The new issue of The Objective Standard has my new article on Frederick Douglass (not an excerpt from my book). In it, I focus on how Douglass discovered and implemented the virtues that he saw as essential to a free man. Excerpt:
In 1861, as part of a touring lecture series, Douglass presented his ideas on photography, which he regarded not only as an art form, but as an aid in developing one’s character. His lifelong fascination with photography led him to have his picture taken at every opportunity—making him the most photographed American of the 19th century. His audience of Victorian-era Christians would naturally have considered it vain for Douglass to have his photo taken so often. But in Douglass’s view, having a portrait made was a serious and honorable act. The “picture-making faculty” is “the divinest of all human faculties,” he argued. It allows man to project an ideal not just in his mind, but in a tangible way, which helps make that ideal achievable. According to Douglass, photography enables man “to invent his own subjective consciousness into the objective form” and to give chosen ideals “form, color, space, action, and utterance.”
Douglass held that having one’s portrait taken, like writing one’s autobiography, is a means of capturing one’s virtues, and that it serves both as a reward to oneself for accomplishing one’s values and as an incentive to further achievement. As he put it in a later lecture on photography, pictures “translate into living forms and colors the outgrowths of the inner life of the soul.” Photography, according to Douglass, was an example of a crucial human skill: the ability to contemplate and realize values.
These lectures built on his most important statement of the nature of the virtues, which he had made in his earlier lecture “Self-Made Men.” It was in this lecture, first composed in the late 1850s and revised and delivered scores of times over the remainder of his life, that Douglass most fully explained his theory of manhood. The presentation focused on what Douglass considered the quintessential American type:
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 favoring conditions by which other men usually rise in the world and achieve great results. . . . who are not brought up but who are obliged to come up . . . often in open and derisive defiance of all the efforts of society and the tendency of circumstances to repress, retard and keep them down .
Citing such examples as Abraham Lincoln and the polymath Benjamin Banneker, Douglass emphasized that “the chief agent in the success of self-made men” was “not luck, nor is it great mental endowments, but it is well-directed, honest toil.” The self-made man was he who, through “self-culture and self-help” was able to rise above the situation of his birth and make of life what he chose. Douglass did not deny that everyone, even self-made men, depended at times on the assistance of friends and family. What made the self-made man different was self-direction. “Personal independence” is “the soul out of which comes the sturdiest manhood,” he told his audience. And the virtue of self-dependence, he told his audience, “must be developed from within.”