Frederick Douglass and the Art of the Impossible

Member Group : Let Freedom Ring, USA

Washington is the city where nothing seems to work these days, due in large part to partisanship. Truly bipartisan bills, even minor ones, are a rarity. Yet there is at least one exception: the Frederick Douglass Bicentennial Commission Act, and there’s quite a story behind it.

First, a little background on Frederick Douglass, with thanks to Wikipedia for some of it: Frederick Douglass was born a slave 199 years ago near St. Michaels, Maryland. He became the most prominent African-American in the United States in the 19th century as a social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. After escaping from slavery at the age of 20, he became a national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York, gaining note for his dazzling oratory and incisive antislavery writings.

In his time, he was described by abolitionists as a living counter-example to slaveholders’ arguments that slaves lacked the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens. Many found it hard to believe that such a great orator had once been a slave.

Douglass wrote three autobiographies. He described his experiences as a slave in his 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which became a bestseller, and was influential in promoting the cause of abolition, as was his second book, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). After the Civil War, Douglass wrote his last autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. First published in 1881 and revised in 1892, three years before his death, it covered events during and after the Civil War. Although initially skeptical of Abraham Lincoln, he eventually became an ardent supporter of both President Lincoln and the Republican Party.

One of his most famous sayings was “I am a Republican â€" a black, dyed in the wool Republican, and I shall never be the member of any other party.” Despite this, and without his approval, Douglass became the first African American nominated for Vice President of the United States as the running mate and Vice-Presidential nominee of Victoria Woodhull, on the Equal Rights Party ticket, a minor party.

Douglass was a firm believer in the equality of all people, since if all are created in God’s image, how could they be unequal? He was also a believer in making alliances across racial and ideological divides, and in the ideals of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. His last public speech was given on the campus of what is now West Chester University in my hometown of West Chester, Pennsylvania.

And now, onto the story of the remarkable acts of bipartisanship in his name, in the form of the Frederick Douglass Bicentennial Commission Act.

The proposed Commission is well-constructed and narrowly enough focused. There will be 16 members, none of whom will be compensated, a couple of staff, and the appointees will be named by roughly equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans â€" the President, the House Speaker and Minority Leader, the Senate Majority and minority leaders and the Governors of the States where Douglass lived: Maryland, Massachusetts and New York.

So why did it go nowhere when introduced in the prior Congress by the District of Columbia’s non-voting Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton? Because it contained a clause promoting statehood for DC, a true poison pill for Republicans and, for that matter, anyone who respects the original intent of the Framers of our Constitution. That’s almost certainly because even back then, they saw the inherent conflict between what should be the entirely national interest of the Federal District and its potential self-interest in accumulating power and influence. The bill never even got a hearing at the Committee level.

That all changed this year when Republican Congressman Dr. Andy Harris of Maryland’s First District â€" the only Republican Member of Congress from Maryland, and where Douglass was born, went to Delegate Norton and offered to join her as an original co-sponsor of the bill if she would simply remove the clause promoting DC statehood that was not even in the operative part of the bill. In other words, that clause had nothing but symbolic value, yet it was still enough to keep Republicans from supporting it.

It took a rare bit of political humility for Congressman Dr. Harris to make that request of Delegate Norton, especially given what vitriolic things she has said about him in the past. Likewise, it took a rare bit of political humility for her to agree to Congressman Dr. Harris’ request. But they both did, and now the bill has acquired 10 Republican cosponsors, 7 Democrat cosponsors, and sailed through the House Oversight Committee.

It awaits action on the House floor after Labor Day, and a companion bill has been introduced in the Senate. The Washington Post noted this unusual alliance between the conservative Congressman and the fiery progressive delegate.

Perhaps no one other than Frederick Douglass could have brought them together, and we should be grateful that his influence is still being felt. Twenty-first Century Americans would do well to learn more about this Nineteenth Century American hero.