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.