Speeches

Mr. President,

Two hundred years ago this month, a man was born into slavery in a cabin not far from here in Maryland.

The child knew his mother only briefly; they were cruelly separated when he was young. He knew his father only by the rumors.

He didn't even know the exact day of his birth. Yes, even his birthday - that foundational aspect of identity -was denied him by the cruel master of slavery.

This slave was whipped and beaten. His days were filled with toil, his nights with restless turning on a packed dirt floor.

But that is not where the story ends.

No, it is only the beginning of the incredible life of Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist, orator-and one of the greatest Americans ever to live.

As Douglass would later write in his memoirs, "You have seen how a man was made a slave. You shall see how a slave was made a man."

For all its terrible might-its bloodhounds and implements of torture-slavery was not built to withstand Frederick Douglass, just as it was not built to withstand the universal desire for freedom in the heart of man.

The first step to freedom, Douglass knew, was education. So he taught himself to read-in secrecy, because slaves were punished for learning to read.

Around the time he was 12, he got hold of an old textbook called The Columbian Orator.

Little did Douglass know, but around that time the same textbook was being studied on the Illinois prairie by a gangly young man named Abraham Lincoln.

In that textbook, Douglass found speeches by George Washington and Benjamin Franklin-men who revolted against tyranny to claim their liberty.

He also found in this book a fictional dialogue between a slave and his master, where the master brought forward "the whole argument in behalf of slavery, all of which was disposed of by the slave."

This exchange, Douglass wrote, "gave tongue to interesting thoughts of [his] soul." It kindled his burning conviction that slavery was wrong and he must escape it.

From that moment on, Douglass was a grave threat to the institution of slavery: He was free in his own mind.

Douglass's journey "from the tomb of slavery to the heaven of freedom" would go through many dramatic twists and turns before its conclusion.

When a notorious slave-breaker tried to beat him for disobeying orders, Douglass wrestled him into submission.

He insisted on being treated as a man-and from that day forward he was never whipped again.

Douglass's first attempt at escape was a failure-thwarted at the last minute by a betrayal of confidence.

He did not fail a second time. In 1838, traveling in disguise under an assumed identity, Douglass took a steamboat North to "the blessedness of freedom."

At this point in the story, you might expect Douglass to fade from history to enjoy a modest, tranquil life with his wife and children.

But no, the former slave who taught himself to read through the words of Cicero and Washington went on to be history's most eloquent witness against slavery.

He denounced the bloody institution in a thousand speeches and from the pages of his own abolitionist newspaper, The North Star.

And he denounced slavery firmly from inside the American tradition.

Like many radical abolitionists, Frederick Douglass was at times profoundly ambivalent about his country.

Indeed, there was a time in his early adulthood when he hated the United States, preferring disunion to "union with slaveholders."

But Frederick Douglass later came to a different conclusion about America.

When he read the nation's Founding Documents, he did not find codified defenses of slavery-to the contrary, he found that the compromises the Founders had made to slavery were meant to undermine that institution over time, not sustain it.

What Douglass found in the Founders was quite different than he had expected.

Their message, he later said, "is 'We the People'; not we the white people, not even we the citizens. Not we the privileged class, not we the high, not we the low, but we the People."

Douglass was an activist, yes. A militant, yes, who led recruiting drives for black soldiers during the Civil War. But for all his righteous anger, he did not want to cast aside the principles of his country.

Douglass knew the most powerful antidote to injustice was found within the American tradition, with its insistence on natural rights for all men.

"From the first," Douglass wrote, "I saw no chance of bettering the condition of the freedman until he should cease to be merely a freedman and should become a citizen. The liberties of the American people [are] dependent upon the ballot-box, the jury-box, and the cartridge-box without these no class of people could live and flourish in this country."

Mr. President, Frederick Douglass has many lessons to teach us, if we are willing to listen.

I would like to highlight one more, which I think is especially relevant to us today.

At the end of his famous autobiography, Frederick Douglass contrasted two societies: The slave-holding society he was born into, and the Northern society where he was reborn in freedom.

The slave society he described was built on force and fraud. Its religion had been perverted to serve earthly idols. Its families were torn apart at the auction block. Its workers toiled to no reward.

This society had been poisoned by its rejection of the American Creed by its insistence that all men are not created equal.

Indeed, it had become an authoritarian society that policed movement, association, even intimacy. And for what? To protect a hideous falsehood.

The free society Douglass described was different.

Here, a man could hold an honest job-and he worked because his work was rewarded, not because he feared punishment.

Here, a runaway slave could make a name for himself, rising to a position of esteem in his community through his service. Here, a family could put down roots and flourish.

Those are two very different societies, guided by different beliefs.

One is a weak community hiding behind a show of strength. The other is a strong, free community with nothing to hide.

Today we are blessedly free from the institution of slavery, but our communities have their own problems.

The American family is in crisis. Our prisons are full and our pews are empty. Heroin and opioids enslave millions. Many more are killed before they get a chance to live.

Yes, we have our own battles to fight. In too many ways, we have fallen short of the high principles of our nation.

That ultimately is why the legacy of Frederick Douglass is so important.

He implored his generation to heal itself of its greatest disease. He calls us to do the same.

Thank you.