Frederick Douglass was born into slavery around 1818 and died February 20, 1895. Our nation’s president appears to believe the Lion of the Abolitionist Movement is still alive, suggesting he has no idea who Frederick Douglass was. Still, we should unite at least with the idea that Douglass’ genius and contribution to the world should be kept alive. We can see it everywhere in the poor and dispossessed communities that have been organizing for years to demand recognition of their basic human rights. These same communities are leading the resistance against this most recent wave of attacks.
Not long before he died in 1895, as Reconstruction was defeated and Jim Crow was taking hold, a young black man asked Douglass what was to be done. Douglass’ simple and eloquent response was as follows: “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!” In our time of turmoil and danger, it is more important than ever to study Douglass, one of the greatest political strategists, organizers, and intellectuals our country has ever produced. He was a leader from the ranks of enslaved people, and played a critical role in ending slavery. We need more of his kind of leadership today.
One good place to start is Douglass’ speech in response to the infamous Dred Scott decision, which concluded that black people had “no rights which the white man is bound to respect.” For enslaved Black people and the Abolitionist Movement, this decision was a major blow. The Dred Scot decision capped off a series of setbacks for Abolition, including the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1954 (which opened the door to the continued expansion of slavery into new territory).
But Douglass saw hope even those dark times. He saw that even as new laws and new decisions by the courts seemed to make slavery and the Slave Power invincible, they were actually expressions of a deep weakness. They did nothing to reverse the growth of the anti-slavery movement and anti-slavery sentiment — in fact they had the opposite effect. They did nothing to resolve the basic crisis of slavery: the fact that people will not stand for being kept in chains; and that slavery, by going against the basic notion that human life is sacred and that all people have rights, threatened the well-being of the whole nation.
Today we’d do well to learn from Douglass’ clarity — his ability to look underneath surface events and setbacks to see the possibilities for his cause: “Oppression, organized as ours is, will appear invincible up to the very hour of its fall.”
In one view the slaveholders have a decided advantage over all opposition. It is well to notice this advantage—the advantage of complete organization. They are organized; and yet were not at the pains of creating their organizations. The State governments, where the system of slavery exists, are complete slavery organizations. The church organizations in those States are equally at the service of slavery; while the Federal Government, with its army and navy, from the chief magistracy in Washington, to the Supreme Court, and thence to the chief marshalship at New York, is pledged to support, defend, and propagate the crying curse of human bondage. The pen, the purse, and the sword, are united against the simple truth, preached by humble men in obscure places.
This is one view. It is, thank God, only one view; there is another, and a brighter view. David, you know, looked small and insignificant when going to meet Goliath, but looked larger when he had slain his foe…Thus hath it ever been. Oppression, organized as ours is, will appear invincible up to the very hour of its fall. Sir, let us look at the other side, and see if there are not some things to cheer our heart and nerve us up anew in the good work of emancipation.
Take this fact—for it is a fact—the anti-slavery movement has, from first to last, suffered no abatement. It has gone forth in all directions, and is now felt in the remotest extremities of the Republic.
It started small, and was without capital either in men or money. The odds were all against it. It literally had nothing to lose, and everything to gain. There was ignorance to be enlightened, error to be combatted, conscience to be awakened, prejudice to be overcome, apathy to be aroused, the right of speech to be secured, mob violence to be subdued, and a deep, radical change to be inwrought in the mind and heart of the whole nation. This great work, under God, has gone on, and gone on gloriously…
There is a significant vitality about this abolition movement. It has taken a deeper, broader, and more lasting hold upon the national heart than ordinary reform movements. Other subjects of much interest come and go, expand and contract, blaze and vanish, but the huge question of American Slavery, comprehending, as it does, not merely the weal or the woe of four millions, and their countless posterity, but the weal or the woe of this entire nation, must increase in magnitude and in majesty with every hour of its history. From a cloud not bigger than a man’s hand, it has overspread the heavens. It has risen from a grain not bigger than a mustard seed. Yet see the fowls of the air, how they crowd its branches.
Your fathers have said that man’s right to liberty is self-evident. There is no need of argument to make it clear. The voices of nature, of conscience, of reason, and of revelation, proclaim it as the right of all rights, the foundation of all trust, and of all responsibility. Man was born with it. It was his before he comprehended it. The deed conveying it to him is written in the center of his soul, and is recorded in Heaven. The sun in the sky is not more palpable to the sight than man’s right to liberty is to the moral vision. To decide against this right in the person of Dred Scott, or the humblest and most whip-scarred bondman in the land, is to decide against God. It is an open rebellion against God’s government. It is an attempt to undo what God has done, to blot out the broad distinction instituted by the All-wise between men and things, and to change the image and superscription of the everliving God into a speechless piece of merchandise.
Such a decision cannot stand. God will be true though every man be a liar. We can appeal from this hell-black judgment of the Supreme Court, to the court of common sense and common humanity. We can appeal from man to God. If there is no justice on earth, there is yet justice in heaven. You may close your Supreme Court against the black man’s cry for justice, but you cannot, thank God, close against him the ear of a sympathising world, nor shut up the Court of Heaven. All that is merciful and just, on earth and in Heaven, will execrate and despise this edict of Taney.