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Frederick Douglass Was His Own Man

February 27, 2018 in Economics

By Timothy Sandefur

Timothy Sandefur

Whom does Frederick Douglass belong to? The question suggests
its own answer: Douglass belonged to himself, having escaped from
slavery at the age of 20 and vindicating his right to freedom for
the remainder of his long life. He was not someone else’s
man, but his own: he was a free individual.

In today’s culture wars, unfortunately, that’s not
quite enough. Pervasive identity politics and fashionable
“social justice” concepts, including the insidious
notion of “appropriation,” have transformed American
history and culture into a battle zone defined by political lines.
And even worse, those lines are drawn in the most naïve and
simplistic manner — in terms of partisanship where nobody but
Republicans and Democrats are even acknowledged to exist.

Douglass was a classical
liberal — today called a libertarian — who believed
that government’s proper role was to free people to pursue
happiness on their own terms.

A good example of this cartoonish partisanship appeared in the
New York Times recently, when Yale professor David Blight

condemned
my
new biography
of Frederick Douglass for seeking to
“co-opt” Douglass and for “cherry-pick[ing] his
words to advance [my] narrow vision of libertarianism.” This
is wrong, Blight insists, because Douglass was not really the
individualist that he himself claimed to be. “Without many
people,” writes Blight, “especially women (his
grandmother, two wives, a daughter and countless abolitionist women
who supported his career) as well as male mentors, both white and
black, he would not have survived and become Douglass.”

That’s certainly true, and Douglass often said so. In his
famous celebration of “Self-Made
Men”
— his most popular lecture, and one he
delivered scores of times in the last half of his life —
Douglass began by noting that “Properly speaking, there are
in the world no such men as self-made men…. It must in truth be
said, though it may not accord well with self-conscious
individuality and self-conceit, that no possible native force of
character, and no depth of wealth and originality, can lift a man
into absolute independence of his fellowmen.”

Yet Douglass also saw that this did not vitiate the honor of
those distinctive individuals who overcome obstacles and make
something special of themselves without having the advantages of
birth and wealth. These were the “self-made men” that
Douglass defined as people “who are not brought up but who
are obliged to come up…[who] are in a peculiar sense, indebted to
themselves for themselves…. If they have ascended high, they have
built their own ladder.”

A fierce individualist, Douglass emphasized that nothing could
give people freedom—they had to claim it for themselves, and
they had to do …read more

Source: OP-EDS

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