On September 14, 2021, The Union League Legacy Foundation unveiled a new painting, a portrait of the great abolitionist and patriot Frederick Douglass. The event comes during a time when Douglass’ beliefs and values, including natural rights, limited government and self-reliance, are being attacked by those who claim to have the same goals of social justice for which Douglass fought so hard 150 years ago.
The unveiling took place in The Union League of Philadelphia’s Lincoln Hall in front of the painting of another great abolitionist, Abraham Lincoln. Founded in 1862 to support Lincoln, the Union, and Abolition, the Union League aligned with Douglass’ moral and political agenda and became one of the most important civic institutions of the North. On July 6, 1863, Douglass and the League led a rally in Philadelphia to recruit African Americans to join the United States Colored Troops at Camp William Penn, the first federal training camp for African American soldiers in American history.
Following the Civil War, the League and Douglass became leaders in the first great Civil Rights movement. In September of 1866, the League and Douglass were key players in a convention in Philadelphia, which in many ways was the political and public launch to the successful passage of the 15th Amendment, extending voting rights to African American men.
Born a slave in Maryland, Douglass was separated from his mother as an infant and did not know the date he was born nor who his father was (it was rumored to be his master). He was raised by his maternal grandmother, moved to several plantations, and finally to Baltimore, where he was taught to read and write by one of the white children charged to his care. Teaching a slave to read was forbidden in Maryland, as it was in most slave holding states; therefore, he was taught and read in secret. Soon he was teaching other children, both black and white, to read and write.
When Douglass was twenty, he escaped and headed north on a train. As he took his first steps as a free man on the streets of Philadelphia, he said of his journey:
“The borderlines between slavery and freedom were the dangerous ones for the fugitives. The heart of no fox or deer, with hungry hounds on his trail in full chase, could have beaten more anxiously or noisily than did mine from the time I left Baltimore till I reached Philadelphia.”
With his new found freedom, in a few short years, Douglass would become a leading abolitionist and an international figure for freedom and justice.
Abraham Lincoln was famously born into poverty in a log cabin in Kentucky. Like Douglass, he had an incredible appetite for learning. He was self-educated and borrowed books and pamphlets from anyone willing to lend them. For Lincoln, education was the key to becoming an involved and effective citizen, and to bettering himself as well. In 1860, this poor boy from the frontier would be elected President of the United States.
Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln’s reading lists were remarkably similar. Of course, they read newspapers, political pamphlets, novels, and textbooks. Their values were influenced most notably from great Western philosophers. They studied the classic works of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, the Bible, and the Enlightenment ideas of the 17th and 18th century. They both became thinkers in the classical liberal tradition, a tradition which promoted freedom and individual rights.
It was from these ideas that the American Enlightenment was born, and its two seminal documents were created: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. These documents expressed values that had been developed over more than 2,000 years and gave a practical application to them.
Broad + Liberty’s Octavius V. Catto Initiative: Catto Fellows pose with Union soldiers at the unveiling of the new portrait of Frederick Douglass at the Union League, September 2021. @CattoPA
Some abolitionists believed that the Declaration and Constitution were fundamentally flawed documents that must be overthrown. However, Douglass and Lincoln disagreed. They believed that when the Declaration proclaimed that “All men are created equal,” it meant everyone, black and white. They believed that the men who drafted the Constitution had committed the new nation to this principle of universal human equality. This was the great battle that Lincoln, Douglass, and the Union League all fought together: To honor the founders’ promise of human equality and individual liberty by destroying the evil institution of slavery.
When the Constitution was written, the outright abolition of slavery was a relatively new and radical idea. Slavery had existed since the beginning of civilization and flourished in nearly every part of the world for millennia. The impetus for abolition came from an enlightened world – a world that had begun to think about individual liberty in a different way. Within a few generations, these ideas and values created an expanded view of liberty that was previously unimaginable. This new way of valuing individual freedoms, and thus the inescapable immorality of depriving others of their own freedom, gave us the Constitution, which Douglass called “A Glorious Liberty Document.”
A republican form of government requires educated citizens. For nearly 250 years the ideas and ideals expressed in the Declaration and made possible through the Constitution were taught in schools, homes and public squares. Today, when the American Idea is taught, it is too often positioned not as the “Glorious Liberty Document,” but as an oppressive, racist, and irredeemable document.
Perhaps this portrait of Douglass will create a new interest in him, and his understanding and firm belief in the Western Enlightenment philosophy which made the abolition of slavery a reality, not just in the United States, but in Europe, Asia, the Americas and much of the world. Perhaps it will help us understand what Lincoln and Douglass understood – that the founders did not create a document meant to expand and protect slavery, but rather as Lincoln said, “the framers of the Constitution intended and expected the ultimate extinction of that institution.”
Let this new image of the great Western thinker, Frederick Douglass, commissioned by The Union League Legacy Foundation, ignite intellectual curiosity in the ideas that shaped his philosophy. In doing so, we will certainly come to the same conclusion that Douglass did: The way toward more freedom and justice is not to tear down our Republic, but to embrace it and work to make it more perfect.
John J. Meko, Jr. is The Executive Director of the Union League Legacy Foundation. Follow the Union League Legacy Foundation on Facebook.