Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Live Free or Die: a tribute to Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass' autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, is one of the best books that I've read and deserves to be read once, if not repeatedly. It provides a well-written perspective on how slavery impacted Americans, and displays the perspective of one of America's heroes. Furthermore the Narrative itself is of historical interest because of the role it played in the abolitionist movement.

While pondering Douglass' words, I realized that this book illustrates two sides of the revolutionary-era maxim "Live Free or Die".

First, we often associate the phrase Live Free or Die with the macho boasts of Revolutionary war heroes. The New Hampshire state motto originates with a toast written by General George Stark:

Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.

This sentiment mirrors the more famous quote of Patrick Henry:

Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

When Frederick Douglass was in bondage, he probably was unaware of these quotes, but when Douglass later described his travails, he also expressed this sentiment in his own words. While his demands were more modest, his depiction was much more concrete:

My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me.

Douglass also provided a visceral depiction of why a person would be driven to such extremes:

I often found myself regretting my own existence, and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself, or done something for which I should have been killed.

He is not merely stating that he is willing to risk death to gain freedom, but that slavery is no better than death, and is only made bearable by the prospect of future freedom. With that mindset, but with almost no social support, Douglass went about creating the conditions that would allow him to escape.

The second interpretation of "Live Free or Die" is not a macho boast, or a judgment of risks vs. reward, but a simple fact of life: the slave has no security. This is the fundamental basis of slavery, and a key point that may drive a slave to despair. Douglass also provided a good illustration of this notion, as he was made to fear for his life more than once. He also witnessed how whites could kill a slave on a whim and summarized the situation thusly:

It was a common saying, even among little white boys, that it was worth a half-cent to kill a [slave] and a half-cent to bury one.

That's all that I can say about Frederick Douglass today, but I hope it provides you with the motivation to read (or re-read) his book. I assure you that it is short and well-written. You can probably get it for $6 at your local books store (B&N reprints many historical works like this). You can also read it online.

As long as we're on this subject, let's not forget that the battle against slavery has not ended: 10 Shocking Facts About Global Slavery in 2008

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