When did liberty become a dirty word?

I just finished My Bondage and My Freedom, Frederick Douglass’ account of his time in slavery, his escape, and his ascension to become a leading abolitionist, the first black civil rights leader, an advocate for women’s suffrage, and one of the finest orators and writers in American history. His words stirred my soul, but they also troubled me.

When I gaze upon the modern socio-political landscape, today’s black civil rights leaders are inordinately obsessed with the presumption of racism in the grass-roots Tea Party movement, and leftist pundits and opinion shapers fan those flames with great passion.

They have no regard whatsoever for the fact these are the everyday Americans who care for and about our children and grandchildren, and whose daily toil and sweat makes this country work and their pretentious lives more convenient. I watch, listen, and I despair and wonder.

I despair because I see good-hearted people, who are passionate about America and her ideals, being slandered by a prideful and arrogant liberal elite, who are either misinformed or demagogic in their attacks.

I wonder because the goal of the Tea Party movement is the lodestone that once drew all Americans, indeed all people, together, and was especially precious to those for whom liberty was too long denied.

That goal is liberty, and I find myself asking, “When did liberty become a dirty word?”

I know that Frederick Douglass desired liberty above all else, even if his masters were kind and took good care of him:

My feelings were not the result of any marked cruelty in the treatment I received; my feelings came from my being a slave at all. It was slavery, not my treatment, that I hated. I had been cheated. I saw that slaveholders would have gladly made me believe it was God’s will in making me a slave and I treated them as robbers. Feeding me and clothing me did not make up for taking away my liberty.

As I read these words, my thoughts turned to today’s self-anointed black leaders, who measure their success not by how much liberty and opportunity they win for the black community, but rather how much tribute they can extract from society for past and perceived present sins. They have conditioned their constituents to prize provision – “feeding me and clothing me” - over liberty.

This conditioning is not confined to the black community, although I would offer that it does greater harm to us because there isn’t a solid and expansive foundation of black entrepreneurship and wealth creation to offer balance. The admonitions of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington to elevate education and work as the primary avenues for blacks to exercise and expand liberty have been drowned out for generations by the nebulous and foreign concepts of economic and social justice through redistribution.

In fact, liberals have been distorting the true definition of liberty since President Franklin Roosevelt included in his “Four Freedoms” treatise the “freedom from want”, which is not even implied in our founding documents, and is certainly not a natural right in the tradition of the Greek philosophers. In an article I wrote on the broken bonds between blacks and liberty, I stated:

Modern day liberals will lay equal claim to liberty based on the concept of "freedom from want," a concept first articulated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 in his famous "Four Freedoms" speech. This was not a freedom espoused by the founding fathers and, in fact, it had more to do with the international socialist movements of the day that elevated state-enforced economic equality above individual liberty, and appealed to class envy over the principle that all men are created equal and have the right to possess whatever their labors and skills allow them to produce.

While we are equal in the sight of God, we are not equal in our talents, skills and abilities. Therefore, it is utopian  and false to expect that we will produce and earn equally. Equal opportunity, the desired outcome of liberty, does not mean equal results, and that fact is what makes true liberty anathema to liberals.

Great men like Frederick Douglass sought true liberty, not the comfortable chains of provision by others. His message was simple; get out of my way and let me work, and let me earn and keep the fruits of my labor:

I was living among freemen, and was, in all respects, equal to them by nature and achievements…I was getting, as I have said, $1.50 a day. I contracted for it, worked for it, earned it, collected it; it was paid to me, and it was rightfully my own, and yet, upon returning every Saturday night, this money – my money – every cent of it, was demanded and taken from me by Master Hugh. He did not earn it; he had no hand in earning it; why, then, should he have it?…He had the power to take from me the fruits of my labor…I could see no reason why I should, at the end of each week, pour the reward of my honest toil into the purse of another man.

It is ironic that one of the greatest black leaders in American history articulated what is fundamentally a conservative message. He wrote passionately about being allowed to keep what he worked so hard to earn, the wages not representing currency to him, but rather his “sweat equity” converted into bills and coins.

He knew and embraced Thomas Jefferson’s words in his 1801 inaugural address that good government “shall leave men free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.”

That is the message of the modern Tea Party movement and of conservatism in general, a message that reaches across time to the longings of a slave in Talbot County, Maryland who said of his masters:

…[W]e sought only our own good, and not the harm of our enemies. We did not seek to overthrow them, but only to escape from them. As for Mr. Freeland, we all liked him, and would have gladly remained with him, as freemen. LIBERTY was our aim, and we had now come to think we had a right to liberty against all obstacles.

In my book, SELLOUT: Musings from Uncle Tom’s Porch, I wrote, “I see in liberals a condescending paternalism toward blacks as if we are incapable of surviving and thriving on our own.” In one of his most famous speeches, Frederick Douglass confronts this elitist mindset with his characteristic eloquence and strength:

The American people have always been anxious to know what they shall do with us... Everybody has asked the question, and they learned to ask it early of the abolitionists, "What shall we do with the Negro?"

I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! I am not for tying or fastening them on the tree in any way, except by nature's plan, and if they will not stay there, let them fall.

And if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! If you see him on his way to school, let him alone, don't disturb him! If you see him going to the dinner table at a hotel, let him go! If you see him going to the ballot- box, let him alone, don't disturb him! If you see him going into a work-shop, just let him alone,—your interference is doing him a positive injury... If you will only untie his hands, and give him a chance, I think he will live. He will work as readily for himself as the white man.

Frederick Douglass believed in the ability of his people to survive and thrive on their own merits, if only society would leave them alone – “your doing with us has already played the mischief with us.” He had himself overcome slavery and all its evils, and had achieved great things in an era much worse than any in which we have lived. All he asked of America was the liberty it guaranteed to others, and if that was granted, he had faith in the strength and perseverance of black people.

What he and his fellow slaves endured was hard to read about, but what is even harder to fathom is how we have forgotten the pride and strength of our history, and the serious injustices we were able to overcome. Frederick Douglass was ripped from his family, beaten, whipped, starved, worked until he dropped, and denied every shred of human dignity, yet he became an American icon, and he had no doubt that all black people could achieve as he did.

Instead, we have become, in the words of my friend Arthur Brand, Jr., “domesticated african-americans” – the lack of capital letters is intentional. Author Debra Dickerson decries the “superficial things” with which today’s self-anointed black leaders concern themselves, and calls it “a reflection of the very poor quality of black leadership today.”

Frederick Douglass came from as low a position as any man could and achieved greatness. In his famous speech, “Self-Made Men”, he attributes his success not to government, or the benevolence of white people, but to his own blood, toil, tears and sweat:

Self-made men […] are the men who owe little or nothing to birth, relationship, friendly surroundings; to wealth inherited or to early approved means of education; who are what they are, without the aid of any of the favoring conditions by which other men usually rise in the world and achieve great results…the man who will get up will be helped up; and the man who will not get up will be allowed to stay down.

…My theory of self-made men is, then, simply this; that they are men of work. Whether or not such men have acquired material, moral or intellectual excellence, honest labor faithfully, steadily and persistently pursued, is the best, if not the only, explanation of their success.

Given what he endured and what he achieved, it would be folly for us to say “that was then and this is now.” If anything, we are starting with significantly greater advantages than he could possibly have imagined in his day.

We cannot ignore the powerful examples of our past. We are indebted to men like Frederick Douglass for showing us the power inherent in our history of struggle and triumph, and for their faith that this land of liberty could be a land of prosperity for us as well.

Somehow, we have allowed the coercive utopians of modern liberalism to take liberty away from us. We must reclaim it, and our pride and self-worth along with it. If we continue down the path of bitterness, resentment and grievance, it is not our liberal benefactors who will suffer the most, but us.