Frederick Douglass was one of the most remarkable figures of the 19th Century. This new biography by David W. Blight about the runaway slave, Frederick Douglass, who became one of the most effective, accomplished voices against slavery, hammers home that notion.
Blight, a noted Yale University history professor, knows the importance of a black man rising out of bondage to proclaim the cruelty and immorality of slavery by appealing to the conscience of America. Douglass, with the experience of oppression, gets the stellar precision of a master biographer determined to place the life of this political firebrand in proper historical context, into the complicated mix of slavery, the abolitionist movement, the Civil War and the Reconstruction.>
As the celebrated writer Joyce Carol Oates once wrote in her book, Soul at The White Heat: “Biography is a literary craft that, in the hands of gifted practitioners, rises to the level of art.” Blight’s masterful biography of Douglass accomplishes that high standard. There have been many books about the life and times of this man. Of that number, William McFeely’s 1991 biography stands out from the pack, although some critics noted the University of Georgia professor seemed to discredit him with inferences of taboo sexuality, personal defects, and controversial opinions.
Why is America so bewitched with this black orator with the wild mane of hair, tall in stature and booming voice? Why the canonization of this historical figure? Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey on a tobacco plantation in eastern Maryland, he witnessed the torment of slavery daily. He knew the dream of freedom was only reserved for white souls in these times. However, the rebellious slave, disguised as a sailor, fled slavery for the shelter of New Bedford, Massachusetts, on Sept. 3, 1838, to set about the quest of bringing others out of chains.
Reflecting back on the journey to freedom, Douglass realized the most significant event in August 1834 when his master loaned him out to Edward Covey, “the nigger breaker,” with a reputation of making slaves docile. The young Douglas, proud and strong, refused to let Covey strip and whip him. He realized the other blacks would be looking, for he was their shining example.
“I had reached the point, at which I was not afraid to die,” Douglass later noted. “This spirit made me a freeman in fact, while I remained a slave in form.”
Fearful that the slavers would capture him, Douglass settled among the free Black community, changing his name from Frederick Bailey to Frederick Douglass, named for a leading character in a Sir Walter Scott tale. He embraced the abolitionist movement, especially the writing of William Lloyd Garrison but repudiated the aims of the American Colonization Society, which promoted a goal of resettling blacks to Africa.
Crowds turned out to see this man of moral resistance. White women, such as activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were mesmerized by Douglass: “He stood there like an African prince, conscious of his dignity and power, grand in his physical proportions, majestic in his wrath, as with keen wit, satire and indignation he portrayed the bitterness of slavery.”
Blight is careful to detail the many challenges confronting the abolitionist movement and the depth of racist principles of slavery engrained in the young American democracy. Douglass traveled around the nation, getting the secondhand treatment from inferior humans in dirty train cars and screaming mobs surrounding the courageous spokesman. In one instance, he was knocked out by irate bigots chanting “kill the nigger,” pounded in the face and breaking his hand.
In 1845, Douglass published his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which put him at risk of the slavers who wanted to put him back in captivity. With his wife, he escaped to England for 21 months. When he returned, he founded his own newspaper, The North Star. In 1848, he warned Washington about expanding slavery in the West.
Douglass was not afraid to speak truth to power. Read the words from his speeches and become transfixed at the power and timelessness of his commentary.
On Blacks and America: “There is no Negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own Constitution.”
On the character of slaves and their detractors: “No people are more talked about and no people seem more importantly misunderstood. Those who see us every day seem not to know us.”
On slavery: “I expose slavery in this country, because to expose it is to kill it. Slavery is one of those monsters of darkness to whom the light of truth is death. Expose slavery and it dies.”
During his time, Douglass met with everyone he could, even if he didn’t agree with their policies. He also befriended allies, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and abolitionist John Brown, who plotted to invade the South, freeing slaves and raid plantations to mount a widespread rebellion. Douglass knew Brown’s plan would fail.
Blight notes authorities found documents linking Douglass to the crushed defeat of Brown’s raid, so the activist fled to England and only returned after the heat was off. He supported political causes, hoping the Republicans, including Abraham Lincoln, would stop the slavery plague. During the Lincoln presidency, Douglass and the president would meet three times at the White House, forming a bond of mutual respect. At the third meeting after the Second Inaugural, Lincoln spotted Douglass in a crowd of whites and greeted him warmly.
“Here comes my friend,’ the president said and asked Douglass whether he liked his speech. “There is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours.”
Although Douglass called Lincoln “a man of the people,” he acknowledged the self-made man was basically a politician determined to keep the union together at all costs. “He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men,” Douglass remarked in an 1876 speech. “He was ready and willing at any time during the last years of his administration to deny, postpone and sacrifice the rights of humanity of the colored people, to promote the welfare of the white people of his country.”
Douglass also counselled several other presidents from Andrew Johnson to Benjamin Harrison. He tirelessly crisscrossed the country, advocating economic equality, self-help, racial pride and political equality. The leader paused to write two more versions of his life, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881).
Other achievements of Douglass were noteworthy: assistant secretary on the U.S. Commission to Santo Domingo, president of the Freedom’s Savings Bank, U.S. Marshal of the District of Columbia, and U.S. Ambassador to Haiti.
In one of his last address, after talking with journalist Ida B. Wells, a weary Douglass spoke against lynching and mob rule: “Put away your racial prejudice. Banish the idea that one class must rule over and another, recognize the fact that the rights of the humblest citizen are as worthy of protection as are those of the highest, and . . .your Republic will stand and flourish forever.”
Following attending a women’s rally with Susan B. Anthony on Feb. 20, 1895, Douglass collapsed and died of a heart attack. The nation mourned as he was buried in Rochester, New York.
Upon learning of Douglass’s death, young leader W.E.B. DuBois remarked in 1895 that he was a true statesman, and “a man, who being in a position to lead, leads.”
In conclusion, Blight’s memorable account of an exceptional American who survived and thrived during a perilous time in our history, is peerless. It’s a beautifully executed document in terms of scholarship, research and narrative, worthy of the mythic man.
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