The difficulty in writing about Frederick Douglass is that so much has already been written, not only by historians but also by the man himself. Any biographer, then, must act the part of stage manager, reenacting the great performance that was Douglass’s life using the script and scenery provided. The Yale Civil War historian David Blight has spent the last decade doing just this: weaving together Douglass’s biography and autobiography into one nearly nine-hundred-page volume.
By his own admission, Douglass lived many lives, and locating a plumb line through them all proved challenging even for Douglass. On the penultimate page of the 1881 edition of the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (his third and final major autobiographical work), Douglass announced that he had “lived several lives in one: first the life of slavery; secondly, the life of a fugitive from slavery; thirdly, the life of comparative freedom; fourthly, the life of conflict and battle; and fifthly, the life of victory, if not complete, at least assured.”
Douglass’s story was unique among slave narratives of the period, not because it followed one man’s path from ignorant bondage to literate freedom, but because his depiction of this journey insisted, more than any other before or since, on the connection between literacy and wisdom, between man’s physical freedom and his liberty to think for himself. In Douglass we watch not only the liberation of an American slave, but also the formation of an American consciousness. His life was a constant performance of self-invention and reinvention, making it daunting to discern and describe his authentic self. What stands in the way of the biographer, what constantly mediates our understanding of the “real Douglass,” is Douglass himself: mercurial, contradictory, and always facing his readers. As Blight astutely observes, Douglass “built his own monument.”
And like a monument whose strong façade conceals an inner hollowness, Douglass’s strident public persona masked a private life in constant turmoil. Douglass’s personal relationships—with his wives and children, with his co-collaborators in the abolitionist movement, and with rival African-American orators—were fraught throughout his life. Douglass was not a man to double-cross, and those who stood in his way were liable to meet either the power of his tongue or the force of his fist. (Indeed, Douglass once broke his hand in a brawl following one of his speeches.)
Illustrative of this general belligerency, as well as his tendency to turn friends into enemies, is a confrontation between Douglass and the abolitionist powerhouse William Lloyd Garrison in 1865 at the war’s closing. Garrison had all but single-handedly discovered the young Douglass two decades prior, yet the ex-slave refused to defer to any master, whether on a plantation or on an abolitionist stage. Garrison urged the American Anti-Slavery Society at its annual meeting to dissolve in triumph, declaring, “My vocation, as an Abolitionist, thank God, is ended.” Douglass shot back: “Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot.”
Were it not for Douglass’s dogged determination never to let the fight for freedom and equality die, the history of America after the Civil War might have looked very different. It was Douglass who led the charge of Radical Reconstruction, and Douglass too who influenced, arguably as much as Abraham Lincoln, the way we have come to view the purpose of the war. In words that echo down through the Civil Rights movement and beyond, Douglass proclaimed, “the work does not end with the abolition of slavery, but only begins.”
Douglass foresaw the difficult work of justice and equity, and his unflinching radicalism has been reflected in scores of Civil Rights activists. Much of the political Left today has its roots (whether its remains true to them or not is another matter) in Douglass’s philosophy.
Frederick Douglass was endowed with the energy and mindset of a fighter. He “had opposition in him,” to borrow Saul Bellow’s description of another great American self-maker, Augie March. But while his victories were many, Douglass’s bellicose spirit led him to take some morally challenging positions. In the midst of the war, for instance, Douglass claimed that, without the destruction of slavery, the world might view the Civil War as only “little better than a gigantic enterprise for shedding human blood.” As a self-appointed American prophet, a former slave leading his people to the promised land, Douglass had no time for equivocations. His message in the winter of 1864 was harsh and uncompromising: “No war but an Abolition war; no peace but an Abolition peace; liberty for all, chains for none; the black man a soldier in war, a laborer in peace; a voter at the South as well as at the North; America his permanent home, and all Americans his fellow-countrymen.”
Writing in 1901, the critic William Dean Howells compared Booker T. Washington’s conservatism and “mild might” to Douglass’s “essentially militant” mind. Following Douglass’s death in 1895, W. E. B. Du Bois evoked a similar sentiment in a poem titled “The Passing of Douglass”:
Then Douglass passed—his massive form
Still quivering at unrightful wrong;
His soul aflame, and on his lips
A tale and prophecy of waiting work.
Though Douglass left audiences “filled with a feeling of worshipful awe,” in the words of the civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson, such feelings can be difficult to access nearly a century and a half later. While Douglass’s words have a power and poetry that place him among the greatest of American orators, their biblical grandiosity can sound somewhat overblown. Blight’s biography attempts, where possible, to temper Douglass’s hyperbolic rhetoric and give context to his more outlandish positions. And Blight, perhaps wary of allowing Douglass to speak too much for himself in this biography, and thus lose his readers, translates Douglass’s prose into a language for our time.
This comprehensive biography establishes itself as a final word on Douglass, perhaps not forever, but for a good while yet.
This comprehensive biography establishes itself as a final word on Douglass, perhaps not forever, but for a good while yet. The burden of proof is high on a book of this length, and Blight delivers for at least two-thirds of it (several chapters drag with unnecessary ballast, but digressions are to be expected in cataloguing so full a life). One cannot look for a better guide through Douglass than Blight—himself a master orator and one of Yale’s last great lecturers—who is equally attuned to the beauty of Douglass’s language and the depth of his thought. Blight seeks to balance “the narrative of his life with analyses of his evolving mind, to give his ideas a central place in his unforgettable story.”
Blight settles on “Prophet of Freedom” for the title of his book, but as noted earlier, there are many Douglasses to choose from. Douglass was at once a slave boy learning to read from Baltimore street urchins; Frederick “Bailey,” the ringleader in a failed slave revolt; a grown man, wrestling with and conquering his violent overseer in the dust of a plantation barnyard; an escaped slave walking the free soil of New York City; a New Bedford laborer and preacher; a dutiful husband with a wandering eye; a newspaper editor; a spokesman for politicians; a government agent; a black man forced from many an all-white Pullman car; a grandfather to a new generation of African-American leaders; and finally, a man of history, whose words of caution and hope still linger in our ears. There is no need to choose from all these parts, however, for Douglass is happy to play them all.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 2, on page 69
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