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Frederick Douglass Knew That Liberty Means the Freedom of Self-Responsibility

February 14, 2024

Today is the day that abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass chose to celebrate as his birthday. Those born into slavery, as Douglass was, were of course never told their actual birthdays; masters hardly considered such a thing worth remembering. But Douglass later recalled that the last time he had seen his mother was at the age of 7, on an occasion when she had given him a heart-shaped ginger cake to eat, and had called him her “Valentine.” Since she lived on a distant plantation—slave masters typically separated mothers and children as soon as possible, in order to maintain their dominance—it must have been a long walk for her to visit him, he surmised. Thus it must have been a special occasion; perhaps his birthday. Thus he decided to celebrate February 14.

Douglass is celebrated today for his work as a writer and speaker against the evils of slavery. True, his memoirs—published originally as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, then expanded over the years into The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass—are among the greatest of American life stories. And his speeches and articles in defense of liberty and against slavery and racism are astonishing for their eloquence. But Douglass was more than an agitator against evil. He was also a philosopher, who wrote searching reflections on the nature of personal identity and psychology. This is most notable in a series of lectures he delivered on the subject of photography and picture-making. There is something deeply revealing about the human need to make pictures, he believed. It manifested the uniquely human need for self-improvement: people make pictures of their ideals, and then try to emulate that image. (I discussed this fascinating side of Douglass’ life in this Federalist Society podcast.)

Douglass’ greatest contribution as a philosophical thinker, in fact, was his emphasis on the connection between the virtue of pride and the principle of political liberty. Quoting a line from the poet Byron, Douglass was fond of saying that “he who would be free must himself strike the blow”—meaning that people cannot be made free; they must discover and insist upon freedom for themselves. Although we can help people to attain their liberty, nobody can enjoy freedom for long who does not believe himself or herself worthy of independence.

In a remarkable essay urging black Americans to join the Union Army during the Civil War, Douglass offered a series of reasons why military service was a good idea. Most remarkably, Douglass never based his argument on any duty to serve the country. After all, the country had so badly mistreated its black populace by maintaining slavery and discrimination that they hardly owed it any such duty. Instead, Douglass based his argument on the need for black Americans to develop a personal sense of self-reliance. “Enlist for your own sake,” he wrote. “You need an act of this kind by which to recover your own self-respect. You have to some extent rated your value by the estimate of your enemies and hence have counted yourself less than you are…. In defending your country now against rebels and traitors you are defending your own liberty, honor, manhood and self-respect.”

Douglass recognized that liberty means the freedom of self-responsibility. That can be a harrowing prospect, because while freedom entitles one to enjoy the fruits of wise choices, it also requires one to accept the risk of failure. Many people prefer the seeming safety of a system which promises to protect them from themselves—to coddle and care for them. But not only are such promises almost always lies, but those who are most frequently lied to are members of minority groups, who lack the political influence required to win any kind of democratic popularity contest. Douglass recognized, therefore, that black Americans had no option but to accept the blessings and the burdens of freedom—and to do that required the development of a sense of self-worth that slave masters had spent centuries destroying.

This insight, however, applies to people of all races, everywhere—and that was an observation few political thinkers had emphasized before then. Indeed, although people such as John Locke and Thomas Jefferson had spoken at times of the relationship between the feeling of self-worth and the politics of liberty, no political philosopher in history had explored that connection with the depth, let alone the eloquence, of Frederick Douglass. No political system could preserve freedom, he insisted, among a people who consider themselves too wicked, foolish, helpless, or timid to accept the risks and appreciate the benefits of self-reliance.

As we pause to remember Douglass’s achievements as a writer, speaker, and thinker—and as we confront the many threats to liberty in our own day—we are fortunate to not only have the lessons he taught before us, but also to have a model to follow in implementing these principles: the life of a man who pronounced noble principles, and acted accordingly.

Timothy Sandefur is the Vice President for Legal Affairs at the Goldwater Institute.



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