Commentary

Frederick Douglass: “Knowledge Unfits a Man to be a Slave”

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By Nancy Spannaus

Nov. 12, 2018—Three days ago, my husband and I attended a local event sponsored by the Edwin Washington Project, a non-profit devoted to documenting the history of education during the era of segregation in Loudoun County, Virginia, where we live. The speeches on the struggle waged to provide education for African-Americans were poignant and inspiring. They also led me to recall my intention to write a post about one of the greatest advocates for education this nation has ever seen, Frederick Douglass.

This year is the 200th anniversary of Douglass’s birth, and he is finally begun to be celebrated as the towering figure he was during the mid- and late 19th century. Douglass’s role in the movement to abolish slavery, including support for Lincoln in the Civil War, and later in the tumultuous post-war battles, showed him to be a great political leader. He famously championed the U.S. Constitution and called on his fellow African-Americans to support and enforce it. He fought for the woman’s right to vote. For many years he edited his own newspaper. He also served as ambassador to Haiti for a brief time, and remained active in politics until his death in 1895.

Frederick Douglass

But the aspect of Frederick Douglass’s contribution which I want to emphasize on this occasion is Douglass’s understanding of, and commitment to, education.  Yes, Douglass was primarily addressing black Americans in his discussion of this topic. But this man, who, despite being born into slavery, fought successfully to achieve a high degree of literacy, has much to teach all Americans (and others) about the qualifications for responsible citizenship of a republic.

The narrative which I include below comes from the work of a deceased friend, Denise Henderson. Readers, however, have ample opportunity to investigate the subject for themselves in Douglass’s several autobiographies:  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), which became a bestseller, and was influential in promoting the cause of abolition; My Bondage and My Freedom (1855); and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, which went through its final editing in 1892, three years before his death.

A Mind Awakening

By the age of nine, Douglass says, he was inquiring “into the origin and nature of slavery. Why am I a slave? Why are some people slaves and others masters? These were perplexing questions and very troublesome to my childhood. I was very early told by some one that ‘God up in the sky’ had made all things, and had made black people to be slaves and white people to be masters …. I could not tell how anybody could know that God made black people to be slaves.”

In 1825, Douglass, who was about eight at the time, was sent to live in Baltimore with his master’s cousin, Hugh Auld, and his wife. The move to a city, one of the major industrial and shipbuilding centers on the U.S. East Coast, was to give Frederick a chance to expand his horizons both mentally and physically. It was at the Aulds that Douglass came to a more conscious understanding of his hatred of slavery and his love of learning.

Douglass developed a passion early on for reading, a passion which, ironically, was provoked by the debased ideas of his master, Hugh Auld. Douglass called Auld’s lecture to his wife, on why she should stop teaching the boy to read, “the first decidedly anti-slavery lecture” he ever heard, and a revelation which drove him to learn as much as he could. In The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, the great man explained:

“The frequent hearing of my mistress reading the Bible aloud … awakened my curiosity … to this mystery of reading, and roused in me the desire to learn. Up to this time I had known nothing whatever of this wonderful art, and my ignorance and inexperience of what it could do for me, as well as my confidence in my mistress, emboldened me to ask her to teach me to read … My mistress seemed almost as proud of my progress as if I had been her own child, and supposing that her husband would be as well pleased, she made no secret of what she was doing for me. Indeed, she exultingly told him of the aptness of her pupil and of her intention to persevere, as she felt it her duty to do, in teaching me, at least, to read the Bible.”

Abraham Lincoln reading to his son Tad.

What was the reaction of the presumably God-fearing, Christian slave-owner, Hugh Auld? Douglass describes it thus: “Of course he forbade her to give me any further instruction, telling her in the first place that to do so was unlawful, as it was also unsafe, ‘for,’ said he, ‘if you give a nigger an inch he will take an ell [an obsolete unit of measurement amounting to about 45 inches-ed.]. Learning will spoil the best nigger in the world. If he learns to read the Bible it will forever unfit him to be a slave.’ Apparently unaware of the rather extraordinary admission he had just made, Auld continued, ‘He should know nothing but the will of his master, and learn to obey it. As to himself, learning will do him no good, but a great deal of harm, making him disconsolate and unhappy. If you teach him how to read, he’ll want to know how to write, and this accomplished, he’ll be running away with himself.’ ”

“Such was the tenor of Master Hugh’s oracular exposition, and it must be confessed that he very clearly comprehended the nature and the requirements of the relation of master and slave,” added Douglass.

Auld’s “exposition,” Douglass wrote, “was a new and special revelation, dispelling a painful mystery against which my youthful understanding had struggled, and struggled in vain, to wit, the white man’s power to perpetuate the enslavement of the black man. ‘Very well,’ thought I. ‘Knowledge unfits a child to be a slave.’ I instinctively assented to the proposition, and from that moment I understood the direct pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I needed, and it came to me at a time and from a source whence I least expected it. … Wise as Mr. Auld was, he underrated my comprehension, and had little idea of the use to which I was capable of putting the impressive lesson he was giving to his wife. He wanted me to be a slave; I had already voted against that on the home plantation. … That which he most loved I most hated, and the very determination which he expressed to keep me in ignorance only rendered me the more resolute to seek intelligence.”…

Education Will Subvert Slavery

On Dec. 1, 1850, Frederick Douglass gave a speech called “The Nature of Slavery,” in Rochester, New York, in which he emphasized that the slave who had been bestialized by his master, was still a man, and that one of the great weapons that could be put in the hands of that slave, was the right to learn.

“The slave is a man,” said Douglass, ” ‘the image of God,’ but ‘a little lower than the angels’; possessing a soul, eternal and indestructible … and he is endowed with those mysterious powers by which man soars above the things of time and sense, and grasps, with undying tenacity, the elevating and sublimely glorious idea of a God. It is such a being that is smitten and blasted. The first work of slavery, is to mar and deface those characteristics of its victims and which distinguish men from things, and persons from property. Its first aim is to destroy all sense of high moral and religious responsibility. It reduces the young man to a mere machine. It cuts him off from his Maker, it hides from him the laws of God, and leaves him to grope his way from time to eternity in the dark, under the arbitrary and despotic control of a frail, depraved, and sinful fellow-man. . . .

“Nor is slavery more adverse to the conscience than it is to the mind. The crime of teaching a slave to read is punishable with severe fines and imprisonment, and, in some instances, with death itself … The great mass of slaveholders look upon education among the slaves as utterly subversive of the slave system. . . .  It is perfectly well understood at the south, that to educate a slave is to make him discontented with slavery, and to invest him with a power which shall open to him the treasures of freedom; and since the object of the slaveholder is to maintain complete authority over his slave, his constant vigilance is exercized. … Education being among the menacing influence, and, perhaps, the most dangerous, is, therefore, the most cautiously guarded against. … As a general rule, then, darkness reigns over the abodes of the enslaved, and ‘how great is that darkness!’ ”

 A Demand for Universal Education

Throughout his life, one issue which Douglass understood as non-negotiable, was that of universal education.

One of the many schools set up for African-Americans by the U.S. Freedman’s Bureau after the Civil War.

In the 1890s, when Jim Crow laws took hold, and lynchings of blacks were becoming common, Douglass knew that if the black American was not to have full equality, then he would have to become educated in order to fight for that right. Thus, Douglass, who during the war had toured the North giving a speech on “The Mission of the War,” after the war, toured schools and colleges, to foster the literacy of the citizens. He appreciated the difference between ignorant voters and those who were informed of their rights and privileges, and who could thus in turn appreciate the rights and privileges of the so-called downtrodden. His message was always the same: that the illiterate man was a slave, and the literate one a citizen of a free republic.

Douglass read avidly, including Shakespeare, Robert Burns, and other key English-language poets. When invited to address the Robert Burns Anniversary Festival in Rochester, New York, he noted, “Though I am not a Scotchman, and have a colored skin, I am proud to be among you this evening. And if any think me out of my place on this occasion [pointing at the picture of Burns], I get that the blame may be laid at the door of him who taught me that ‘a man’s a man for a’ that.’ ” …

One of Douglass’s articles, “What Are the Colored People Doing for Themselves?” which appeared in his first newspaper, The North Star, made the point that despite prejudice, African-Americans could still develop their potentials. “It should never be lost sight of, that our destiny, for good or for evil, for time and for etemity is, by an all-wise God, committed to us; and that all the helps or hindrances with which we may meet on earth, can ever release us from this high and heaven-imposed responsibility. It is evident that we can be improved and elevated only just so fast and far as we shall improve and elevate ourselves.”

Douglass was not speaking lightly; he had lived the very words he wrote.

He continued: “The fact that we are limited and circumscribed, ought rather to incite us to a more vigorous and persevering use of the elevating means within our reach, than to dishearten us. The means of education, though not so free and open to us as to white persons, are nevertheless at our command to such an extent as to make education possible; and these, thank God, are increasing. Let us educate our children, even though it should subject us to a coarser and scantier diet, and disrobe us of our few fine garments. ‘For the want of knowledge we are killed all the day.’ Get wisdom-get understanding, is a peculiarly valuable exhortation to us, and the compliance with it is our only hope in this land. It is idle, a hollow mockery, for us to pray to God to break the oppressor’s power, while we neglect the means of knowledge which will give us the ability to break this power. God will help us when we help ourselves.”

Frederick Douglass had already learned at the age of 10, that the difference between a slave and a human being was the ability to be able to communicate ideas freely. And whether he was conscious of it or not at that point, he had singled himself out to become the champion of those who had no voice.

Postscript

Frederick Douglass is a unique figure in the age-old struggle for civil rights. Douglass was a principled fighter for the rights of all people throughout his entire life. He started from identifying the unique quality of the human mind, and the need to foster it through education. Douglass refused to talk down to his audiences; he learned to play the violin; he spoke with great oratorical flourish. He believed that the highest levels of Classical culture were to be shared by all peoples.

A statue of Fredrick Douglass in Boston, Massachusetts.

Douglass’ attention to the development of the mind coheres with the thinking of the best American System proponents, who explicitly laid out the cultural parameters for economic progress. The German-American economist Friedrich List specified the cultural contribution to advancing an economy by identifying a “capital of mind,” in addition to the capital of nature (raw materials) and the capital of productive matter (man’s inventions of machinery, etc.). “Capital of mind” referred to the level of education and culture in the society, and was the responsibility of government institutions, because of its contribution to the productivity and prosperity of the society. This concept was also heavily promoted by Lincoln’s chief economic adviser, political economist Henry C. Carey.

As we look toward resurrecting the U.S. economy today, we would do well to take up the cause of education as Frederick Douglas advocated it. “True knowledge unfits a man to be a slave” is a maxim that applies to freeing us all to be effective citizens of our republic.

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