Douglass argued, an ethos of true virtue must prevail. Only in a "humanitarian culture" dominated by the spirit of "each for all and all for each" can our rights be truly secure.

Throughout his public life, Douglass espoused a philosophy of "the Self-Made Man." Self-made men (he included women in this category), he said, are individuals who have "attained knowledge, usefulness, power and position" as a result of "patient, enduring, honest, unremitting and indefatigable work." Douglass' philosophy of the self-made man displays his amazing faith in the power of self-reliant individuals to achieve their goals. Each of us, he said, has an obligation to behave virtuously and to devote ourselves to personal, familial and community well-being.


Douglass knew his celebration of self-made men might be interpreted as an embrace of an individualistic philosophy of "each for himself and the devil take the hindmost," so he was always careful to couple his call for self-reliance with a demand for fair play. Indeed, he argued that calls for self-reliance are only defensible under conditions of fairness. What did Douglass mean by fair play? He argued that fair play requires government to take aggressive action to level the playing field in order to remedy past injustices.

"It is not fair play," he said in 1895, to start individuals out in life "from nothing and with nothing, while others start with the advantage of a thousand years behind them. ... Should the American people put a school house in every valley of the South … for a hundred years to come, they would not then have given fair play to the negro." After calling for this aid, Douglass anticipated the criticisms of those who would contend such assistance would degrade its recipients. "There is no degradation," Douglass responded, "no loss of self-respect, in asking this aid, considering the circumstances of these people. ... The key-note of the future should not be the concentration, but diffusion [and] distribution."

In a time when our political discourse is dominated by many voices contending that the political world can be understood in terms of simple, binary oppositions, we would do well to remember the wisdom of Frederick Douglass. In the face of some of the most serious crises this country has ever faced, one of Maryland's most famous sons understood that we cannot have freedom without responsibility and that the demand for self-reliance is only reasonable under conditions of fair play.

Nicholas Buccola is an assistant professor of political science at Linfield College and author of the forthcoming book, "The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass: In Pursuit of American Liberty." His email is