Celebrating Black History Month
This page we wanted to dedicate to a month long examination of Black History, just not what we learned in the history books in school - rather every era of America's history where Black Americans made an impact.
When it comes to the study of Black history what often times gets left out of the conversation are the advancements that African Americans have made in American society that don't always make it into the mainstream. One such advancement being that of the public school system that most of us have taken part in.
While the public education school system, was first established in the late 1700's, with land grants provided by the government to build schools for the education of children whose families would otherwise not be able to afford a private education. African Americans, starting at the end of the Civil War and Antebellum period had their own struggle with providing education for the millions of newly freed men, women and children left to navigate this new freedom on their own.
“An Examination of Frederick Douglass’ Political Thought and Pursuit for Liberty”
By Ahmad Jenkins
Frederick Douglass’ rhetorical theory as used in his speeches and books are a mix of not only his experiences as a slave, but also his insight and profound use of the teachings and lessons gleaned from past philosophers and statesmen such as Alexander Hamilton and John Locke.
Despite his early life of having been born and growing up as a slave in Maryland these oppressive beginnings in Douglass’s life didn’t hinder him from rebelling against slavery as a young man. As we'll see in this examination of his life - Douglass’ progression from his early days as a slave who awakens to the reality of his situation to the prominent thinker and abolitionist, we know of him today. As we already know Douglass’s early education consisted of learning to read from Sophia Auld, whom Douglass was given to from her brother-in-law Anthony Auld. Besides that, Douglass had a mostly self-taught education. The first text that truly inspires Douglass to rebel against his condition as a slave was Caleb Bingham’s Colombian Orator where he was introduced to the speaking and rhetoric from members of the abolitionist movement.
As he poured himself into Bingham’s work, he begins to shape his own thoughts on bondage and “be able to argue against the defense that would be used for slavery”. The harsh experience of slavery itself gave him plenty of life experience to add to his oratory skills. Gregory Lampe, author of “Frederick Douglass: Voice of Freedom says of Douglass’s study of Bingham’s book, “The importance of the Columbian Orator in shaping Douglass' future cannot be overestimated. Bingham's book offered him a heroic perspective of oratory and a model for his own life that he appears to have found close to irresistible.". It’s with this knowledge and being fortunate enough to be living close to a large community of free African Americans and abolitionists that Douglass developed a conversational and natural delivery style that appealed to his audience and touched their emotions to the subject of the evils of slavery and racism prevalent in the United States.
Another stage in his early growth as an orator was the deep depression that came with the full reality of his life as a slave. He was concealed from much of it as a young boy in the care of his grandmother, however those incidents he was witness too; such as the brutal whipping of his aunt, and the stories he heard of other slaves began to bring up feelings that something about his situation wasn’t right. Now armed with knowledge from the “Colombian Orator” these feelings were stirred to a much higher intensity in his early to late teens in Baltimore. Douglass to build himself up spiritually for the challenges of his career begins to connect with local African American churches and their leaders.
One of those was a man by the name of Charles Lawson. What attracted young Douglass to Mr. Lawson was his piety and genuine goodness. Lawson likewise must have seen something in the young Douglass because he would make a prophecy concerning Douglass telling him that God had a role for him to fill and that he would have to further prepare himself for it. This had a profound effect on Douglass, and it further fueled him with inspiration and hope. Douglass would later join the black Methodist Episcopal Church on Strawberry Alley in 1831 where he would also hear the religious discourse of Reverend Beverly Waugh - who often visited the home of Auld family; Rev. Edward Waters a former slave and local preacher, Rev. Nathaniel Charles Peck a freeborn Maryland black all of whom aided him in the development of his rhetorical abilities.
It wasn’t until Douglass escaped from slavery at the age of 20 and began working as a common laborer in Massachusetts that he was discovered by abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison that his oratorical skills began to gain him prominence on the abolitionist lecture circuit. Douglass’s new colleagues were so impressed with his oratorical skills they feared that “audiences that many began to doubt whether or not he truly was a graduate of the peculiar institution.”. It was John A. Collins that instructed Douglass to rein in his skills as a speaker so that it would make his story believable to his audience, fortunately Douglass declined the advice.
Between 1840 and 1863 Douglass not only worked at agitating public opinion on the issue of slavery, but he also authored autobiographies on his life as a slave along with serving as editor of abolitionist newspapers like The North Star (1847-1851), Frederick Douglass’ Paper (1851 – 1860) and The Douglas Monthly (1860 – 1863). Through these speeches and writings Douglass found a powerful platform to further his ideas on his natural rights philosophy. When Sen. John C. Calhoun began to promote proslavery sentiment in 1836 to counter the influx of petitions for the abolition of slavery in the District of Colombia, which Calhoun almost immediately wanted rejected insisting that “Congress had no jurisdiction on the issue of slavery in that district than it did in the state of South Carolina”. For Calhoun the Constitution was in no position to provide an anti-slavery stance, since the North and South were to be seen as partners in a common union.
Douglass’ reply to Calhoun's argument clearly pointed out the weaknesses of his position in respect to the qualities of liberal idea enshrined in The Constitution and Declaration of Independence. “Mr. John C. Calhoun, the great Southern statesman of the United States,” Douglass scoffed, “stands upon the floor of the Senate, and actually boasts that he is a robber!” Indeed, Calhoun “positively makes his boast of this disgraceful fact and assigns it as a reason why he should be listened to as a man of consequence—a person of great importance. All his pretensions are founded upon the fact of his being a slaveowner. The audacity of these men is astounding”.
At the foundation of this philosophy was Douglass’ interpretation of the founding of America being an “essentially liberal moment in human history, and his mission was to attempt to extend the liberal promises that come from it to all people, regardless of race or gender". Throughout his writings he praises the liberal principles that are expressed in the Declaration of Independence. An example Douglass challenging pro-slavery legislation comes in 1854 after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
This law repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, where settlers in those territories could decide for themselves whether to condone Slavery or not. To challenge the consistency of this legislation on its consistency of (or lack of) liberal principles, Douglass delivered a speech in Chicago declaring that “the right of each man to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, is the basis of all social and political right and therefore no law-making body can legitimately grant the majority the power to determine whether human beings will be slave or free”. The only exception for Douglass in this is what we find like Locke’s ideas on the presiding government’s ability to apply a ‘limited’ punishment that’s equitable to the impact of the offense within society.
So, as we’ve seen in the examination of Frederick Douglass’ work as a political thinker and abolitionist. He developed the concepts and ideas that pushed the abolitionist movement forward to assist in finally emancipating African Americans from bondage and paving many other movements seeking to further the cause for a more just and equitable society.