Today's Google doodle is an image of Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became one of the most eloquent and influential abolitionists in American history. The doodle signals the start of Black History Month, which grew out of earlier traditions such as "Negro History Week" and offers a period of intensive reflection on the contributions of blacks to the history of the United States while also reminding the country of the historical realities of slavery and other unspeakable ills pushed on African Americans due to de facto and de jure racism.
Douglass, who was believed to have been born in February, 1818 is of special interest to libertarians for many reasons. As Damon Root has written for Reason, Douglass was a true classical liberal who believed in individualism, strong property rights, and voluntary philanthropy as the best way to create a free, prosperous, and inclusive society. From a 2012 review of Nicholas Buccola's The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass:
“Douglass’s arguments against slavery are, in a very important sense, arguments for liberalism,” writes Linfield College political scientist Nicholas Buccola in The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass, his engaging new study of the great abolitionist. Taking seriously Douglass’ dual commitment to both a “robust conception of mutual responsibility” and “the ideas of universal self-ownership, natural rights, limited government, and an ethos of self-reliance,” Buccola offers a nuanced portrait that illuminates both Douglass and his place in American intellectual history....
Buccola notes, “throughout his development as a political thinker, Douglass was presented with a series of ideological alternatives,” including the pacifist anarchism of Garrison, who said the only government he recognized was the “government of God,” and the utopian socialism of John A. Collins, general director of the Massachusetts Antislavery Society, who believed “that private property was the root of all evil.” Douglass, Buccola observes, “consistently rejected these in favor of liberalism.”
Socialism was then becoming particularly attractive to many New England reformers. Yet Douglass rejected the socialist case against private land ownership, saying “it is [man’s] duty to possess it—and to possess it in that way in which its energies and properties can be made most useful to the human family.” He routinely preached the virtues of property rights. “So far from being a sin to accumulate property, it is the plain duty of every man to lay up something for the future,” he told a black crowd in Rochester, New York in 1885. “I am for making the best of both worlds and making the best of this world first, because it comes first.” As Douglass’ glowing description of his first paying job indicated, he also considered economic liberty an essential aspect of human freedom....
In my opinion, Douglass's 1852 speech "What to the slave is the Fourth of July?" is one of the greatest texts in American literature. It simultaneously enacts what is these days lazily called "American exceptionalism" while excoriating the moral failings of the country. Douglass exemplifies the tradition of critiquing the country's laws and customs by examining them in light of rarely attained but endlessly invoked ideals of equality and justice. To me, that gesture, along with a willingness to change and grow as a nation, is what makes America exceptional. From Douglass's speech:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelly to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
The three editions of Douglass' autobiography (most Americans know the first one, published shortly after he escaped and made his way north) are phenomenal testaments both to the ideals of American freedom and the ways that ideal has rarely come close to being realized. Perhaps most important, he offered up a critique of the country's history, customs, and laws but also personified and argued for a way forward in which all Americans would both be more free and able to transcend the awful indignities and crimes of the past.