"Not even such justly canonized Founding Fathers as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson," the late critic Albert Murray argues, "represent a more splendid image and pattern for the contemporary American citizen. On balance, not even Abraham Lincoln was a more heroic embodiment of the American as self-made man. After all, Lincoln, like Franklin and Jefferson, was born free."
In his youth as a slave on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Douglass looked at the sailboats on the Chesapeake with envy, as he wrote later in his first memoir: "You are freedom's swift-winged angels that fly round the world. I am confined in bands of iron! O that I were free! O, that I were on one of your gallant decks, and under your protecting wing!"
Douglass forged his own freedom through shrewdness and will. When the wife of a household he was serving began innocently to teach him to read, her husband rebuked her: "A n- should know nothing but to obey his master to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best n- in the world. Now, if you teach that n- how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave."
That was all Douglass needed to know.
"From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom," he said. "I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read."
He traded his bread to white boys in exchange for their reading lessons, and devoured the collection of classic speeches, The Columbian Orator. Its writings in opposition to all oppression "gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul."
In a turning point, he fought back against a slave breaker who sought to beat him. "You have seen how a man was made a slave," he writes of this act of self-assertion, "you shall see how a slave was made a man."
Eventually, his master hired him out in Baltimore and took the proceeds but not quite all. He might let him keep 6 cents of the $6 he earned in a week. "I regarded it," Douglass writes, "as a sort of admission of my right to the whole."
By now, he was a slave only in form, not in fact, as he puts it. All that was left was to make his escape.
In the North, he became a fierce abolitionist and an evangelist for work and self-improvement.
In his most popular lecture, titled "Self-Made Men," he declared, "We may explain success mainly by one word and that word is WORK! WORK!! WORK!!! WORK!!!! Not transient and fitful effort, but patient, enduring, honest, unremitting, and indefatigable work, into which the whole heart is put."
In his legendary July Fourth oration, he said this holiday "is yours, not mine," and lashed the country for the national sin of slavery. But he honored the country's founding, in words that will always be true.
"The 4th of July is the first great fact in your nation's history the very ringbolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny," he declared. "Cling to this day cling to it, and to its principles, with the grasp of a storm-tossed mariner to a spar at midnight."