GRE Reading Comprehension

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Source: 2014

Frederick Douglass was unquestionably the most famous African American of the nineteenth century; indeed, when he died in 1895 he was among the most distinguished public figures in the United States. In his study of Douglass' career as a major figure in the movement to abolish slavery and as a spokesman for Black rights, Waldo Martin has provoked controversy by contending that Douglass also deserves a prominent place in the intellectual history of the United States because he exemplified so many strands of nineteenth-century thought: romanticism, idealism, individualism, liberal humanism, and an unshakable belief in progress. But this very argument provides ammunition for those who claim that most of Douglass' ideas, being so representative of their time, are now obsolete. Douglass' vision of the future as a melting pot in which all racial and ethnic differences would dissolve into "a composite American nationality" appears from the pluralist perspective of many present-day intellectuals to be not only utopian but even wrongheaded. Yet there is a central aspect of Douglass' thought that seems not in the least bit dated or irrelevant to current concerns. He has no rival in the history of the nineteenth-century United States as an insistent and effective critic of the doctrine of innate racial inequality. He not only attacked racist ideas in his speeches and writings, but he offered his entire career and all his achievements as living proof that racists were wrong in their belief that one race could be inherently superior to another.

While Martin stresses Douglass' antiracist egalitarianism, he does not adequately explain how this aspect of Douglass' thought fits in with his espousal of the liberal Vic-torian attitudes that many present-day intellectuals consider to be naive and outdated. The fact is that Douglass was attracted to these democratic-capitalist ideals of his time because they could be used to attack slavery and the doctrine of White supremacy. His favorite rhetorical strategy was to expose the hypocrisy of those who, while professing adherence to the ideals of democracy and equality of opportunity, condoned slavery and racial discrimination. It would have been strange indeed if he had not embraced liberal idealism, because it proved its worth for the cause of racial equality during the national crisis that eventually resulted in emancipation and citizenship for African Americans. These points may seem obvious, but had Martin given them more atten-tion, his analysis might have constituted a more convincing rebuttal to those critics who dismiss Douglass' ideology as a relic of the past. If one accepts the proposition that Douglass' deepest commitment was to Black equality and that he used the liberal ideals of his time as weapons in the fight for that cause, then it is hard to fault him for seizing the best weapons at hand.

Question List: 1 2 3 4

The passage as a whole can best be described as doing which of the following?

  • A Explaining Douglass' emergence as a major figure in the movement to abolish slavery
  • B Tracing the origins of Douglass' thought in nineteenth-century romanticism, idealism, and liberal humanism
  • C Analyzing Douglass' speeches and writings from a modern, pluralist perspective
  • D Criticizing Martin for failing to stress the contradiction between Douglass' principles and the liberal Victorian attitudes of his day
  • E Formulating a response to those who consider Douglass' political philosophy to be archaic and irrelevant

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