What does Frederick Douglass understand a man to be?

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In discussing Frederick Douglass’s concept of humanity, or what he considers a man to be, one can pretty much begin with a quick reference to French philosopher René Descartes’s oft-quoted dictum “cogito, ergo sum,” or “I think, therefore I am.” For Douglass, the essence of the discussion was encapsulated in the fundamental distinction between humans and animals—in effect, that the former can be defined by the pursuit of knowledge. Perhaps nowhere was this adage better articulated than in an address Douglass gave in 1872 titled “Self-Made Men.” Recognizing at the outset of his remarks the propensity for individuals to interpret that phrase—“self-made men”—as indicative of one who has propelled himself upward socially, professionally, and economically entirely of his own accord, Douglass immediately rejected any such notion without going to another extreme by suggesting that personal initiative and skill played no role at all in one’s success. Rather, Douglass applied the phrase in a broader, more philosophical manner, evident in the following passage from this speech:

The tendency to the universal, in such discussion, is altogether natural and all controlling: for when we consider what man, as a whole, is; what he has been; what he aspires to be, and what, by a wise and vigorous cultivation of his faculties, he may yet become, we see that it leads irresistibly to this broad view of him as a subject of thought and inquiry.

As the distinguished and intellectually-formidable former slave emphasized, the nature of man, as distinct from other animals, was precisely the pursuit of knowledge, and that “by no other is human life so affected and colored.”

It is within this context that Douglass, as he had decades earlier in a series of essays he penned, emphasized the vital role of knowledge in the perpetuation of the institution of slavery. From his own experiences as a slave and from his observation of the role of government and law in preserving this most inhumane of human practices, Douglass noted the importance placed upon maintaining the ignorance of African slaves for the continuation of slavery. An educated black person was not going to submit or be so vulnerable to bondage and forced labor in perpetuity. The more knowledge the slave attained, the more he would question his circumstances and reject the relationship between slave and master.

To Frederick Douglass, man is defined by his capacity to reason. His own experiences in life as well as those of other slaves and descendants of slaves imbued in him a strong sense that the only difference between caucasian and African was the former’s determination to deny the latter the same opportunities for education and social and economic advancement. Additionally, and returning to his focus on the notion of a “self-made man,” he asserts that we are all ultimately dependent upon each other. As Douglass stated, “I believe in individuality, but individuals are, to the mass, like waves to the ocean. . . We differ as the waves, but are one as the sea.”

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Douglass's Autobiography makes a distinction between "slave" and "man." It is a common theme throughout his writings and speeches that the institution of slavery robs the enslaved (and, in a different way, slaveholders) of their humanity. After enduring consistent abuse at the hands of Mr. Covey, Douglass tells us:

I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!

So slavery had transformed a "man" into a "brute," by which Douglass meant an unthinking creature like a farm animal. Eventually, however, the sixteen-year old Douglass resisted, physically manhandling Covey, a notorious "slave-breaker." Having beaten Covey, who fears losing his reputation for being tough with slaves (i.e. his sense of his own masculinity), Douglass feels liberated, and like a man again:

It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. 

For Douglass, slavery was the antithesis of manhood. It completely negated everything that he understood as masculine in the male slave, robbing him of intellect, liberty, the ability to be a father, and control of his own body. Freedom, then--intellectual, spiritual and physical freedom--was essential to become a man. 

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