The Mind of Frederick Douglass

By Waldo E. Martin Jr. | Go to book overview
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2. Abolitionism: The Travail of a "Great Life's Work"

Douglass's commitment to abolitionism, black elevation, and women's rights outstripped his commitment to other social reforms. His major social reform passions -- black liberation and women's liberation -- underscored his egalitarian humanism. The logic and motivation for his social reform odyssey derived essentially from his quest for morality, order, and progress. Even though his interrelated social reform enthusiasms were integral to his vision of a moral, orderly, and progressive civilization, he nonetheless evinced a keen sense of the need for priorities among them. He pledged in the first edition of The North Star that "while our paper shall be mainly Anti-Slavery, its columns shall be freely opened to the candid and decorous discussion of all measures and topics of a moral and humane character, which may serve to enlighten, improve, and elevate mankind." As "associated effort" gave unity and direction to "individual effort" and "political action," a sense of priorities gave unity and direction both to a broad social reform ethos and to the competing demands for primacy among various social reform causes. 1

For Douglass, there was no dispute; the monstrous evil of slavery was the first order of business. "The object of the North Star," he explained in the newspaper's prospectus, "will be to attack slavery in all its forms and aspects; advocate Universal Emancipation; exalt the standard of Public Morality; promote the Moral and Intellectual Improvement of the Colored People; and hasten the day of freedom to three million of our Enslaved Fellow Countrymen." Furthermore, a voluntary association dedicated exclusively to the propagation of abolitionism was imperative. "The philosophy of reform, and my own experience clearly teach," he asserted in mid-1852, "that the great moral and primary work to which we are invited, can be much more easily, economically, and successfully prosecuted by a Society exclusively devoted to this one great mission, and with which all the friends of the slave can cordially cooperate, be they voters or non-voters." 2 Singularity as well as unity of immediate purpose, therefore, were essential to the reformation of a specific social evil, such as slavery, but not sufficient given the relatedness and ubiquity of social evils. The realization and safeguarding of the slave's emancipation thus necessitated a wide-ranging social movement capable of stirring the national heart and compelling the nation to rid itself of this cancerous scourge. Likewise, the cause of emancipation demanded staunch leaders, like Douglass.

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