On New Year’s Day 1846, an enslaved refugee in Ireland mourned that he had “no creed to uphold, no government to defend; and as a nation, I belong to no one … The land of my birth welcomes me to her shores only as a slave.” Pained though he was, the missive wove together despair and hope, hatred and affection in a way that only Frederick Douglass could. By that time Douglass had spent more than four months in Ireland and would spend another sixteen months in Scotland and England, following the publication of his first autobiography. His sojourn was part asylum, part speaking tour. Everywhere he went the fugitive slave-orator regaled audiences with an insider’s view of American slavery, openly ridiculing the perverse institution (as a whole), its haughty practitioners (by name), and its diseased abettors (none more than the churches of Christendom). It was there, in England, in October 1846, that Douglass’s abolitionist friends secured his freedom by “purchasing” Douglass from his erstwhile master, Thomas Auld. A ransom to some, a necessary concession to others, it meant freedom to Douglass. And though Douglass would now be returning to America as a free man, he would still not be truly welcomed upon its shores. He would still have no country to call his own.
Fifteen years later, in the shadow of Fort Sumter’s bombardment, Douglass told a crowd in Rochester that he finally felt that he had a country, “and that I must fall or flourish with her.” At the start of the slaveholder’s rebellion, Douglass claimed to speak not only for the “oppressed and enslaved,” but also for a new America. “All that I have and am are bound up with the destiny of this country.” For the rest of his life, he would urge a vigorous prosecution of the abolition war. As he did so, Douglass moved from radical abolitionist outsider to Republican Party functionary; he variously advocated for a robust, activist federal government as well as a bootstraps philosophy fully in line with the Social Darwinism of the Gilded Age; he relied heavily on friends and family even as he consciously stylized himself as the American exemplar of the individualistic, self-made hero.
… in the shadow of Fort Sumter’s bombardment, Douglass told a crowd in Rochester that he finally felt that he had a country, “and that I must fall or flourish with her.”
No scholar is better equipped to guide us through the many paradoxes that animated Douglass’s political life than David W. Blight, professor of American history at Yale and the Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. His latest work, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, reflects a lifetime of study. Blight’s first book explored Douglass’s commitment to keeping alive the historical memory of the Civil War as its promises of black liberation died by a thousand cuts. Crucially, it also portrayed him as an original thinker who, though long unappreciated by scholars, had profoundly shaped the nineteenth-century American imagination. Since its publication in 1989, Blight has built an accomplished career as both an educator and a public intellectual exploring highly charged issues of race, memory, emancipation, and the Civil War, while also contributing several introductory essays and annotated editions of Douglass’s first two autobiographies. Published in time for the bicentennial of Douglass’s birth, Blight’s is the first major biography of Douglass to appear since William S. McFeely’s provocative account in 1991.
The first challenge in writing about Frederick Douglass is, oddly, the very existence of his autobiographies. They are as indispensable to the historian as they are frustrating. Though they offer over twelve hundred pages of rich detail, Douglass leaves a lot unsaid in these carefully crafted works of self-making. For one thing, written in an age obsessed with the rugged individual, they are exceptionally—but not unwittingly—self-centered even as Douglass is tantalizingly guarded about his private feelings, motivations, memories, and indeed his private life. (Douglass’s first wife of 44 years, Anna Murray, received only one brief mention in his 1881 autobiography, and then only referring to her namelessly as “my intended wife.”) Moreover, the fact that Douglass is most remembered for telling his story in print and in speech meant that he was, fundamentally, “a man of words,” according to Blight. He believed in the power of words, of narratives. They would also serve as his greatest weapons whether he was attacking the Slave Power directly or indirectly by presenting his own remarkable story: “the slave who willed his own freedom, mastered the master’s language, saw to the core of the meaning of slavery, both for individuals and for the nation, and then captured the multiple meanings of freedom.” “Confronting the autobiographer in Douglass,” Blight finds, “is both a pleasure and a peril as his biographer” (xvi-xvii). In making the genre itself a central component of his study, the way Blight confronts the autobiographer is at once characteristically empathetic, balanced, and insightful.
Several narrative threads distinguish Blight’s biography. Whereas some biographers—especially McFeely—downplay Douglass’s religiosity, Blight’s Douglass is the quintessential American Jeremiah—a prophet whose story was firmly rooted in the apocalyptic vengeance of the Old Testament. In fact, Blight dates Douglass’s conversion to the immediate aftermath of Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831. Armed with ancient wisdom, Douglass prophesized slaveholding America’s bloody extirpation and redemption. Throughout Douglass’s life, Blight aims to show an undiminished, ever-burning radicalism. Yet in tracing the arc of his subject’s political life from outsider to insider, Blight depicts a kind of road to Damascus moment for Douglass in the decade after emancipation when, adrift and insecure, he apparently felt compelled to negotiate and channel his radicalism in the hopes of leveraging his largely symbolic weight to influence what he always wanted to be his people’s Republican Party.
Finally, the ever-present tension between Douglass’s private and public lives frequently occupies center stage in Blight’s telling. This is particularly evident in the latter half of the book, during Douglass’s postwar life as a veritable patriarch—a providing father figure of the sort he always searched for but was denied since birth. Blight casts Douglass’s intimate relationships in a judicious light. Building on the recent work of historian Leigh Fought, Blight depicts a man longing for love and affection, from his mistresses Lucretia and Sophia Auld to his star-crossed friendship with the German radical and interlocutor Ottilie Assing, whose romantic desires for Douglass went unrequited. Along the way Blight delves deeply into Douglass’s marriage to Anna Murray, a free black women Douglass met in Baltimore and who proved instrumental in his escape. Theirs must have been a difficult marriage, especially during Douglass’s many peripatetic years, given that Anna never learned to read or write. Despite their inhibited communication—not to mention vast intellectual disparities—Blight offers a sympathetic picture of Anna as a loving homemaker and mother who was every bit as essential to Douglass’s happiness and career as were his many reformist admirers and colleagues.
The first challenge in writing about Frederick Douglass is, oddly, the very existence of his autobiographies. They are as indispensable to the historian as they are frustrating.
In order to uncover these and other hidden facets of Douglass’s private life, Blight’s biography makes excellent use of a newly uncovered collection of papers relating to Douglass’s kith and kin, the so-called Evans collection, owned by one Walter O. Evans, an African American art and rare book collector in Savannah. By extensive use of this invaluable cache of sources, Blight offers the fullest account to date of the last third of Douglass’s life. We see especially rare glimpses into the life of Douglass the father, who struggled to financially support a growing clan of feuding, unhappy dependents. Above all, for Blight’s Douglass, there was the matter of belonging—familial, national, historical. Douglass desperately wanted to belong.
Douglass’s indictment of slavery drew from “the accumulated injury of his own story” (24). Born on the quiet Tuckahoe River on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in February 1818, Douglass began his life as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, the son of Harriet Bailey and the slave of Aaron Anthony. Though he hardly knew his mother—he would only see her four or five times, the last time in 1825—he knew something of his old master, who would die a year after Harriet. But before he did, the man left traumatic imprints on Douglass’s psyche. Anthony embodied the sexually depraved slaveholder. Every lash against the back of those slaves who rejected him, including Douglass’s fifteen-year-old aunt Hester, were indelibly carved as well into his cortex. Whether Douglass himself was the issue of Anthony’s advances against Harriet he would never know. Like many messiah figures, to this day his paternity remains a mystery.
Young Douglass knew many kinds of slavery. He worked in fields and households and dockyards. He was hired out to a handful of smallholders, including the infamous “slave breaker” Edward Covey. Born in a creek-side cabin on Anthony’s property, Douglass was taken as a child a dozen miles away to Anthony’s house on the plantation he managed for Colonel Edward Lloyd, perhaps the richest man in Maryland at the time. On the Wye House plantation Douglass would begin accumulating the childhood injuries, traumas, and symbols he would later deploy in his unforgettable abolitionist manifestos. What Douglass described as the first antislavery lecture he ever heard came in 1827 from the mouth of Hugh Auld as he chastised his wife for teaching the precocious slave boy to read. His days spent in the Auld household were formative. He found himself there in Baltimore following the death of his old master and the transfer of his ownership to Hugh’s brother Thomas. Thomas Auld would later rip Douglass from Hugh and Sophia Auld’s home Baltimore and hire him out in the St. Michaels region to Covey and others. After Douglass’s first failed escape attempt, and after the young man spent two agonizing weeks in jail in Easton, Thomas Auld made the fateful decision not to sell Douglass to oblivion in the Deep South but, remarkably, return him to Baltimore with the promise of freedom in seven years. He would not wait.
Life in Baltimore forever changed Douglass, exposing him to a wider world, one that included free black communities and tangible possibilities for learning and escape. Not only did Douglass learn at a tender age the power of literacy, Blight tells us how he also acquired the art of defining himself against his opponents—Anthony, Lloyd, the Aulds, Covey, slaveholders, Confederates, Democrats. He knew how to identify and humiliate enemies. From them he would steal knowledge, and then steal himself.
Whereas some biographers—especially McFeely—downplay Douglass’s religiosity, Blight’s Douglass is the quintessential American Jeremiah—a prophet whose story was firmly rooted in the apocalyptic vengeance of the Old Testament.
After Douglass escaped in 1838 he fell in quickly with the Garrisonian abolitionists who had been touring New England. Blight places Douglass’s deep-rooted love of writing and speaking at the heart of what attracted him to William Lloyd Garrison. “Here he found moral suasion, the appeal to reform the hearts of people before changing the laws of a society.” It was, in no small measure, “abolitionism through the power of language, words as weapons against evil and powerful institutions, truth by preaching” (94). Soon the majestic, spellbinding runaway slave orator became a rising star on the abolitionist lecture circuit. Controversially to many at the time, he would also use his platform to lend his earnest support to the early women’s rights movement. As he traveled from Massachusetts to Indiana and from the New World to the Old, preaching the moral evils of slavery with his wrath, indignation, and sarcastic wit, he confronted innumerable hostiles—from the snarling custodians of Jim Crow to mobs of angry whites. A giant melee before a rally in Pendleton, Indiana, for example, nearly cost Douglass his life; it would prove a pivotal experience. Within a year Douglass would break from the Garrisonian tenet of nonviolence, citing the Pendleton encounter.
In knowing firsthand the violence required to uphold the slave regime, Douglass also knew that nonviolence alone could never upend it. Chafing under the constrictions of Garrison’s leadership, weary of pacifism and non-voting, and yearning for an independent voice, the break was inevitable. Nothing underscored the gulf between the two abolitionists quite like the myriad crises of the 1850s. After passage of the much-reviled Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Douglass went a step further than most, to the great shock of many Garrisonians. “Douglass harbored no moral ambivalence about violence now,” writes Blight; “he demanded dead slave catchers as recognition and revitalization of black humanity” (246). Douglass wanted body counts. A friend and supporter of that other great 19th-century prophet, John Brown, Douglass eagerly anticipated a massive, bloody upheaval between the forces of slavery and those of freedom.
Douglass was a war propagandist. As Blight puts it, he “wanted the clarity of polarized conflict,” and the slaveholder’s rebellion gave that to him (332). Indeed, against Republican orthodoxy he ridiculed non-slaveholding rebels as mere “tools of slaveholders.” This was a far cry from his most trenchant analysis of race and class drawn from the dockyards of Baltimore he so beautifully articulated in his 1855 masterpiece My Bondage and My Freedom where he argued that both black slaves and poor whites “are plundered, and by the same plunderers.” The prophet was right in his analysis, though wrong in his prediction that such a system “will, one day, array the non-slaveholding white people of the slave states, against the slave system, and make them the most effective workers against the great evil.” A fervent critic of the wartime Republican Party and Lincoln Administration, Douglass nevertheless sensed the transformative possibilities of national regeneration, of bloody swords repaying every drop of blood from the lash, in the words of Lincoln’s second inaugural address.
As Blight has done in other studies, he convincingly shows how the Civil War never ended for Douglass. “Douglass wanted the former Confederacy occupied and remade,” Blight explains, “with the former slaves as the central agents of a political and social revolution” (471). When he saw his nation forgetting the real war, losing commitment to the Southern freedpeople, and wishing for a quick restoration, Douglass protested with all the righteous anger he could muster. To Blight’s Douglass, this was the battleground of memory—the final, ongoing conflict over emancipation, which by the 1880s was losing badly to the putrid virus of the Lost Cause. The former slave “knew that all groups desire a usable past, none more than blacks in America.” In fact, Douglass “wrote and spoke so often about the fight over the memory of the war that some critics accused him of living in the past” (531). One such critic was Alexander Crummell, an accomplished black theologian. In an 1885 Memorial Day address at Harper’s Ferry, with Douglass in attendance, Crummell urged his listeners not to dwell morbidly on their slave past; their “duty lies in the future.” For his part, Douglass countered with a reminder of the ongoing significance of slavery, and that it was better to remember the past than to invite its resurgence. Perhaps because Douglass was only in the audience and not on stage, this memorable encounter with a competing black visionary—explored elsewhere by Blight—is sadly absent from the biography, which in some ways echoes the tight focus in the autobiographies on the hero himself.
The war—its memory, its continuance—would forever be the bedrock of Douglass’s postwar radicalism. His principles were most conspicuously on display during his countless commemorative speeches in the 1870s honoring the memory of the Union victory and its promise of black liberation. He would wave the bloody shirt long after other Republicans had theirs laundered. His heroic efforts to force the nation to remember the war’s true causes and consequences would be the most, and perhaps only, appreciably radical thing about him in the post-Reconstruction years. Blight paints a tough but largely sympathetic portrait of Douglass during the final third of his life, noting the old warrior’s shortcomings while steadfastly defending his radical credentials as proof that he was not a mere relic from a bygone era—something Douglass himself gravely feared.
Not only did Douglass learn at a tender age the power of literacy, Blight tells us how he also acquired the art of defining himself against his opponents—Anthony, Lloyd, the Aulds, Covey, slaveholders, Confederates, Democrats. He knew how to identify and humiliate enemies. From them he would steal knowledge, and then steal himself.
From the earliest days of Reconstruction, Douglass promoted the liberal creed that the franchise could save his people from the coming onslaught. His support of the Fifteenth Amendment was hardly diminished by its exclusion of women, a point he aggressively defended to his former allies in the women’s rights movement who, for their part, responded with equally aggressive racist diatribes. “Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot,” he would repeat until the amendment’s ratification in 1870, as if the defining feature of slavery was the disenfranchisement of black men. It was around this time that Douglass first trotted out his infamous “Let the Negro Alone” speech, which he would deliver in various forms dozens of times across the nation. Though gallingly laissez-faire in title, Blight argues Douglass’s “let alone” philosophy “was really a companion to its apparent opposites: protection, a social contract, government responsibility, and enforcement.” In other words, Douglass believed “government must act as the arbiter of fairness.” Blight’s rationale is thorough and convincing; however, many onlookers at the time were rightly confused. No less a figure than O. O. Howard, the austerity-inclined head of the Freedmen’s Bureau, asked Douglass for clarification on what he meant by “let alone,” reminding the orator that “A great many old and infirm colored people … would perish if let alone” (562-563).
Over the next twenty-odd years, his speeches on let-alone and the “Self-Made Man” continually raised eyebrows if not protests from black Americans, even when delivered in 1892 in the mecca of black self-improvement: Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. As Blight concedes, “Douglass prescribed self-reliance for the balcony and peace and economic cooperation for the middle pews” (600). Douglass could at once deflect racist charges against his people and admonish them for what he perceived as their lethargy, self-destruction, and lack of leadership. They were a “laborious, joyous, thoughtless, improvident people,” in Douglass’s unkind words. His people frequently embarrassed his class sensibilities and respectability politics. Hence Douglass’s misplaced appeal to conservatives today.
More troubling was Douglass’s loyalty to the Republican Party—abiding even as the party abandoned black Americans to the gory whims of white supremacy. In part, his zealous allegiance in the 1870s to the party of Lincoln, of the Union, and of emancipation grew naturally from its wartime history and promise. So promising were its early fruits—emancipation and the Reconstruction amendments—that Douglass cited them as justification for annexing Santo Domingo and bringing it into the fold of American democracy. Whatever criticisms he had of the party and its downward direction, he never retreated from the belief that it was the only vessel for the interests of black America. It was where they belonged. And with a little moral suasion, a flexing of the power of words, they could make it their own—they could hold its feet to the fire of its wartime promises. Douglass had pledged his sword, and urged every other black American to do the same.
Without admitting to have compromised his principles, Douglass continually vied for federal appointments. Despite his tireless efforts stumping for every Republican presidential candidate from Grant to Harrison, he only ever managed to attain positions that were seen as almost entirely ceremonial (marshal of Washington, D.C., by Hayes in 1877), entirely mundane (recorder of deeds, by Arthur in 1881), or entirely undesirable to whites (minister to Haiti, by Harrison in 1889). He was slighted and ignored at will, even when he held these positions. Another unfortunate venture, his ill-considered appointment as president to the insolvent Freedmen’s Savings Bank, proved disastrous for thousands of working-class blacks who invested their humble savings in a bank sabotaged by the same New Yorkers who would precipitate the Depression of 1873, Henry and Jay Cooke. Though ensconced as a sometime party bureaucrat, Douglass unsurprisingly failed to single-handedly persuade any president to reverse course to intervene on behalf of black people in the South. Such a task would have been next to impossible, but one cannot help but feel that Douglass exerted little political influence at all, either in the corridors of power or, more importantly, in the dusty streets of the postwar Black Belt. Lincoln, who had met with Douglass three times and clearly valued his opinion, was long dead. Though a figurehead of Lincoln’s old party, Douglass was hardly an insider.
Douglass could at once deflect racist charges against his people and admonish them for what he perceived as their lethargy, self-destruction, and lack of leadership. They were a “laborious, joyous, thoughtless, improvident people,” in Douglass’s unkind words. His people frequently embarrassed his class sensibilities and respectability politics. Hence Douglass’s misplaced appeal to conservatives today.
An accomplished autobiographer, Douglass might have realized that he functioned better as an outsider to established power. Still, Blight makes the case that Douglass was fully aware of what his party was becoming and tried to exert his will to change its course ever the harder. That may well have been the case. But as Douglass preached faith in the party the cries of his multiplying black critics must have been hard to ignore. A firm believer in the harmony of labor and capital, Douglass opposed unions generally for their discriminatory practices. Likewise, he continually challenged efforts by Southern blacks to unionize themselves, as many were attempting to do by the early 1870s. By threatening to withdraw their support, they sought to force the Republican Party to make good on its promises.
The most indefensible example, however, is Douglass’s hypocritical opposition to the Exoduster movement in the late 1870s. Bloodied by life in post-Reconstruction Mississippi and Louisiana, thousands of disillusioned black families sought to escape their new bondage for the promised land of Kansas. In the face of nearly every other black leader at the time, most notably Richard T. Greener, Douglass, the former slave who dreamt every night of running away to something better, urged his brothers and sisters trapped in the maw of the bloodstained, paramilitary sharecropping South to stay put and keep voting Republican. As he counseled: “stick to the Republican Party. Tell your wants, hold the party up to its professions, but do your utmost to keep it in power in state and nation.” Douglass had received plenty of anonymous letters from groups of freedpeople, alerting him to the fact that registering as a Republican in a Southern county was akin to signing one’s own death warrant. Not unlike Douglass in 1846, writing from the faraway Emerald Isles, African Americans in the postbellum South often plainly felt that they did not have a country to which they belonged—and the creed Douglass gave them offered nothing inspiring or inclusionary to uphold.
Still, as Douglass reasoned: “Neither natural, artificial nor traditional causes stand in the way of the freedman to such labor in the South … he stands today the admitted author of whatever prosperity, beauty, and civilization are now professed by the South. He is the arbiter of her destiny.” While correctly assessing the laboring power of black Southerners, without unions or collective bargaining or strikes there were plenty of causes to stand in the way of their seizing power in the post-Reconstruction South. “Naïvely,” Blight concludes, “Douglass sustained his faith in the triumph of free labor and universal manhood suffrage. It was as though the busy marshal-orator had thrown up a psychological wall of denial in his mind about the reality of racial oppression in the South” (603-604). The only hope of black Southerners was to organize to leverage power, rather than engage in conspicuous displays of party loyalty coupled with ineffectual chastisement for the party’s damnable failings.
He [Douglass] may have spoken eloquently against forgetting the war of liberation, the collapse of Reconstruction, and the rise of Jim Crow, but words, in the end, were all he had. When coupled with his lame, liberal politics, his words almost certainly rang hollow in the ears of suffering freedpeople from whom he was so far removed. Blight does not shy away from any of these issues. Instead, he confronts them head-on, demonstrating how they gave Douglass his “most challenging psychic dilemmas.”
The old warrior did get angry from time to time, as he had while at his best in the 1850s. The death blow to equal rights meted out by the Supreme Court in 1883 proved just such an occasion. And in Douglass’s last few years he was finally ready to openly admit that the project of Reconstruction had been a failure and freedpeople were perhaps worse off than as slaves. But in the end, the most heartening moments in Douglass’s final years can be found in his mentorship of a true outsider, agitator, and crusader: the indomitable Ida B. Wells. It might have been a passing-of-the-torch moment. But whether from his partisan myopia, gradualist faith in electoralism, anti-unionism, imperialism, or his devaluation of women’s suffrage, the Gilded Age had indeed tarnished much of Douglass’s radical credentials more than any commemorative speech could polish. He may have spoken eloquently against forgetting the war of liberation, the collapse of Reconstruction, and the rise of Jim Crow, but words, in the end, were all he had. When coupled with his lame, liberal politics, his words almost certainly rang hollow in the ears of suffering freedpeople from whom he was so far removed.
Blight does not shy away from any of these issues. Instead, he confronts them head-on, demonstrating how they gave Douglass his “most challenging psychic dilemmas” (xviii). Deeply researched and beautifully written, Blight’s biography will doubtless stand as the authoritative account of Frederick Douglass for many years to come. And whereas Blight reads a kind of submerged or latent radicalism under a pragmatic, determined veneer, others might just as well see a venerable but eclipsed radical whose postwar vision and politics never quite mapped onto the needs of distant, embattled, ordinary freedpeople. Such is the enduring attraction of Frederick Douglass, given full voice by his most acclaimed biographer. If at times we are perplexed and frustrated by Douglass and other times galvanized and inspired, it is only because he lived in our most perplexing and frustrating time as a nation. And one that will—must—continue to galvanize, inspire, and warn.