Frederick Douglass was a Recovering Alcoholic

Frederick Douglass is one of my great heroes. He was born a slave in 1818. He taught himself how to read and write and at the age of 20, he ran away to freedom. He spoke about his experiences as a slave, and how slavery debases both the slave and the slave owner. He would tell how slave owners would act pious in church and in their communities and then come home and yell and beat their slaves. Douglass was such an eloquent speaker that many people raised the question of whether or not he had ever been in bondage. In 1845, he wrote the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in order to prove to people that he had been a slave. He was very specific with exact names and locations so that people could fact check. He did not want there to be any doubt about his story (the book is 70 pages long and can be bought in paperback for $2 or on kindle for $1…every American should read it).

In Chapter X of his book, he writes about:

(1) How slaves were given the time off between Christmas and New Year’s, and that their masters encouraged them to drink. “It was deemed a disgrace not to get drunk at Christmas.”

(2) Some slave owners would make bets on their slaves to see who could drink the most without getting drunk.

(3) “We felt, and very properly too, that we had almost as well be slaves to man as to rum.”

(4) “So, when the holidays ended, we staggered up from the filth of our wallowing, took a long breath, and marched to the field, — feeling, upon the whole, rather glad to go…back to the arms of slavery.”

One of his great joys in life was teaching other slaves and ex-slaves how to read. It wasn’t enough to be free, but one had to be educated in order to protect one’s freedom and to be a productive member of society.

After his book was published, Mr. Douglass went on a tour of Britain and Ireland for two years. While he was over there, he described himself over and over again as a “sot” in his speeches. Sot is an English word that originated sometime in the 1590’s and means “one who is stupefied by drink.” He would talk about the evils of slavery, the religious hypocrisy of slaveholders, how slaves are encouraged to drink and discouraged from reading. He said,

“There is no freedom from the bondage of slavery without freedom from the bondage of alcohol.”

Frederick Douglass was a recoverying alcoholic* before we had the term. He experienced physical and mental slavery and eventually overcame both. He got educated, traveled, helped others and he talked about his experiences. He was a role model and he helped implement changes on a national level. His story has a number of themes that resonate with people in recovery today (clearly, his journey was harder).

I am not going to be so arrogant and foolish as to say what Mr. Douglass’s positions would be on current issues, other than to say that he probably would have encouraged people with substance abuse problems to not use and all people to get educated.

He’s one of my great role models, and I want to share him with you.

* or use whatever term you are comfortable with: reformed drinker, former drinker, person in long-term recovery, abstainer