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Frederick Douglass: “I Am A Man”

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This blog post is the second of two about the abolitionist Frederick Douglass (celebrating his 200th birthday) and part of a series called “Hidden Folklorists,” which examines the folklore work of surprising people, including people better known for other pursuits. The first post, “Frederick Douglass: Free Folklorist,” is available at this link.

A seated portrait of an African American man.
Frederick Douglass in 1870. Photo by George Francis Schreiber. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. //

The 1850s brought new concerns for the community of abolitionists with which Frederick Douglass had aligned himself. The Fugitive Slave Act attempted to oblige citizens in free states to return slaves to their masters. It criminalized the efforts of those who participated in the Underground Railroad. Slaves headed north now had to run all the way to Canada in order to reach a jurisdiction that would not return them to slave states. Douglass himself was free, but activities to assist fleeing slaves that he and other abolitionists participated in had become much more dangerous. In addition, the “compromise of 1850” engineered by Henry Clay set up a system of a balance between slave and free states. Douglass, who was a fierce opponent of Clay both personally and politically, felt that this system would only serve to prolong slavery and to make northerners more complacent. Some abolitionists, including Douglass’s mentor, William Lloyd Garrison, accepted the compromise as a way to preserve peace. Douglass’s first hand knowledge of the suffering of slaves would never allow him to accept anything but freedom for those still held in slavery. In 1853 he said the compromise of 1850, “reveals with great clearness the extent to which slavery has shot its leprous distilment through the lifeblood of the Nation.” (Address delivered at Broadway Tabernacle, New York, p. 12.)

Douglass had always read widely and during this time he seems to have been especially interested in law and ethnology. Law, especially constitutional law, was a possible route to arguments against the growing web of legislation that attempted to make slavery legal under the United States Constitution. Ethnology became of interest as he was already using understanding of culture, especially the culture of slavery, in his speeches to raise the consciousness of people in free states. But the work of some ethnologists was being used in arguments in the United States Congress to support the continuation of slavery. Douglass sought out ethnological writings by various authors on the concept of “race” in the hopes of finding arguments that would help bridge the divide between African and European Americans. He was deeply disappointed.

In 1854 Douglass gave a speech, “The Claims of the Negro,” to the Philozetian Society at Western Reserve College in Ohio. Douglass described the views of a number of ethnologists on the subject of race. This was at a particularly dark moment in the study of human beings. Many ethnologists in Europe and the Americas sought a scientific basis for discrimination against large groups of people. It was not a coincidence that these “races” were groups that western countries wished to rule, colonize, or keep in bondage.

It is the province of prejudice to blind; and scientific writers, not less than others, write to please, as well as to instruct, and even unconsciously to themselves, (sometimes,) sacrifice what is true to what is popular. Fashion is not confined to dress; but extends to philosophy as well–and it is fashionable now, in our land, to exaggerate the differences between the negro and the European. If, for instance, a phrenologist, or naturalist undertakes to represent in portraits, the differences between the two races–the negro and the European–he will invariably present the highest type of the European, and the lowest type of the negro.

The European face is drawn in harmony with the highest ideas of beauty, dignity and intellect. Features regular and brow after the Websterian mold. The negro, on the other hand, appears with features distorted, lips exaggerated; forehead depressed–and the whole expression of the countenance made to harmonize with the popular idea of negro imbecility and degradation. —  The Claims of the Negro, Ethnologically Considered: an address before the literary societies of Western Reserve College, at commencement, by Frederick Douglass, July 12, 1854 (page 20)

A wooden desk and chair by windows with photographs on the wall.
Frederick Douglass’s den at his home in Washington, D.C. (between 1980 and 2006). Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

This was the study of human beings with the goal of imperialism. As Douglass noted, there was no agreement among ethnologists as to exactly which groups were “races” or how these different groups arose. A race is a subspecies in biology, but it was not clear exactly what the ethnologists meant by the word or how they would prove the existence of race among human beings. Some saw  northern Africans as similar to Europeans, while others did not. Many argued for separate lines of descent for the different races they described. But many were in agreement on one thing, sub-Saharan Africans were primitive and inferior.

Sometimes it can be useful to understand arguments that you disagree with. Douglass, in a way, was in the business of disagreement, and so understanding the ideas that perpetuated slavery gave him ideas about how to counter those ideas.

Douglass was trained as a preacher and so he tackled this argument as a preacher first of all, asserting that the Bible described the creation of a unity of humanity, not races, and that Genesis should be understood to present a unity of mankind. This theological argument would reach many in his audience. But agreeing on a common origin would not convince some that all humans had equal abilities.

In his gut Douglass knew ethnologists who asserted the poor intellect of Africans were mistaken. If Africans were incapable of being educated, then Frederick Douglass himself would have been impossible. Douglass knew other examples of educated African Americans and African Europeans. He says in this speech, “Dr. James McCune Smith, himself a colored man, a gentleman and scholar, alledges [sic]–and not without excellent reason–that this, our own great nation, so distinguished for industry and enterprise, is largely indebted to its composite character” (page 33). Smith had obtained his degree in medicine at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. Abolitionists in Pennsylvania had founded a school in Philadelphia to train African Americans to be teachers in 1837. The African Institute, which was renamed the Institute of Colored Youth in 1852, would have been well known to Douglass. Today it is Cheney University. In 1849 a remarkable new school was founded, New York Central College, McGrawville. I know a little about this college because two of my great-grandparents were graduates. It was established to help poor students seeking an education, men and women, Black and white. It was the first fully co-educational and integrated school of higher learning in the United States. Students who could not afford the tuition could teach courses to defray tuition once they qualified to teach. It is not surprising, then, that this college produced the first African American professor in the United States, Charles Lewis Reason. Highly educated African Americans were still unusual in 1854, but Douglass had a growing network of colleagues who were disproof of claims that Africans were incapable of learning. 

Some scholars pointed to such things as head size and stature as evidence for the superiority of Europeans, claiming that larger people with larger brains were superior. Interestingly Douglass hit upon an important idea about this, the product of his travels to Ireland in 1845-46. The Irish were considered a separate race by some at this time. Douglass met with common laborers and was struck with the effects of poor diet and hard labor on their bodies and features. He noticed that Irish Americans in Indiana had changed in one generation. The children of the Irish who had fled the potato famines were now growing up larger than their parents due to an improved diet. Nutrition, work circumstances, and education, Douglass argued in this speech, changed the physical characteristics that the ethnologists were claiming were static, evidence of race, and evidence of inferiority  (pages 30-31).

In this realization Douglass was ahead of his time. At the beginning of the 20th century anthropologist Franz Boas would use this same argument against the idea of race as used in anthropology. Boas took on anthropologists in Europe and the Americas with a wealth of information on the changes in physiology of many different peoples as a result of changes in nutrition as well as evidence that so-called inferior races could succeed in higher education in western countries. Douglass did not have as much data at hand as Boas, but his observations were correct. (See essays in The Mind of Primitive Man, by Franz Boas, 1938. Full text available via Intenet Archive.)

Douglass concludes this speech with a quote from Robert Burns, one that appears in many of his lectures and writings, “A man’s a man for a’ that,” (page 33) asserting that even if the commonality of African Americans with other human beings cannot be proven, they are human nevertheless. His evidence of this was his faith. “My reading, on this point, however, as well as my own observation, have convinced me, that from the beginning the Almighty, within certain limits, endowed mankind with organizations capable of countless variations in form, feature and color, without having it necessary to begin a new creation for every new variety” (page 32).

This is an important speech as it built the foundation for arguments that he would continue to use through the Civil War and its aftermath. Many of his speeches included a point where he would say to his audience “I am a man!” He used himself as an example, arguing for his own humanity in order to argue for the humanity of African Americans and therefore their right to be treated equally under the Constitution. It is a sad comment on American history that a man with the intellect of Douglass needed to repeatedly proclaim himself a human being. But he did so for the sake of many others who faced the same prejudice but were not in a position to argue for themselves.

Douglass also came to see how pervasive the idea of separate origins of perceived “races” had invaded law and science in support of a society bent on inequality. The governments of southern states, he feared, would keep African Americans oppressed even after the abolition of slavery, because the population of African Americans in some states was so high that it was feared that Blacks would rule if they had the vote. Fear, Douglass realized, was one of the forces of oppression.

Head and portrait print of an African American man.
Dred Scott. Published in Century Magazine, June 1887. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. //

Four years after this speech came a tipping point. A slave named Dred Scott sued for his freedom in 1847. It was a complicated case as Scott had been taken to the free state of Illinois, then the free territory of Wisconsin and left on his own, where he married. Sent for by his master, he went to Missouri and attempted to buy his freedom there after his master died. The case involved a number of violations of laws of free states and territories by Scott’s master. Also, Scott may have been unaware of his rights in those states. This case went  to the Supreme Court. In 1858 the Court’s verdict was that Scott was a slave, and went further to say that because he was Black he had no rights under the Constitution and could not sue in federal court. The inferiority of African Americans, enslaved or free, had now become part of constitutional law.

Frederick Douglass’s speech on the Dred Scott case reads almost like of a proclamation of victory. For Douglass, the Dred Scott decision, handed down by slave-holding judges, bared the hypocrisy of slaveholders for all to see. Some abolitionists at this point felt defeated and considered whether the South should be allowed to leave the Union, as had already been suggested, so that the North could build a free society. But Douglass would have none of that.

In one point of view, we the abolitionists and colored people, should meet this decision, uncalled for and monstrous as it appears, in a cheerful spirit. This very attempt to blot out  forever the hope of an enslaved people may be one necessary link in a chain of events preparatory to the downfall, and even complete overthrow of the slave system (“Dred Scott,” Frederick Douglass, page 31).

Douglass’s research in ethnology, his efforts to disprove those who claimed multiple origins of different groups of human beings and to challenge the idea that people of color were inferior to Europeans, prepared him for this moment and all that was to follow. His understanding of inequality based in the culture of oppression became even more important at the end of the Civil War as slaves were finally given their freedom. Douglass correctly predicted, on numerous occasions, that the culture of slave ownership would become the culture of the oppression of freed slaves unless great efforts were made to give freed slaves their rights. In his speeches following the war he seems most prophetic, presaging the 20th century Civil Rights Movement.

Human rights stand upon a common basis; and by all the reason that they are supported, maintained and defended, for one variety of the human family, they are supported, maintained and defended for all the human family; because all mankind have the same wants, arising out of a common nature. — “The Claims of the Negro,” (page 34)


The Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress

Comments (3)

  1. Well done, Stephanie! I am always proud to sing “Run to Jesus,” the song which Douglass claimed inspired him to escape.

    • Yes, thanks for your commnet. The lyrics Douglass sang for “Run to Jesus” with the story of his escape can be found in Douglass’s second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, which has been put online by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (there are lyrics of other spirituals in this book as well). Douglass did not want to talk about how he escaped and cautioned others not to talk about the details of slaves’ escapes, including songs that may have been used as code, because revealing these details could undermine networks assisting escape. So he did not talk or write about any of this until after the abolition of slavery.

  2. In our era of xenophobia, unparalleled since those of the race-baiters Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson, it is valuable to be reminded of Douglass’s words:

    “our own great nation, so distinguished for industry and enterprise, is largely indebted to its composite character”.

    Thank you for posting this!

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