American history abounds with great orators whose eloquence roused the people and shaped events.
Names like Patrick Henry, Daniel Webster, William Lloyd Garrison, Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King come to mind.
The best of them spoke with passion because their words sprung from character or experience or righteous indignation – and in the case of the great 19th Century American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, all three. He could pierce the conscience of the most stubborn foe by what he said and how he said it.
It’s worth reflecting on the life and words of this great man born 200 years ago this year. His story is remarkable considering the circumstances of his birth and early life.
Douglass was born a slave in Maryland in 1818. He never knew who his father was, and his mother died when he was seven. He spoke in later life about how hard it was on him to be forbidden to see her when she was ill, to be with her when she died or to attend her funeral.
Slaves were rarely educated beyond the rudiments of plantation duties. Douglass was naturally precocious and in quiet times and places, he schooled himself – even memorizing orations of Cicero and William Pitt.
As a slave, Douglass endured endless hardships and witnessed the separation of families, arbitrary punishments and unspeakable cruelty. During it all, he taught himself to play the classical masters, like Handel, on the violin and nurtured a burning desire free himself from bondage. In 1838, he managed a risky escape to freedom. Then he committed himself to getting rid of slavery everywhere. His weapon of choice would not be gun, sword or cannon, but the spoken and written word.
He went on to be America’s most recognized and celebrated black man in the five decades before his death in 1895. He advised presidents and foreign dignitaries and authored no less than three autobiographies.
Slavery, of course, was his prime target, and he could express its inherent evil better than just about anybody. Consider this excerpt from a lecture in 1850:
I have shown that slavery is wicked – wicked, in that it violates the great law of liberty, written on every human heart – wicked, in that it violates the first command of the Decalogue – wicked, in that it fosters the most disgusting licentiousness – wicked, in that it mars and defaces the image of God by cruel and barbarous inflictions – wicked, in that it contravenes the laws of eternal justice, and tramples in the dust all the humane and heavenly precepts of the New Testament.
Freedom, he believed, was God-ordained for people of all colors. However, it requires hard work and determination to realize it and defend it. In his words, “A man’s rights rest in three boxes: The ballot box, the jury box and the cartridge box.” Furthermore, Douglass believed that “The life of the nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful and virtuous.”
Frederick Douglass played a pivotal role in the transformation of the American conscience. Among those in America who help accomplish that noble objective, Frederick Douglass was one who used words as weapons to amazing and lasting effect.
Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president of the Foundation for Economic Education. He writes about exceptional people, including many from his book, “Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character and Conviction.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org