Off The Shelf: Frederick Douglass, 2008

“Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.” – President Trump, 02/01/2017

Recent comments by President Trump have shone a light on the life of Frederick Douglass. Douglass (1818-1895) was a prominent American abolitionist and author who escaped slavery at the age of 20 and published three autobiographies.

img_9341In his 2008 UPK book, Frederick Douglass; Race and the Rebirth of American Liberalism, Professor Peter Myers examines the philosophic core of Douglass’s political thought, offering a greater understanding of its depth and coherence. He depicts Douglass as the leading thinker to apply the Founders’ doctrine of natural rights to the plight of African Americans—an activist who grounded his arguments on the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and the inherent injustice not only of slavery but of any form of racial superiority.

“The unifying core of Douglass’s political thought, as I understand it, consists in his distinctive interpretation of the national rights doctrine, applied particularly to race relations in the United States,” Myers writes. “His central claims can be simply summarized as follows: (1) the natural rights doctrine, as epitomized in the Declaration of independence, is true as a set of moral prescriptions and sanctioned as a body of moral laws; (2) institutional systems of slavery and racial supremacy are unjust and ultimately weak; and (3) the national mission and the destiny of the United States are to become an exemplar of harmonious, integrated equality among the racial and ethnic varieties of humankind.”

MYERS 4.indd

After nearly a decade in print, Frederick Douglass remains a landmark study of the political and moral thinking of an authentic American original.

“Douglass shines in Myers’s account as a political thinker that merits consideration alongside antislavery contemporaries like Abraham Lincoln, William Lloyd Garrison and Charles Sumner,” writes Lucas Morel, author of Lincoln’s Sacred Effort: Defining Religion’s Role in American Self-Government. “Myers captures Douglass’s vivid discontent with white American practice, as well as his monumental hopefulness that persistent moral agitation could reform the nation… A penetrating study.”

Peter C. Myers is professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.