Tag Archives: Frederick Douglass

Hit Me Once Again: The Top Five Posts of 2012

0903declaraJust in time to finish up the first week of 2013, here is the first-ever list of the five most popular posts of the previous year.

Frankly, before 2012 I was reluctant to attempt a Top Ten or Top Five list. I maintain what I consider a healthy sense of proportion regarding my modest efforts as a commentator on the history of the Founding Period, American political culture, and the link between the nation’s past and contemporary politics. However, thanks to you the reader 2012 was the year that “The Shout Heard ‘Round The World” gained modest but respectable attention. Some of my most-read posts  generated several hundred views a day. That hardly puts me in the same realm as the Internet’s most popular bloggers, but the stats made me sit up and take notice. Apparently, I was joined by more than a few of you.

So, here are 2012’s Top Five — half as many as on Dave Letterman’s show, but twice as interesting:

No. 1: The provocatively titled “Is Slavery Really America’s ‘Original Sin’?” led the pack, a surprising result to me simply because the post was more of an effort to inform readers about independent scholarship rather than offer my opinion on the topic. The article directs readers to the an essay by Baylor University professor historian  Thomas S. Kidd, who examines the question of whether the Founders needed moral perfection in order for us to respect their accomplishments during the American Revolution and the early Constitutional period.

No. 2: My article in praise of Frederick Douglass and his understanding of the Declaration of Independence’s promise of political and economic freedom to all Americans. 

No. 3: Could 2012 pass me by without a comparison between the zombie apocalypse, the dueling notions of the social contract in the United States, and the U.S. presidential election?  I’d rather be eaten alive. Considering the average American’s taste in political news, I really thought this would be the No. 1 post, but numbers never lie. By the way, a hat tip to the nice people at ThirdRailers.com for picking up this piece for re-publication.

No. 4: My musings on Mr. Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address and how Lincoln’s rhetorical power is repeatedly based on the norms of rights, equality, and consent of the governed that he accepted as the basis for a civil society called the United States of America.

N0. 5: The world-wide influence of the Declaration included an admirer that might surprise most Americans: Ho Chi Minh drew his ideas (at least in part) from the document when he drafted the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence in 1945.

Finally, I will play favorites: My own pick for what I consider the best post of the year was my essay on Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and its importance as the best cinematic explanation of how radically this nation needed to change in order for Jefferson’s promise of equality to take hold in the lives of all Americans.

Once again, Happy New Year! Soon, I get past the post-holiday sloth that has plagued me recently, and you will see even more posts during 2013. I am grateful for each and every one of you, the real reason why I write “The Shout Heard ‘Round The World.”



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Frederick Douglass, Classical Liberal

Frederick Douglass

A new book by Nicholas Buccola offers a fresh look at the political thinking of a man who makes frequent appearances at this blog: Frederick Douglass, the redoubtable 19th century abolitionist and former slave.  In The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass: In Pursuit of American Liberty, Buccola  writes that “Douglass’s arguments against slavery are, in a very important sense, arguments for liberalism.” Douglass enthusiastically embraced a “robust conception of mutual responsibility” and “the ideas of universal self-ownership, natural rights, limited government, and an ethos of self-reliance.”  If that sounds like familiar ideas, then you have probably read the Declaration of Independence and its  list of grievances. Douglass certainly did: His powerful 1852 speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” issues a call to paternalistic white abolitionists to consider what independence truly means. Reason Magazine offers a great review of the book. Remember, classical liberalism is broadly defined as the political and economic ideology of self-reliance, personal independence, and a limited government that secures rights and does not grant rights. It is a far cry from the progressive movement and its post-1960s transformation of the word to mean an embrace of centralized government power, government securing social and economic equality, and dependence and reliance on government to ensure equality of outcome. A dose of Frederick Douglass’s liberalism would be sound medicine for the illnesses wrought by the two major parties today and current national politics.

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“Sable Soldiers” Lived The Declaration of Independence During the U.S. Civil War

“The Old Flag Never Touched The Ground” by Rick Reeves

Today marks the anniversary of the attack on Battery (Fort) Wagner in 1863 by the soldiers of one of America’s first black regiments during the U.S. Civil War, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. The exploits and struggles of this heroic unit are presented in the marvelous 1989 film Glory, a movie that earned Denzel Washington a well-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. (I might also add the film also offered Matthew Broderick a.k.a. Ferris Bueller the opportunity to deliver his most powerful and mature performance as an actor up to that point in his career.) Looking at today’s round-up of news on my Google home page disappointed me: I did not see one story that recognized this significant date in U.S. history. Of course, in a world where there are millions of news stories floating around on the Internet I could have simply not seen the recognition that is out there somewhere.
But the absence is one keenly felt for reasons germane to this blog. Both North and South, the adversaries in the U.S. Civil were firmly convinced that they were fighting the Second American Revolution. In the South, that meant a war to gain independence from a “tyrannical” northern government that did not respect property rights and the “right to rise” based on the ownership of slaves. In the North, many believed the war would complete the work that Thomas Jefferson started with the words “all men are created equal.” North and South, black Americans whether slave or free knew the war was about their freedom in both Jeffersonian and practical terms. None other than Frederick Douglass urged fellow black men to join the fight. “Who would be free themselves must strike the blow….I urge you to fly to arms and smite to death the power that would bury the Government and your liberty in the same hopeless grave. This is your golden opportunity.”

Regrettably, bigotry was the greatest obstacle to the service of those brave men. To retain the loyalty of the remaining border states (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri) President Abraham Lincoln insisted at first that the war was not about slavery or black rights. It was a war to preserve the Union. Early in the war, most white northerners were not interested in fighting to free slaves or in giving rights to black people. The government turned away African-American volunteers who rushed to enlist. Lincoln at first upheld the laws barring blacks from the army, proving to northern whites that their race privilege would not be threatened.
However, even if Lincoln was not ready to admit it, blacks knew that this was a war against slavery. Many black leaders such as Douglass called from the beginning to lift the ban on black soldiers. A de facto revocation of the ban occurred on August 6, 1861, when fugitive slaves were declared to be “contraband of war” if their labor had been used to aid the Confederacy in any way. If found to be contraband i.e. illegally held property, slaves were declared free and frequently employed by Union forces as laborers (a common job was gravedigger, a role portrayed with both dignity and sly humor by Morgan Freeman in Glory), cooks, and menial workers. But many, many blacks still wanted to take up arms “like the old boys in the Revolution” – a phrase potent with the memory that nearly 20 percent of the Continental Army had been black soldiers who had fought for American independence.
After the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln relented for two reasons. As much as Lincoln hated slavery, it is obvious that he maintained some of the racial attitudes of his age including doubts regarding the intelligence and abilities of blacks as a whole. Those attitudes changed in later years, particularly during his time in the White House when he met and befriended Douglass and Sojourner Truth, as well as when he began to know intimately blacks who worked as domestic staff in the White House such as his manservant William Johnson and Mary Todd Lincoln’s seamstress and confidant Elizabeth Keckley. Political more than personal reasons probably outweighed most of the factors that led to the president dragging his heels about black soldiers in the Union Army, but by 1863 one thing was obvious: If the United States had any hope of winning, it needed African-American troops. Lincoln finally embraced the idea that an untapped reservoir of dedicated and highly motivated volunteers eagerly awaited their chance to prove themselves on the battlefield.
The 54th Massachusetts was seen by abolitionists as noble experiment. To many whites in the North it was a questionable sop thrown to anti-slavery Republicans to keep their votes. To Southerners, the soldiers were deemed a danger to society and promised a death sentence if captured. Blacks were offered less pay than white soldiers – in fact, both the white officers of the unit and the African-American soldiers refused to accept any pay until the War Department paid both white and black enlisted soldiers equally. The men who fought in the 54th Massachusetts knew they faced vicious bigotry and unrelenting skepticism. However, their desire to fight for a nation that at least held out the hope of freedom and independence to black Americans and their embrace of what was almost a blood oath to prove their manhood prompted them to fight with immense bravery and tenacity. One surviving member of the unit’s attack on Battery Wagner described black troops before the assault as a “mighty host of men, about to plunge themselves into the fiery vortex of hell.” It is important to note that the 54th Massachusetts volunteered for the mission, an attack that could be easily called suicidal.
I have so much respect for those “sable soldiers” who many would have thought had nothing to gain by fighting for a nation that had embraced racism as the main justification for enslaving one particular group of people. Yet, as has happened so often before the ideas that make the United States what it is, the ideas so well articulated in the Declaration of Independence, inspired men of various racial backgrounds to fight for the survival of the “the last, best hope of Earth.” If you are interested in learning more about the 54th Massachusetts, I strongly urge you do two things: Read One Gallant Rush by Peter Burchard and visit the Web site “Written In Glory: Letters from the Soldiers and Officers of the 54th Massachusetts.” The blacks who served in the Civil War are some of the greatest heroes the U.S. armed forces ever possessed. Efforts to take the fort and destroy its guns were thwarted in brutal hand-to-hand combat and the unit suffered 50 percent casualties, but even doubters acknowledged that African-American soldiers could serve with bravery and distinction. Approximately 180,000 “colored troops” comprising 163 units served in the Union Army during the Civil War, and many more served in the Union Navy. Few people of any race in American history have personified the pledge of their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.

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“I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong”: Frederick Douglass and America’s Salvation

Frederick Douglass

There is one notable American whose deep belief in the principles of the Declaration of Independence is often overshadowed by today’s Presidents’ Day celebration. February 20 is the date of the death of Frederick Douglass (c. 1818-1895), a nineteenth-century orator, abolitionist, diplomat, and writer who was the most powerful for voice for equality between the races in Antebellum and Civil War America.
Born a slave, as a child he realized that literacy carried power and benefits in society. He asked the wife of one of his owners, Mrs. Sophia Auld, to teach him to read. When he learned the alphabet under her tutelage and could spell a few short words, his master forbade any further instruction. He continued on his own and taught himself to read using The Columbian Orator, a book of speeches and dialogues so popular that in remained in print throughout the 1800s. This book had a lasting impact on the young man. In it he read the speeches of William Pitt, George Washington, Cicero and others, and poems in the book which praised patriotism, courage, education, temperance, and freedom. Decades later, Douglass met Abraham Lincoln (who had also benefited from the book) and they both discussed the impression it had made on their intellectual development.
Douglass escaped slavery in 1838, travelling north until he eventually settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts to work in shipyards. However, his obvious intelligence and oratorical gifts led to him giving speeches for local abolition societies. He was such a fine speaker, and equally fine writer, that many considered him a fraud – evidence of the contemporary racist idea that blacks were the intellectual inferiors of whites. He went on to edit an abolitionist newspaper, which became one of the mostly widely read anti-slavery publications in the nation.
Of all men, Frederick Douglass had the least cause to believe in a nation that had deprived him of the natural right to liberty. Despite his background as an enslaved American who had lived under Southern concepts of liberty that justified human chattel, Douglass used the Declaration as the inspiration for perhaps the greatest anti-slavery speech given before the Civil War. Douglas delivered the speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” on July 5, 1852, before a packed audience at an anti-slavery meeting in Rochester, New York. Tempers were high and disgust with the United States widespread among the audience, which was mostly sympathetic whites aligned with William Lloyd Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society. Garrison had declared that both the Founders and the U.S. Constitution were racist, and had even recently argued that the North should secede from the South. Douglass rejected this view, declaring that the American Revolution and the ideas espoused in the Declaration were admirable, uniting the nation:

Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men, too, great enough to give frame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.

If the principles they contended for united all Americans (black and white, slave and free) then there was unfinished business that should be based on those American principles, including the self-evident truth that all men are created equal.
Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? That he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it. Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery? Is that a question for republicans? Is it to be settled by the rules of logic and argumentation, as a matter beset with great difficulty, involving a doubtful application of the principle of justice, hard to be understood? How should I look to-day in the presence of Americans, dividing and subdividing a discourse, to show that men have a natural right to freedom, speaking of it relatively and positively, negatively and affirmatively? To do so, would be to make myself ridiculous, and to offer an insult to your understanding. There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.

If logic would not work, shame did – the speech was a rousing success.
Douglass is one of this nation’s greatest citizens. His autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is a testament of human freedom and deep faith in the hope of better things to come for him and his race. After the U.S. Civil War, he held numerous public offices including U.S. Marshal and counsel-general to the nation of Haiti. In 1888 during the Republican National Convention, he was also the first black American to receive a nominating convention vote as a presidential candidate from a major party. He remained a tireless opponent of racism and bigotry, whether toward blacks, American Indians, immigrants, or women. “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong,” he once said. Frederick Douglass deserves more recognition from a nation that finally realized the promise “all men are created equal” is truly the national creed.


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Some Presidents’ Day Reflections Regarding the Importance of the Declaration of Independence


As Presidents’ Day comes our way, it is a good time reflect on the creation of a nation where the chief executive is not the locus of government power, but power is derived from the “consent of the governed.” (By the way, “Presidents’ Day” is a misnomer. The Federal government sets the third Monday of February as George Washington’s Birthday.)  American presidents come and go. However, there are basic assummptions about the Declaration of Independence that every American should know, and every American should use as the touchstone for proper government — especially American presidents.

The Declaration of Independence was a necessary and vital statement made at a time when the success of the American Revolution was doubtful and government by ordinary people was considered a novel experiment (at best).

When the Second Continental Congress issued the Declaration, it was a powerful reminder to a “candid world” that in all of European history no colony had ever successfully separated from a mother country to form an independent nation. Furthermore, the Declaration made it clear that the United States would be founded on Enlightenment principles such as good government is based on a respect of natural rights and the people have a right to alter or abolish a government that does not respect those rights. Equally important, the Declaration is based on an American concept of liberty that became the standard for nation, even though its principles were considered experimental at best by the European political class of the times. “A decent respect for the opinions of mankind” compelled the Second Continental Congress to explain what they were doing. George III and many British considered the Americans rebels and traitors, which by definition meant they were beyond the law and beyond the sovereign’s protection. The Declaration was a political manifesto, de facto declaration of war, and statement of the Americans’ right to exist as a free nation of people possessing liberties endowed by their Creator.


The Declaration of Independence was the product of a democratic process that was the broadest expression of rights and liberties in the world at the time.

Americans by the thousands debated the question of independence for months before the actual Declaration was finally issued and signed. Thomas Paine, the “firebrand of liberty,” persuaded tens of thousands of Americans with the first call for a declaration in his wildly popular tract Common Sense. Although Thomas Jefferson is the main author of the Declaration and was charged by the Continental Congress to write the “rough draught” of the document, he was one member of “The Committee of Five” comprised of congressional delegates Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston. Each offered comments and exerted influence that either overtly or subtly swayed the genesis of the document. The Congress, meeting as a Committee of the Whole, debated the Declaration and edited it (including the well-known decision to strike language condemning the slave trade and slavery). When the Declaration was approved and signed by John Hancock (presiding officer of the Congress) and Charles Thomson (the secretary of the Congress), about 200 copies were printed for distribution throughout all 13 states and to the Continental Army, which was in the field fighting the British Army. In addition, it was published in newspapers and circulated as broadsides. Even with the omission of language calling for the end of slavery, the Declaration was embraced by men, women, free blacks, and slaves as the promise of a new order for the ages: a government based on the idea that ordinary people could govern themselves.

 The Declaration of Independence placed everything the Patriots held dear – their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor – in danger of utter destruction.

By signing their names to the Declaration, the delegates to the Continental Congress likely faced doom if the British captured them or prevailed in the Revolutionary War. The Declaration an was act of treason, punishable by public disgrace and execution by hanging. They were the de facto leadership of the United States, and by issuing the Declaration as an internationally circulated statement of intentions they had bluntly stated that they would pursue revolution, not reconciliation.  People declared rebels in Scotland and Ireland earlier in the century had suffered terrible fates, and there was no reason to believe any signer would fare any better. Ordinary Americans fighting for independence faced an equally grim fate. The men and women, white and black, who helped create this nation did so in the face of real danger and great cost – and that sacrifice in the name of principles embodied in the Declaration should be acknowledged, understood, and remembered.

The Declaration of Independence is a relevant document  important to the survival of our nation today.

The Declaration helps define us as the land of the free. It has been called by some “the birth notice of the nation,” and it is the first significant statement of the basic freedoms acknowledged as distinctly American. Even with the survival of slavery in the new republic, it set the standard for what the nation should become. Abraham Lincoln used its most important idea to call for a “new birth of freedom” during this nation’s most devastating war fought to end slavery. Civil rights leaders from Reconstruction through the 1960s held up the Declaration’s ideals to remind this nation of its failures in the realm of political equality and liberty. Martin Luther King Jr. used its words to remind a tormented and divided generation that the hope for America was the survival of the American system of liberty and democracy when given to all of the nation’s citizens. Women from Abigail Adams to the suffragettes laid claim to its promises, and still do. Its words remind us that the idea of being “American” is not simply based on the activity of enjoying the economic advantages of this nation’s economy, or simply recognizing the United States as a geographic reality. The words of the Declaration help define us as a unique people, and the value of those words is incalculable at a time when foreign enemies who wish to impose another world system upon our countrymen through violence and terror offer no apology for the words that define them.

The main promise of the Declaration – “that all men are created equal” – is not a racist or sexist statement. It is a promise to all people, at all times.

            There is more at stake here then the nature of the English language in the eighteenth century, although it is clear that the Founders meant “all humankind” when they used the word “men.” According to the Declaration, human beings are born equal in life and liberty and we are by nature equally free and independent. We are unequal in ways too numerous to list categorically (such as wealth, status, talents, physical attributes, and many others), but no human, class of humans, or group of humans is superior to another human, class of humans, or group of humans. This is the most important idea in the Declaration of Independence, the basis for true political equality in the United States, and the cynosure of human rights for great Americans such as the Founding Fathers and Mothers, Abraham Lincoln, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It excludes no class or race of Americans but embraces all who are willing to acknowledge this self-evident truth.


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Struggling for Independence: Some Reflections on a Coincidence

At first glance, the article seems to be an exercise in the history of coincidences, even a gimmick to display the irony of common people sharing the names of uncommon men. The New York Times feature “Lens: Photography, Video and Visual Journalism” has presented the portraits of individuals who share the names of American presidents. The results are somewhat predictable: A retired Atlantic City firefighter who was the butt of jokes because his name is Richard Nixon, or the story of Ronald Reagan of Syracuse, New York, who loves the name his son hates. (In a spirit of bipartisanship, it should be noted a man named after John F. Kennedy concedes his name didn’t help his reputation with the ladies.)

However, one photo of a presidential namesake from the December 1 edition captures more than ironies although many are obvious. Thomas Jefferson, a combat veteran crippled by a stroke and troubled by his past substance abuse, appears in his wheelchair posed in the Assembly Room of Independence Hall. As you will recall, this was the home of the Continental Congress and the room famously portrayed in the beautiful (though highly stylized and very inaccurate) Jonathan Trumbull portrait showing the presentation of the Declaration of Independence. The contemporary Mr. Jefferson, who is black, looks at the camera calmly, surrounded by the tables covered by green baize where his namesake presented the words “all men are created equal.”  In my opinion, the photo is electrifying.

Visual poetry, to be sure, full of things that are the staff of life at the Times: The contradictions of American democracy, the sufferings of various minorities, and the image of great places humbled by the presence of ordinary Americans. However, I suggest the photo captures an additional idea. The Declaration brought black Americans into that room in 1776, into the very presence of those who forged the identity of the United States and made it a nation. The escape from slavery would not be found in the U.S. Constitution, a document of compromise that would not even grant full humanity to slaves (witness the famous Federal Ratio), or in the Bill of Rights (where slaves, as chattel property, belonged to their masters with the full force of Amendment 5 and its promise that Americans would not be deprived of their property without due process or just compensation). It is no accident that the abolition movement quickly turned to the Declaration for its inspiration.

Much has been said and written about the Jefferson’s Rough Draught and its original anti-slavery clause that was struck from the final version of the Declaration by a vote of the men in that room. That, too, was another compromise in the name of colonial unity and state-making. In it, Jefferson spared no criticism of the institution in which he participated as he laid blame for the slave trade at the feet of George III:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

Congress struck that section. Yet, it is too easy to speak of the contradictions and hypocrisy of that decision. They are there – but so is another section that exists in the Declaration’s final form.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Frederick Douglass

That is the section containing the political powder keg: “All men are created equal.” Jefferson and the Congress wrote that God gave humanity equal political rights. Arguments regarding what the Founder’s concept of “men” in the language of the 18th century and the political ideology of liberty abound, but the men in that room were intelligent individuals capable of understanding the door that they would open with that phrase. People outside of the room certainly understood the meaning. For example, as the nation moved forward both the Jeffersonians and the apologists for Jacksonian Democracy argued that they were the guardians of American liberty, which include the expansion of political rights. Abolitionists black and white seized the same ideas and ran toward the logical conclusion that America’s founding statement applied to all people in the United States. (Women, too, would argue for their political emancipation through suffrage and equal right using the rationale of the Declaration.) No wonder Frederick Douglass once wrote, “Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration … With them, nothing was ‘settled’ that was not right. With them, justice, liberty and humanity were ‘final;’ not slavery and oppression.”

I wish the contemporary Mr. Jefferson nothing but peace, hope, and a long life. I am glad that the other Mr. Jefferson gave us a road map that gives his namesake (and all of us) a fighting chance to find those things in the United States.

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