The following excerpt is adapted from a speech delivered at Hillsdale College on May 12, 2017, at the dedication of a statue of Frederick Douglass on the College’s Liberty Walk.
Frederick Douglass, a former slave and a leading abolitionist writer and orator, was the most photographed American of the 19th century. And as you at Hillsdale College know, one of the most famous photographs of Douglass was taken in this town, just a few weeks after President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation. At the invitation of a ladies literary society, Douglass came to Hillsdale and spoke in the College Chapel on January 21, 1863. The title of his lecture was “Popular Error and Unpopular Truth.” As reported in the newspaper, Douglass said: “There was no such thing as new truth. Error might be old or new; but truth was as old as the universe.”
A “popular error” of our own day is the idea that because Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, nothing good could come from him. Douglass surely knew that Jefferson owned slaves, but he knew as well that Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence, which supplied for Douglass and for all Americans the key to political progress: the principles that “all men are created equal”; that they are “endowed by their Creator [not by government] with certain unalienable Rights,” among which are “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”; and that “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.”
Douglass called these “saving principles,” and he devoted himself to convincing white Americans “to trust [these principles’] operation.” In this he foreshadowed Justice John Marshall Harlan’s lone dissent against the Supreme Court’s infamous Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which produced the nefarious doctrine of “separate but equal.” Harlan wrote: “Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.”
Thirty years before Plessy, Douglass observed that the Constitution “knows no distinction between citizens on account of color.” The “burden of our demand upon the American people shall simply be justice and fair play,” he said. “We utterly repudiate all invidious distinctions, whether in our favor or against us, and only ask for a fair field, and no favor.”
Douglass was no fan of “race pride,” counting it “a positive evil” and a “false foundation.” For the better part of American history, black Americans wanted nothing to do with a color line that set them apart from other Americans. “It has long been the desire of our enemies,” Douglass wrote, “to deepen and widen the line of separation between the white and colored people of this country.” For Douglass, the only relevant minority in America was the minority of one—the individual. The government of all should be partial to none.
The politics of identity make the present a prisoner of the past, with individuals viewed chiefly through the lens of race or other arbitrary characteristics. Douglass argued for identifying with America—with the nation founded on “human brotherhood and the self-evident truths of liberty and equality.” He saw that the protection of specific groups or classes would lead government away from protecting individual rights and towards assigning benefits and burdens. “I know of no rights of race,” he said, “superior to the rights of humanity.”
A few months after Lincoln’s assassination, Douglass remarked that the American people saw in Lincoln “a full length portrait of themselves. In him they saw their better qualities represented, incarnated, and glorified—and as such, they loved him.” In future days, may those who look on this statue see in Frederick Douglass a full-length portrait of themselves, and be reminded what it is to be an American.