200 years ago yesterday one of the greatest Americans of all time was born....maybe. Frederick Douglass was born a slave in Talbot County Md., sometime during the first half of February. Records were spotty back then, doubly so for slaves. Regardless, he chose February 14th to be the date he celebrated his birth, far be it from me to contradict such a remarkable man. Born a slave, he fled north to gain his freedom on September 3, 1838 and became a tireless advocate for abolition. When asked about how he felt on that date, he later said:
I have often been asked, how I felt when first I found myself on free soil. And my readers may share the same curiosity. There is scarcely anything in my experience about which I could not give a more satisfactory answer. A new world had opened upon me. If life is more than breath, and the 'quick round of blood,' I lived more in one day than in a year of my slave life. It was a time of joyous excitement which words can but tamely describe. In a letter written to a friend soon after reaching New York, I said: 'I felt as one might feel upon escape from a den of hungry lions.' Anguish and grief, like darkness and rain, may be depicted; but gladness and joy, like the rainbow, defy the skill of pen or pencil.
He settled with his wife in New Beford, Massachusetts, and for the next half century was an American Colossus, demanding nothing less than that this nation be worthy of the ideals expressed in it's founding documents. He died of a massive heart attack on February 20, 1895, leaving behind a legacy of, quite literally, truth, justice and the American way.
He's not in vogue much these days, not only was he (horrors!) a black Republican, but the values of equality that he preached so eloquently don't play so well in an era of identity politics. For example:
"Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe."
“People might not get all they work for in this world, but they must certainly work for all they get.”
“To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.”
“I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”― Frederick Douglass
Not exactly quotes that play well down at the little red schoolhouse. In any event, it is appropriate that 14 February, his adopted birthday, we should all take a moment to remember one of the true giants of American history, and to be grateful for everything he did to shape this nation into a shining city on the hill.
Read some of his greatest quotes here.