Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom
". . .a major achievement in the biographer’s art."
Remember that startlingly clueless statement early in the Trump presidency, something about “Frederick Douglass . . . is getting recognized more and more, I notice . . .”? The president didn’t seem to be aware of the fact that Frederick Douglass, fearless abolitionist, author, publisher, international dignitary and celebrated orator, died in 1895. Douglass’ achievements, then and now, spoke to and have inspired generations of black Americans. In fact, as racism in the US shows its ugly head these past two years, David W. Blight’s comprehensive Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, might give the tweeter in chief a clue.
The historical scope of Prophet of Freedom adds to the vast literature on Douglass, starting with his own memoir Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave published in 1845, the first of three books (Freedom and Bondage, 1855), and late in his life he published Life and Times—all considered autobiographical/historical classics. Blight quotes often from those volumes, and Douglass’ words are prescient in terms of race relations, even to this day.
Blight is professor of history at Yale University and has won multiple awards for his previous writings about Douglass and the Civil War era. Notably, Prophet of Freedom includes previously unpublished materials from Douglass’ private life that Blight had access to.
Blight paints an engrossing portrait of a man, his missions, and his fearless courage in the face of the continued enslavement, oppression, and genocide against African Americans by the US government. Indeed, from his early ’20s Douglass was famous as a fearless escaped slave who became the leader of the antislavery movement, soon to be the voice of African Americans by establishing the first black owned newspaper The North Star.
Douglass was separated from his mother as a child and sent to relatives enslaved by the Wye Plantation run by Thomas Auld and his family in Maryland. Douglass and his family suffered every torture, indignity, and inhumanity imaginable. Taken away from his mother at age six, he never knew his father, searched for answers about his birth year and father, whom he came to believe may have been a white slaveholder who raped his mother.
Sophia Auld taught him letters of the alphabet, and he taught himself to read; in certain respects he considered himself luckier than other enslaved African Americans. But even from a young age, he hated his captors, recognized their crimes, and rebelled against their brutal authority. When he was ordered to move to an Auld property near Baltimore, he was forced to work in the city and the experience exposed him to a city full of former slaves who had bought their freedom, even though they continued to suffer from systematic racial injustices.
As a young man, Douglass was recaptured as he attempted to escape and suffered the consequences, but he eventually did escape, by boat via safe passage through Delaware and Philadelphia, a harrowing journey. His young wife Anna lived in oppression, but was not born a slave. She also later joined him in Lowell, Massachusetts.
There was still a bounty on his head for escaping, but Douglass immediately joined with the American Anti-Slavery Society, headed by William Garrison, a white man, and Douglass became one of the organization’s most popular and fiery speakers. His personal story of surviving slavery was more compelling than hearing Garrison talk about the evils of slavery. Douglass bore witness, showing the lashes on his back, as testament to the inhumane conditions suffered by African Americans on plantations.
He stuck to the Garrison philosophy of nonviolent resistance initially, but eventually rejected it for more forceful strategies to destroy the institution of slavery in America and to hold those responsible criminally accountable. Eventually he broke with establishment abolitionists.
Douglass and his family moved to Rochester, New York, where he forged his own activist movement and found donors to publish his newspaper The North Star, that became the era’s voice of black Americans. He strategized with other black abolitionists including the legendary freedom fighter Harriet Tubman. He also emerged as an international spokesman for the abolitionist movement overseas and embarked on his extended tours in Scotland and the UK where he garnered international support and was widely admired.
Douglass had no illusions about the racial oppression in the northern states and he was just as fiery about the hypocrisies of the so-called “free” states, pushing back against racism there.
When he had troubles with maintaining the paper, white benefactors like Julia Griffith were brought in. Griffith became an editor and fundraiser for his newspaper. She moved to the Douglass home to become his secretary, and their relationship was dragged through the mud. In typical fashion Douglass confronted the rumors, denying them unequivocally, stating that they were literary and activist colleagues and friends. But the relationship did have an impact on his marriage with Anne, with whom he was spending less and less time.
This impacted his marriage, children, home life, and health. In many ways he and Anna were living separate lives. Douglass’ colleagues among the literati and women’s suffrage movement, for instance, created distance and tension between the couple.
In the 1850s, slavery was set to be sanctioned for expansion in the American west, and Republicans, who were an abolitionist party, were not taking a hard enough line against it. Douglass led the all-out fight in words and deeds writing “Instead of walking right up to a giant wrong and demanding its utter overthrow . . . [they] are talking of limiting it, circumscribing it, surrounding it with free states.” Douglass charged: “the Republican vision is a hollow promise leaving millions doomed to bondage.”
With the impending passage of the Kansas-Nebraska act, which would let states decide for themselves to allow slavery or not, Douglass fought vigorously against any equivocation and aligned himself with John Brown. Brown and his sons were militant white abolitionists who advocated violent methods to end slavery. By now, Douglass was all but advocating “by any means necessary” tactics as well. And he also felt that Republican efforts to end slavery in the northern states and new territories, by letting the southern states persist, was unacceptable.
When Brown met with Douglass and he heard of the plan, Douglass refused to be involved and warned that Brown and those involved would without doubt be killed or arrested. In an armed insurrection, his sons and escaped slaves seized a federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, making it an outpost for runaway slaves.
Douglass, of course, was right and the resistance plan failed, resulting in the insurrectionists being killed; those who survived were arrested and hanged, including Brown. Douglass was implicated as a conspirator, and he fled to Canada.
Douglass pled his innocence in print by simply telling the truth, but knew that he was being pursued as a co-conspirator. He then left for England, knowing he might have to remain in exile. Meanwhile, while distancing himself from Brown’s methods to end slavery, he nevertheless praised him as a martyr to the cause and championed his courage, likening his heroism to that of the American revolutionaries.
Brown’s children publicly accused Douglass of deserting the cause after being part of it. For various reasons, officials and pro-slave politicians dropped the matter of linking Douglass to the conspiracy as the elections of 1860 loomed and the country was on the brink of civil war.
Douglass was still a draw in Scotland, but some of the momentum of the antislavery movement internationally had diminished since his last tour. In the midst of his lecture tour, Douglass received word that his 11-year-old daughter Annie had died. He immediately made plans to return the US, even though he still risked arrest over events at Harper’s Ferry. The trip took 11 days, and he missed his daughter’s funeral. His family was so grief-stricken that Douglass canceled all public appearances for months; he was wracked with guilt and in ill health. Douglass soon returned to his speaking tours as money struggles and activist work continued to keep him away from Anna and his family for months at a time. All along, as Blight reveals, Douglass had to deal with his own feelings of inadequacy as a husband and father.
As heroic as Douglass was in every phase of his life, Blight doesn’t obscure or avoid his faults though his courage, intellectual and spiritual gifts, philosophical survival tactics, and political rigor stand out.
Blight sums up Douglass’ reality check assessment in the lead up to the Civil War. Most Americans, including northerners about to vote Republican, were but “spectators in a theater,” watching the slavery crisis as “a grand operatic experience.” Americans, Douglass believed, instinctively and culturally, watched history and preferred not to act in it. This prescient analysis of the American electorate resonates to this very day.
Lincoln’s stated position at the beginning of the Civil War was that he was trying to save the union first, and his efforts to end slavery, and his willingness to essentially support the slave states by until the matters were settled within constitutional authority, faced direct pushback from Douglass. He was outraged that black men, under Lincoln, would not be able to put on the Union uniform and fight for their freedom. Douglass wanted decisive revolution to end slavery, destroy the institution, and charge the slaveholders and politicians accountable for perpetrating what now would be called crimes against humanity.
Blight has written an exhaustive and historically rigorous biography that adds to the essential literature about the abolitionist movements leading up to the Civil War. Douglass continued giving fiery speeches, laced with scripture, as a call to arms to end slavery by any means necessary. He faced threats of being lynched even in the north. Even though he publicly supported Lincoln he didn’t back off from being a harsh critic of the president’s refusal to overpower and end slavery, writing in 1862 of the Lincoln government’s “stand-still, do-nothing policy,” and accusing the administration of “treason or . . . utter incompetency.”
Lincoln “had always been a Henry Clay Whig” Blight writes, “his instinctive and ideological approach to slavery’s ultimate demise derived from three ideas: that emancipation ought to be gradual, compensated, and ultimately result in the colonization of as any blacks as possible outside the United States.” Douglass thought the idea that blacks should be freed and colonized elsewhere completely offensive. As far he was concerned, this was his country, and he was a patriot fighting for the freedom of his oppressed and brutalized brethren.
Douglass’ sons considered emigrating to Panama, but their father continued to publicly revile the plan as a blatant racist attempt to expel African Americans. When Lincoln finally signed an Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Douglass led the “Call to Arms” for black Union soldiers; his own sons joined the 54th “colored” regimen.
General Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War, had promised Douglass and other black recruiters that there would be equality in all things; that was a lie. For starters, black soldiers were paid less than white Union soldiers, and their families at home suffered for it. This grotesque inequality even Lincoln ignored. Douglass would write of black Union soldiers having to fight two wars: one against southern slavery, the other against northern racism.
More than once Lincoln equivocated over slavery, claiming concessions would be made to “save the union,” and Blight gives a blistering account of Lincoln’s repeated slow rollout to pander to southern states over a complete shutdown of the rights of slaveholders. Douglass grew more and more frustrated with Lincoln and was very public about it. Yet he still met with Lincoln and supported his presidency during the 1864 election. Douglass declined Lincoln’s request to be a government recruiter of black soldiers in the southern states, believing he would be assassinated.
When the war was over Douglass returned to Maryland and claimed his right in his former home state with a triumphant series of speeches, drawing large crowds, as the most famous black freedom fighter coming home to his now emancipated state. He was able to contact his relatives from whom he was long separated, including his sister whom he had not seen since he escaped. Their reunion is one of the most poignant and dramatic moments in a book full of them. He even tried to contact Sophia Auld, wife of his “master,” who had showed him the kindness to teach him to read, but she refused to see him. The Auld family now hated Douglass for how he portrayed them in his autobiography.
Initially feeling adrift after the war Douglass soon realized that reconstruction and freedman rights were, in many cases just hollow words. States’ rights and a racist President Johnson was standing in the way of true suffrage. After 25 years of fighting for black rights, Douglass realized his work was not done.
Douglass was further horrified when he faced off with Johnson, along with a delegation of black men (and one white), to discuss the issues. Douglass was polite but blunt and Johnson went on a 45-minute rant, defending his position as the “Moses” of slaves, telling the delegation that he had feeling for the “colored man . . . I have owned slaves and bought slaves, but I never sold one.” And that further giving freed people the right to vote would lead to “the war of the races.” Douglass knew what he was dealing with; his public response in a letter declared the president “entirely unsound . . . and prejudicial.” Johnson was livid over the encounter and himself didn’t hold back with his animosity toward Douglass, which included a barrage of racial slurs.
Douglass’ political clout earned him a growing list of enemies, and he knew that “the revolution for emancipation had only begun.” Douglass, revered elder activist and political dignitary, had mounting pressures to earn money to support his extended family. In the years after the war Douglass’ adult children continued to face financial hardships; things dramatically changed when the Douglass home in Rochester was burned to the ground, probably by an arsonist. There was never an investigation into the fire.
Douglass had already planned to move to Washington, DC, return to publishing, and consider his options as a now celebrated leader of black America. Two ventures proved to be major setbacks; Douglass’ appointment as president of the Freedman bank failed as it was being mismanaged and on the verge of collapse. He also had to discontinue his publication, now being run by his sons, due to financial difficulties.
The Douglass family was living in a large home in Washington, DC, but troubles continued to mount for him despite his being recognized as a political insider. As much as he was leading a separate public life from Anna, her death threw Douglass into a complete tailspin. More than anyone, she had stood by him and managed every aspect of his home life. Now a widower, Douglass pulled himself together with the help of his daughter Rosetta.
Two years later Douglass, then in his mid-sixties, married Helen Pitts, a white suffragist and antislavery activist. Douglass answered his critics again in public, exposing such hate-filled opinions as mindless bigotry.
Douglass was also criticized for being used as a pawn of Andrew Johnson’s administration in their efforts to colonize Santo Domingo, though Douglass’ motives were completely on the side of the US government helping the people in that country. As an elder statesman, though slowing down, Douglass continued to drive events politically and culturally. He bounced back from failures and never rested on his successes or laurels.
He was treated as a dignitary when he returned to speaking tours in Baltimore and, still haunted by the circumstances of his birth, he even paid a visit to the Auld family for answers. In the aftermath of Civil War Reconstruction, the so-called Gilded Age, Douglass was alternately optimistic and pessimistic about the fate of African Americans going forward. He wrote of the immediate oppressive states’ rights laws that would foment the emergence of KKK violence, voter suppression, and Jim Crow laws. He knew his “voice and pen” were more vital than ever. His mission and passionate fight for liberty for all never stopped.
Prophet of Freedom couldn’t come at a better time for a new generation of readers. Douglass' life speaks volumes, and his writing resonates now as the manifestations of racism and divisive politics reveals itself as the most destructive fuel of our political discourse. In his time Douglass drew the line in the sand at his own peril; his legacy of courage and truth inspires more than ever. Blight’s Prophet of Freedom documents every aspect of his extraordinary life, and it is altogether a major achievement in the biographer’s art.