As Frederick Douglass would write in his still powerful Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, that lesson in racism and oppression was not lost on the intelligent lad. He saw instantly how learning would bring him freedom. He did not for an instant think that literacy would mark him for “acting white.” He began, secretly, preparing himself for his flight to freedom.
There would be, of course, many dangers in escaping slavery. How much better he would fare as a passenger on that Underground Railroad if he could read all the signs along the way.
Frederick Douglass pored over The Columbian Orator and became one of the greatest platform speakers in American history. He met President Lincoln in the White House several times and cooperated with the Great Emancipator in many efforts to bring freedom to the slave. He certainly agreed with Lincoln’s proposition, as eloquently stated in his State of the Union Message to Congress of December, 1862:
In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just – a way which if followed, the world will forever applaud and God must foverver bless.
As the president explains here, freedom for the slave was necessary to maintain freedom for the free. Surely, Frederick Douglass was the great leader of his people. He was, as some of his white admirers called him, a powerful African prince. But he was also fully American. He had the courage to fight and subdue a “slave breaker” in his youth and the vigor to fight off pro-slavery mobs in middle age. Frederick Douglass was in a very real sense an action hero.
He was born in a dirt floor slave cabin in Maryland’s Talbot County. He died at Cedar Hill, his stately Victorian mansion in the nation’s capital. There are few stories of our history as inspiring as that of Frederick Douglass. And his passion for learning can be an example for today’s young people of all races and creeds.