Lessons from Leaders of the Past: Frederick Douglass

February 14 marks Frederick Douglass’ birthday—not the day he was born, but the day he chose to celebrate his birth. Douglass’ actual birthday and even his birth year remain uncertain. Because he was born a slave, his birth was not recorded. The only date we know for certain is the day he died: February 20, 1895.

Douglass was an intellectual giant. In his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he recounts that his only “formal” education was learning the alphabet from one of the women he served. But Douglass continued to teach himself to read in secret. When he escaped slavery in 1838, Douglass immediately began working as an abolitionist, speaking and writing against slavery not only to demonstrate its horrors but to argue once and for all that slavery was contrary to the United States’ moral and political values.

His reach and popularity were enormous. Douglass influenced presidents, social activists, and other abolitionists, including Abraham Lincoln, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and William Lloyd Garrison. Looking at Douglass’ life accomplishments, it is easy to lament the ignominies he faced that might have stunted his full potential. What more could Douglass have accomplished if he had received a formal education or if he hadn’t spent the first 20 years of his life watching and experiencing brutality?

Following this train of thought, however, is productive only if it helps us identify the current conditions and practices that too often keep Americans from realizing their full potential. Nothing currently equals slavery in the United States in terms of human suffering and loss, but the United States’ high incarceration rate is a problem that continues to squander the potential of Americans to lead fulfilling lives.

In the Charles Koch Institute’s offices, we have chosen to honor 28 men and women who spent their lives defending and promoting the ideas that improve people’s lives. Our classrooms and conference rooms bear the names of these leaders to remind us of the fact that our work is only made possible by the men and women who came before us. Frederick Douglass is one of the people that we honor, and his room displays a first-edition copy of his book My Bondage and My Freedom, as well as an etching of his quote “I would unite with anybody to do right, and with nobody to do wrong.”

Both of these physical reminders connect us to Douglass as we work to continue his legacy of improving people’s lives. Douglass’ fight against slavery did not preclude him from speaking out against other injustices during his lifetime, including the exclusion of women from voting.

Douglass was guided by his vision of a free society that would value all of its members, show them all equal protection under the law, and work toward conditions that would help all people flourish. This same vision guides our work today. It is fitting, therefore, to remember Douglass’ remarks on the 13th Amendment: “Verily, the work does not end with the abolition of slavery, but only begins.”

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