Frederick Douglass inspired Germans, and he inspired our team at the German Embassy. Here’s how.
Frederick Douglass fled slavery in 1833, and went on to become one of the most important figures in American History. As a notable abolitionist, he advised, lobbied, criticized, and befriended president Abraham Lincoln. To this day, his thoughts on the merits of the US Constitution and founding ideals, such as those found in his famous speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” continue to influence and challenge thinkers.
After the Civil War, he held high office in the District of Columbia and the US Federal Government, always advocating for equality for all Americans, regardless of race or gender.
Americans weren’t the only to notice the ideas and dynamism of this self-made man. Ottilie Assing, German feminist, journalist and abolitionist, befriended Douglass in 1856 after reading his autobiographical work, “My Bondage and My Freedom,”. As a German of Jewish decent, Assing found herself interested in the parallels in the struggle against discrimination in the United States, in which Douglass played a major role.
Though most of their correspondence was destroyed (perhaps because they were intimate), they undoubtedly exchanged ideas on current affairs and general philosophy. Assing brought those ideas out in her writing, and back across the Atlantic, until her suicide in 1884.
But Assing wasn’t the only one to be drawn to Douglass’s legacy. Members of our team here at the German Embassy in Washington have found words of wisdom and inspiration in the life story and ideas of Frederick Douglass too. In particular, during the protests here in Washington, DC in the spring and summer of 2020, our team often found themselves referring to his work.
The most notable example of this was from our own Ambassador Haber, who quoted Douglass while supporting free expression in the aftermath of events in Lafayette Square. Nations, wrote Douglass, “may also rise in wrath and fury, and bear away, on their angry waves, the accumulated wealth of years of toil and hardship. They, however, gradually flow back to the same old channel, and flow on as serenely as ever.” In these words are found the acceptance of tumultuous times, but also a general optimism that unrest can also potentially lead to better things.
Freedom of speech and assembly are core values Germany and the US uphold together.— Emily Haber (@GermanAmbUSA) June 4, 2020
These days I recall Frederick Douglass’ "As with rivers so with nations". Though they may rise in "wrath and fury" they may one day "flow as serenely as ever", and one presupposes the other. pic.twitter.com/rMoyJmNiuM
More recently, Ambassador Haber has quoted Douglass when examining the legacy of Abraham Lincoln. As we already learned together, the stories of these two men intertwine.
Today is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. We remember America’s 16th president as a compassionate man, a master of words – and one who was bold when the moment came.— Emily Haber (@GermanAmbUSA) February 12, 2021
As Frederick Douglass put it: he was “the first who rose above the prejudice of his times and country”. (1/3) pic.twitter.com/c6SwZDpFCZ
The work of equality is never done. It wasn’t during the era of Reconstruction of Douglass’s time; it wasn’t during the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s; it continues today. As Germans, our team has benefited from learning of Douglass and his extraordinary life. In short, Frederick Douglass inspired Germans.
This blog is part of our larger series for Black History Month. During Black History Month, we are not only highlighting Germans of African descent (see our blog here), but also black Americans who have inspired Germans across the Atlantic, and across the years.
-Written by William Fox, German Embassy