Saturday, December 21, 2019

Frederick Douglass: Self-made Man, by Tim Sandefur

Timothy Sandefur's Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man is an inspirational read. Sandefur does a masterful job of putting the story of Douglass' life and accomplishments into context. Douglass was born a slave, and became one of the most prominent abolitionist leaders. He insisted on telling his own story, and led the faction that was most interested in integration. While the leading faction when he started advocating freedom was arguing that the constitution was an impediment to freedom for blacks, he argued that it would be better to take the constitution literally, and use it as the basis for a moral case for equality.

I heard Sandefur give a wonderful talk about Douglass' life at Reason Weekend. (There's an earlier version of the talk on YouTube.) Both the talk and the book deliver a powerful pro-liberty statement and show how Douglass lived as a model of what he advocated, and convinced many other people that playing on the positive vision of the founders would be a more productive way to engage on the issue of emancipation. Douglass trumpeted that "the Consitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT". Douglass argued that the Supreme Court is bound to follow the words of the Consitution rather than historical precedent, and there's nothing in the words that allows or supports treating some citizens as second class. It took a long time before the Supreme Court agreed, but eventually, the aspirational message of the constitution's meaning prevailed.

While I was in the DC area for Thanksgiving, we visited the Smithsonian's African American Museum, since the lines were finally short enough (during the week) that we could get in without reservations. While the historical section of the museum is arranged chronologically, it didn't feel like the museum did a good job of connecting the exhibits to give a feeling of how different incidents connected together. I was glad I was reading a history of the period for context. The museum's exhibits confirmed that Douglass was a prominent leader, though (not surprisingly) they didn't say much about the content of his views, or how much contention there was among different factions of the movement.

I enjoyed the book and recommend it.

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