Good morning, it’s Friday, Sept. 3, 2021, the day of the week when I reprise quotations intended to be uplifting or educational. Today’s is from Frederick Douglass, who on this date in 1838 effectuated his escape from bondage in Maryland.
Rented out as a carpenter on the Baltimore docks, Douglass, then known as “Fred Bailey,” hopped on a train heading north. Posing as a merchant seaman, he changed trains in Philadelphia, then spent a few days in New York City. He was joined there by Anna Murray, a black woman who had been born free and aided in his escape. They were married in New York on Sept. 15, 1838, but they still weren’t safe from slave hunters who roamed the city. Local abolitionists helped the couple sail to New Bedford, Mass., where they began playing their part in ending slavery on these shores.
Frederick Douglass was a man who would defend himself physically in a fight, even when the odds were not in his favor, and he would urge President Lincoln to enlist slaves in his army, but he is remembered today for the tremendous force of his words.
As he became one of this nation’s most prominent abolitionists, Frederick Douglass repeatedly warned white Americans that a reckoning was coming, and that it was unlikely to be peaceful. “If there is no struggle, there is no progress,” he said in an 1857 speech in Canandaigua, N.Y. “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”
The “awful roar” that was coming, however, was the sound of cannon fire, not the tides. Yet even after the Civil War ended slavery, much of the work of freedom remained. And Douglass knew something that champions of freedom from Martin Luther King Jr. to Alexander Solzhenitsyn have reminded us, which is that slavery and other forms of tyranny don’t only harm those under the yoke. They threaten oppressors as well, stunting their very souls.
In an 1883 speech at a civil rights meeting in Washington, D.C., Frederick Douglass expressed that thought this way: “No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.”
And that’s our quote of the week.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.