Quote Origin: Measure Their Progress, Not From the Heights to Which They May In Time Attain, But From the Depths From Which They Have Come

Frederick Douglass? Apocryphal?

Quote Investigator®
5 min readMay 7


Mountainous terrain in Munkebu, Norway from Unsplash

Question for Quote Investigator: Whenever a person is being evaluated it is necessary to consider the adversities that have impeded their progress. One should measure the heights achieved, but one should also consider the original challenging depths experienced by an individual. The famous orator Frederick Douglass said something like this. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Reply from Quote Investigator: On May 30, 1882 Frederick Douglass delivered an address at Decoration Day in Rochester, New York. The “Rochester Daily Union and Advertiser” newspaper published a transcript of the speech which included the following remarks. Boldface added to excepts by QI:¹

Unquestionably the condition of the freedmen is not what it ought to be, but the cause of their affliction is not to be found in their present freedom, but in their former slavery. It does not belong to the present, but to the past. They were emancipated under unfavorable conditions. They were literally turned loose, hungry and naked, to the open sky . . .

Those who now carp at their destitution, and speak of them with contempt should judge them leniently, and measure their progress, not from the heights to which they may in time attain, but from the depths from which they have come.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Frederick Douglass employed the phrase “depths from which we have come” in previous speeches. For example, in 1875 “The Weekly Louisianian” of New Orleans ascribed the following remarks to Douglass:²

“I would remind all those who would counsel impatience to remember the depths from which we have come, and the toil and pain through which we have reached our present condition. The gray dawn of the morning should not be despised, because it is not the mid-day sun in its splendor.”

Frederick Douglass delivered a speech in Rochester New York on May 30, 1882 as mentioned previously. Excerpts from the speech appeared in other newspapers in June 1882 including “The Evening Post” of New York³ and “The Evening Star” of Washington, D.C.:⁴

Those who now carp at their destitution, and speak of them with contempt should judge them leniently, and measure their progress, not from the heights to which they may in time attain, but from the depths from which they have come.

On January 1, 1883 a banquet was held in Washington, D.C honoring Frederick Douglass during which he delivered a speech describing the progress of freed blacks. He stated that the opportunities for education had greatly improved. There were now two hundred thousand black children regularly attending schools in Southern states. This development helped to refute the overly critical people he called “croakers”:⁵

The trouble with these croakers is that they do not consider the point of the freedmen’s departure. They know the heights which they have still to reach, but do not measure the depths from which they have come.

In December 1883 “Harper’s Weekly” of New York published an essay by Frederick Douglass titled “The Condition of the Freedman” which included another version of the saying with a slightly different phrasing:⁶

All will admit that it would be manifestly and grossly unfair to judge the freedmen without taking their antecedents into account. They should be measured, not from the height yet to be attained, but from the depths from which they have come.

In 1893 James M. Gregory published the biography “Frederick Douglass: the Orator” which contained excerpts from the January 1, 1883 speech. Thus, the saying under examination was further propagated.⁷

In 1993 a version of the saying appeared in the collection “My Soul Looks Back, ’Less I Forget”:⁸

You are not judged by the height you have risen, but from the depth you have climbed.
FREDERICK DOUGLASS, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, 1881

QI has searched an 1881 edition of the autobiography “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass” and was unable to find the quotation immediately above.⁹ Thus, QI is uncertain about the provenance of the above version of the saying.

The 2006 collection “Wisdom for the Soul: Five Millennia of Prescriptions for Spiritual Healing” contained the same version without a citation:¹⁰

You are not judged by the height you have risen, but from the depth you have climbed.
~ Frederick Douglass, 1817–1895 ~

In conclusion, Frederick Douglass deserves credit for this saying. The instances from speeches dated May 30, 1882 and January 1, 1883 are from contemporary newspaper accounts. These citations provide strong evidence. The essay authored by Frederick Douglass in “Harper’s Weekly” on December 8, 1883 also contains an instance with a solid citation.

Image Notes: Picture of mountainous terrain in Munkebu, Norway from Guillaume Briard at Unsplash. The image has been cropped.

Acknowledgements: Great thanks to researcher Lisa Najavits and the Boston University (BU) library system. The version of this saying presented in the 1993 and 2006 citations appears on many webpages without a supporting citation. Najavits wished to obtain a solid citation; hence, she contacted the BU library system where a librarian was able to successfully trace a different version to the May 30, 1882 Decoration Day speech by Frederick Douglass. Najavits contacted QI and suggested that an article about this expression would be a valuable addition to the website, and QI concurred.

[1] 1882 May 30, Rochester Daily Union and Advertiser, Decoration Day: Address of Frederick Douglass at Franklin Square, Quote Page 3, Column 8, Rochester New York. (Old Fulton accessed fultonhistory_com on May 4, 2023) link

[2] 1875 March 27, The Weekly Louisianian, The Reception of Senator Pinchback, Quote Page 3, Column 4, New Orleans, Louisiana. (Newspapers_com)

[3] 1882 June 2, The Evening Post, Personal: Frederick Douglass in his Decoration Day oration at Rochester, Quote Page 2, Column 4, New York, New York. (Newspapers_com)

[4] 1882 June 7, The Evening Star, Frederick Douglass On Memorial Day, Quote Page 2, Column 7, Washington, D.C. (Newspapers_com)

[5] 1883 January 6, The Washington Bee, The Twentieth Anniversary of Lincoln’s Proclamation of Emancipation, Start Page 1, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Washington, D.C. (Newspapers_com)

[6] 1883 December 8, Harper’s Weekly, Journal of Civilization, Volume 27, Number 1407, The Condition of the Freedman by Frederick Douglass, Quote Page 782, Column 3, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

[7] 1893, Frederick Douglass: the Orator, by James M. Gregory, Chapter 6: Banquet in Recognition of His Public Services — The Douglass in His Hall, Start Page 61, Quote Page 67, Willey & Company, Springfield, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link

[8] 1993, My Soul Looks Back, ’Less I Forget: A Collection of Quotations by People of Color, Edited by Dorothy Winbush Riley, Topic: Judgment, Quote Page 221, Column 2, HarperCollins Publishers. New York. (Verified on paper)

[9] 1881, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself, (The quotation was absent), Park Publishing Company, Hartford, Connecticut. (Google Books Full View) link

[10] 2006, Wisdom for the Soul: Five Millennia of Prescriptions for Spiritual Healing, Compiled and Edited by Larry Chang, Section: Accomplishment, Quote Page 26, Column 2, Gnosophia Publishers, Washington, D.C. (Verified with scans)



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