Quote of the Day: Frederick Douglass on Self-Reliance

 

I’m reading The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, his comprehensive autobiography covering his life as a slave, a freedman, and his many years after full emancipation. Buried in the appendix is a speech he gave in 1880 that concludes with a lengthy but prophetic passage about the path forward. (This is far longer than most “Quote of the Day” entries, but after reading it, I scuttled the original quote I was going to use.) While he spoke to an African-American audience, I think it applies to all:

[N]either we, nor any other people, will ever be respected till we respect ourselves, and we will never respect ourselves till we have the means to live respectfully. An exceptionally poor and dependent people will be despised by the opulent, and despise themselves.

You cannot make an empty sack stand on end. A race which cannot save its earnings, which spends all it makes and goes in debt when it is ill, can never rise in the scale of civilization, no matter under what laws it may chance to be. Put us in Kansas or in Africa, and until we learn to save more than we spend, we are sure to sink and perish. It is not in the nature of things that we should be equally rich in this world’s goods. Some will be more successful than others, and poverty, in many cases, is the result of misfortune rather than of crime; but no race can afford to have all its members the victims of this misfortune, without being considered a worthless race. Pardon me, therefore, for urging upon you, my people, the importance of saving your earnings; of denying yourselves in the present, that you may have something in the future, of consuming less for yourselves that your children may have a start in life when you are gone.

With money and property comes the means of knowledge and power. A poverty-stricken class will be an ignorant and despised class, and no amount of sentiment can make it otherwise. This part of our destiny is in our own hands. Every dollar you lay up, represents one day’s independence, one day of rest and security in the future. If the time shall ever come when we shall possess, in the coloured people of the United States, a class of men noted for enterprise, industry, economy, and success, we shall no longer have any trouble in the matter of civil and political rights. The battle against popular prejudice will have been fought and won, and in common with all other races and colours, we shall have an equal chance in the race of life.

A large measure of self-reliance is necessary for all free people. An entire class dependent on the largesse of government is, by definition, a slave class, whether they live in the Appalachians or the inner city.

American voters have elected leaders who have put us $20 trillion in debt; we have demanded that Washington give us benefits far, far beyond our means. Instead of laying up our dollars to buy ourselves precious independence, Americans have begged politicians to become our masters instead of our servants.

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There are 18 comments.

  1. Percival Thatcher

    Jon Gabriel, Ed.: It is not in the nature of things that we should be equally rich in this world’s goods.

    It’s saying stuff like that which prevents schools nowadays from teaching more about Frederick Douglass. That and being a Republican.

    • #1
    • March 9, 2018, at 8:22 AM PDT
    • 9 likes
  2. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher

    I agree.

    • #2
    • March 9, 2018, at 9:06 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  3. Judge Mental Member

    I’m guessing the originally planned, shorter quote is the one having to do with people ‘helping’ black people, that basically boils down to ‘stop helping us’.

    • #3
    • March 9, 2018, at 9:10 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  4. Sandy Member

    Percival (View Comment):

    Jon Gabriel, Ed.: It is not in the nature of things that we should be equally rich in this world’s goods.

    It’s saying stuff like that which prevents schools nowadays from teaching more about Frederick Douglass. That and being a Republican.

    To say nothing of Booker T. Washington, but I agree that of the two, Douglass is the more dangerous to progressive thinking.

    • #4
    • March 9, 2018, at 9:10 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  5. Stad Thatcher

    Sandy (View Comment):
    . . . Douglass is the more dangerous to progressive thinking.

    Anything Douglass said would be dismissed as “acting white.”

    • #5
    • March 9, 2018, at 9:42 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  6. Vectorman Thatcher

    Jon Gabriel, Ed.:An exceptionally poor and dependent people will be despised by the opulent, and despise themselves.

    You cannot make an empty sack stand on end.

    I love great quotes!


    This conversation is an entry in our Quote of the Day Series. We have many openings on the March Schedule. If this reminds you of a quotation that is important to you, why not sign up today?

    • #6
    • March 9, 2018, at 9:46 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  7. ErnestineH Inactive

    That Frederick Douglass…getting recognized more and more! Great quote.

    • #7
    • March 9, 2018, at 10:02 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  8. ST Inactive
    ST

    seems like he saw something and said something

    • #8
    • March 9, 2018, at 10:04 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  9. ST Inactive
    ST

    P.S. He’d be kicked off the plantation today for acting white, holding thought crimes against humanity, etc.

    • #9
    • March 9, 2018, at 10:06 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  10. Postmodern Hoplite Member

    If I were to re-join the Republican Party, it would only be as a “Frederick Douglass Republican” (FDR). (Amazon link to “Frederick Douglass Republicans”) Until such time as I see a sincere effort on the part of GOP leadership to take the party in the direction of Douglass’s vision, I’ll remain a Constitution Party voter.

    • #10
    • March 9, 2018, at 10:09 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  11. Susan Quinn Contributor

    What a great man he was! Thanks, Jon. His words are true for anyone who wants to make his or her way successfully in the world.

    • #11
    • March 9, 2018, at 10:23 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  12. Unsk Member

    A truly great quote!

    • #12
    • March 9, 2018, at 6:05 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  13. TBA Coolidge
    TBA

    But…self-hating and, like, false consciousness.

    • #13
    • March 9, 2018, at 8:58 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  14. philo Member

    Jon Gabriel, Ed.: …reading The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass

    It has been nearly seven years since I read it and, while I did not take an official tally, I remember being struck by the author’s rather consistent use of “liberty” and not “freedom” as the opposite of slavery. Though maybe just an artifact of the common language of the time, I think the added precision is useful to his story for history’s sake as well as for what we could/should take from it today.

    I just used it the other day so I won’t repeat it again here, but one of my favorite passages from the autobiography is in comment #5 over here.

    • #14
    • March 10, 2018, at 6:12 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  15. John Seymour Inactive

    Postmodern Hoplite (View Comment):
    I’ll remain a Constitution Party voter.

    Never heard of it. Who was their candidate for president in 2016?

    • #15
    • March 11, 2018, at 11:07 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  16. Postmodern Hoplite Member

    Whistle Pig (View Comment):
    Who was their candidate for president in 2016?

    Darrell Castle. (But he didn’t win…)

    • #16
    • March 11, 2018, at 7:51 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  17. John Seymour Inactive

    Postmodern Hoplite (View Comment):

    Whistle Pig (View Comment):
    Who was their candidate for president in 2016?

    Darrell Castle. (But he didn’t win…)

    I remember. That he didn’t win. I never heard of him, though. Was he even on the ballot in Florida? {goes to check} Yup, he was. I didn’t notice. He was crushed by the Green Party. Their combined total was less than 1%.

    • #17
    • March 12, 2018, at 4:39 AM PDT
    • Like
  18. TBA Coolidge
    TBA

    Whistle Pig (View Comment):

    Postmodern Hoplite (View Comment):

    Whistle Pig (View Comment):
    Who was their candidate for president in 2016?

    Darrell Castle. (But he didn’t win…)

    I remember. That he didn’t win. I never heard of him, though. Was he even on the ballot in Florida? {goes to check} Yup, he was. I didn’t notice. He was crushed by the Green Party. Their combined total was less than 1%.

    I’m sure he made a very nice president in some alternate dimension.

    • #18
    • March 12, 2018, at 1:45 PM PDT
    • Like