An excerpt from American Statesmanship: Principles and Practice of Leadership, edited by Joseph R. Fornieri, Kenneth L. Deutsch and Sean D. Sutton (University of Notre Dame Press, 776 pages, $75.00)

Frederick Douglass: The Agitator as Statesman

“In this and like communities,” Abraham Lincoln observed, “public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently he who moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces opinions.” The formation of public sentiment, Lincoln believed, is not the whole of statesmanship, but it is the deepest and most important of the statesman’s tasks.

Frederick Douglass enacted no statutes and pronounced no authoritative judicial opinions; he commanded no armies and wrote no constitutions; he founded no political institutions or orders. He was not a statesman in the restrictive usage of the term, confined to the class of public officials. He was instead, in 19th­-century parlance, only an agitator—an activist who occupied himself mainly in “the foolishness of preaching,” as he liked to call it, urging public officials and other fellow citizens to action in the service of the great moral causes of the day. Yet he was no ordinary agitator. He was the “Great Agitator” of 19th­ century America, the indispensable counterpart to the Great Emancipator. In a career spanning over 50 years, Douglass labored in his way, as Abraham Lincoln did in his, to renew and reinvigorate, and also to broaden and deepen, his country’s dedication to its first principles. Today he is remembered, with virtually universal admiration, as a preeminent teacher and exemplar of America’s moral meaning and mission.

Judged by Lincoln’s standard, Douglass well deserves the title of statesman, in a more inclusive but not less ennobled sense of the term. In the discussion that follows, we consider in detail Douglass’ understanding and his own practice of statesmanship, as epitomized in four of his most profound and memorable speeches. We begin, however, with the improbable and inspiring story of how he rose to take his place among the great American rhetorical statesmen.


The boy who became Frederick Douglass was born on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in February 1818. His birth name, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, indicative of a proud family lineage, stands in ironic contrast to the fact that he was born enslaved. He lived in painful, life­long ignorance of the identity of his father and barely knew his mother, who died shortly before or after he turned eight years old. From that troubled beginning, he would rise to become the greatest anti­slavery and equal­ rights advocate in 19th­ century America.

Douglass told his remarkable story in three finely crafted autobiographies, framing his life as a series of dramatic reversals to highlight the possibility of revolutionary, liberating change. The first of his turning points was his acquisition of literacy, begun with the assistance of a kindly slave-mistress and completed during his boyhood via his own cleverness and industry. The second marked the climactic event in the story of his liberation: his forceful resistance to an attempted whipping by the cruel slave master Edward Covey. Reflecting on that episode, he wrote, “I was nothing before; I was a man now.”

Ever determined to escape slavery, young Frederick did so in September 1838 when he fled Baltimore disguised as a seaman and made his way eventually to New Bedford, Massachusetts. There he settled for a time, took the surname he would soon make famous (from the hero in Sir Walter Scott’s epic poem The Lady of the Lake), worked for a few years as a day laborer, and took part in local abolitionist meetings. In August 1841, at a regional abolitionist convention in Nantucket, he was asked to speak impromptu, and his speech so impressed William Lloyd Garrison, then the nation’s most prominent abolitionist, that Garrison immediately offered him a position as a lecturer for the Massachusetts Anti­-Slavery Society. Douglass’ fame grew rapidly in that position, and with it arose doubts as to whether so skilled an orator could ever have been a slave. To dispel those doubts, he wrote his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), which became an instant bestseller. The book confirmed Douglass’ veracity, but at the cost of heightening the danger of his capture and return to slavery. In August 1845, he fled to Great Britain, where his speeches won him international fame and the admiration of British abolitionists, a few of whom raised a fund to purchase his freedom. He returned to the United States in spring 1847 to resume his abolitionist labors, a free man by law and a significantly more confident and independent thinker.

Douglass’ British friends also funded his purchase of a printing press, and in late 1847, shortly before relocating to Rochester, New York, he launched his own newspaper, The North Star (later renamed Frederick Douglass’ Paper). That undertaking contravened the advice of Garrison, and as his new office as editor broadened and quickened his education, Douglass came to disagree with his erstwhile mentor on vital points of principle and practice. The final break came in 1851 when Douglass announced his rejection of the core Garrisonian doctrine that the U.S. Constitution was a proslavery instrument. Thereafter aligning himself with the rival “political abolitionist” school, he engaged in increasing political activism through the 1850s and into the Civil War years, eventually coming face ­to ­face with President Abraham Lincoln—first as the president’s harsh critic and later, after the Emancipation Proclamation, as Lincoln’s valued adviser and friend.

In the postwar decades, Douglass’ initially bright hopes for the freed-people’s full civil and political liberty faded as the Reconstruction era came to its end. Undespairing, he labored to the end of his life to remind the succeeding generations of the moral principles vindicated in the Civil War and to propagate his undying faith in the mission and promise of America. As he gathered his energies to prepare yet another lecture on the imperative of equal justice for all, he suffered a sudden heart attack or stroke and died on February 20, 1895.

The Virtues of Statesmen

“The signers of the Declaration of Independence,” Douglass told his Rochester audience, “were brave men. They were great men too—great enough to give fame to a great age. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they con­tended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.” In his relatively extended encomium to the founders, he observed in them several specific virtues that identified them as statesmen. In summary, the founders as Douglass represented them were courageous, patriotic, principled, and prudent.

They were “brave men,” Douglass affirmed, characterizing their courage in a manner reminiscent of Aristotle’s account of the moral virtues as means between extremes of deficiency and excess. The founders “were peace men,” he continued, but they were also “men of spirit” who disdained any peace purchased by a “submission to bondage,” and they acted deliberately, not rashly, in rising to secure their liberty. They petitioned “in a decorous, respectful, and loyal manner” for redress of the wrongs they suffered at the hands of their British rulers, and when those appeals proved unavailing, they “staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, on the cause of their country.”

The revolutionary fathers risked everything, Douglass remarked, and were moved to do so by a cause far grander and nobler than their own profit, power, or glory. “They loved their country better than their own private interests.” They were patriots who assumed responsibility for the well-being of an entire nation, including the untold millions in future generations whose happiness would depend in large measure on the soundness of the foundations they laid. Patriotism “is not the highest form of human excellence,” Douglass noted, but it is “a rare virtue” due not only to the qualities of courage, duty, and sacrifice that it calls forth but also to the dignity of political life. A nation or political society, he observed in an 1869 speech, ranks among “the grandest aggregations of organized human power” and stands as a distinctively “attractive, instructive and useful [subject] of thought” and as an ennobling object of devotion.

Above all, what ennobled the founders’ courage and patriotism in Douglass’ eyes was the set of principles for which they sacrificed and to which they dedicated their new nation. “Their statesmanship looked be­yond the passing moment, and stretched away in strength into the dis­tant future. They seized upon eternal principles, and set a glorious example in their defense.” 

The founders’ actions qualify as statesmanship, in Douglass’ judgment, foremost by virtue of their dedication to principle— to “eternal” principles, or to what they and he held to be the true, final, universal principles of moral and political right. Those principles are summarized in the Declaration of Independence as the self­-evident truths that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that to secure those rights, just governments are instituted by the consent of the governed. Douglass reminded and implored his audience: “The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.” Speaking against the Kansas­ Nebraska bill in 1854, he called the natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness “the basis of all social and political right.” The task of statesmanship in America, as he conceived it, consists generally in pre­serving and advancing those natural ­rights principles.

To perform that task required even more than courage, conviction, and devotion. So complex an association as a nation, Douglass remarked in the 1869 speech cited above, demands “the highest order of talent and ability for [its] guidance, preservation and success.” The founders were “wise men,” he remarked in his July Fourth commemoration, not only in their dedication to sound principles but also in their prudence. They were “circumspect”; they acted “most deliberately.” They “wisely measur[ed] the terrible odds against them,” both the odds against overcom­ing the might of Great Britain in the war for independence and the odds against their success in introducing into the world a novel form of re­publican constitutional government. Guided by a profound understanding of the capabilities and limitations of human nature, they “lay deep the corner­stone of the national superstructure,” Douglass reminded his audience, “which has risen and still rises in grandeur around you.”

Principle and Prudence in Douglass’ Praise of the Founders

Douglass’ praise for the founders was at once an explanation of statesmanship and an act of statesmanship. As his condemnation of post­ founding America indicates, the July Fourth speech came at a moment in the nation’s history when the prospects for slavery’s abolition appeared bleak. Throughout the 1840s and into the 1850s, the proslavery faction’s control over all major departments of the U.S. government seemed secure, and the result was an ominous succession of proslavery actions in federal law and policy, including the annexation of Texas, the war against Mexico, and the enactment of the 1850 Compromise. That latest compromise included the infamous Fugitive Slave Law of 1850—“that most foul and fiendish of all human decrees,” Douglass called it, a law that “in diabolical intent . . . stands alone in the annals of tyrannical legislation.” The succession of proslavery actions by the U.S. government would continue throughout the 1850s, and Douglass summarized the apparent logic of events in a spring 1854 speech: “we are in the midst of . . . a moral revolution—a revolution which threatens to extinguish the moral light which Heaven in mercy, has bestowed upon us.”

By his praise for the founders and his condemnation of the lapsed condition of the republic in his own time, Douglass implored his fellow citizens to return to the founding and its “saving principles.” Yet there is more to his statesmanship in the Fourth of July Oration than meets the eye in his exhortations to return to first principles.

“I like radical measures,” Douglass remarked in 1847, and in the Fourth of July Oration he praised the founders for their radicalism no less than for their statesmanship. The revolutionaries of 1776 were “accounted in their day, plotters of mischief, agitators and rebels, dangerous men.” They were the great agitators of their day; the course they charted aroused shock and alarm among “the timid and the prudent.”

The founders were prudent, too, as well as principled, but as his pejorative usage of the term here indicates, Douglass harbored an ambivalence about counsels of prudence. By the early 1850s he had seen enough of America’s compromises with slavery, and he did not wholly approve even of the compromises the founders’ prudence recommended to them. Without quite naming the founders as culpable, Douglass in a July 4 speech a decade later lamented the opportunities “the nation” had missed “to put away the hateful slave system.” The first of those came, he contended, at the close of the “war for Independence,” when “the moral sentiment of the country was purified”; the second came “in 1789 [sic], when we assembled to form the Constitution of the United States.” Such a criticism may be intimated in the 1852 speech, in his remark that the founders’ patriotism (which perhaps moved them to compromise their anti­slavery principles) was “not the highest form of human excellence.

Nonetheless, Douglass seemed to judge it a dictate of prudence to sound any critical notes concerning the founders only in muted tones. Whatever the founders’ shortcomings, they were decisively outweighed by their virtues. To reject the founders for their failings as abolitionists would mean for abolitionists to inflict a potentially fatal wound on their own cause, setting it at odds with the patriotism of the broad mass of their fellow citizens—in effect associating abolitionism with anti-­Americanism. It was a dictate of prudence as well as principle for Douglass to defend the founders and the founding against the “slander upon their memory” propagated by his former mentors, the Garrisonians. It was above all imperative to insist, against the latter, that the U.S. Constitution was “a glorious liberty document,” and to represent the pro­liberty spirit of the founders and their Constitution as a cause for optimism in the struggle against slavery. Characteristically, Douglass concluded his speech “where I began, with hope.”

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Moral Steadfastness and the Law of Nature

Douglass’ faith in America and his striking confidence in the ultimate victory of the anti­slavery cause needed a firmer, deeper basis than sound constitutional interpretation. In the post-­founding era, he conceded in his Dred Scott speech, “the American people have made void our Constitution” by flawed interpretation. What reason was there to believe that the pernicious errors propagated by William Lloyd Garrison, John C. Calhoun, and Roger Taney among others would not continue to prevail? The answer could be found in the law of nature.

The friends of liberty in America must never surrender, Douglass insisted; they must reject abolitionist calls for disunion, as they must reject calls by some black leaders, increasingly voluble in the 1850s, for the emigration of free blacks. The will to carry on in the anti­slavery struggle must be sustained by the conviction, simple at its core, that the law of nature to which America was originally dedicated is true and, being true, would eventually triumph in the world. It was based on this conviction that Douglass observed, in the Dred Scott speech, that “there is a significant vitality about this abolition movement.” He viewed it as a fact rooted in the nature of things that the series of political compromises since the founding could not settle the slavery controversy: “the more the question has been settled, the more it has needed settling.”

Douglass did not think that non-slaveholding white Americans would experience a sudden awakening of conscience regarding the injustice of slavery, or that they would suddenly shed what he knew to be their pervasive anti­black prejudices. His statement of optimism in the Dred Scott speech rested on the expectation that Northern whites would be aroused first—and soon—to act against slavery in defense of their own rights and interests, against increasing encroachments by the slave power.

“Step by step,” he noted, “we have seen the slave power advancing; poisoning, corrupting, and perverting the institutions of the country; growing more and more haughty, imperious, and exacting. The white man’s liberty has been marked out for the same grave with the black man’s.” White Americans were no more trustworthy than any other nation or ethnic group as custodians of the rights of others, but they had proved to be unusually spir­ited and able defenders of their own rights. As more and more of them came to recognize slavery as a threat to their own rights, the demise of slavery appeared closer and closer at hand.

Douglass described those motives for supporting abolition as “white reasons”—meaning partial and interested, not fully moral and humanitarian motives. He allowed that he would prefer action against slavery to be motivated by both “white” and “black” reasons, or by a commitment to universal moral principles, but he was satisfied for the moment with action based on partial motives. Even in such actions, he saw the law of nature at work.

In the argument that he adumbrated in the Dred Scott speech and elsewhere, the slave power’s encroachments on the rights and interests of white Northerners were motivated by insecurity born of the rise of militant abolitionism, which was conditioned on moral sympathy for those enslaved. In turn, Douglass argued, such sympathy was a natural effect of demonstrations of their own love of liberty by black Americans, whether free or enslaved. The truth of the proposition that human beings by nature possess a right to liberty depended effectively, he believed, on their love of liberty and their willingness to assert and defend it. Demonstrations of that love of liberty would prove crucial to setting in motion a sequence of events that would culminate in slavery’s destruction.

In short, in Douglass’ abolitionist statesmanship as the war approached, a steadfast faith in the impending triumph of liberty in America rested on a rational foundation. An agitation that eventually provoked the slave power to its fatal overreach must naturally arise, he maintained, and could never cease until slavery was abolished—and it must naturally arise, in sympathy with the intuitive understanding harbored by those enslaved that the principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence were, as Douglass ever insisted, true and saving principles.

This Great Nation

Statesmanship, as Douglass understood and practiced it, consisted in a tireless, courageous, hopeful, and prudent struggle to recover America’s national promise, ultimately by a reformation of the moral sentiments, and thus of the souls, of his fellow citizens. In 1852, the same year he de­livered his first great speech, he declared that he had “one great political idea,” encapsulated in a teaching from the Book of Proverbs: “Righteousness exalteth a nation.” That teaching led Douglass into occasional excess, as it sometimes inclined him, as it did Garrison, to suppose that righteousness alone—action dictated by pure, uncompromising principle—could suffice as prudently conceived policy. In the main, however, the conviction that “righteousness exalteth” did much to make Douglass the greatest of all black American statesmen and among the greatest of any color, for it sustained his faith in American reform and inspired his efforts to ennoble the souls of his fellow citizens.

At the heart of that conviction and those efforts was Douglass’ distinctive understanding of the law of nature, grounded in an understanding of human nature that incorporates elements of both realism and idealism. “Nature has two voices,” he observed in an important 1869 speech, “the one high, the other low.” To accomplish his high objectives, a statesman needs to achieve a certain fluency in both those voices, but he must retain a steadfast faith, as Douglass put it elsewhere, in “the preponderating good” and the “upward tendency” in human nature. Although often compelled to address his fellow Americans as creatures of interest, he never lost sight of their character as beings with souls. He addressed them as moral beings, creatures of duty and honor no less than of interest. All along, his ultimate object was the reformation and ennoblement of the American character. “[T]he character we form and develop,” he maintained, is “the thing of all commanding and transcendent importance.”

Douglass addressed that remark to black Americans in particular, but in different words and speeches he presented the same idea to all of his fellow Americans. It seems most fitting to conclude our discussion of Douglass’ statesmanship with his twin valedictory statements, in which he urged black Americans and all Americans to remain mindful of the law of nature—of the duties and virtues it requires of us and the happiness it promises us. In the conclusion to the 1881 edition of his final autobiography, Douglass offered these words to “a class whose aspirations need the stimulus of success”:

I have aimed to assure them that knowledge can be obtained under difficulties; that poverty may give place to competency; that obscurity is not an absolute bar to distinction, and that a way is open to welfare and happiness to all who will resolutely and wisely pursue that way; that neither slavery, stripes, imprisonment nor proscription need extinguish self­-respect, crush manly ambition, or paralyze effort; that no power outside of himself can prevent a man from sustaining an honorable character and a useful relation to his day and generation. Schooled as I have been among the abolitionists of New England, I recognize that the universe is governed by laws which are unchangeable and eternal, that what men sow they will reap, and that there is no way to dodge or circumvent the consequences of any act or deed.

 A little over a year before his death, Douglass addressed to “this great nation” a final reminder of “the sublime and glorious truths with which, at its birth, it saluted a listening world,” saying: “Apply these sublime and glorious truths to the situation now before you. Put away your race prejudice. Banish the idea that one class must rule over another. Recognize the fact that the rights of the humblest citizen are as worthy of protection as are those of the highest, and your problem will be solved . . . . [B]ased on the eternal principles of truth, justice and humanity your Republic will stand and flourish forever.


An excerpt from American Statesmanship: Principles and Practice of Leadership, edited by Joseph R. Fornieri, Kenneth L. Deutsch, Sean D. Sutton (University of Notre Dame Press, 776 pages, $75.00)


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About Peter C. Myers

Peter C. Myers is Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Visiting Graduate Faculty member at Ashland University. He is a former Visiting Fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies. He is the author of Our Only Star and Compass: Locke and the Struggle for Political Rationality and Frederick Douglass: Race and the Rebirth of American Liberalism, along with essays and articles in political philosophy and American Political Thought.

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