And much of it would be considered offensive on today's college campuses.
That's right--the icon of abolition and one of the most important African-Americans in history would be criticized for insensitivity, for not being "black enough," for not understanding the plight of an oppressed people, and likely charged with racism toward African-Americans. That is the very definition of irony.
So why is he so controversial?
Quite simply, Douglass valued hard work and morality. In "Self-Made Men" Douglass describes the connection between the two and the formula for success. He says,
"I am certain that there is nothing good, great or desirable which man can possess in this world, that does not come by some kind of labor of physical or mental, moral or spiritual. A man, at times, gets something for nothing, but it will, in his hands, amount to nothing. What is true in the world of matter, is equally true in the world of the mind. Without culture there can be no growth; without exertion, no acquisition; without friction, no polish; without labor, no knowledge; without action, no progress and without conflict, no victory. A man that lies down a fool at night, hoping that he will waken wise in the morning, will rise up in the morning as he laid down in the evening."
Douglass further drives this point him a few paragraphs later:
"From these remarks it will be evident that, allowing only ordinary ability and opportunity, 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, and which, in both temporal and spiritual affairs, is the true miracle worker. Everyone may avail himself of this marvelous power, if he will. There is no royal road to perfection. Certainly no one must wait for some kind of friend to put a springing board under his feet, upon which he may easily bound from the first round of their ladder onward and upward to its highest round. If he waits for this, he may wait long, and perhaps forever. He who does not think himself worth saving from poverty and ignorance by his own efforts, will hardly be thought worth the efforts of anybody else."
Douglass believed in opportunity, but not hand-outs. He believed in everyone having access to schools and churches, courts and places of employment. And that is exactly what has happened over the course of our history. Every citizen in this country as access to everything described in the Constitution. And this is a very good thing. But Douglass also says that once people have been given a chance to live their life, if they fail, that is their own fault. They are not allowed to blame the world for their problems. Americans are only to take up the pursuit of their own success, not to criticize the success of others.
At many public universities such speak about personal responsibility, perseverance, good choices, and hard work is forbidden. Today's linguistic police would charge a teacher who tells a student to "put forth more effort" with a microaggression. Praising someone for their moral decisions would be akin to hate speech because it implies that other choices are immoral, and that is something the relativistic ideology of today's campuses cannot abide. Saying that someone deserves to fail because of laziness, poor quality work, or even indecipherable grammar would be cause for a visit to the student services office for a lecture on tolerance from someone with a bachelor's degree in art history.
Douglass didn't mess around when it came to honesty, and that's why I love him. He recognized the flaws in our history and called people on them when he needed to. But he also saw the amazing potential of America, and the unparalleled opportunity available for its citizens, if only they would reach out and grab it. If you are too delicate to hear truth about what it takes to succeed in this world, you may want to avoid reading the speech. But if you could use a dose of inspiration this week, give it a thorough look, and start getting to work today. And if anyone gives you a hard time for believing in responsibility and individualism, just know you're good company since Frederick Douglass would be on your side.