Frederick Douglass and 19th Century Political Thought

Frederick Douglass was one of America’s foremost intellectuals and greatest figures in the American antislavery movement. Douglass told the story of his escape from slavery and his arguments against that “hateful thing” were some of the most persuasive of the time. Douglass’s impressive oratory skills sent him to the national stage, where he influenced other American contemporaries such as Abraham Lincoln, William Lloyd Garrison, and John Brown.

He believed the Founding principles, if applied as intended, would uphold freedom for every person: “In that instrument I hold there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing [slavery]; but interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.

In his famous “Self-Made Men” lecture, Douglass emphasized the significance of self-dependence:

“Self-made men … are the men who owe little or nothing to birth, relationship, friendly surroundings; to wealth inherited or to early approved means of education; who are what they are, without the aid of any of the favoring conditions by which other men usually rise in the world and achieve great results.”

Douglass’s faith in self-sufficiency was underscored by his belief in the American tradition of liberty through self-government.

From Slavery to the National Stage

Frederick Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in February 1818. Born a slave, Douglass only saw his mother a handful of times and never knew his father, who was white. At the age of 8, Douglass was hired out as a servant in Baltimore. While there, he taught himself to read and studied natural rights, debate, and historical speeches.

At the age of 15, he was returned to eastern Maryland, where he rebelled by plotting escape, educating his fellow slaves, and physically fighting with his captors. Douglass’s master, irritated by his rebelliousness, sent him back to Baltimore, where he successfully escaped to New York City a free man. He married Anna Murray, a free woman who had aided his escape, and they moved to Massachusetts, where they adopted the name “Douglass.”

Soon, Douglass began attending abolitionist meetings and speaking on his experiences as a slave. His story became even more widespread after he published Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 1845. Douglass traveled abroad speaking on his book and then became involved in the hotbed of reform activity in Rochester, New York. Here, he promoted the women’s rights movement and became more poltically active.

By the time of the Civil War, Douglass had gained enough clout to meet with President Lincoln to discuss the unequal treatment of black soldiers. He also argued intensely for the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.

After the war, Douglass moved to Washington, D.C., where he served under 5 presidents as U.S. Marshal for D.C., Recorder of Deeds for D.C., and Minister Resident and Consul General to Haiti. Right up until his death on February 20, 1895, Douglass continued to be an activist for black equality and women’s rights.

Below is a collection of resources recognizing Frederick Douglass’s influence in American political thought. Browse these resources or jump from section to section by clicking the links below:

Self-Made Men, 1872

“…Though a man of this class need not claim to be a hero or to be worshiped as such, there is genuine heroism in his struggle and something of sublimity and glory in his triumph. Every instance of such success is an example and a help to humanity. It, better than any mere assertion, gives us assurance of the latent powers and resources of simple and unaided manhood. It dignifies labor, honors application, lessens pain and depression, dispels gloom from the brow of the destitute and weariness from the heart of him about to faint, and enables man to take hold of the roughest and flintiest hardships incident to the battle of life, with a lighter heart, with higher hopes and a larger courage…

I am certain that there is nothing good, great or desirable which man can possess in this world, that does not come by some kind of labor of physical or mental, moral or spiritual. A man, at times, gets something for nothing, but it will, in his hands, amount to nothing. What is true in the world of matter, is equally true in the world of the mind. Without culture there can be no growth; without exertion, no acquisition; without friction, no polish; without labor, no knowledge; without action, no progress and without conflict, no victory. A man that lies down a fool at night, hoping that he will waken wise in the morning, will rise up in the morning as he laid down in the evening…

The lesson taught at this point by human experience is simply this, that the man who will get up will be helped up; and the man who will not get up will be allowed to stay down. This rule may appear somewhat harsh, but in its general application and operation it is wise, just and beneficent. I know of no other rule which can be substituted for it without bringing social chaos. Personal independence is a virtue and it is the soul out of which comes the sturdiest manhood. But there can be no independence without a large share of self-dependence, and this virtue cannot be bestowed. It must be developed from within…

The nearest approach to justice to the negro for the past is to do him justice in the present. Throw open to him the doors of the schools, the factories, the workshops, and of all mechanical industries. For his own welfare, give him a chance to do whatever he can do well. If he fails then, let him fail! I can, however, assure you that he will not fail. Already has he proven it. As a soldier he proved it. He has since proved it by industry and sobriety and by the acquisition of knowledge and property. He is almost the only successful tiller of the soil of the South, and is fast becoming the owner of land formerly owned by his old master and by the old master class. In a thousand instances has he verified my theory of self-made men. He well performed the task of making bricks without straw: now give him straw. Give him all the facilities for honest and successful livelihood, and in all honorable avocations receive him as a man among men…


Selected online resources on Frederick Douglass:

Diana Schaub on the Life and Political Thought of Frederick Douglass

JMC Faculty Partner Diana Schaub spoke to JMC Board Member Bill Kristol on the life and political thought of Frederick Douglass for an episode Conversations with Bill Kristol:

Click here to view on YouTube >>


Diana Schaub and Lucas Morel on Douglass’s View of Emancipation and Lincoln

Diana Schaub and Lucas Morel, Professor of Politics at Washington and Lee University, discuss Frederick Douglass’ thoughts about Lincoln and his role in emancipation at the American Enterprise Institute.

Click here to view the video on Vimeo >>


Nicholas Buccola on Frederick Douglass and Libertarianism

Faculty partner Nicholas Buccola considers Douglass’s place in and his lasting contribution to the classical liberal movement in America.

Click here to visit YouTube >>


The Frederick Douglass Papers Online

Indiana University has digitized several resources by and about Frederick Douglass. Their online collection includes photographs of Douglass, full text editions of his writings, and recent recommended publications.

Click here to visit the Frederick Douglass Papers >>



*If you are a JMC fellow who’s published on Frederick Douglass or his political thought, and would like your work included here, send it to us at

Commentary and articles from JMC fellows:


Frederick Douglass’s Lasting Influence


The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass: In Pursuit of American Liberty, Nicholas BuccolaJonathan Bean, Frederick Douglass: Lion of Individualist Liberalism.” (The Beacon, February 21, 2018)

Jonathan Bean, Why Frederick Douglass Still Matters.” (The Beacon, July 6, 2009)

Nicholas Buccola, The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass: In Pursuit of American Liberty. (NYU Press, 2013)

Nicholas Buccola, “You Can’t Put Frederick Douglass in Chains.” (New York Times, March 12, 2018)

Gregory Collins, Beyond Politics and Natural Law: The Anticipation of New Originalist Tenets in the Constitutional Thought of Frederick Douglass.” (American Political Thought 6.4, Fall 2017)

Anthony Lister Ives, Frederick Douglass’s Reform Textualism: An Alternative Jurisprudence Consistent with the Fundamental Purpose of Law.” (The Journal of Politics 80.1, January 2018)

Peter Myers, Frederick Douglass: Race and the Rebirth of American Liberalism. (University Press of Kansas, 2008)

Peter Myers, “Frederick Douglass’s America: Race, Justice, and the Promise of the Founding.” (The Heritage Foundation, January 11, 2011)

Peter Myers, “Frederick Douglass’s American Identity Politics.” (RealClear Public Affairs’s 1776 Series, November 18, 2020)

Peter Myers, “‘A Good Work for Our Race Today’: Frederick Douglass’s Freedmen’s Monument Speech.” (American Political Science Review 104.2, May 2010)

Diana Schaub, “The Spirit of a Free Man.” (Public Interest 140, Summer 2000)


*If you are a JMC fellow who’s published on Frederick Douglass or his political thought, and would like your work included here, send it to us at



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