- [upbeat music]
SHILO BROOKS: Welcome back to The Free Mind podcast, where we discuss philosophic and political ideas with adventurous disregard for intellectual trends. I'm Shilo Brooks from the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I'm joined today by Lucas Morel, John K. Boardman Jr. Professor of Politics and head of the Politics Department at Washington and Lee University. Lucas is a trustee of the Supreme Court Historical Society, former president of the Abraham Lincoln Institute and author of two books on Abraham Lincoln, titled Lincoln's Sacred Effort and Lincoln and the American Founding. He's also written widely on the great novelist, Ralph Ellison. Our discussion today encompasses the life and legacy of Frederick Douglass. We explore the political lessons Douglass teaches in his autobiographies, his thoughts on freedom, religion and the American Constitution. And we consider how Douglass's reflections on slavery and race can enrich contemporary discussions of civil rights. Lucas Morel, welcome to the Free Mind podcast.
LUCAS MOREL: Thank you for the invite.
SHILO BROOKS: I wanted to talk to you today a little bit about a great American, Frederick Douglass, and this is somebody that I've taught, I know you've taught a lot, and it's somebody who I think his relevance seems to never go away and perhaps he's more relevant now than ever. And so I thought we might start out by talking a little bit about who Douglass was for people who don't know. Maybe you could outline what you think are some of his most important writings, and then give us a sort of an account of why you think his books and speeches have endured so long and continue to do so.
LUCAS MOREL: Great, that was a fantastic question. He is a great American, one of my heroes. My expertise, or at least my training in scholarship and teaching, is focused on Abraham Lincoln. And you can't talk about Lincoln, at least during the Civil War, without talking about Frederick Douglass, who was one of his fans, but also fiercest critics, because he was such a rock-ribbed abolitionist. So who is Frederick Douglass? Douglass was a man that was born about 10 years after Lincoln, 1818, 1819, we don't know because we don't have a birth certificate. But he was born to a slave master and a slave mom. The enslaved, as we say today. And didn't really get an up close and personal experience with slavery until he was more in kind of the middle school teenage years, but he saw enough of it when he was little to know how horrible it was, even though he grew up in Maryland.
I mean, it wasn't what we call the Deep South and being so down the river where things were really nasty. But essentially his claim to fame is that he escaped from slavery and became world famous by publishing an autobiography called The Narrative of an American Slave, Frederick Douglass and written by himself, as he writes in the title. He became famous because here's an escaped slave that writes the King's English, it's so eloquent and in short it's taught in pretty much all the colleges today. He went on to write two more autobiographies, one in 1845, one in 1855, and then one in the 1880s that he revised a little bit. There's a book that was published a few years ago that says a fairly credible claim that he was probably the most photographed man in the United States of the 19th century. I mean, he lived in almost every decade of the 19th century, died in 1895, and next to William Lloyd Garrison, which I think is, he was the most famous abolitionist in the United States. He was an editor of a newspaper called The Liberator that was published from 1831 until the 13th amendment was ratified in December of 1865. He was a mentor of Frederick Douglass when Frederick Douglass escaped with the help of his wife, Anna, and when they made it up to Massachusetts and then eventually to Rochester, New York, he got onto the abolitionist or abolition circuit with William Lloyd Garrison and got to experience that, became an orator and then an editor of his own newspaper, which got him into some trouble with William Garrison because Garrison already had a newspaper.
But Douglass said, look, you know, I'm an escaped slave, I'm Black, I think I've got that insight on this that you might not want, and the world needs to know about this. They also got into a major squabble over the meaning of the Constitution. For the longest time Frederick Douglass believed what Garrison believed, which was that it was a pro-slavery document. Then once he started reading some more, and was prompted to read some more because he was editing his own newspaper called the North Star, between 1847 and 1951, and then became Frederick Douglass' Paper. Doing his own reading, or at least a deeper dive if you will, he was persuaded by guys like Lysander Spooner, Garrett Smith, the major benefactor of his, William Goodell and a few other folks, he became persuaded that actually, as he put it in an 1852 speech, it leans towards freedom, it's a glorious liberty document. Actually that's what he said in the 1852 speech.
So that got him in trouble with William Lloyd Garrison, because Garrison was not only an abolitionist, he was a pacifist. He was not what is known as a political abolitionist. He was a moral suasionist. And Garrisonians did not believe that you could use earthly measures, in other words, the institutions of government political parties, holding office, even laws, he thought that you couldn't force bad people to do good things. And so they had to come under the conviction of God, the Holy Spirit, if you will. And all you could do is tell them what they were doing wrong and you left the rest to God and the slaveholder to reform his ways. And Douglass held that view until about 1849, '50, and then his most famous speech, a lot of talk about that speech this year was this one that's titled "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" Sometimes it's called "What to the Negro is the Fourth of July?" And it's a speech he delivered on July 5, 1852, where it's his first major speech, where he essentially says that he believes the Constitution is pro-liberty, not pro-slavery. Now I've been talking a long time here. Do you wanna remind me of some of the other questions or you want me to just keep. . .
SHILO BROOKS: No, no that's quite good, that's quite good. I mean I like very much the compressed account of his life that you give. And the reason I think this is coming forward. You're right, right? The reason I think it's so important is of course as you mentioned, he wrote three autobiographies. And so one thing that strikes me about Douglass is that in a way he sometimes, various philosophers do this, Douglass seems to do it too. He points back to himself and he seems to say, look at me, what I have to teach you is in me. Now he expresses in the introduction to My Bondage, My Freedom, some reticence about that. He's sort of bashful, thinks it's vain. And he wants to be clear that he's not trying to toot his own horn. He really does think that perhaps the example of his life can teach something, but he's a modest man.
And so I thought what we might do is talk a little bit about the way he uses the story of his life to teach civic and political lessons. And this is along the lines of the question I have for you about why his speeches and books endure so long. There's something about his life, which even though, it's nearly, well, it's 200 years old at this point, you can read that book and you feel like you're living his life, he is able to make you feel like you live his life, even though there's so much time between the two. And so I'm curious both about this manner of teaching, and second, what we can learn from his life, given the fact that he wrote three very odd in a way, three autobiographies.
LUCAS MOREL: Yeah, he's a, as we like to say, a man in full, or more to the point, was it Whitman who says "I contain multitudes?" Well, he contained many multitudes, three autobiographies worth. Here's a guy, of course, who has to make a living. And he's barely getting by on the stump by giving speeches. And in fact, when he has to flee the country in 1845, because he names names in his autobiography, right? He is an outlaw under the United States government. There is a fugitive slave act that will help states enforce their fugitive slave laws. And since he fled Maryland, even though he is physically free of his master, he is insecure in the eyes of the law. He does not have the equal protection of the law. In fact, according to the law, he is outside the law's protection.
So he has to flee in 1845, a few months after his autobiography is published to the UK, to England, he goes to Scotland, Ireland and ends up in London. Gives scores if not hundreds of speeches for two years, until friends of his, both abroad, and Garrison and a few other people back home, pay for his manumission. I think it was 150 pound Sterling, which is over 700 bucks back then, a better exchange rate today. But he would not pay one penny for his own life and liberty. He told people, but he had to explain why he would accept manumission by the payment of others. But that's a more technical and kind of complicated discussion we'd have to have. But essentially he's gone for two years. And the way he's supporting himself outside of just the largess of his abolitionist friends on both sides of the pond is by giving speeches and selling copies of his autobiography. There's an Irish edition. It goes into a second edition while he's there.
So when he comes back home, 10 years after the first one, now it's My Bondage and My Freedom is the second one in 1855. Then one in the late eighties, 1880s. It's part of his livelihood, but more importantly, I think there's two fundamental reasons why we can read Frederick Douglass, with two esses please, not one as I tell my students. There's another Douglas I teach, Steven Douglas who actually was born with two esses and then drops the second one, interestingly enough, around the 1850s. Hmm, but anyway, there's two reasons I think why Douglass resonates today with people, even though none of us are former slaves and none of us are enslaved people. Number one is the guy, as I said earlier, speaks and writes the King's English. He is a marvel in terms of the use, his mastery of the English language. He quotes Shakespeare more than Lincoln does, left, right and center, in fact. And so partly is you just get caught up in the prose, he's a beautiful, lyrical, poetic writer. And you get that, not just in his autobiographies, but you get that in his speeches, which unfortunately are not as well or widely taught. Most of the time people get Douglass in an English lit class or American lit class. And they're not gonna be reading many speeches. If anyting by Douglass you read the autobiography, the first one, 'cause it's really short and because he's awesome, but you need to read his speeches.
The second reason, and I think the more important reason, is because he's a human being. It's the humanity of Frederick Douglass. He writes about his life in a way where he puts you in his shoes. And sometimes that's a pretty scary place to be because of the things he's experiencing, the things he's observing as a slave, as he recounts these things, of course. And of course, everybody says you have to be suspicious of any autobiography. Would you write the unvarnished truth about your own life? And so he was writing for a particular audience for a particular reason, so why he gives speeches, every speech has a particular objective in mind, and it's almost always a political one.
But the humanity of Douglass, here's a guy who actually believed all men are created equal. He believed the words of the Declaration of Independence. He thought that those applied to him because he was a human being, his race, his former condition of servitude was simply, well, his race is an arbitrary characteristic. And the others was a product of force, fraud and legal enforcement. And so what you learned by reading his autobiography, and I would say, especially his speeches, you see a guy who is preaching what he has already practiced. And so when you see him emphasize character, when you see him emphasize the need for a permanent location, not pining away for some country, as you would think would suppose, he did not think that Blacks in America needed to find some African heritage to latch onto. He said there was plenty in their own American past, in heritage, for them to mine for identity. He thought that pining for something else actually keeps them in a paralyzed, uncertain state. And that would be detrimental to their own development individually and detrimental to promoting the civilization, to use an old-fashioned term of the race, given their, again, their previous condition of servitude.
So the fact that he talks about himself as a human being, and what the incentives and disincentives were as a slave and then as a free man to develop himself morally and intellectually, those are the things that resonate with any human being. I mean, it probably comes as a shock to people when they read that in his own autobiography he says that the worst thing about slavery wasn't the physical torments of it, as bad as those were. The worst thing about it is it denied the most fundamental part of who you are as a human being. And that is the development and the exercise of your mind, your reason. And as soon as he saw that his legal master did not want his wife to continue teaching Fred his letters and how to spell, how to read, he recognized, ah, that's the key, that whatever master wants for me, I should do the opposite.
And he just discovered that his freedom would depend on developing his mind. And so education was a key thing for him. And he was so frustrated when he became free and tried to get people to subscribe to his newspaper, to sign up for the cause of abolition. He was disappointed and really frustrated with so many of the free Blacks that he ran into, who were spending money, as he thought, on fripperies and extravagances, and joining the local lodge rather than supporting the course. And in particular, supporting their own development as human beings in terms of educating themselves and making education a priority for their children.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, this is very good. And the emphasis that you place on Douglass's humanity, and the accessibility that we all have to his life, is important. It occurs to me to say this about that, that Douglass, it seems to me, would disagree with a contemporary notion that a person of a different race has no access to the experiences of someone who is not their race. In other words, Douglass seems to invite us in, Black, white, or otherwise, and say, you can be me. I mean, you can't literally feel the pain that I felt when I was being beaten, but let me invite you into my life. There's something common between the two of us. There's no wall between us. There's no inaccessibility here. I'm a human being like you. And this seems to me to come from two places, the education piece that you mentioned, in other words, he seems to think that education is, on the one hand you could say, well, it's important in his view and his time, and ignorant people to become educated. But more broadly in the context of its discussions of freedom, he seems to think that freedom for Blacks or whites or otherwise requires education simply because freedom requires that one be responsible. And in order to make responsible choices, one has to reason. And so he has this way of saying, look, you've got access to my life, you can become me in a certain sense. I can show you how I learned, and regardless of your condition, whether you're an enslaved person or a free person, Black or white, what I learned over the course of my life and certainly my time in slavery can benefit you and make you a freer human being simply.
LUCAS MOREL: Absolutely, I would sum it up in a way that I did where we were in our discussion by saying that he really did believe, that first line of the second paragraph of the Declaration, all men are created equal, right? Life, liberty in pursuit of happiness. He really thought that that was true of human beings. But you know, the strangest thing, of course, or one of the strange things about being a human being, is that we're born free, but we have to learn how to use it. It doesn't happen automatically, like with the brew creation, right? They just follow instinct, but man, they have choices that aren't automatically made for them, right, we don't just fight or flight. We make decisions and we talk about how to live and especially how to live in community. You know, what's true, what's good, what's beautiful, what's right, what's just, these are conversations that outside of the Far Side cartoon don't happen among the animals as far as we know.
And so because human beings can decide whether they're going to live according to their capabilities, morally, soulfully, is there as Douglass would say. This question of character is just so fundamental for Douglass. He writes this speech, it's probably an editorial early in about 1848, where he really lays in hard on the character question, because as long as Blacks are being discriminated against, and they are north of the Mason Dixon line, there is no state in the United States where a Black is legally and civilly the absolute equal of the white man. And so, as long as there are obstacles in America and especially the obstacle of slavery, but just to focus on free Blacks for a second, Douglass would run into Blacks that would say, well, look, no, there's this in the way, and I'm trying to find work, but it's all closed to me, and education, they only educate whites, blah, blah, blah. That so many of the Blacks in Douglass's day were using the obstacles that were palpable and were clearly there as reasons for not doing what they could, with what agency, with what freedom, with what narrow band of area of improvement that was available to them.
And Douglass said, no, you cannot use these as excuses. Yes, the obstacles that have been placed in our way by white people should be removed immediately, if not yesterday. Some are being removed. Fantastic, let's keep that going. But we do not wait for them to be removed. We have to prepare ourselves so that when the court decisions come, so that when the laws are changed, we are ready to take advantage of those freedoms. And so for him, the fundamental thing to do that every individual, and that meant Blacks since they're individuals too, the fundamental priority had to be on developing your character.
What was known at the time as education was never just a mind thing, it was also a hard thing. And that's what I mean by character. You know, the morals of a human being. He says, nobody can do this for you. No white man can do it for you because nobody can do it for the white man. He has to do it for himself and you have to do it for yourself, as he put it, there's gold in the earth, but you got to dig for it and digging's work, digging's hard. And so it didn't surprise him, I guess, that many Blacks at that time were like so many whites, weren't getting off their butts in trying to do what they could with what little or much that they had. But he said, there's no alternative. This thing you must have to be a free and happy human being.
And yeah, he never tired of exhorting them to that. And as I said, here's a guy who should know, because he started with the worst circumstances. He started an enslaved human being. This is a guy who found his freedom first by physically relocating himself. And then of course he needed to find it in the eyes of the law. But fundamentally here was someone who recognized that to be free with something as it were that its development, at least was something you had to give yourself. And that meant you had to develop, right. Honesty, industry, show up on time, work hard, learn. Here's a guy that once his, I guess, mistress or whatever you call his legal master's wife, once she stopped teaching him how to read, he had some freedom in the city and in Maryland to walk around the streets. And he would play games with the local white kids, who loved playing with him. And he would play games with them to try to get them to teach him letters on signs and newspapers, et cetera. So here was someone who had the rudiments of reading and spelling, but didn't stop there and didn't use even enslavement as an excuse not to press ahead, not to learn, not to develop. He wanted to learn, wanted to read, wanted to develop, and no obstacle was gonna keep him from that.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, yeah and that's very good. And I think for my students, oftentimes his recounting of how he learned to write and then teach himself to read based on the little bit that he'd gotten from the white mistress, that moves them the most, that he would just continue to fight with the grit and intellectual curiosity of a free man. And I think what you say about the importance of character for Douglass, there are a couple episodes in the narrative that always strike me on this score. One is perhaps not an episode, but just a general feature of the book. And that is that Douglass is very emphatic about the degrading character of slavery, not just for Blacks, but for whites. It degrades white people, as much as it does Black people, they are not people of character. In fact, they're arguably morally more debased than the slaves, I mean, in his view. And the other thing is that he doesn't spare his fellow slaves from a moral critique. As I said, he says that the white man is as debased or more debased than any slave ever, but he says we ourselves have to step up as well. And he gives us a wonderful example, which you will remember immediately when I say it, 'cause everyone likes this part of the book, where he talks about the holidays and what would happen over the holidays. And for people who haven't read the book, Douglass says, well, there was this very clever mechanism, evil and clever mechanism that the masters would use to make the slaves thirst for slavery. And that is from the period of time from Christmas to New Year's, they would give them the week off from work and they would encourage them to drink and engage in the deepest dissipation possible, such that they would become as enslaved to rum as they were to their masters. In fact, so enslaved to rum and so made so miserable by it, that they were eager at the end of that week to go back into slavery. And they would even say, boy, if that's what freedom is, I don't even know if I want it because they would be sold, in a way, by their masters, a false bill of goods about the content of freedom.
And what I think he's teaching there is that freedom is not simply about the pursuit of your appetites. When you say, when people say offhand, it's a free country, I can do what I want. Well, for Douglass that's, you're still enslaved. If you're merely pursuing your appetites, rum or sexual liaisons or money, that's not quite freedom yet. And this comes out toward the end of the book, when he says, once he became a free man, he was very eager, once he had married, to pursue the duties and responsibilities of freedom. And that's a quote, he talks about freedom as something which is not simply free, but which is restrained in so far as their duties and responsibilities that go along with it. And I think these three things all underscore your point about character as a part of the education for any free person, white or Black.
LUCAS MOREL: Yeah, I don't have much to add on that, that's very good. I mean, Aristotle is probably clapping in his grave, right [Shilo laughing]? Yeah I mean, that's the thing, the kind of freedom that Douglass believed in. And I think generally the American Founders believed in, when we talk about the pursuit of happiness, it's not the pursuit of licentiousness, that's actually an enslaving thing. You become addicted to those things that you pursue in excess. And so what Douglass is trying to do here is a very old fashioned understanding of moral habituation, that it is something that is taught, but also has to be practiced in order to become a part of one's, not part of one's nature, your nature fits you forward, it equips you for it. It's a capacity that you have, but you have to develop it. But this requires moral effort. It requires the individual to impose limits upon himself. And I've got a great catch phrase for this, self-government. Oh yeah, that the Founders thought you couldn't have self-government at large, you can't have a community that imposes limits upon itself through the Constitution, the rule of law, right, or taking regular elections, et cetera, that you can't expect public self-government, public self-limitation, self-control, unless those individual selves are already habituated to control their own selves in their private lives. So, Douglass, I mean in a way, you can't get more American than that. And that's pretty much what Douglass is doing, he's preaching from America's own hymnals back at Americans and saying, but don't you know that these are human things, not white things. And therefore Black people need them just like any human being needs them.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, yeah and he really emphasizes, you talk about self-government and things. I'm always struck by the way, he emphasizes his own self-emancipation. In other words, as you and I have spoken about, Douglass is unique in this sense, he rises from his own efforts. He is responsible for his education and for his mind, for his thinking. And one thing I wanted to discuss about this is, as I said to you at the beginning, my sense is that Douglass has a civic lesson to teach contemporary readers, Black and white, just as he was trying to, I suspect, teach a civic lesson to those readers of his time. But if he teaches this profound lesson about freedom that you and I have discussed, and I think he very much does, and he's a genius for using his life as a vehicle for that, one of the things that occurs to me as a potential obstacle is that Douglass has experienced, the experience that produced this extraordinary human being, it can't be replicated, you see it's not something that we can all live through, other than by reading his autobiography.
And so I wonder the degree to which the experience that Douglass goes through, and the enlightenment he achieves about freedom, whether that experience that he has is required to achieve that enlightenment. In other words, that the regime can't replicate Frederick Douglass's experience in every single citizen. If it could, this country would be extraordinary. And so what we were left with is the hope that people can read and find sensible what Douglass says. And I say these things only because I talked to my students, those who aren't immigrants at any rate, and I say, look, freedom was simply given to you. You never took it into yourself, you never fought for it. you didn't emancipate yourself the way Douglass did. It's something that was given to you, and you've likely never subjected to self-conscious reflection. For Douglass the reason his understanding of freedom is so profound is because it wasn't given to him, he had to earn it, yet the end point that we should all want to end up at, whether we're given freedom or whether we've got to earn it, is the end point that Douglass ended up at. And so I'm curious how a regime, and this is a kind of broad political theory question, I apologize for that. But how is a regime supposed to replicate in its citizens, and how Douglass perhaps thinks it can replicate in its citizens, experience that he had with respect to freedom, enlightenment, and citizenship.
xxLUCAS MOREL: No, it's so great and it's a fairly big question. All I could think of during the first part of your remarks is thinking that yeah, I mean, Douglass in his autobiography to be sure exudes the zeal of a convert, right [laughs]? Most, what is it that Emily Dickinson said, "Those who ne'er succeed/To comprehend the nectar/Requires sorest need?" What's the first line of that poem? It will come to me later, but anyway, point being that, yeah, the things that come to you in the most difficult way, the things that you have to earn, the things that you have to work for, those are the things you prize. Those are the things you hold onto. Those are the things that you guard and lock up and make sure nothing happens to.
I mean, this is the problem with legacies, right? These kids who are with a silver spoon in their mouths and who don't have to lift a finger to get anything, if they have very good parents, the parents don't let the kids inherit or not inherit, but get a fortune before they die, until late in their twenties or thirties. They don't want them to be, if you will, spoiled by riches. You know, the old ancient prayer was that may riches be a blessing to me. In other words for some people, riches are terrible and you hear these stories about people who win the lottery and you very seldom hear the stories of people who win the lottery and everything goes just so well for them, their children love them, and they've got decent and honest friends of integrity. You just hear these horror stories of what happens to people who all of a sudden get a lot of money that their lives are a disaster afterwards. So anyway, with Douglass, you know, I wouldn't want to replicate his story among 300 million Americans. That's a strange way to teach them freedom, is to say, you gotta be enslaved first.
But the fact of the matter is, I mean, Aristotle taught these lessons for people that were citizens, right? These are the minority of the people in his cities in Greece who were not enslaved, who were not in bondage, but he said, no, this is what families need to do. This is what parents have to do for their children in order for their children to exercise their freedom responsibly, for that freedom to be a more of a boon than a bane to them. And so with Douglass, you have that essentially in all caps, writ large underlined bold, right? And now, and of course, these autobiographies aren't just, they're not, McGuffey Readers. These aren't just primers on morals. He's actually trying to preach the evils of slavery again, as you put it, not just to the enslaved, but to the enslaver, right. It's very Socratic, the idea that the person who does evil actually greater harm is done to him than the person who is the victim of evil. And now, that doesn't feel so very good when you're the one who's physically, I don't know why I'm laughing to keep from crying here, when you're on the business end of the stick there, that sounds all fine and dandy and ethereal and abstract, but boy, it sure hurts, it sure feels like I'm getting the worst of it.
Booker T. Washington, preached the same message very controversially at the end of one of his speeches, it might be "Democracy and Education," I'm forgetting right now, or "The Educational Outlook on the South." Maybe it's that one where he concludes with this very harrowing paragraph about how Blacks can put up with the ludicrous white supremacy policies and practices of whites, but he fears for America's soul. And by that he means the white American soul that he says, don't you realize what is happening to you by perpetuating this irrational color prejudice that yes, you've been schooled in for over 200 years, we don't expect you to get over it right away, but you realize that the longer this continues and the more entrenched it gets, you think you're winning, but you're actually losing, you're losing your soul. Blacks might be mistreated physically, but look at what you white people are doing inside of yourself. Oh, and you know, this is a Black man in the 1880s, 1890s, who himself was born in slavery, was freed through the emancipation in the Civil War, the 13th Amendment, most securely. And here he is nearing the turn of the century, lecturing whites who have not known one jot or tittle of slavery about the character and quality of their own inner lives. And he comes out the better, he is the superior man, because he recognizes that the harms that have been happening to Blacks are in his mind merely physical.
I think we could say that that's a bit of a simplification because things happen psychologically, of course. But what he's pointing out is precisely what you mentioned, that Douglass mentions very explicitly, very artfully and very strategically in the narrative, which is the damage that is done to the enslaver. I think one of the clearest cases of this is that mistress who was an angel, the way he describes her, my goodness, that's beatific, but as soon as she finds out, whoa, 'cause this is our first slave, you're not supposed to treat a little brat this way, she becomes a demon to him. And of course, the point here is that that evil is something that people aren't born with. It's something that happens. It's a corruption that takes over and it takes time and look at the corrupting taint that slavery has had on America. Look what it's doing to its religion. Look what it's doing to its politics. Look what it's doing, he would argue at that time, to its Constitution. It's a tar that we've just got to get rid of.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, yeah that's really wonderful. And for people who don't know, there's this famous episode in the book where Douglass, there's a woman, a mistress who approaches him very gently. And she's been told by her husband that you don't teach slaves how to read, this is precisely what will lead to them being unruly. And she then becomes, she sort of has this insight and she begins to transform and she was gentle toward him. And that she becomes now abusive toward him. And Douglass says that this was the turning point in his entire career, as it were, as a slave. He said, by my master telling my mistress not to teach me to read, well, I knew that there was something about reading that I could out, that they didn't want me to know. And so far from making me not wanna read, that made me wanna read more than anything in the world. So you can see this sort of reverse psychology at work.
There's one more thing, or at least feature of the autobiography that I wanna ask you about. And then I wanna turn to Douglass's broader legacy in civil rights and maybe we can return to Booker T. Washington. But one of the other salient features of the autobiography, the first autobiography, and now the second, I'm reading it in a reading group with some students now, is that Douglass in his criticism of whites, he talks about the hypocrisy of white Christianity. And he says, this is a Christianity which justifies slavery, uses passages in the Bible to do so. They tell us to go to church, yet at the same time, Douglass says, I tried to start a prayer school, a Bible school, and it was broken up by white men, came into our little school house that we had on Sundays with sticks and beat us and told us we couldn't do this anymore. And at the same time that they expect us to be present on Sundays at the services to sing. And they'll often quote to us passages from the Old Testament about slavery and obey your Lord and these sorts of things. And so he comes off on the one hand as a critic of Christianity, yet at crucial points in his career, he says that he is convinced that it was the interference of God that permitted him to learn to read, to have these insights, to go to Baltimore. He thinks just being taken off the plantation and becoming a city slave was in a certain sense of divine intervention.
That was really, you know, but then there's this interesting appendix at the end of the narrative where he says, look, I've been criticized for my own criticisms of Christianity and I just want to set the record straight, Christianity has been perverted by the slave owners of the south, but the religion itself is good. And in a certain sense, I think he thinks it's required, it's necessary. And so I have this sort of theory, I wonder what you would make of it. And that is just to say that Douglass is in a difficult position with respect to Christianity. He sees that it's being used to enslave. On the other hand, he's a man who, as we've talked, about is a teacher of character. And he also sees that, well, Christianity can, when rightly approached and studied, to be a great teacher of character, but it can also encourage meekness. And we don't want that. And so he's in between a rock and a hard place where he appreciates deeply the moral centrality of Christianity, certainly whites and Blacks are both Christian. There's some common ground here, a common moral teaching, yet at the same time, it can be misused to inculcate a certain kind of meekness. And so he seems to be a defender of Christianity at the same time that he sees its uglier side. And I'm just curious if you have any reflections on Douglass's own, of course as you've mentioned in your introduction, he was involved with the Garrisonians on his own religious quest and religious disposition.
LUCAS MOREL: Yeah I think you've put it well, when you brought up the idea of meekness, right? Jesus was known as being meek, but he wasn't someone you could push around either [laughs]. And Douglass, if you read his editorials and speeches, he himself is a very masculine man, he's a large man. And he makes references to that in certain speeches, in a very artful and arch way. But there are many exhortations to manliness. And for women, in the same way that Aristotle says, there's a courage that females exhibit that's distinctive from the courage that males exhibit. I think you see the same with Douglass when he talks about being manly, and about, he who would be free, must strike the first blow. Well, that's not just for men, but it is certainly for men, given, and this is a guy, by the way, as you well know, he was an early adopter on the woman question. He is absolutely, categorically, almost to a fault, and I'll give you an example in a second, he's almost to a fault an early adopter of not just the suffragette movement, but just women's rights. And there was no more fervent believer of the principle of equality under the law, equality before the law, than Frederick Douglass. And for him the banner, the masthead of his abolitionist newspaper, the North Star, was that rights of sex was not to be a barrier of rights either.
And so why do I say that he believed in women's rights almost to a fault is that he almost ostentatiously would parade around Rochester, New York, which is a northern city, but there's a bunch of racists up there. Watch Gangs of New York, you'll get some sense of what I mean here. Douglass was very good friends with these white abolitionist sisters from England, the Griffiths. Julia Griffith basically kept the North Star alive while Douglass was speechifying. He would walk around town with these women in arms, right? The fact that he's walking with a woman at all, let alone, elbow and elbow, right, like interlocking, I mean, Douglass, I mean, he couldn't even take a leisurely stroll without making a political statement as you might think and so I think almost to a fault, he was trying to change public opinion, not just about his own equality as a human being, where race should not matter, but also in trying to say that, yeah, and I can walk with a woman in public who's not my wife, and you shouldn't wonder about what's going on. And in fact, by the way, that Julia Griffith actually lived with him and Anna and their five children in Rochester. And so there was tremendous speculation at one point, Garrison pulled that card out when he got upset that Douglass disagreed with him about the Constitution, which we're gonna get to in a second. So good grief, how did I get out to women's rights, oh this whole masculine meekness thing that, yeah, I mean, Christianity, like the Constitution, like government, like all good things.
If you're a good Catholic or Protestant, you believe that, especially if you're Catholic, you believe that the evils of this world are good things that have been corrupted, the evil doesn't exist in and of itself per se, although the evil one does, but that it's a good thing gone bad. And so government is a good thing. It's one that's ordained by God, but it can be misused. And that's what Douglass came to believe about the Constitution. Similarly, with religion, with Christianity, that while there are parts in the Bible verses both in the Old and New Testament that the slaveholders drew upon as endorsements of slavery. On the main, start to finish, Douglass would say, no, that the Bible is a good book, it's a holy book. And you got to understand if you will, those passages regarding slavery in light of these more general, more obvious, and more sensible truths about the equality of all man, right, male and female. He made them both, that we're all God's children. So yeah, Douglass in the end, he is occupying a position that's in some tension. You have a faith, the Christian faith, that preaches that in the face of evil, you turn the other cheek. Well, whew, what does that mean about, I mean, is that where defund the police comes from? Do we become pacifists like Garrisonians? Is the only thing we can do with regards to evil is to at worse raise our voice, but we cannot use physical compulsion, so no armies, right? So these are serious questions of theology and philosophy that I don't recall Douglass getting into any extensive or at least doing any public examination of these sorts of things.
SHILO BROOKS: Right yeah, yeah, I don't think either, other than just teaching, as we've said, through the autobiography. They do occur to me, and this is a nice way for us to transition into our next and final question and component of the discussion. And that is religion will end up being deeply bound up with the civil rights movement. Of course, Martin Luther King is a reverend. And so one can conceive of Douglass as a certain kind of originator of wedding Christianity to the problem of civil rights, and of course King carries that out some. And then the other thing with to his manliness, I would say this is also bound up with King in so far as King counseled a certain kind of pacifist, turn the other cheek approach to, you know, when you go to a sit in, you sit there and the dogs bite you and the cameras are rolling and America will see it. And the police hit you with their batons and you sit there. And so these themes that Douglass is on to. And of course, what Douglass does, I very much liked the way you mentioned his manliness, he beats up one of his masters, Covey. In the narrative he sent to a notorious slave breaker, and at a certain point, Douglass fights this man and beats him up and says, never again did he lay a hand on me and he knew what would happen if he did. That is extraordinary, me and my students were just clapping whenever that happens, that King might, I don't know what King would have said to that.
But I wanna give you a chance to talk about this because I wanna transition into Douglass as the legacy for, and influence, on civil rights, certainly African-American political thought after him. I wanna read a, you mentioned Booker T. Washington. And so to kick this off, I wanna read a quotation from Booker T. Washington, but I'd like to discuss certainly King and Malcolm X all the way up to contemporary civil rights movement issues. But here's a quote from Booker T. Washington always moves me. Here he is. "Even before I had learned to read books or newspapers, I remember hearing my mother and other colored people in our part of the country speak about Frederick Douglass's wonderful life and achievements. I heard so much about Douglass when I was a boy that one of the reasons why I wanted to go to school and learn to read was that I might read for myself what he had written and said." And so it occurs to me that you can draw a line straight from Douglass to Washington and perhaps from these two to folks in the sixties and perhaps from them, and so I'm curious, what do you see as Douglass's lasting legacy with respect to the question of civil rights has influence on it? How might he agree and disagree with civil rights leaders, both Washington and perhaps Malcolm X and King, and even civil rights initiatives today?
LUCAS MOREL: Yikes that's a question that has many many parts in its answer, and I won't be able to tackle all of them. Bringing Booker T. Washington actually, even though I was the one who did it earlier, actually complicates things because Booker T. Washington was not an agitator. Not a meek man, although he could fawn or feign, sorry, meekness in front of white northern benefactors, like Dale Carnegie among others. He knew how to play the part and play the role to keep Tuskegee Institute and many other, were known as colored normal schools. These are schools that principally trained teachers, but also trained craftsman and artisans. And he was the one who hired the most famous Black scientist in America still today, I think, that's George Washington Carver. That the problem with Booker T. Washington, and by the way, Booker T. Washington didn't just read Douglass, he actually subsequently published his own biography of Frederick Douglass. And that one's hard to find if you find it on eBay, it's not a hundred dollars, it's several hundred dollars for that one. Do you wonder why I know this?
Ralph Ellison, a great writer, author of Invisible Man, said that in writing the biography of Frederick Douglass, and I haven't read it so I can't vouch for this, but I'm just gonna tell you what Ellison said. Ellison said that Washington issued the coup de gras to Douglass in that biography. And what Ellison was saying is, Washington's the new man in town and Washington's program is the program that needs to be pursued, not the more aggressive in-your-face, rhetorical, howitzer that you get from Frederick Douglass. Frederick Douglass was lived at a time where the primary objective had to be destruction. In other words, get rid of slavery. But now that slavery has gone, and this is Booker T. Washington, we don't need a Douglass per se. We don't need destroyers. We need builders. We need constructive things. And this was his way of attacking W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois was in your face. Du Bois was the one who wanted to agitate. He was the one who wanted to say to whites, this is what has to happen and it has to happen now. Legally, politically, civilly, we need our rights, we need our voting. And Washington said, no, no, no, that is imprudent right now what the masses of Black people, the vast majority of whom live amongst former oppressors or the children of former oppressors, they live in the south, it's primarily an agricultural economy, we have got to find a way to make ourselves useful to white people. And in time, the rights that we are owed today in time will come. So bringing in Washington actually complicates things.
So let me make things a little bit easier by saying Douglass's legacy, I think fundamentally, is the way that he could challenge our kind of racial gridlock today in terms of how we think about these things, we're kind of stuck in our ruts, is by focusing on the Constitution. Douglass was asked one time, if you were president of the United States, what would you be known for? And after Douglass stopped laughing, he said equality under the law, equality under the law, that he was just rock solid on that. He said one of the major problems with color prejudice in the United States, and for him slavery wasn't the problem, color prejudice was, if you get rid of color prejudice, slavery would go in America he thought. He says, the problem is the way we're going about civil rights and political rights is actually ending up reinforcing white supremacist mindset. In other words, the more we treat Black people as if they were an exception to what we expect and what we believe, well, what we'll leave it at that what we expect, the more we make Blacks an exception in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of the community, to what we expect of everybody else, he says, the more we're actually reinforcing that there's something inferior about Black people.
And so he controversially would say, when people say, what should be done with the Negro, a ridiculous question. Nobody ever says what should be done with white people. And so after Douglass cleared that up, he says, what should be done with the Negro? As the locution went at the time, he says, do nothing. And he knew that would freak people out, because like, whoa, what do you mean do nothing? What did he mean by do nothing? He meant by do nothing fair play, equal enforcement under the law. So if you see a Black person going to the voting booth, stay out of his way, that's do nothing, which actually means protect him from racial intimidation of a mob, right? Or some terrorist, domestic terrorist group. If you see him trying to learn a trade, do nothing, stay out of his way. If you see him trying to make a living, if you see him trying to get an education. So if you see him trying to vote, so his do nothing really meant do everything for him that you do for whites that you believe is owed whites, don't make an exception of him. And well, he said, color should not be the criteria of anybody's rights under the Constitution. And he said that the way we will get rid of the racial problem in this country is when we finally decide not to be charitable or benevolent towards Blacks, but to be just and fair to them. Don't make them an exception, don't give or deny them anything you give or deny, that you don't give or deny to anybody else. And so that would be controversial today.
You know, I always get the question. You probably get this if you teach his speeches. Would he be in favor of affirmative action? I'm to discuss this, but I don't think he would. On the basis of his notion of how principled and how categorical the protection of the law and the Constitution should be for all Americans, regardless of race and regardless of sex. So again, briefly stated, as long as you have affirmative action, which treats what we call today underrepresented minorities, right? Native Americans, African-Americans and Hispanics, as long as you treat them in a policy with regards to education as if somehow they aren't able to measure up and work and do what they can to achieve that the same way that we expect everybody else to. And again, this is a complicated subject 'cause you have to talk about, well, how well-prepared are they? What about the schools that they're in? What about funding? So we can get into the nitty gritty of that, but the bottom line for Douglass is it would pain him to know, I believe, that in 2020, we still in the eyes of the law think that the Constitution is not color blind. We have never had five out of nine justices of the Supreme Court interpret the Constitution as if it was a color blind Constitution.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, that's a terrific insight. And it leads me to what I want to ask you now in closing, which is I'll recommend a book and you recommend a reading. I recommend, of course, and I get the easy way out, that if you all are interested in Frederick Douglass, you read his first autobiography, if that's the only thing you're gonna read. Although I'm reading the second one now, and it's beautiful. And Lucas, you are much more well-versed in the speeches than I am, and certainly Douglass's writing on the Constitution. Could you recommend to our listeners, in addition, of course, to the autobiography, some speeches that they might look at?
LUCAS MOREL: Yeah, number one and I think if you talk to any of the experts, David Blight, Nicholas Nicola, Peter Myers, Diana Shaub, you have to me, I think his most famous and probably his most important speech is the one he delivered July 5, 1852, "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" That was his very public break from William Lloyd Garrison towards a belief that the Constitution was not pro-slavery, but pro-liberty, right, he called it a glorious liberty document. And it was an argument he would make in other speeches, you know, in 1857, his criticism of the Dred Scott speech, a very detailed critique of Garrisonianism with regards to the Constitution; "Is the Constitution Pro-slavery or Anti-slavery," 1860. But because I'm a Lincoln guy, I have to mention the 1876 April 14 speech that he gives on the unveiling of the Freedman's Memorial in Washington, D.C. The one that they tried to tear down about a month or two ago.
Now, of course the barriers and the fences are gone. It's amazing, the only sign that that they were even gonna try to pull it down, is there is some orange paint on the back of the pedestal. I was there a couple of weeks ago and it was nice to see that the barriers were down. But when that statute was unveiled in 1876, he was the keynote speaker. And in that speech, what you see conveyed by Douglass is the perspective on, an assessment of Lincoln from the perspective of a die, I mean, just a diehard abolitionist and that's Frederick Douglass, who, in the speech, although he says Lincoln was preeminently the white man's president, very controversial statement from someone who admired, greatly admired Lincoln, he ultimately said not viewed from the abolitionist perspective, right? Where emancipation was more important than preserving the union, if you will. Where from the perspective of the abolitionists, Lincoln seemed, cold, dull, tardy, and indifferent. He said from the perspective, viewed from the perspective of a statesman, what Lincoln was bound to do is pay attention to a whole lot of white people as well, not just Black people. He said his actions were swift, zealous, radical, and determined. And so it's a remarkable, almost confession by Frederick Douglass that, had Lincoln followed Douglass's advice, and made it an abolition war from the beginning, neither abolition nor the preservation of the union would have been accomplished. It's a marvelous speech. It's a very sophisticated one. And for me, it's one of the top three or four speeches that one must read.
SHILO BROOKS: Well, Lucas Morel, thank you so much for joining us today and discussing Frederick Douglass.
LUCAS MOREL: Glad to be here.
SHILO BROOKS: The Free Mind podcast is produced by the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado at Boulder. You can email us feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit us online at colorado.edu/center/benson.