The year was 1818, and Frederick Douglass was entered the world truly living the “American Dream”.
His Biography which was written in 1845 is a perfect model of living out the American dream in opposition to American Exceptionalism. Douglass rises from the status of illiterate slave to that of an icon within two decades, thus epitomizing the American Dream in a country fundamentally organized to oppress him as well as all fellow enslaved peoples. In the 1800’s, the American Dream meant that each individual held a self-identity of the United States. Because of it, America is now commonly referred to as a ‘land of opportunity.’ Americans saw themselves as equal in that each individual had the same America was known by both citizens and foreigners as a country where, no matter who you were, you could become wealthy. One crucial part of this American dream was Freedom; the Dream came with the freedom to make decisions based on their intellect, ability, and experience in order to do business. Born in Maryland and into slavery, Douglas wrote about his early life in his biography, saying “it was in this dull, flat, and unthrifty district or neighborhood..
. I was born…
I never met a slave who could tell me with any certainty how old he was…
I suppose myself to have been born in February, 1817″ (Douglas 25-6). This illustrates just how few opportunities, how few resources with which Douglas began in his childhood. Frederick Douglass was born during a time and in a place in which it was illegal to even teach a black person to read or write. From the beginning of his life, Douglas existed on the lowest level of society, “without any fault of my own,” he comments, in the beginning of Chapter 1 of his autobiography (Douglas 5). When we think of the American Dream we see a place for opportunity, growth, freedom and equal. Yet there was Frederick Douglas, born in the United States, unfairly and unjustly rejected the same treatment and opportunities other Americans claimed to have a right to. Once Douglass began to read, his journey of the American Dream began.
Literacy alone was a huge step toward success; just the skill itself provided a man born into the lowest parts of society, under the most horrific circumstances, disallowed by law to gain such knowledge, an opportunity to surpass his former capabilities. In Chapter 10 of his autobiography, Douglas recalls his mistress teaching him how to read and describes it as a “wonderful art” and mentions that he often speculated as to what he was capable of if he could learn to read (94). Acquisition of literacy gave Douglass the means to express himself later in life.
The system of oppression of enslaved people in America, in the 1800’s, was so successful because it stripped and denied human beings of an essential component of freedom: communication. Douglass’ story is so inspirational because he began life without this, which is first basic building block of civilization, and even still rose to prominent status despite such an unfair outset.In Chapter XV of his autobiography, Douglass gives a hauntingly descriptive account of the harsh effects slavery had on his mind and body, crediting his awful experience of slave life as his motivator for the remainder of his life. He remembers his despair, recalling a feeling of absolute hopelessness; in his youth he saw himself as a slave with no reasonable hope to ever know any other way of life (154). Douglass not only started at the bottom of society, but did so without any hope for surpassing it. In America, today, how many other Frederick Douglass’ are there, oppressed or underprivileged, simply in need of an opportunity or just some small amount of assistance to realize their potential, and possibly change the world for the better?! I am confident that Frederick Douglass’ determination and strength of spirit would have thrived anywhere, had he been given the same assistance he received from his mistress. I do not believe that Douglass’ rise from the woes of slavery to national fame is at all unique to America, and it is in fact the opposite of how America was supposed to work in the 1800’s. Douglass’ triumph is a loss of a battle for America’s oppressive slavery system.
If all of American tradition and history (which together form the concept of American Exceptionalism) were truly special and deserved to be exalted above those of all other countries, then any slave who defied such a system exposed its flaws, and proved its illegitemacy.