Photo credit: World History Archive/Newscom

Valentine’s Day is the perfect day to eat chocolate or dote on freshly delivered red roses. Oh, and to celebrate the 19th-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Born into slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in February 1818, Douglass was given the improbably dignified name “Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey.” Like many people born into slavery, Douglass did not know his exact birthday. He chose February 14 because his mother, who died when Douglass was around eight years old, called him her “little valentine.”

Douglass fled slavery and then lived in Massachusetts and England until supporters purchased his freedom. During this time, he was influenced by abolitionists who blamed America’s Constitution and its founding for the sin of slavery. But as he aged, Douglass came to disagree.

“Interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document,” he declared. “I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it. On the other hand it will be found to contain principles and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.”

As scholar Peter C. Myers puts it, “Douglass found reason to love and identify with his country, despite the injustices that he and his people had suffered.”

Indeed, in the years before the Civil War, Douglass emerged as a staunch defender of the nation’s founding documents. “The Constitution, as well as the Declaration of Independence, and the sentiments of the founders of the Republic, give us a platform broad enough, and strong enough, to support the most comprehensive plans for the freedom and elevation of all the people of this country, without regard to color, class, or clime,” he wrote.

To this day, Myers writes, “Douglass endures unequalled as the invincible adversary of racial despair and disaffection—the pre-eminent exemplar and apostle of hopefulness in the American promise of justice for all.”

Happy birthday to America’s Valentine, the great Frederick Douglass.