National African American History Month is a time to celebrate the contributions and remember the tribulations of an essential piece of the American story. When I think of someone who exemplifies this experience, the first name to come to mind is Frederick Douglass.
Douglass is one of the most remarkable Americans of all time. Born into slavery 203 years ago today, he freed himself from bondage at age 19. Like America, he won his freedom through struggle, by his own effort, and against great odds. He went on to become an advisor to Abraham Lincoln and the greatest representative of America’s aspirations of liberty, reconciliation, and uplift. He was admired around the world in his time, and still is.
Douglass did not always have faith in the American promise. Having lived the reality of slavery, as a young man he saw the Constitution’s guarantees of freedom and a more perfect union as a lie. He burned the Constitution. And who can blame him?
But Douglass did not allow himself to be corrupted by hatred or hopelessness. Slowly, he came to see our nation’s Founding not as the defender of slavery, but the foundation for the demise of that great evil.
If there is one lesson to learn from Douglass’s incredible life, it is that he taught us what it means to be an American. Every American knows we have a complicated history filled with contradictions and greatness. All human existence is. Yet at its core, America is worth cherishing.
Today, we live at a time when the principles Douglass stood for are increasingly neglected or maligned. Our children are being alienated from our past and taught that Americans are racist, hateful, and evil. This not only divides our nation, it distracts us from a great deal of public debate of urgent issues, such as creating jobs, distributing vaccines, and reopening school. Simply put, it will not help.
To confront these challenges, we must recover Douglass’s vision of liberty, opportunity, and patriotism. We should demand, as Douglass did, that the promise of America be realized in full in practice. But we must also know that we can hold to that promise only if we, as Douglass did, love America, its Constitution, and its people.
“All I ask of the American people,” Douglass said in 1857, “is that they live up to the Constitution, adopt its principles, imbibe its spirit, and enforce its provisions.” Douglass’s unwavering pursuit of liberty and justice for all reminds us how important that task still is.
This painting of Frederick Douglass hangs in my office in the Capitol as a reminder of the struggle African Americans endured in their journey to freedom. Douglass’s unyielding hunger for liberty and justice for all is a message that should be remembered and celebrated.