In James G. Randall and David Donald’s long-reigning textbook, The Civil War and Reconstruction (1953), there is not a single mention of Frederick Douglass. Only once does Bruce Catton’s three-volume centennial history of the Civil War—The Coming Fury (1961), Terrible Swift Sword (1963), and Never Call Retreat (1965)—make mention of him, which is still once more than either James Ford Rhodes’s A History of the Civil War, 1861–1865 (1917), or the opening volume of the other famous Progressive survey of American history, Charles and Mary Beard’s The Rise of American Civilization (1927). I can remember the Civil War history taught to me in my boyhood during the centennial years without recollecting a single allusion to Frederick Douglass.
This past year marked the bicentennial of Douglass’s birth—and what a stupendous change has been wrought in his historical reputation. The Maryland county where he was born in slavery features an online driving tour of his early life. Statues of Douglass now populate the campus of the University of Maryland, the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, the northwest corner of Central Park, his hometown of many years in Rochester, New York, and even the courthouse in Easton, Maryland, where he was jailed for two weeks. Yale University Press’s edition of The Papers of Frederick Douglass has just released its tenth volume (the second in its series of Douglass’s correspondence). And along with these markers have come the biographies, three of them alone in 2018: Timothy Sandefur’s Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man, D.H. Dilbeck’s Frederick Douglass: America’s Prophet, and David W. Blight’s mammoth Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. For a second time, Frederick Douglass has escaped from captivity.
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Douglass’s reputation rested on his talents as a public speaker. He was born Frederick Bailey, a slave to Captain Aaron Anthony, an overseer and manager on the Wye House plantation of the wealthy and influential Edward Lloyd family—a birth that would ordinarily have deprived him of any but the most cramped of stages on which to exercise those talents. But at age eight, he had the unlooked-for good fortune to be packed off to Baltimore as an addition to the household of Hugh Auld, the brother of Anthony’s son-in-law, Thomas Auld. There, Auld’s wife, Sophia, made the colossal mistake—for a slaveowning family—of teaching young Frederick the rudiments of reading so that he could pick his way through Bible passages. At age 12, with 50 cents he had earned from doing odd jobs that the Aulds indulged, he bought a second-hand copy of Caleb Bingham’s The Columbian Orator, a popular schoolbook filled with examples of speeches, declamations, theological poetry, and dialogues, which the boy absorbed like air. The Aulds, finally suspicious that the 18-year-old Frederick was growing beyond their control, sent him to work on the farm of Edward Covey, a slave-breaker who, physically and psychologically, could reduce unsubmissive slaves to pliable zombies. Covey nearly succeeded in reducing Bailey’s psyche to rubble, too, until at the very edge, the slave summoned the will to beat the slave-breaker in return. From somewhere within himself “came the daring spirit,” he later recalled, and he seized Covey “with both hands, by the collar, and with a vigorous and sudden snatch brought my assailant harmlessly, his full length, on the not over-clean ground.”
Bailey had only one thought now, and that was escape. He was returned to the Aulds and hired out as a caulker in a Baltimore shipyard. But two years later, in collusion with a free black woman, Anna Murray, he disguised himself “in sailor style” with “a red shirt and a tarpaulin hat and black cravat,” and using identification papers borrowed from “one friend—a sailor,” boarded a train which took him to Wilmington, Delaware, then to a safe house in New York. There, Murray joined him, and married him, and together they fled to the greater security of New Bedford, Massachusetts. To cover their fugitive tracks, they took a new name, one Frederick borrowed from Sir Walter Scott’s tales of Scottish Highland resistance to tyranny—Douglass.
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Frederick Douglass found work in New Bedford, hauling coal for the wife of the local Unitarian minister. “I was not long in accomplishing the job, when the dear lady put into my hand two silver half-dollars,” Douglass remembered. “To understand the emotion which swelled my heart as I clasped this money, realizing that I had no master who could take it from me—that it was mine—that my hands were my own, and could earn more of the precious coin—one must have been in some sense himself a slave.” But Douglass made more of a mark by what he had to say about slavery, and that caught the notice of local white abolitionists, who were eager to enlist a persuasive escapee who could speak directly to the experienced evils of slavery. He began reading William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator, from which he imbibed the Garrisonian demand for immediate abolition and the contemptuous assertion that the U.S. Constitution was abolition’s chief obstacle. His breakthrough moment came in August 1841 when he was asked to speak at an anti-slavery meeting in Nantucket where Garrison was in attendance. The abolitionist editor was bowled over by Douglass’s eloquence, and within a week, Douglass had found new employment as a paid lecturer for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society.
After that, he went from strength to strength. One listener in Concord, New Hampshire, in 1844 thought that Douglass lay outside the usual rules of rhetoric, that he was an elemental force, “the volcanic outbreak of human nature, long pent up in slavery and at last bursting its imprisonment. It was the storm of insurrection; and I could not but think, as he stalked to and fro on the platform, roused up like the Numidian lion, how that terrible voice of his would ring through the pine glades of the South, in the day of her visitation.” The following year, he published his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which sold 5,000 copies in its first printing.
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He was, in fact, almost too successful for his own good. Douglass was still, by law, a fugitive from slavery, and his new-found prominence made him a delicious target for bounty-hunters eager to claim a large reward for his rendition. In a mixture of self-protection and self-promotion, Douglass embarked on a two-year tour of Britain and Ireland, during which sympathetic British admirers raised the money to purchase his freedom from the Aulds. But that only raised a new problem, since his abolitionist friends at once wept in holy horror that such a deal would be made with the slavery devil. Douglass encountered still more criticism, this time from Garrison, when he announced on his return to the United States, that he planned to establish a new abolitionist newspaper, the North Star, in Rochester, New York. As long as Douglass had been willing to be a black adornment on a white reformers’ crusade, he had been feted and petted; the moment he began to mark out a path of his own, the mask of white paternalism fell away.
Douglass found a new ally in New York abolitionist Gerrit Smith, who had helped found the Liberty Party in 1840, and it was under Smith’s influence that he pivoted away from Garrison’s claim that the Constitution was a pro-slavery document to the argument, now being made by broader anti-slavery voices, that the Constitution was a natural-law instrument which carefully avoided the idea that there could be (in James Madison’s phrase) “property in men.” He remained aloof from overt political activism; though sympathizing with radical abolitionist John Brown, he declined Brown’s offer of a place in the ill-fated raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859. Once the Civil War broke out, however, Douglass turned all of his energies into demanding that the war be conducted as “an Abolition war,” leading to “an Abolition peace.” He got his first wish when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863; he spent the rest of his life trying, and for the most part failing, to realize the second. When he died on February 20, 1895, of a massive heart attack, he was still on the lecture circuit, decrying the rise of racial segregation and Jim Crow.
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One of the principal difficulties in writing a biography of Frederick Douglass is the man’s lifelong role as a performer. Apart from a handful of government patronage appointments by post-war Republican administrations—federal marshal for the District of Columbia under Rutherford Hayes, recorder of deeds for the District under James Garfield, and consul-general to Haiti under Benjamin Harrison—Douglass was entirely reliant on the income he earned from public speaking and from the sales of his two subsequent autobiographical essays, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881). This poses the same problem encountered by biographers of other prominent performers: the narrative often collapses into a timeline of concerts given or movies released.
Still, there are a number of themes in Douglass’s surviving lectures and writings to show how active and independent an intelligence was at work behind the platform dramatist. The first was his unrelenting condemnation of American slavery, and after the Civil War, slavery’s second life in the bugaboo of race and racial discrimination. Slavery was an offense to “the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice,” he wrote, and simply by the existence of natural law, “there is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.” Hence, Douglass denounced the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 as an outrage on “the right of each man to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Natural law wrote natural rights on the human heart “and the record of it is in the bosom of the eternal.”
The second major theme of Douglass’s life grew out of his experience of free labor, and that was his incessant exhortation to self-improvement. In a free society, “men who owe little or nothing to birth, relationship, friendly surroundings; to wealth inherited or to early approved means of education” and who “have bravely buffeted the frowning billows and have risen in safety and life” are proof of “the grandest possibilities of human nature, of whatever variety of race or color.” And in the process of self-making, there was only one rule and “one word and that word is Work! Work!! Work!!! Work!!!!” Douglass was confident that if Americans would “[t]hrow open to him the doors of the schools, the factories, the workshops, and of all mechanical industries,” the black American would rise or fall as well and as bravely as the white American, because “America is…preeminently the home and patron of self-made men.”
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The last theme Douglass lived by was the consistency of abolition with other reform movements. If “truth is of no color,” he reasoned, “right is of no sex.” As early as 1848 he attended the Seneca Falls Convention for women’s rights and signed its Declaration of Sentiments, and in 1866 joined with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to form the American Equal Rights Association. Yet Douglass, not wanting to place himself under anyone’s control, quarreled with nearly every reform-minded ally, as he had with the Garrisonians. When Stanton balked at supporting the 15th Amendment because it limited enfranchisement to males, Douglass rebuked her, arguing that the vote was a luxury for white women but a necessity for black men. He repudiated black identity politics, too, and argued that the ultimate future of race in America would be amalgamation. “Looking at the negro as politically and socially related to the American people generally,” he wrote in 1886, “I do not see how he can survive and flourish in this country as a distinct and separate race…. He…will be absorbed, assimilated, and will only appear finally, as the Phoenicians now appear on the shores of the Shannon, in the features of a blended race.”
In the end, Frederick Douglass wanted simply to be taken as a man, not a movement. That, unfortunately, had a lot to do with how quickly he dropped out of historical memory after his death.
Historian D.H. Dilbeck, author of A More Civil War: How the Union Waged a Just War (2016), would like to add a fourth theme to Douglass’s harmony, and that is religion. Although his early religious interests are usually missing from most accounts, in Frederick Douglass: America’s Prophet Dilbeck insists that “Douglass held fast to the Christian faith his entire adult life,” even if it is true that he “grew beyond…the evangelicalism of his youth.” Douglass struggled with the conflict between the Christianity he heard preached and what he saw practiced by slaveowners and their apologists, and he resolved it by adopting a “distinctly prophetic” version of Christianity. The prophet recalls a culture to its first love, warning people that by backsliding from that first love, they are incurring the enmity of God.
This “prophetic Christianity supplied” Douglass with “many of his deepest convictions—about who God was, what God was doing in the world, and the true meaning of grand words like liberty, justice, and equality.” The question is whether his prophetic stance was a Christian one, or merely a secularized, somewhat deistic one, and Dilbeck never quite makes that clear. Not that this necessarily makes a difference, since Abraham Lincoln’s personal religious profile was just as vague, and yet no one can ignore the religious instincts which permeate his writing and speaking. Even if their calls to repentance were political, both Douglass and Lincoln spoke of hope, charity, and judgment.
Timothy Sandefur, however, dismisses any significant role for religion in Douglass’s life. A vice president at the Goldwater Institute’s Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation, Sandefur is much more entranced by Douglass’s invocation of “the self-made man,” and his Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man sets up the conflict of slavery and freedom as a civilizational clash between Northern free labor and Southern feudal socialism. “Slavery,” he explains, posed as “a humane alternative to the industrial capitalism rising in Europe and in the northern states” by promoting “collective welfare under the oversight of intelligent and beneficent masters.” In resisting, escaping from, and denouncing slavery, Douglass takes his place on the side of the capitalist angels. Sandefur might better have avoided translating Douglass’s experience into 20th-century terms, describing Edward Covey’s farm anachronistically as a re-education camp or invoking comparisons between the plantation South and the Nazi or Soviet regimes. Still, he’s certainly right in understanding Douglass as a “classical liberal” who was “unsympathetic to the newfangled theories of socialism and communism”—someone more akin to Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, and Clarence Thomas than to “contemporary social justice activists of the left.”
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Both Dilbeck and Sandefur limit themselves to making a single argument about Douglass. Their short books are overshadowed by the Himalayan bulk of David Blight’s nearly thousand-page Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. A professor of American history and director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University, Blight has been living with Douglass for over 30 years, since he published “Frederick Douglass and the American Apocalypse” in the journal Civil War History in 1985 (which, in turn, became the core of his admirable Frederick Douglass’s Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee, in 1989). The new book will doubtless be understood as Blight’s magnum opus, and with good reason. He has visited the sites where Douglass lived, spoke, worked, and died; has mined not only Douglass’s published writing but private archival collections and the vast bulk of contemporary reportage about Douglass; and writes with a clarity and urgency which should be the envy of the historical profession.
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Blight’s interest is more in the personal than the public or intellectual Douglass, something particularly apparent in his account of Douglass’s early years in slavery, where the reader almost has the sense of the author peering over Douglass’s shoulder to narrate the horrors he is witnessing. Blight is stronger still on Douglass’s painfully complicated family life. Douglass never stopped deepening his gifts all through his life. But this meant that he left lagging behind the unhappy Anna Murray, a functional illiterate who had to endure the indignity of the relationships her husband established with talented white women—especially Julia Griffiths and Ottilie Assing—whom she loathed, and who loathed her in return. Blight is just as frank in his treatment of Douglass’s children, none of whom ever measured up to their famous father and most of whom married spouses who failed them and their father in embarrassing ways. As Charles Dickens described his sons, they had “a curse of limpness on them,” and Douglass must have had the same sinking sensation on looking round the dinner table as Dickens, to “see reflected from every seat…some horribly well remembered expression of inadaptability to anything.”
When Blight finally does turn to the public Frederick Douglass, a more ambivalent voice emerges. The Douglass Blight loves is the prophet, although not the religious figure Dilbeck descries. Blight will only acknowledge a Douglass who subscribed to “a kind of radical hope in the theory of natural rights,” with but a frosting of “a Christian millenialist view of history as humankind’s grand story.” Blight is much more unhappy with the “self-made” Douglass, and was not shy in saying so directly while commenting on Sandefur’s book in a New York Times op-ed last year. “Sandefur argues that Douglass’s essential legacy lies in his advocacy of liberty, individualism and private property and free enterprise.” But “[t]o believe that,” Blight objected, one has to ignore Douglass’s belief that “freedom was safe only within the state.” Although he appears to be self-made “[o]n the surface,” conservatives shouldn’t be permitted to “have cherry-picked his words to advance their narrow visions of libertarianism.”
This unusual eruption suggests something darker in Blight’s anger than mere scholarly disagreement with Sandefur. In 1989, Blight could pass by Douglass’s conviction that the Republican Party was “the only conceivable political home for blacks” with only a slightly raised eyebrow. Thirty years later, Blight’s disgust is palpable. Some of that disgust is cast as indignation on Douglass’s behalf, and aimed at “websites and organizations” created with “Republican and black conservative political agendas.” Republicans “and small groups of modern black conservatives and libertarians” who “love to appropriate Douglass” offend Blight by “lifting him out of context to use him in service to causes he would abhor.” They claim allegiance to Douglass “by elevating a single feature of his thought, black self-reliance, at the expense of his enduring radicalism,” whereas Blight would prefer to see Douglass as the precursor of Black Lives Matter. He even denounces Clarence Thomas as one of the chief “antigovernment conservatives” who “have loved to appropriate and rip out of historical context” Douglass’s words.
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But at other points the real offender is Douglass himself, whom Blight finds “disappointingly wrong” about “structural repression and inequality” in American life, a repression perpetuated by “the Republican Party in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.” Time and again, Blight disapprovingly discovers Douglass preaching “as stern a brand of conservative self-improvement as any black voice of his era,” and he “often turned attacks on white racism into angry rebukes of black lethargy.” Blight even accuses Douglass of clinging “to the Republican Party during Reconstruction” because of “personal ambition” for appointment to political office, and when Douglass took to the hustings in 1872 to urge blacks to vote “for the regular Republican ticket, without bolts, without splits, without erasures,” it was because he “sought office and influence.”
The world Blight seems to wish Douglass had understood and inhabited is the Garrisonian one, which forthrightly declared the founders’ republic to be a “covenant with death” and “an agreement with hell,” whose Constitution was the shield and buckler of slavery. Blight believes that the antebellum republic and its Constitution were decisively overthrown by the Civil War and Reconstruction—the “Second American Revolution,” in Charles Beard’s phrase—creating instead an entirely new regime based on egalitarianism rather than natural rights, as though everything before the 13th Amendment had been rendered null at a stroke. Since then, according to Blight, only the resistance and inhumanity of “modern conservatives” has stood in the path of this “second Constitution” and its ultimate realization. “The war and emancipation had crushed the first nation,” he declares, “and emancipation followed by the three constitutional amendments had given birth to the second.” Such a demolition would have amazed the actual architects of the Reconstruction amendments, whose vocabulary of “due process” and “privileges or immunities” was drawn from the Constitution itself, and who understood that the people who did indeed plan a second American Revolution and wrote a new Constitution were called the Confederate States of America.
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Blight gives us as comprehensive a narrative of the personal Douglass, and as unsparing (but sympathetic) a view of his struggles with racism, with family, and with finance, as we are likely to get. But the public Douglass and the intellectual Douglass suffer by contrast, and we are still a long way from understanding how he thought, much less understanding his actual influence. Blight, for instance, treats the “Self-Made Men” lecture in just four pages as merely a reflection of “the culture and political economy of the Gilded Age”—even though it was a staple of Douglass’s lecture repertoire for 40 years—and then dismisses it with a peculiar puzzlement about “why he could be so wrong.” Of the 2,500 speeches given in Douglass’s lifetime, only seven others receive any extended exposition. His Reconstruction essays in the Atlantic and the North American Review are breezed past with hardly a note.
Blight is more on point in his introduction when he describes the personal Douglass as a man of stark binaries and “apparent paradoxes,” who “at different times…hated and loved his country…was a ferocious critic of the United States and all of its hypocrisies,” but who “became a government bureaucrat, a diplomat, and a voice for territorial expansion,” a man who “strongly believed in self-reliance” and at the same time “demanded an activist-interventionist government at all levels to free slaves.” In that respect, isn’t Blight describing what “at different times” all of us are and have been, and what it is to live in the American grain? In one of the most prescient essays ever written about Douglass, Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates, Jr., concluded: “As any biographer of Douglass knows, there was not a Frederick Douglass; there were many Douglasses. And that, for him, was his ultimate claim on being fully and equally and complexly human.”