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Lucas Morel, head of the pol­itics department at Wash­ington and Lee Uni­versity, gave the keynote address for Douglass’s bicen­tennial. Robert Hasler | Courtesy

WASHINGTON — Lucas Morel is a pro­fessor of pol­itics and head of the pol­itics department at Wash­ington and Lee Uni­versity. His schol­arship focuses on Abraham Lincoln, Fred­erick Dou­glass, and Ralph Ellison. He is the author of “Ralph Ellison and the Raft of Hope: A Political Com­panion to the Invisible Man” (2004) and “Religion’s Sacred Effort: Defining Religion’s Role in American Self-Gov­ernment” (2000).

Why did you decide to focus on Fred­erick Dou­glass (along with Abraham Lincoln and Ralph Ellison) in your research and schol­arship?

These people teach me about America. I’m loyal to Lincoln because I’m more con­vinced of his inter­pre­tation of the Con­sti­tution than Dou­glass’, but Dou­glass teaches me about the founding not just through his life but through his speeches and writings. I happen to think that the Founders were right, and [I appre­ciate] anybody who can help me under­stand what the Founders were trying to do, coun­ter­in­tu­itively enough in the midst of holding people. That’s what makes our country such an intriguing his­torical thing, pre­cisely because we say one thing in the midst of doing another. We tell American history by the progress of lining up our practice with our pro­fession.

What is one of the most important things Amer­icans — espe­cially young Amer­icans, like Hillsdale College stu­dents — can learn from Fred­erick Dou­glass?

Read Dou­glass, imitate Dou­glass, learn the lan­guage of liberty. It’s not lan­guage we use today. We talk about rights, but rights can be an arbi­trary thing that’s linked to a par­ticular identity. The lan­guage of humanity, the lan­guage of human rights, the lan­guage that speaks of that which we all hold in common — and therefore what the gov­ernment should do in common — that, I think, can help us with progress. What I think we can learn from Dou­glass is a way of talking about each other and about what we all possess that can teach people that gov­ernment really can pursue this thing we call the common good rather than simply being pressure pol­itics.

Does Dou­glass have wisdom that can help improve race rela­tions in America today?

Racial minorities in this country, as much as they don’t like the Founder’s prac­tices, can be taught to love the Founders’ prin­ciples. Get them to be more con­fident in defending the prin­ciples of the American founding, and, in light of those prin­ciples, come up with policies that would be more con­sistent with equality. What’s amazing is not that the people who believed in equality were slave­holders; it’s that slave­holders believed in equality. They believed in some­thing that con­tra­dicted their own practice, and they knew it. Dou­glass teaches us that we can trust the Founder’s prin­ciples; we need to relearn them. We know their faults; let’s go back and see how they know that they are faults. Guess who teaches us their own faults? The very people who aren’t living up to their promises.

Is there any­thing that most people don’t know about Dou­glass that you find inter­esting or important?

When he died, they wanted to honor his life. He lived until 1895, so he saw a lot of American history and he had a great role in shaping that history. Someone pro­posed in Con­gress that his body lie in honor, in the nation’s Capitol, and that’s an honor given only to gov­ernment offi­cials or really important people. A senator from his own state was the one who quashed the idea. But I think it’s amazing that there was an oppor­tunity in American history to announce to the world that Fred­erick Dou­glass was so important to us, he deserved to lie in the nation’s Capitol. You only find it in one biog­raphy — in all the major biogra­phies, not one of them men­tions that.

Do you have any forth­coming books on Lincoln, Dou­glass, or Ellison?

My [current] book is “Abraham Lincoln and the American Founding.” It basi­cally argues that the most important ele­ments of Lincoln’s political thought and practice were shaped by what he learned from the Founders. It wouldn’t come out till early 2019.