Memo to the White House on the Contributions of Frederick Douglass

George Kendall Warren
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

At an event marking the start of Black History Month, President Trump gave a very Trumpian shoutout to Frederick Douglass, who, he said, “is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.” The vague nature of the praise has drawn scorn from some corners of the Internet, but let’s not be churlish: Frederick Douglass was a king among men. So let us continue with our now-annual tradition of reacquainting you with his brilliant and prescient mind. It’s a valuable exercise in part because Douglass’s preoccupations are still very much the topics of contemporary political debate.

Here he is, advocating for voting rights in 1867:

Man is the only government-making animal in the world. His right to a participation in the production and operation of government is in inference from his nature, as direct and self-evident as is his right to acquire property or education. It is no less a crime against the manhood of a man, to declare that he shall not share in the making and directing of the government under which he lives, than to say that he shall not acquire property and education.

Writing about the limits of federal power and the importance of protecting individual rights:

The arm of the Federal government is long, but it is far too short to protect the rights of individuals in the interior of distant States. They must have the power to protect themselves, or they will go unprotected, spite of all the laws the Federal Government can put upon the national statute-book.

Here he is, chiming in on education policy:

In an 1853 letter to Harriet Beecher Stowe that exemplified his interest in vocational education, Douglass didn’t call for the creation of new colleges to serve African Americans. Instead, he sought schools that would teach "agriculture and the mechanic arts." Douglass argued that teaching vocational skills—especially industrial ones—to African Americans would help them climb the ladder from slave to integrated freeman. A prosperous, upwardly mobile African-American working class would, he thought, offer a profound refutation of many pro-slavery arguments, which held that African Americans were incapable of economic self-sufficiency.

Douglass’s interest in practical training is in harmony with the thinking behind contemporary efforts to expand economic opportunity—especially to students from disadvantaged backgrounds—by promoting vocational programs and targeted enterprises such as Project Lead the Way. But his memoirs demonstrate that practical training is hardly enough. In his 1845 autobiography, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, he chronicles his efforts to fashion an identity as a free man, offering a bracing portrait not only of the physical hardships of slavery but also of its psychological torments. "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man," Douglass wrote.

Here he is, stumping for the rights of women:

If intelligence is the only true and rational basis of government, it follows that that is the best government which draws its life and power from the largest sources of wisdom, energy, and goodness at its command. The force of this reasoning would be easily comprehended and readily assented to in any case involving the employment of physical strength. We should all see the folly and madness of attempting to accomplish with a part what could only be done with the united strength of the whole.Though his folly may be less apparent, it is just as real when one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the world is excluded from any voice or vote in civil government.

And here he is, as my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates lays out, demonstrating radical empathy across a divide so enormous it seems almost impassable.

As my colleague David Graham points out:

It is a real and praiseworthy accomplishment for Douglass’s name to keep spreading. But the frequent, and often valid, critique of Black History Month is that it encourages a tokenist approach to African American culture, leading everyone from national leaders to elementary-school teachers to recite a catechism of well-known figures, producing both shallow engagement and privileging a passé Great Man (and Woman) theory of history.

There’s no use praising Frederick Douglass merely to consign him to the dustbin of history. He had plenty of things to say about the issues we’re still grappling with every day. And we’ll still be here, talking about voting rights and gender equality and cultural divides and the limits of federal power and, yes, Frederick Douglass, long after Black History Month is past.