A video produced by the Republican National Committee is making the rounds, but it could have easily been the work of Democrats, Libertarians, or even the Tea Party. In it Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) reads from the writings of the great 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass (see below).
Observing Senate tradition, the freshman, who recently moved to the upper chamber by appointment with the resignation of Sen. Jim DeMint, has not sought to grab the limelight. With this video, Scott has nonetheless chosen to make his debut in a most constructive and honorable way, introducing many young Americans to one of the greatest success stories in our history.
Every student knows—or should know—how Abraham Lincoln rose from a humble birth in a dirt-floor log cabin on the Kentucky frontier to become the nation’s highest magistrate. At least Lincoln was born free. He knew both his parents. He had a name and a stake, however tenuous, in the new American republic.
While Lincoln was still a toddler, thousands of young Kentuckians joined the army to fight the British and their Indian allies in what became known as the War of 1812. Soon after the end of that war, young Frederick Douglass was born on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where memories of the British invasion were still fresh.
But the violence in Douglass’ life was almost all directed at enslaved Americans. When he was a teenager, he was sent to a vicious white man named Covey, who was known as a “Negro breaker,” to be beaten into obedience. Instead, Douglass broke Covey. Ever after, Douglass’ chest swelled with pride as he said, “It was my resurrection as a man.”
Douglass was never broken. A kindly woman opened up the world of books to him. Learning this, her husband flew into a fit. “Reading will ruin the best [expletive deleted] in the world,” he raged. Too late. Douglass devoured every book he could find. He learned then what every young American should know now: Reading sets you free.
He then fled north to Massachusetts, where he adopted the surname Douglassfrom the heroic novels of Sir Walter Scott. Soon he was recruited by the Anti-Slavery Society and wrote a bestselling book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.It’s important to note that hundreds of thousands in England, Europe, and throughout the American North read this astonishing book before they’d ever heard the name of Abraham Lincoln.
Always grateful to William Lloyd Garrison and his white abolitionist colleagues for the opportunities they gave him, Douglass nevertheless soon realized that their kindness was a new form of bondage. “He who would be free must strike the first blow,” Douglass wrote. For him that meant striking out on his own as an editor, orator, and activist.
Douglass rejected the Garrisonians’ woefully impractical program of moral castigation combined with pacifism and complete avoidance of politics. They burned copies of the Constitution, calling it a “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.”
Douglass argued that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, rightly construed, were great charters of freedom. Not a word of the Constitution would have to be changed if slaveholders could be persuaded or pressed into freeing their slaves.
When Lincoln was elected president on a “no extension of slavery” platform, Douglass saw a ray of hope. When the South seceded, Douglass insisted that this new Civil War must be an abolition war, with slavery as the cause of the war and slavery not surviving to threaten the Union again.
Throughout many bloody months, Douglass loudly and insistently prodded and pressed President Lincoln. He conducted what we call “The Douglass-Lincoln Debates” on a range of issues. In every instance, Lincoln moved towardthe Douglass position and not vice versa. As Douglass cried, “Now!” Abraham Lincoln said, “Soon.”
The Douglass-Lincoln cooperation resulted in the greatest political reform in American history. It’s a story of two great men, born to poverty but raised to power and influence by the respect of their fellow Americans, black and white.
This is a great story as we approach our 237th Independence Day. Frederick Douglass was right to ask the white citizens of Rochester, N.Y., with some asperity in 1852, “What to the slave is your Fourth of July?”
In just 13 years, he had his answer. He lived see his friend Lincoln tell a crowd of freedmen in liberated Richmond: “You are free, free as air. You may take the word ‘slave’ and trample it underfoot.”
Thanks, Sen. Tim Scott, for reminding us of this great American freedom story.