RealClearPublicAffairs’s 1776 Series: “Frederick Douglass’s American Identity Politics”
By Peter Myers
“Mark Twain copied a friend’s remark into his notebook: “I am not an American; I am the American.” That is a claim—to be the American, the exemplary or representative American—that very few Americans could plausibly make. Twain himself could. Benjamin Franklin could and did. Abraham Lincoln could but didn’t, though admirers made the claim for him. Surely some number of others could, too. But among all Americans past or present, no one could make such a claim more compellingly than Frederick Douglass.
Like his country, Douglass rose from a low beginning to a great height. Like his country again, he won his freedom in a revolutionary struggle, by his own virtue and against great odds, and he matured into an exemplar of universal liberty, admired the world over. And like his country, finally, Douglass the individual was divided by race.
Unlike America, Douglass could hardly think of himself as “conceived in liberty.” But even in this respect—especially in this respect—he represents a larger American promise. The son of a white slaveholder and a black slave, Douglass became, along with Abraham Lincoln, post-Founding America’s most important exponent of the natural-rights argument summarized in the Declaration of Independence. Pursuant to the same principles, he became America’s most prominent representative of the aspiration toward racial integration, reconciliation, and uplift…”
Peter Myers is a Professor of Political Science, specializing in political philosophy and U.S. constitutional law, at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. His Ph.D. dissertation, “John Locke on the Naturalness of Rights,” received the American Political Science Association’s Leo Strauss Award for the Best Doctoral Dissertation in the Field of Political Philosophy in 1992. Professor Myers is the author of two books: Our Only Star and Compass: Locke on the Struggle for Political Rationality (1998) and Frederick Douglass: Race and the Rebirth of American Liberalism (2008). He has published articles, chapters, and book reviews in the fields of liberal political philosophy, American literature, and American political thought, including a chapter on Martin Luther King, Jr., in the History of American Political Thought anthology edited by Bryan-Paul Frost and Ashland University’s Jeffrey Sikkenga, and an article on Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln in the May 2010 issue of the American Political Science Review.
Professor Myers is a JMC faculty partner.
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