Black History Heroes: Frederick Douglass on Life and Liberty

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass, born this month in 1818, escaped slavery to become a leading abolitionist, writer and statesman. A captivating orator, Douglass told a crowd in his famous 1852 speech What to a Slave is the Fourth of July? :

“I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes and at whatever cost.”

Unlike too many social agitators today, Douglass recognized that the principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence could be both an extraordinary accomplishment and imperfectly implemented. An avid student of history and political science, Douglass knew that it would take time for America to live up to its own ideals and that the challenges to the principles of the Declaration would change with the times.

An ordained minister in the African American Episcopal denomination, Douglass understood that the ideas that all human beings were created with equal worth, and that all were endowed by God with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” were indeed saving principles. He was true to those principles in his generation, defending them against the foes of life and liberty.

In his book My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass explains what it is like when one’s right to life and liberty are not respected in the law: “When I was treated exceedingly ill, when my back was being scourged daily; when I was whipped within an inch of my life-life was all I cared for. ‘Spare my life’ was my continual prayer.” Might the children we allow to be slaughtered in the womb be praying similar prayers?

Slavery is no longer legal in America, but have we allowed confusion over the meaning of liberty to cloud our judgment regarding life? For Douglass, the ideals of life and liberty were not separated. Human life was special, and all innocent human lives deserved to be protected.

His powerful words in the face of such horrible suffering continue to inspire Americans today to end crimes against most vulnerable humans. A new generation of activists and statesmen now pick up that mantle in a 21st century abolition movement to end abortion. Not long ago, Arizona passed the Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act of 2011, banning abortions based on race or gender. The law appropriately draws attention to the disproportionate numbers of black children killed by abortion.

While slavery was still the law of the land, Douglass called his fellow Americans to a higher standard: “In a composite nation like ours, as before the law, there should be no rich, no poor, no high, no low, no white, no black, but common country, common citizenship, equal rights and a common destiny.” Today, we might well add that there should be no born and unborn. May the courage and tenacity of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass remind us to stand by our principles, to be true to them on all occasions, in all places, and against all foes at whatever our cost.

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