On July 5, 1852, the abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass delivered one of the greatest speeches of his long and storied career. Titled “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?,” Douglass’ speech contained both a searing denunciation of American slavery and a rousing defense of the libertarian principles coursing through the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. “Interpreted as it ought to be interpreted,” Douglass thundered from the stage, “the Constitution is a glorious liberty document.”
In my view, there’s no such thing as a bad day to reflect on the wisdom of Frederick Douglass—but July Fourth is perhaps a better day for it than most. So as a way of both honoring Douglass and marking the anniversary of his remarkable July Fourth speech, here are two stories from the Reason archives which examine the life and legacy of this indispensable American hero.
It’s true that Frederick Douglass simultaneously championed both civil rights and economic liberty. But the proper term for that combination isn’t Social Darwinism; it’s classical liberalism. The central component of Douglass’ worldview was the principle of self-ownership, which he understood to include both racial equality and the right to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor.