A Salute to Frederick Douglass as We Celebrate Freedom

AEAbolitionists_FrederickDouglass_t700Washingtonians brace themselves for the flood of tourists who come to soak in the monuments, museums and memorials that attract millions of visitors to the nation’s capital every year.  This summer is no exception.

In spite of humidity that puts even the hardiest tourist to the test, families come to show the next generation where the people’s business has taken place since 1791.  That’s when President George Washington selected what is now the District of Columbia to serve as the nation’s capital.

America has expanded its borders, population and demographics since Jenkins’ Hill was chosen as the site for the national legislature on the east end of the National Mall.  From here, Congress for more than 200 years has debated the laws governing our nation.  In addition to the U.S. Capitol building, visitors to Capitol Hill today will find the Supreme Court, Library of Congress and congressional office buildings.

A visit to Capitol Hill brings to life the earliest moments of our American democracy alongside the politics and policymaking of the 21st century.  Those who took a seat in the Senate visitor’s gallery early this summer witnessed debate on immigration reform.  The Supreme Court handed down rulings bearing significant impact on the fabric of American society, reinforcing the limited powers of the federal government over states’ rights.  As America prepares to celebrate its 237th birthday on the Fourth of July, the wonder of the republic more than two centuries later remains our system of self-government.

Even if Congress is not in session, visitors can appreciate the rich history of our democracy represented in art and sculpture.  The architectural magnificence of the Rotunda, which separates the respective wings of the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives, without exception causes tourists to crane their necks to soak in the lifelike fresco “The Apotheosis of Washington” and the panoramic “Frieze of American History.”

One of the most popular tourist spots in the U.S. Capitol is National Statuary Hall.  When the House of Representatives relocated to its current chamber in 1857, the historic space was converted into a gallery.  Each state was invited to donate two statues representing prominent leaders in their history.  The National Statuary Collection today is featured prominently throughout the Capitol.  Iowans will find statues representing two elected leaders from the 19th century:  James Harlan in the Hall of Columns and Samuel Kirkwood in Statuary Hall.  In the near future, Norman Borlaug’s statue will replace James Harlan’s statue.

This summer a historic addition to the Capitol’s collection of 180 statues and busts was unveiled on the 148th anniversary of Juneteenth.  That’s the date commemorating when President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation reached Texas on June 19, 1865.

The seven-foot bronze statue represents one of America’s earliest civil rights leaders, abolitionist Frederick Douglass.  The former slave spent a lifetime championing equal rights, exposing injustices and influencing peers and presidents alike during a tumultuous time in U.S. history.

An African American born into slavery in Maryland in 1818, Douglass escaped at age 20 and dedicated his life to the emancipation of slaves, women’s suffrage and the natural rights of each individual.

Using gifted oratorical skill, Douglass shared his compelling story as a self-taught slave who was beaten for teaching other slaves how to read and write.  An adviser to President Lincoln, Douglass tapped into a growing tide of public discontent to make good on America’s most fundamental promises of freedom, equality under the law and justice for all.  His publications and speeches influenced the adoption of the 13th, 14th and 15th Constitutional Amendments, known as the Reconstruction Amendments.

Despite constant risks to his own safety, Douglass worked to spread the self-evident truths spelled out in the Declaration of Independence.  His personal testimony shaped his most enduring legacy as a champion for those denied equality and access to the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

As Douglass observed in an Independence Day speech in 1852, “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?”   The speech exposed the harsh contradiction of slavery with America’s founding principles of freedom, liberty and independence.  Douglass went on to describe how the institution of slavery is contrary to these foundational principles, “Now, take the Constitution according to its plain reading, and I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it.  On the other hand it will be found to contain principles and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.”  Like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did more than a century later, Frederick Douglass used his tremendous gift for language to call Americans to help fully realize the principles we hold so dear for all Americans.

On this July 4th, let’s remember our hometown heroes, our first responders and members of the military, who put their lives on the line to defend America’s freedoms at home and abroad. As we celebrate with family, friends and neighbors, let’s also remember the heroes of American history, including Frederick Douglass, whose legacy represents the principles of hope, opportunity and freedom upon which America was founded.

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