Posts Tagged ‘Frederick Douglass’

Frederick Douglass on Abraham Lincoln

February 12, 2016

Abraham Lincoln was born this day in 1809.   Lincoln’s Birthday was a national holiday until it was absorbed by the meaningless “President’s Day”.

Some question Lincoln’s greatness.  I am not one of them.  The best and truest rebuttal to Lincoln’s critics by Frederick Douglass in an oration delivered at the unveiling of Freedman’s Monument in Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C., in 1876.

Here’s is the meat of the talk.

Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men.  He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country.  In all his education and feeling he was an American of the Americans.

He came into the Presidential chair upon one principle alone, namely, opposition to the extension of slavery.  His arguments in furtherance of this policy had their motive and mainspring in his patriotic devotion to the interests of his own race.  [snip]

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Readings for Independence Day 2013

July 4, 2013

StatueOfLiberty_Fireworks_MI-resize-380x300

Some readings for American patriots.

Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies by Edmund Burke (1775)

In Congress, July 4, 1776: THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE

Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions by the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls (1848)

Speech on The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro by Frederick Douglass (1852)

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness by Andrew Sullivan

Is the U.S. a land of liberty or equality? by Robert J. Samuelson

The Omega Glory by Maggie McNeill

Remembering the Harvesters on this Fourth of July by Gracy Howard in The American Conservative.

How Unreasonable Searches of Private Documents Caused the American Revolution by Juan Cole on Informed Comment.

A Persuasive Argument by Bert Likko for The League of Ordinary Gentlemen.

In defense of hyprocrisy

July 6, 2012

I am a hypocrite.  I do things that are inconsistent with my principles and ideals, and I sometimes conceal this from others and even myself.  Furthermore I am hypocritical even in my admission of hypocrisy, because I hold back details, so as to allow you to think I am being too hard on myself.

Not a hypocrite

It isn’t good to be a hypocrite, but there are worse things than being a hypocrite.  Winston Churchill was a hypocrite.  He talked about freedom and democracy while trying to preserve British rule in India.  Heinrich Himmler was a mass murderer, but he was not a hypocrite.  What he said was aligned with what he believed, and what he did was aligned with what he said.

The writers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were hypocrites.  They proclaimed political principles and ideals that few, if any of them, fully practiced themselves.  Since my youth, I have been stirred by Thomas Jefferson’s great statements about political, intellectual and religious freedom.  But Thomas Jefferson was a hypocrite.   He wrote that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, while owning human beings as property and subjecting them to harsh punishments for their attempts at liberty and happiness.

A hypocrite

Yet I am still stirred by Thomas Jefferson’s great language.  Should we condemn him for his hypocrisy.  Or should we be grateful to him for drafting the Declaration of Independence, risking his life in the cause of American independence and enacting the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom?  Would it have been better if he had been an honest and straightforward racist, like John C. Calhoun or Jefferson Davis?

These thoughts are prompted by the annual Fourth of July party given by my philosopher friend and neighbor David White.  We began by reading the Declaration of Independence, then over the years added the Declaration of Sentiments by the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., and then “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” Frederick Douglass’s great 1852 speech in Rochester, in which he pointed out that the rights proclaimed in the Declaration and the Constitution did not apply to him as a black man—in other words, that white Americans’ claim to believe that “all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” was hypocritical.

The original sin of the United States is that it was founded on slavery.  Without acceptance of slavery, the thirteen rebel British colonies would never have been able to come together as a unified nation.  The saving virtue of the Founders is that many of them were ashamed of this fact.  As Frederick Douglass pointed out in his speech, there is no specific language in the Constitution upholding slavery.  The word “slavery” is first used in the Thirteenth Amendment of 1865 which abolishes slavery.

Fewer than 10 years after Douglass made his speech, the Southern states established a Confederacy which honestly proclaimed slavery as a founding principle.   The Confederates were not hypocrites.  They were honest racists and not hypocritical.  On the other hand, many white supporters of the Union, and even some abolitionists, talked about freedom and were racists at heart.  Frederick Douglass had no problem deciding what side he was on, and neither should you and I.   Even a half-truth can be worth fighting for against a total lie.

Hypocrisy is a normal human failing.  The only people who are not hypocrites are saints and sociopaths.  It is good to try to be honest with ourselves and others.  But hypocrisy can be a virtue in the sense that in trying to appear to be better people than we are, we actually become better people than we are.  Amoral cynicism has no such redeeming virtue.  Neither does sneering at flawed people who are trying to do good.

Click on The present belittling the past for an earlier post of mine on contemporaries who look down on the Founders and other great people of the past.

Click on The argument from hypocrisy for an earlier post of mine on the hollowness of hypocrisy-bashers with a great quote from the SF writer Neal Stephenson.

Click on Slavery was America’s original sin for an earlier post of mine on covert references to slavery in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Click on Thomas Jefferson on American freedom for great quotes from one who didn’t always practice what he preached.

The present belittling the past

July 4, 2012

Someone I know once asked me, in all seriousness, to show her the provision of the Constitution where it says that the rights of citizens are limited to white male property-owners.

She had heard this so often from so many different people that it is understandable that she thought this was actually in the Constitution.  This goes to show how the Constitution, like the Bible, is something people believe in more than they read, but it also is an example of how so many people nowadays look down on our forebears rather than revering them.

Signing of the Declaration of Independence

My friend and neighbor David White, who teaches philosophy, some years back started a custom of hosting a Fourth of July picnic at his house in which we read aloud the Declaration of Independence.  A few years later, at the suggestion of his wife Linda, we added the Declaration of Sentiments of 1848, by the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., and some time after that, excerpts from Frederick Douglass’s speech, The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro, on July 5, 1852, here in Rochester.

Women’s Rights Convention of 1848

The Women’s Rights Convention and Frederick Douglass’s speech are worth remembering, but I don’t agree with those of David’s guests who regard these documents as an unmasking of the hypocrisy, sexism and racism of the Founding Fathers rather than an unfolding of the principles they affirmed.

The ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the rights guaranteed by the Constitution were not applied to everybody all at once.  It took time for this to happen, and in the case of black Americans, it took bloody struggles, of which the Civil War was only part, but it did happen or rather, it is happening—it’s not done yet.

Women and black people would have been unhappy about their position in society in any case, but it was because of the Declaration of Independence that they had a reference point to make a case to males and whites.  When I argue for equal rights, I use the Declaration, the Constitution and other foundational documents in American history as my authorities.  This is one of the reasons I am thankful to be an American.

If white male Americans had been really determined to deny rights to women and people of color, they might have been able to do so to this day—certainly for longer than they actually did.  It is because the founding document of the United States asserts a principle of universal human rights that they can’t do so with a good conscience.

Nor is the present generation of Americans more enlightened than the generation of the Founders.  Our generation can take pride in our breaking down prejudice and unfair discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation and other characteristics not of the individual’s own choosing.  But at the same time our generation has turned its back on other basic liberties whose origins are long before the Declaration—the rule of law, trial by jury, freedom of speech, your home as your castle.  Future generations will rightly judge our hypocrisies much more severely than those of the Founders’ generation.

Frederick Douglass

Click on The Declaration of Independence for the full text.

Click on The Declaration of Sentiments for the full text of this and other resolutions of the Women’s Rights Convention of 1848.

Click on The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro for the full text of Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech.

Click on Winning the Vote: a History of Voting Rights for a brief history of the right to vote in the United States.  You’ll have to click on READ FULL ESSAY to read the whole thing.

A black minister once told me that the Mayflower Compact was irrelevant to him because it only applied to white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.  But in 1620, a person in Britain who was not of noble blood, whatever their color or religion, was as disenfranchised as a person in 1960 in Mississippi who was not of white blood.  The idea that ordinary people could come together and agree on how to govern themselves was a revolutionary step.  It was much more revolutionary than anything that has happened since, and was the seed of many subsequent revolutions, including the civil rights revolution of the 1960s.

Click on Reflections on the Revolution in the United States for the reasons why David White after all has the right idea on how to celebrate Independence Day.  I am old enough to member when listening to patriotic speeches and even reading of the Declaration were as much a part of the Fourth of July as eating hot dogs and watching fireworks.

White people being hyper-sensitive

March 8, 2012

The video shows 13-year-old Jada Williams, an eighth-grade student in Rochester city schools, reading from a paper she wrote as a school assignment on the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

One of the most powerful passages in Douglass’s Narrative is his description of how, as an American slave, he was forbidden to learn how to read, and how he learned anyhow by paying white boys on the sly to teach him his ABCs.  Jada drew a parallel between Douglass and the plight of black students today.  Two key paragraphs:

When I myself sit in crowded classrooms and no real concrete instruction is taking place. It makes that saying “history does repeat itself” all the more true. … …

So, I feel like not much has changed, just different people, different era, the same old discrimination still resides in the hearts of the white man.

The Democrat and Chronicle reported that soon after Jada turned in the assignment, she started getting into trouble in class and getting poor marks.  Jada’s mother told the D&C that the English teacher confronted her about the content of the essay, and told the girl she was offended.  When Jada’s mother came to school to talk to teachers about Jada allegedly acting out in class, school staff members brought copies of the essay.

The whole thing has blossomed into a city-wide controversy, with Jada’s parents backed by the Frederick Douglass Foundation, Rochester Parents United and Cynthia Elliott, a member of the Rochester school board, and many white people among the general public taking offense at Jada’s comments.

My two-cents worth:

  • Grown-ups should show more maturity than a 13-year-old girl.  Teachers ought to be able to take in stride a comment made in a school essay.  If they think she has the wrong idea, they ought to be able to sit down and talk with her.  Goodness knows, I had a lot of half-baked ideas when I was a teenager.  I was fortunate to have wise and tolerant teachers who were able take this in stride and help me improve my thinking.
  • In a school district in which 75 percent of students cannot read at a level appropriate for their age, teachers ought to appreciate a student who wants to learn and whose complaint is that she is not being taught well enough.  Maybe they could benefit by sitting down with her and talking about how she thinks her instruction could be improved.  It could be not only a teaching moment but a learning moment.
  • We white people are not as monolithic a group as we probably seem to many African-Americans.  I have white friends who work for the Rochester school system who are dedicated to achieving a good education for all students, and other white friends who are volunteer tutors in city schools.
  • Even so, racial discrimination against black people still exists and is well-documented.  I am not talking about statistical disparities between whites and blacks, but reports by testers that show, for example, a white person with a criminal record has a better chance of getting a job than an otherwise-equivalent black person with a clean record.

For some of us white people, it seems the worst possible thing that could happen is for a black person to accuse one of us of racism.  As an example, I remember George W. Bush saying that the worst thing that happened to him during his Presidency was to be accused of racism for neglecting the Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans.  Really!  That was the very worst thing!

At the same time a lot of us complain of “political correctness” and how over-sensitive black people are.

I say:  Calm down.  Jada Williams is a 13-year-old girl writing a school essay.  If her teachers thought she had the wrong idea about things, they should have acted like teachers, and sat down and talked with her as a mature adult speaks with a young men.

Below is the complete text of Jada Williams’ essay

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