Charles Petzold

Reading “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom”

February 25, 2019
Rev. Feb. 26, 2019
Sayreville, New Jersey

The outlines of Frederick Douglass’s story are known to everyone who has even the slightest knowledge of American history: How Douglass was born into slavery but escaped to become the most prominent abolitionist of his time, both writing and speaking with great power and moral authority.

Frederick Douglass was also the most photographed American of the nineteenth century, sitting for some 160 portraits during the last 50 years of his life. His face was familiar to every American who read an illustrated newspaper or magazine during that time, and it remains as familiar to us: When an actor portraying Douglass appears in the movie Glory (for example), he is immediately recognizable.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (Simon & Schuster, 2018) is a long but eminently readable biography of Frederick Douglass by Yale historian David W. Blight. It tells the story of Douglass with a skillful and exquisite balance. The focus is primarily on Douglass’s professional life as a writer and orator, but Blight also weaves in quite a bit about his private and family life, including the travails of his first wife, Anna, and their daughter and three sons and their families.

It is impossible to discuss Douglass other than in the context of his times, so Blight also provides an extensive narrative of the history that Douglass tried so desperately to shape. This history encompasses the years before the Civil War (Douglass escaped from slavery in 1838 at the age of 20), as well as the 30 years after the Civil War until Douglass’s death in 1895. One of the many strengths of Blight’s book is his frequent quoting of Douglass from his writings and speeches. Only rarely does Blight quote long paragraphs, however. Mostly it’s sentences and phrases linked together with his own prose so that we get the sense within a page or so of what might originally have been a three-hour speech.

As I was reading Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom over the course of Black History Month, I found that I couldn’t resist posting about the book some 20 times to my my Facebook page and quoting at such length that I feared violating the concept of “fair use.”

Those of us reading a biography of Frederick Douglass now rather than a decade ago have many more online resources to supplement our reading. For example, In Chapter 3, Blight discusses how in 1830 the 12-year-old enslaved Fred Bailey (as he was known then) was able to earn an extra 50 cents doing odd jobs on the Baltimore shipyards, and bought a copy of The Columbian Orator. It was his “constant companion” (page 43) and one of the few items he managed to take with him into freedom 18 years later.

The Columbian Orator was extremely influential. It was first published in 1797 and thereafter in 23 editions and many printings, and an 1821 edition is available on Google Books. The book consists of over 80 speeches, essays, poems, and dialogue with an introduction to the principles of oration. This book was so popular that David Blight doesn’t consider it surprising that in the winter of 1831–1832, the 22-year-old Abraham Lincoln had also “studied with relish the classical and Enlightenment-era oratory in The Columbian Orator” (page 44).

When Douglass began speaking in public against slavery in his early 20’s, he had already mastered many of the principles of oration from this book.

One of Frederick Douglass’s most famous speeches is now known as “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” but it was originally published with the unassuming title Oration, Delivered in Corinthian Hall, Rochester, by Frederick Douglass, July 5th, 1852. It originated with an invitation by the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society to deliver a Fourth of July address. Because the Fourth of July was a traditional day for slave auctions in the South, Douglass preferred to deliver it on the fifth of the month.

David Blight provides an in-depth analysis of this speech on pages 229 to 236, but you can read it in its entirely on Google Books as it was originally published. Douglass’s skill as an orator is evident on every page, and the speech is still a scorcher:

Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?...
I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, lowering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrecoverable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!

And yet, the speech begins and ends with words of hope.

Rape was integral to slavery. The good Christian slaveholders maintained not only a workforce but a harem which had the extra benefit of making more slaves. (If Gone with the Wind were historically accurate, Scarlett and Prissy would be half-sisters.)

Although Douglass never expresses it quite this directly, he was the child of rape. In the second of Douglass’s three autobiographies (and the one generally considered to be the best), the 1955 My Bondage and My Freedom, here is what he says:

I say nothing of father, for he is shrouded in a mystery I have never been able to penetrate. Slavery does away with fathers, as it does away with families. Slavery has no use for either fathers or families, and its laws do not recognize their existence in the social arrangements of the plantation. When they do exist, they are not the outgrowths of slavery, but are antagonistic to that system. The order of civilization is reversed here. The name of the child is not expected to be that of its father, and his condition does not necessarily affect that of the child. He may be the slave of Mr. Tilgman; and his child, when born, may be the slave of Mr. Gross. He may be a freeman; and yet his child may be a chattel. He may be white, glorying in the purity of his Angle-Saxon blood; and his child may be ranked with the blackest slaves. Indeed, he may be, and often is, master and father to the same child. He can be father without being a husband, and may sell his child without incurring reproach, if the child be by a woman in whose veins courses one thirty-second part of African blood. My father was a white man, or nearly white. It was sometimes whispered that my master was my father.

White journalists and other commentators would often note the white features in Douglass’s face, and even attribute Douglass’s intelligence to his white ancestry, as if Douglass should be proud of it. Douglass would often defuse such comments with humor, and it is one of the many strengths of Blight’s biography that Douglass’s humor comes across clearly.

Twelve years ago this month, I blogged about James Oakes’ history The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics (W.W. Norton & Co, 2007), so I knew about the three encounters betwen Douglass and Lincoln. The first two were meetings in the White House regarding black men serving as soldiers in the Union army. (This was a provision of the Emancipation Proclamation; two of Frederick Douglass's sons were Union soldiers, and a third went to Mississippi to recruit newly emancipated black men.)

The third encounter between these two great men was when Frederick Douglass crashed the evening party following Lincoln's second inauguration. He had to maneuver past guards who didn't want to let him in, but he was greeting by Lincoln with the words “Here comes my friend Douglass” for all to hear. Six weeks later, Lincoln was dead. Here's how Blight describes it:

On the night of April 14, 1865, Good Friday, when the crack from John Wilkes Booth's pistol rang out in Ford's Theatre, mortally wounding Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head, Douglass had just returned to Rochester from speaking engagements in the East, where he had witnessed whole towns in great joy over the Confederate surrender and the end of the war. He, like millions, would never forget the moment he heard the news. Of the “many shocks” endured in four years of war by Americans, Douglass said in a speech some eight months later, the assassination of Lincoln was “heaviest of all.” Douglass called it a “grand convulsion,” as if the “solid earth opened and swallowed up one of our chief towns or cities.” The event instantly became an eternal marker in personal human memory. “A hush fell upon the land,” said Douglass, “as though each man in it heard a voice from heaven, an uninterrupted sound from the sky and had paused to learn its meaning.” The extremes of feeling were all but impossible to bear, and as the historian Martha Hodes writes, in North and South, among blacks and whites, “irreconcilable personal responses to Lincoln's assassination” would always be “intertwined with different understandings of the war that had just ended.” Such it would be for Douglass, who over time fashioned several different kinds of eulogies and symbols of the martyred Lincoln. Douglass never let his audiences forget that though Booth and his conspirators were individual assassins and fierce Confederate partisans, it was “slavery” itself, the “insolent, aggressive, and malignant oligarchy,” in a last spasm of madness, that had murdered the President. (page 460)

This is a “warts and all” biography. Blight cringes (along with the reader) but does not flinch in relating Douglass’s sometimes use of ethnic stereotypes in asserting that black men deserved the vote more than some white men. There is a frank discussion of the ugly schism that broke between black men and white women over who should get the vote first. We also hear about the numerous problems that Douglass had with his family, bad business deals, and unwise political decisions.

As some modern-day Republicans note (and gloat), Douglass remained a Republican between the Civil War and his death. As the years go by in this biography, this loyalty becomes more and more incomprehensible as the Republican Party gives up on Reconstruction and retreats from the guarantee of basic civil rights.

Regardless, Frederick Douglass emerges from these pages as one of the most courageous and inspiractional figures in history.

As the nineteenth century, Douglass’s life, and Blight's biography proceed to a close, the political outlook for black citizens becomes bleak and then downright gloomy. But what I found in Blight’s book to be particularly uplifting were Douglass’s encounters with younger men and women who were already engaged in the battle and who would carry it into the twentieth century, most notably W.E.B. Du Bois and Ida Wells, both of whom were directly inspired and influenced by Douglass.

Another person inspired by Douglass whose name I did not know is James Weldon Johnson. Here’s how Blight describes a speaking tour by the 72-year-old Douglass in 1889 in the American South, including Jacksonville, Florida.

The following day Douglass spoke again, this time a speech called “The Lessons of the Hour, ” in which he condemned all talk of a “Negro problem.” As he had so often before, he declared such a problem the nation's dilemma with racism and not his race. On that second day, Douglass met a seventy-nine-year-old former slave who approached him to say that they had been companions in bondage near St. Michaels [Maryland] on the Eastern Shore. But the most remarkable member of Douglass's audiences in Jacksonville was the future poet, novelist, songwriter, and civil rights leader James Weldon Johnson. The seventeen-year-old native of the town, in his later autobiography, Along This Way [1933], remembered seeing and hearing Douglass with great reverence. For a teenager who would later leave such an enduring mark on African American letters and leadership, this encounter with the great Douglass was transcendent.
Johnson had not only heard a great deal about Douglass while growing up; as a child at the Stanton Grammar School he had won a book as a prize, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Johnson said he read the autobiography with “feverish intensity,” and that he looked forward to the former slave's coming to Jacksonville with “more than the glamorous curiosity with which” he had “looked forward to the coming of General Grant.” He wanted to hear him speak and “catch his words.” But, like all the others, Johnson never forgot seeing Douglass. “No one could ever forget the first sight of Frederick Douglass,” Johnson lyrically wrote. “A tall, straight, magnificent man with a lion-like head covered with a glistening white mane, who instantly called forth in one form of another Napoléon's exclamation when he first saw Goethe, ‘Behold a man!’” Johnson's tribute left no doubt about a long-term inspiration that many in the Floridian's generation felt for their intellectual ancestor. “As I watched and listened to him,” Johnson said, “for a half century the unafraid champion of freedom and equality for his race, I was filled with a feeling of woshipful awe.” He did catch some of Douglass's memorable words. In particular he recalled the sage’s response to a question about his second marriage [to a white woman], a statement Johnson claimed that no one in his own time of the 1930s would “dare to make.” He recollected Douglass saying that in his first marriage he “paid … compliments” to his mother’s race, and in his second marriage to the race of his father. For the man who would write the complex and haunting novel Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, in which racial passing plays a powerful, ironic role, and who would work so long with the NAACP for a racially integrated vision of America, those words no doubt had staying power. (pages 687–689)

It is often the case that great books like David W. Blight’s Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom instill the need to read more books, and now high on my reading list is James Weldon Johnson’s “complex and haunting novel.”