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What Frederick Douglass Stood For

June 19, 2013 in Economics

By Michael D. Tanner

Michael D. Tanner

Wednesday, Congress will dedicate a statue of Frederick Douglass in the Capitol Rotunda. The dedication ceremony has unfortunately become wrapped up in the politics surrounding the District of Columbia’s lack of representation in Congress, but that controversy aside, it is hard to think of a man more deserving of the honor.

An escaped slave and leading abolitionist, orator and newspaper publisher, diplomat and adviser to presidents, Douglass was without a doubt one of the great voices for human freedom. Going far beyond opposition to slavery, Douglass was a relentless advocate for individual rights, whether speaking of blacks, women, Native Americans, or immigrants. Equally important, Douglass knew that government power posed a threat to those rights.

Douglass understood that the proper role of government was to protect individual rights and guarantee equality before the law, not to dispense favors to this group or that. For example, in his famous April 1865 speech, “What the Black Man Wants,” Douglass declared, “The American people have always been anxious to know what they shall do with us. … I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! If the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone!”

Congress is erecting a monument to him, but they’d be better off remembering his ideals.”

Douglass’s message was not just about African Americans. Rather, it offers a stinging rebuke to all those who believe that men and women cannot be the masters of their own fates.

The freedom that Douglass agitated for was not the freedom of the welfare state. Simply providing for people’s material needs was not a substitute for giving them their freedom. Besides, “doing for” all too easily morphed into “doing to,” an opportunity to do “mischief,” as he put it. He knew that, as President Gerald Ford once said (in a quote often misattributed to Barry Goldwater), “a government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you have.”

He strongly believed in limited government, claiming there was no “governmental authority to pass laws, nor compel obedience to any laws that are against the natural rights and happiness of men.”

Moreover, Douglass understood that economic liberty was a crucial component of liberty more generally. He believed in private property and the accumulation of wealth. When a speaker from …read more

Source: OP-EDS

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