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.