Skip to main content

The Radical Compassion of Frederick Douglass

The abolitionist's 200th birthday is a good occasion to unravel the peculiar mystery behind his most (mis)quoted words.
Frederick Douglass portrait

At a press event for Black History Month a year ago, newly inaugurated President Donald Trump went off-script. "I am very proud now that we have a museum on the National Mall where people can learn about Reverend King," he recited from his paper, before switching to improv: "Frederick Doug ... Douglass is an example of somebody who's done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice ... big impact."

Critics piled on immediately. Did Trump not know who Douglass was (past tense, of course, being key)? Paradoxically, the errant remark became a self-fulfilling prophecy, for in the days following Trump's gaffe, news anchors and Internet users grew to recognize the abolitionist "more and more." Pundits harped on Trump's ignorance of Douglass, media outlets ran Douglass retrospectives, and Google witnessed a big spike in users' searches for "(Who was) Frederick Douglass."

This year's Black History Month coincides with the 200th birthday of Douglass, and it's an ideal occasion to rectify some unfortunate ways in which this influential writer has continued to be misrepresented and misunderstood—and not simply by the likes of Trump. Specifically, consider this famous quote that has been attributed to Douglass for decades: "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men."

News outlets have widely identified Douglass as the source of this quote (an incomplete list: the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, the Miami Herald, and the Charlotte Observer). You can also see the mantra splashed across T-shirts, bumper stickers, Pinterest placards, Etsy mugs, and Internet banners. Understandably so. It's a very palatable saying.

it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men douglass

The quote is everywhere.

Recently, however, when I tried to pin down the quote's precise source for an ongoing book project about music and race, I kept coming up empty. Even after perusing the entirety of Douglass' known corpus—autobiographies, letters, speeches, debates, and interviews totaling thousands of pages—I couldn't find the quote anywhere. So I started to wonder: Did these words come from Douglass at all?

To date, the question has gone unasked (with the exception of this 2014 blog post by Daniel Ransom), and certainly unanswered. Indeed, the quote has gone misattributed and uninterrogated for so long that it even graces the current homepage of the Frederick Douglass Institute.

Frederick Douglass Institute

If, in fact, we're dealing with a misattributed quote, then where did the error originate? To find out, I enlisted the research assistance of a former undergraduate student, Susana Kwon, and together we pored over newspapers dating back several decades.

For starters, in a handful of articles between the mid-1970s and mid-'90s, we saw appearances of the "build strong children" motto without any mention of Douglass: the Indianapolis Star (February 5th, 1975), the Richwood Gazette (June 7th, 1989), and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (June 10th, 1993). As for the first instance of a writer explicitly linking the quote to Douglass, we're willing to bet on January 1st, 1994, when the Asheville Citizen-Times ran an advertisement by the non-profit Children First—A United Way Community Partnership. And soon, the misattribution began to stick. In a 1995 Chicago Tribune article, for example, child advocate Liz Yore spoke to journalist Fred Tannenbaum and "quot[ed] abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who said, 'It is easier to build strong children than repair broken men.'"

Clippings from the Indianapolis Star, the Richwood Gazette, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and the Chicago Tribune.

Clippings from the Indianapolis Star, the Richwood Gazette, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and the Chicago Tribune.

Notice, though, how it was largely white people (in multiple cases, female schoolteachers) who were responsible for popularizing the quote and attributing it to Douglass. Notice also how none of the quote's early invocations mentioned race—not even the 1994 Asheville Citizen-Times ad for Children First, which sermonized, in its bold header: Did you know that we in the U.S. lock up a greater percentage of children than any other country in the developed world? Not a single word here about color or civil rights, even as the United States, under President Bill Clinton, was on the brink of exacerbating its epidemic of mass black incarceration with the controversial 1994 federal crime bill.

An advertisement from the non-profit Children First—A United Way Community Partnership.

An advertisement from the non-profit Children First—A United Way Community Partnership.

By harnessing Douglass as the putative mouthpiece for a colorblind quote about strong children, then, well-meaning white people in the early '90s were able to siphon the progressive authority of this black forefather while eschewing altogether conversations about blackness and historical inequality.

But why, I still pondered, did someone end up attributing the quote to Douglass in the first place? An exercise in close reading may offer one answer. My hunch is that the words were distilled from (and therefore mis-cited as) a vaguely similar line in Douglass' 1855 slave narrative My Bondage and My Freedom. Here's a lengthy excerpt to contextualize the racial stakes:

When I went into [Master Hugh's and Mistress Auld's] family, it was the abode of happiness and contentment. The mistress of the house was a model of affection and tenderness.... She had bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and comfort for every mourner that came within her reach. Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these excellent qualities, and her home of its early happiness. Conscience cannot stand much violence. Once thoroughly broken down, who is he that can repair the damage? It may be broken toward the slave, on Sunday, and toward the master on Monday. It cannot endure such shocks. It must stand entire, or it does not stand at all.... I have had her rush at me, with the utmost fury, and snatch from my hand such newspaper or book, with something of the wrath and consternation which a traitor might be supposed to feel on being discovered in a plot by some dangerous spy.

If the sentence "Once thoroughly broken down, who is he that can repair the damage?" is indeed the seed of "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men," then a lot of nuance has been drained from the paraphrase. Look again at the excerpt. Douglass was writing not about the brokenness of a black child slave, but rather about the brokenness of a white adult slaveowner—the housemistress who, through slavery's evil systems, metamorphosed from a philanthropic woman into a rageful tyrant. Once Mrs. Auld had been broken by her habituated patronage of chattel slavery, Douglass wondered, who could repair her conscience? Here, Douglass wasn't exhorting adults to rear children resistant to breakage, unobjectionable though that goal might sound. He was saying it's best to teach people not to break others.

In the quoted passage from My Bondage and My Freedom, then, Douglass wasn't even writing directly about the survival of black folk. He was writing about how slavery has similarly devastated the consciences of white slaveowners. The passage expressed magnanimous pity and concern for the broken souls of white folk, even as these white folk battered his black spirit and body daily.

Here's the quote on a bumper sticker.

Here's the quote on a bumper sticker.

Or imagine this: If someone today saw a bumper sticker sporting the words, "It is easier to build strong children than [to] repair broken men"—Frederick Douglass, they would reasonably assume that Douglass had been writing about the need to nurture black youths and to fight for their educational opportunities. But once you squint into the obscure history of the quote, you realize 1.) that Douglass never wrote these words, and 2.) that the closest thing he penned to this effect was actually a searing proclamation of radical compassion toward the people least deserving of it—his white tormentors.

Spending time with Douglass' oeuvre led me to a related and broader observation. Douglass rarely described anything as "easy," least of all when it came to matters of abolition and education—which is why "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men" doesn't sound much like anything Douglass would have said. It's almost too facile, too pithy. For if there's an ethos uniting Douglass' writings, it's that the work of black liberation is never-ending. And as much as he would have agreed with the importance of building strong children, Douglass wouldn't have underestimated the rate at which men—adults—inevitably break. Nor would he have overlooked the urgent agendas of repair, given how chronically he sustained and witnessed the traumas wrought upon black skin. Perhaps, then, a revamp of the quote should, at the very least, emphasize the imperatives of both preventative and sustained care: "It is vital to build strong children, then to repair broken adults." Because break we all do—and under racist regimes, some break sooner, faster.

As we wish Douglass a happy 200th birthday on February 14th, let's do more than reduce him to a feel-good bumper sticker. To do right by Douglass, we owe him the values he held closest to his heart: truth, intellectual curiosity, and the eternal timeliness of reparative justice.