On Juneteenth, consider what made Frederick Douglass great

This Juneteenth is the 10th anniversary of the unveiling of Frederick Douglass’s bronze statue in the United States Capitol. As we reflect on his well-earned place in our history, we have to ask: What makes him one of the great Americans?

It isn’t merely the inspiring story of his rise from slave to statesman. Neither is it the triumph of his character over the racial prejudice common in his day. Nor still is it his exemplary service in the crusade against slavery—although his writings and speeches against it are treasures of our American inheritance. It isn’t even all these things together. It’s something more.

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Douglass has earned his place in American history because, at the critical moment, he reminded us of who we are. In our darkest hour, when we were broken by hatred, and when so many succumbed to the always-present temptation to injustice, Douglass took our measure by better things: “the great principles of justice and freedom” and “the principle of absolute equality,” which when enshrined in America’s Founding documents, shook the world.

Douglass urged the American people to live up to those principles during the Civil War and the nation’s painful “new birth of freedom.” At that time, our principles and our fallen nature were engaged in a fight to the death. It was hard to see how our principles could win when so many people were enslaved, so many others fought to keep them there, and still others were unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to set them free. Frankly, it was hard for many to believe that the principles were anything but lies.

Douglass had once believed that they were lies, and with good reason. No one knew better than he the degree to which people can fall short of those principles. The whip scars on his back reminded him of it every day. Few would have faulted him for responding to that terrible injustice in kind. In fact, that all-too-common error whereby we confuse justice with revenge would cause many of us to praise him, if he had.

He could have argued—as some do today—that because former slaves suffered injustice, they should now have a turn to benefit from it. It was in his self-interest to do so. But he decided against that path. He came to understand that to govern a country along racial lines rather than shared humanity would only set the country ablaze with “agitation and ill-feeling” and bring it, once again, “to the verge of ruin.”

To Douglass, the people’s embrace of prejudice was proof of their humanity. But the presence of great principles in our hearts was proof of our knowledge of God.

To obey the law, the nation had “to learn righteousness.” Or, rather, relearn it. For righteousness could be found in those “great principles” at the heart of the American identity and Constitution. Of that document, Douglass asked: “Do you declare that a thing is bad because it has been misused, abused, and made a bad use of?” He answered: “No!” For in the pages of our Constitution are the means for all people “to demand their liberty.”

He had no charity for the “compromising spirit” that turned the people away from the principles that made our Constitution a “Glorious Liberty Document.” Instead, he insisted that we use them as a “compass” to guide us away from the vices of our nature, and toward the virtues.

Douglass remembered that for the men who wrote that document, “nothing was ‘settled’ that was not right. With them, justice, liberty, and humanity were ‘final;’ not slavery and oppression.” Upon these “great principles,” they laid the “deep cornerstone of the national superstructure” that rises all around us. But the people had cast their eyes down to low and petty things like prejudice and self-interest, and so they could not see it.

Douglass at first struggled just as they did, but then he turned his eyes and theirs back up to better things. He reminded them, as he reminds us still, of the “essential qualities” that will make us great, if we embrace them. And that is why Douglass has earned his statue in the Capitol and his high place in our history.