What motivated Frederick Douglass was his infinite belief in the promise of America and his equally strong belief in the impossibility of the America envisioned by the Founders as long as racial prejudice and the institution of slavery survived.
Frederick Douglass was one of the United States’ most important and authoritative voices in favor of abolition. A former slave himself, Douglass was an exceptionally perceptive and thoughtful opponent of slavery, and his oratory and writings informed the movement that struggled and ultimately defeated the institution of slavery, albeit at the cost of tens of thousands of lives in the Civil War. Douglass understood that without struggle, there could be no progress. In his famous “West Indian Emancipation” speech on August 3, 1857, he stated,
Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
Douglass understood better than most, even today, that a nation built on injustice and deceit could not long survive. In another of his oft-quoted observations, he noted that “the life of a nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful, and virtuous.” Slavery, he believed, would ultimately prove fatal to America, as it was inherently, and obviously, a stark contradiction of the principles upon which the nation was founded. Slavery was not an abstract concept to Douglass. An escaped slave, he witnessed the physical brutality it entailed and the moral drain on society it engendered. Born below the Mason-Dixon Line, specifically, in Maryland, he described in his most well-known compilation, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the ugliness of the practice of slavery:
I speak advisedly when I say this,—that killing a slave, or any colored person, in Talbot county, Maryland, is not treated as a crime, either by the courts or the community. Mr. Thomas Lanman, of St. Michael’s, killed two slaves, one of whom he killed with a hatchet, by knocking his brains out. He used to boast of the commission of the awful and bloody deed. I have heard him do so laughingly, saying, among other things, that he was the only benefactor of his country in the company, and that when others would do as much as he had done, we should be relieved of ‘the damned [“n” word]’.
Douglass was motivated by the realities he lived and observed. He adamantly opposed slavery and believed that the struggle to ensure its eradication was absolutely necessary to secure the nation’s survival—the nation envisioned in the founding documents, not the one that could tolerate the systematic dehumanization of people of color and keep those people subjugated and brutalized. He was an important and influential figure in the movement to abolish slavery and, as an African American and one-time slave, possessed of an intellect and moral authority that ensured his place in American history.