In many ways, Frederick Douglass remains the prototypical black American hero: a peerless self-made man and symbol of success; a fearless and tireless spokesman; a thoroughgoing humanist. The most striking and enduring aspect of Douglass's heroic legacy in his day -- its classic, even archetypical aura -- has persisted down to the present. Although often viewed and used differently by others, the heroic and legendary Douglass clearly personifies the American success ethic. The key to his eminently evocative essence is twofold. First, he, like the American nation itself and its most enduring folk heroes, rose above seemingly overwhelming odds to achieve historical distinction. Second, he represents a model self-made man: an exemplary black version of uncommon achievement primarily through the agency of a resolute will and hard toil aided by moral law and divine providence. Not only did he succeed, but he did so in terms signifying mythic greatness: the uniquely gifted individual rising above anonymity and adversity to renown and good fortune largely through the force of superlative character and indefatigable effort. Douglass's life story exemplifies both the romance and the reality of heroic greatness.
Notwithstanding its universal appeal, Douglass's heroic and symbolic viability has had special meaning for black Americans. In 1908, Kelly Miller, Howard University sociologist and mathematician, gave his view of Douglass's particular importance for black Americans. "Frederick Douglass is the one commanding historic character of the colored race in America. He is the model of emulation of those who are struggling up through the trials and difficulties which he himself suffered and subdued. He is illustrative and exemplary of what they might become -- the first fruit of promise of a dormant race. To the aspiring colored youth of this land Mr. Douglass is, at once, the inspiration of their hopes and the justification of their claims." While one may reasonably argue, especially today, with Miller's claim of Douglass's singular historical eminence, his claim for Douglass's prototypical heroic and symbolic preeminence is more cogent. Perhaps better than any other nineteenth-century black American, Douglass personified the travail and triumph of his people. A heroic and symbolic view of Douglass continues to be meaningful because his life struggle so vividly represented his people's struggle. In 1853, he remarked that "mine has been the experience of the colored people of America, both slave and free." 1 Douglass saw himself and wanted to be seen as an example and an inspiration to all people, but especially to blacks.