Frederick Douglass: America’s Prophet
University of North Carolina Press, 2018, 208 pp., $28
Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man
Cato Institute, 2018, 140 pp., $14.95
Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom
Simon & Schuster, 2018, 912 pp., $37.50
We take our birthdays for granted, but for Frederick Douglass one of the many evils of slavery was that it denied to slaves that basic fact about themselves. On the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Talbot Country, Maryland, where Douglass was born, few slaves, he wrote, “knew anything of the months of the year or of the days of the month,” let alone their birthdays. “Masters allowed no questions to be put to them by slaves concerning their ages. Such questions were regarded by the masters as evidence of impudent curiosity.” Since, as Douglass put it, “genealogical trees did not flourish among slaves” he made up his own birthday—July 14—but found out just a year before his death in 1895 that he was actually born in February 1818.
Not knowing these basic facts was infuriating and humiliating to a man as accomplished as Douglass, who began his life as a slave, emancipated himself, dedicated his life to ending slavery and fighting racism, and became the most celebrated African-American of his time. In our own time, Douglass is enjoying something of a scholarly renaissance, timed with the recent celebration of his bicentennial. Yet the quest to define Douglass—his personality, his political convictions, and his legacy—remains as contested as ever.
Douglass himself was the first to enter the fray, writing three versions of his autobiography. First came his unforgettable Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, published in 1845, which covered his life as a slave and his dramatic escape. As the century progressed, he updated his story with My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) followed by Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, revised in 1892) which dealt with events during and after the Civil War. In addition, he left behind hundreds of articles and two newspapers, the North Star and Frederick Douglass’ Paper. And then there are the thousands of speeches Douglass delivered, which cemented his reputation as one of the most compelling orators of his time. As David Blight writes, “Douglass worshipped books, cherished contemplation and debate. . . . Words and ideas were the bread and butter of his life.”
Blight would know. The Yale historian, who worked on his 750-page biography for almost ten years, has written what he “hopes” is “the fullest account ever written of the last third of Douglass’s complex and epic life.” It is this and much more. Drawing heavily on his autobiographies and speeches, Blight’s Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom also relies on new material unearthed in a private collection in Georgia, which consisted of scrapbooks put together by Douglass’s son Frederick Jr. These helped Blight fill in gaps in Douglass’s story from Reconstruction to his death in 1895.
While Blight presents us with a comprehensive biography, two other recent books explore different aspects of Douglass as a thinker and intellectual. Timothy Sandefur’s Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man concentrates on Douglass’s embrace of classical liberalism and the Constitution. D.H. Dilbeck’s Frederick Douglass: America’s Prophet, meanwhile, focuses on Douglass’s religious faith and prophetic Christianity.
The effort to pigeonhole Douglass is nothing new. A giant in the 19th century, Douglass’s stature was receding in the 20th. It was black writers like Booker T. Washington, who wrote his biography in 1906, and Benjamin Quarles, who published one in 1948, who kept his story alive. This changed when the Left claimed Douglass as a hero, concentrating on his antebellum abolitionist activities. American Communists of the 1930s and 1940s argued that Douglass was their predecessor, while historian Eric Foner claimed that his uncle Philip S. Foner rescued him from “undeserved obscurity” when in the 1950s he edited four volumes of his speeches and writings. More recently, he has been claimed by Republicans, libertarians, and conservatives. When a statue of Douglass was unveiled at the U.S. Capitol in 2013, GOP attendees proudly wore buttons that read “Frederick Douglass was a Republican.”
All of these claims on Douglass have some grounding in reality. But if Frederick Douglass can be all things to all people, it is paradoxically because his life was so complex—and his full legacy so impossible to circumscribe.
Frederick Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey to his enslaved mother, Harriet Bailey. Douglass was separated from her at birth and saw her only four or five times in his life. He was raised by his grandmother Betsey Bailey until he was six or seven, when she took him to the Wye House Plantation, part of the vast holdings of Edward Lloyd. The head overseer at Wye House was Aaron Anthony—owner of Betsey and her daughter, and, by some accounts, Douglass’s likely father. When they arrived at the plantation, his grandmother encouraged young Frederick to go off and play with his brother and two sisters, who had made the same journey before him and whom he was meeting for the first time, not letting on that he would be forced to stay there. When he returned to look for his grandmother, he was traumatized and inconsolable—she had left him without saying goodbye.
Douglass lived there for 18 months, experiencing bitter hunger and cold and witnessing terrible abuse. But he did, Blight tells us, make “two friends” at Wye House who helped to shape his future. The first was Daniel Lloyd, the 12-year-old son of Edward Lloyd, who treated him as both a friend and a servant. The second was Lucretia Auld, the daughter of Aaron Anthony and wife of Thomas Auld. Lucretia was the first white person who was kind to him, binding his wounds when he got into a fight and giving the hungry boy bread and butter when he would sing at the backdoor. In 1826, she delivered the good news that he was going to be sent to Baltimore to live with Hugh Auld, Thomas’s brother, and his wife Sophia, as companion to their son Tommy. “Going to live in Baltimore,” he wrote in Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, “laid the foundation, and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity.”
According to Douglass, Sophia Auld, at first “treated him more like a mother than a slaveholding mistress.” She began to teach him the alphabet and was proud of his progress. When she told her husband about the “aptness of her pupil,” Douglass wrote, “he was astounded beyond measure.” Hugh forbade her from giving him any more lessons, saying it was unlawful and unsafe to teach a slave to read. “There would be no keeping him,” Hugh reasoned. “Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world.” Douglass overheard their conversation and, from that moment, “understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.” It was “the first decidedly anti-slavery lecture” he had ever heard. Sophia Auld, he wrote, “became even more violent in her opposition to my learning to read than was Mr. Auld himself.”
Douglass had lost another nurturing maternal presence, and he felt the rejection keenly. Later in his life, he came to believe that it was the institution of slavery itself that could “divest a kind and loving woman of those qualities. . . . Nature made us friends, but slavery made us enemies. . . . We were both victims to the same overshadowing evil, she as mistress, I as slave. I will not censure her harshly.”
Now without a teacher, he made friends with the little white boys on his street and, carrying a Webster’s spelling book in his pocket, enlisted their help to learn to read. He had mastered the task by the time he was 13, thanks in large part to his discovery of the Columbian Orator: an anthology from 1797 composed of speeches, dialogues, and essays to help students master reading and grammar. What most captured his interest was a dialogue between a master and his runaway slave about the merits of slavery, which ended with the master emancipating his slave. The lesson, for Douglass, “was the power of truth over the conscience of even a slave holder.” Later he wrote, “The reading of these documents enabled me to utter my words, and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery.”
Literacy was not the only thing Douglass acquired in Baltimore, as Dilbeck demonstrates in his exploration of his religious education. There Douglass met free black boys whose families worshiped at the Bethel AME Church, where he met Charles Lawson, a devout black man whom he called his “spiritual father” and with whom he attended prayer meetings on Sundays. Lawson told him that God had destined him for more than the life of a slave, and that he would accomplish great work preaching the true gospel to a people who needed to hear it. To do this he would have to study the Bible. Lawson’s prophecy, though it perplexed Douglass at first, ultimately motivated him to do just that.
At 14, Douglass had “a classic evangelical born-again experience” and converted formally to Christianity. According to Dilbeck, Douglass’s conversion was one of the most important events in his life. He was drawn to “a distinctly evangelical kind of Christianity”—with its heavy emphasis on salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection, and on the centrality of the Bible as authority. However, Douglass did not start out with a favorable impression of the established church. As a slave he saw Southern churches use faith to justify slavery, and he believed that the worst kind of slave owner was a religious one who used Christianity to justify the cruelty he was inflicting.
After seven years, his life in Baltimore came to an abrupt stop, a result of a disagreement between the Auld brothers. Hugh sent him back to Thomas and the St. Michael’s plantation, but things did not go well. Thomas thought that Baltimore had had a “pernicious” effect on him and hired him out to a “slave breaker” named Edward Covey to whip him into shape. After weekly beatings Douglass finally snapped and fought Covey to a draw; Covey never touched him again. It was a turning point for Douglass and left him “with a determination to be free.”
When Aaron Anthony died and his slaves were going to be dispersed, Thomas decided to send the rebellious Douglass back to his brother Hugh in Baltimore, where he could learn a useful trade. Douglass became an expert caulker but was attacked by white caulkers, which ended when Hugh moved him to the shipyard where he was the foreman. Hugh then agreed to let him hire himself out and turn the money over to him, but Douglass was able to earn more than the minimum Hugh expected and saved the difference to plan an escape. In 1838, together with his savings and money given to him by Anna Murray, a free black woman he had met in Baltimore, the 20-year-old Douglass boarded the Negro car of a train with false papers and made his way to New York City. Anna soon followed him there, where they were married. Douglass was then advised by an officer on the Underground Railroad that he go should go North where he would be able to find work as a caulker. Soon the couple were on their way to New Bedford, Massachusetts, a booming whaling center.
“I was now my own master,” wrote Douglass, “the rapture of which can be understood only by those who have been slaves.” But in New Bedford, he was again met with resistance from white caulkers, and so turned to work as a laborer. There was a danger that if he kept his name he could fall into the hands of a slave-catcher, so he decided to change his name to Frederick Douglass.
A few months later, Douglass began reading William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper The Liberator which set his “soul on fire” and inspired him to attend all of the anti-slavery meetings held in New Bedford. He also found his way to the small black congregation of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AMEZ), where he served as “sexton, class leader, clerk, and local preacher.” There he discovered and developed his talent for preaching, becoming formally licensed to preach in 1839.
In 1841 Douglass attended an anti-slavery convention in Nantucket and was urged to say a few words by William C. Coffin, a prominent abolitionist who had heard him speak about his experiences as a slave and as a fugitive in New Bedford. Standing at 6’4″, the handsome ex-slave was impressive as he told his story in a deep baritone and perfect diction. The abolitionists had never seen anything like him. An editor of a New England newspaper wrote that he could not help thinking of Spartacus. Women were enamored, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who wrote: “He stood 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.” Douglass was soon offered a job as an agent and lecturer for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society.
This launched Douglass’s career as an anti-slavery activist and orator. He adopted the anti-slavery program of William Lloyd Garrison and the Garrisonian wing of the Abolitionist movement, whose platform for ending slavery relied on moral suasion to convince his countrymen to end slavery, called for secession from the South, rejected political involvement including the vote, and considered the Constitution to be a pro-slavery document. For 15 years Douglass made his living on the grueling anti-slavery circuit, recounting his dramatic story while Anna stayed home raising their five children: Rosetta, Lewis Henry, Frederick Douglass Jr., Charles Remond, and Annie. It was difficult work, requiring constant train travel, where he was made to sit in the Negro car or thrown off altogether. At times he met with angry mobs.
Everywhere he went, too, questions were raised about his authenticity. Was he too good to be true? Douglass did not speak in the way that audiences thought a Southern slave would sound, nor did he specify the names, dates, or places he so vividly described. To address his doubters, Douglass decided to write an account of his life. When Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was published in 1845, it was a resounding success, selling 5,000 copies in the first four months. Though it helped him financially, it also made him vulnerable; the written account would make it easier for Hugh Auld to recover his property.
The Garrisonians suggested that he go to Britain until things cooled down. The 20 months he spent traveling around Britain, Ireland, and Scotland were eye-opening. For the first time, Douglass felt he was being treated not as a black man but as a human being. He also saw that political abolitionism worked; in 1833 slavery had been outlawed throughout the British Empire through their parliamentary process. Douglass was feted by leading anti-slavery advocates in Britain; in 1846, a group of them raised the money to purchase his freedom. Douglass was now free to go home.
Even before he had left for Britain, Douglass had been chafing at the restrictions put on him by Garrisonians who wanted him to confine his talks to his dramatic experiences as a slave and fugitive. He was bored and believed he had more to say. When he raised his desire to publish his own newspaper, they tried to talk him out of it, which Douglass resented. In 1847, when he returned from Britain, he was determined to move ahead with the paper. He moved his family to Rochester, New York, and proceeded to publish the North Star from his basement. Its banner read “Right is of no sex—Truth is of no color—God is the father of us all, and we are all brethren.”
As this motto suggests, Douglass believed in universal rights and felt a kinship with women in their struggles for equality. In 1848, Douglass attended the first women’s rights convention in Senecca Falls, New York, where he supported their list of demands, including the right to the franchise. He was the only black person there; throughout his life he was happy to be called “a woman’s rights man.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton called him “the only man I ever knew who understood the degradation of disfranchisement for women.” Douglass was grateful to Northern abolitionist women for their devotion and support of his cause and in his last autobiography wrote: “when the true history of the anti-slavery cause shall be written, woman will occupy a large space in its pages; for the cause of the slave has been peculiarly woman’s cause.”
Blight explores the complicated personal relationships that Douglass had with the women in his life. Although Douglass did not write about Anna in his autobiographies, Blight maintains that “she was his anchor, providing him with a home and family he never had; she was there for him when he returned from his travels and gave him the stability he needed.” However, Anna was illiterate and a private person, which limited her ability to share in his abolitionist and intellectual work. At different times two white educated women, Julia Griffith and Ottile Assing, lived with the family, with whom he could share such pursuits. Blight struggles to explain these relationships, writing, “Precisely how he justified to his entire family the blatant insensitivity of having [them] in his household is not altogether knowable. . . . What Douglass sustained, sometimes under one roof, was the comforting presence—for him—of both Anna (the mother and grandmother who would never abandon him) and the equally comforting and stimulating presence of adoring intellectual women. . . . it was as though Douglass had a conjugal and companionate mate, and they were not the same person.”
Among his British supporters was Julia Griffith and her sister Eliza, who escorted him around London and the English countryside. When Douglass started the North Star, having had no prior publishing experience, he had trouble managing his new enterprise and making it profitable. Julia offered to come to Rochester to help. She had the skills that the novice Douglass lacked; her father Thomas had worked as a publisher and was familiar with printing and paper sales. She moved in with the Douglasses and set to work raising money, became the paper’s business manager, and wrote a column. Her fundraising prowess was crucial in keeping the paper afloat. According to Blight, she also helped him with his physical and emotional problems. Douglass’s constant sermons and speeches gave him problems with his throat and Julia reported that he suffered from “inflammatory rheumatism” which sometimes put him in bed for several days at a time. He was so distraught over the paper and his ability to support his family that Blight believes he had a mental breakdown, which he would experience again in the 1880s.
Part of this stress no doubt came from the disapprobation of the Garrisonians, who viewed his new paper as competition for the Liberator. Some of them blamed Julia and floated rumors that the two were having an illicit relationship (which Blight thinks unlikely). They were even more dismayed that Douglass appeared to be moving out of their ideological camp.
In western New York, political abolitionists like Gerrit Smith were pursuing a different tack than those in New England. In 1843, Smith formed the first anti-slavery political party, the Liberty Party. He and other likeminded abolitionists argued that support for slavery or even a mention of it was not to be found in the country’s founding documents, while the concepts of liberty and equality were enshrined in it; therefore it could not be argued that the Constitution as written was pro-slavery.
Douglass struggled to find the right path forward. Sandefur points out that he began devoting “columns in his paper to debates with the pro-Constitution abolitionists.” He listened to Gerrit Smith’s arguments about the superiority of political abolitionism and studied the classical liberalism of the Founders. Douglass, ever the pragmatist, was finally persuaded that if you wanted to end slavery you had to be involved in the political process. In 1851, at age 33, Douglass officially announced his conversion and merged the North Star with Smith’s Liberty Party paper in a new venture called Frederick Douglass’ Paper, which lasted until 1860.
His former mentor, William Lloyd Garrison, attacked him for his disloyalty. He and Anna lost many friends over the split, but it forced him to define what personal freedom meant to him. Douglass answered his critics in his paper, “I CONTEND THAT I HAVE A RIGHT TO CO-OPERATE WITH ANYBODY, WITH EVERYBODY, FOR THE OVERTHROW OF SLAVERY IN THIS COUNTRY, whether auxiliary or not auxiliary to the American Society.” Blight writes that Douglass’s ability “to withstand this public barrage from old friends is as remarkable as it is bewildering.” But this is not self-evident: Was it so bewildering that after escaping from slavery Douglass would fight for his freedom however he thought it could best be achieved?
The following year, Anna concluded that Julia’s close working relationship with her husband and the long hours they spent together had finally become too much. In light of the swirling rumors of an affair, she ordered Julia to move out in 1852. Julia then moved in with other abolitionists, worked with Douglass on the North Star and returned to England in 1855, where she continued to support the anti-slavery cause.
A year later, German journalist Ottilie Assing came to interview Douglass and to ask for permission to translate My Bondage and My Freedom. Their meeting began a friendship that lasted for nearly three decades. She edited and wrote for Douglass’s newspapers, translated his works into German, and attended meetings and conventions with him. Between the late 1850s and 1872, Assing stayed with the Douglasses during the summer months where, Blight tells us, she was “Frederick’s intellectual and emotional companion.” Ottilie was in love with him and viewed Anna as an inferior and an impediment to their future life together. Blight believes that the possibility of an affair cannot be ruled out, though there is no hard evidence.
On July 5, 1852, Douglass delivered one of his most influential speeches to the women of the Rochester Anti-Slavery Sewing Society. “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” was a passionate, blistering attack on the hypocrisy of the country, incorporating both Douglass’s prophetic Christianity and his more recently acquired political abolitionism. Douglass started his speech on a positive note, praising the brave colonists for rising up against British rule and fighting for their independence. You have every right, he told his audience, to celebrate the founding of your country. But, asked Douglass, “Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence extended to us?” No, he said. “The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense, and your Christianity as a lie. . . . Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call into question and denounce . . . everything that serves to perpetuate slavery—the great sin and shame of America.”
As he had done many times before, Douglass used the oratorical style of the Jeremiad to condemn slavery by using the stories of the Hebrew Prophets who had chastised the Hebrews for their wicked ways and admonished them to follow God’s commandments. Douglass went on to attack the country’s churches, which he called “the bulwark of American slavery,” and the clergymen who taught “that the relation of man and slave is ordained of God,” when in fact it was “an abomination in the sight of God.” He made the case that the Constitution did not support slavery, but liberty. The Constitution, said Douglass, did not offer “warrant, license, [or] sanction of the hateful thing; but interpreted, as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious freedom document.” If the framers intended it to be a slaveholding document, he asked rhetorically, why could no mention of slavery be found in it? Douglass always tried to end his speeches on a hopeful note. Now he reassured his audience that “There are forces in operation which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery.”
Freed from the Garrisonians’ pacifism, Douglass was also rethinking the necessity of using force to end slavery. Douglass was never a pacifist. His experience with the slave breaker Covey had showed him that the only way to stop being brutalized was to fight back. He liked to quote a line from Lord Byron, “Who would be free, themselves must strike the first blow.” He thought that force, if it was effective, might be needed to put an end to slavery. This was reinforced by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required all escaped slaves upon capture to be returned to their masters; the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which granted settlers the right to decide by popular vote whether slavery could be extended into western territories; and the Supreme Court’s infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision.
Douglass had heard about John Brown, a religious white man who was fighting with his sons against slavery in “Bleeding Kansas,” and arranged to meet him. Afterwards, Douglass wrote that Brown struck him as someone who was “deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery.” They began a relationship, with Brown occasionally staying at his house and eventually laying out a plan to attack the South from the Northern mountains in Kansas. The plan was never executed, but when he came up with his next plan to attack a Federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, Douglass refused to join him and tried to talk him out of it. Brown proceeded with his attack in 1859, and it was the disaster Douglass had predicted. Douglass was almost indicted as a co-conspirator but once again eluded arrest by going to Canada and then to England.
By the time Douglass returned home, the country had turned its attention to the upcoming presidential election in November 1860. Douglass was not a fan of Abraham Lincoln. Although Lincoln ran on the Republican Party platform of banning slavery in all U.S. territories and took the position that slavery was a moral crime, Douglass predicted he would not act on it. In April 1861, when Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter, the war that would end slavery had begun, but Douglass was (justifiably) uncertain if Lincoln’s main motivation was to preserve the Union or to end slavery.
The war would make it a moot question. On January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, changing the legal status of slaves in Confederate-controlled Southern states from slave to free. Douglass considered it a heroic act, if not a sufficient one. When Douglass saw an opening for freed slaves to join the Union Army, he met with Lincoln in the White House to discuss it. Douglass reported that Lincoln was friendly, relaxed, and receptive to his arguments that black troops should be paid the same as white soldiers and that the government should promise to retaliate for any mistreatment of black soldiers. Douglass then spent his time enlisting black recruits, among them his sons Lewis and Charles.
When the war ended, the question remained about what role the freedmen would play in American society. For Douglass, legal guarantees for the freedmen’s rights as citizens were a priority. According to Blight, Douglass saw himself as a “founder and a defender of the Second American Republic” whose key pillars included the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments outlawing slavery, providing citizenship and equal protection under the law for all persons, and protecting citizens from being discriminated against in voting rights on the basis of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
The 1870s proved to be a difficult decade for Douglass, though not without opportunities. In 1870, he purchased the New National Era, a DC-based paper that he worked on with his sons and Ottilie Assing, and which he envisioned as a vehicle for black perspectives on Reconstruction policies. Douglass was a stalwart supporter of the Republican Party, which acknowledged and rewarded him for his anti-slavery work and his help during the war. In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him to a commission to study the possible annexation of Santo Domingo. Douglass wrote supportive articles, arguing that post-Civil War America would deliver democracy and other benefits of the Second American Republic to the people. When critics accused him of imperialism, he answered that the United States had also annexed states like Texas and California to their inhabitants’ benefit. The proposed annexation never came about, due to lack of support in Congress.
In 1889 Douglass made another foray into foreign affairs when President Benjamin Harrison appointed him Consul-General to the Republic of Haiti. Douglass thought this a great honor; Haiti had symbolic importance because of the 1791 slave uprising led by Toussaint L’Ouverture. He resigned the post two years later when it became clear that the U.S. government was interested in possessing the Haitian port at Mole St. Nicolas. Douglass announced that he could not accept imperialism “as a foundation upon which I could base my diplomacy.”
Disaster struck the Douglasses in 1872 when their Rochester house burnt down, resulting in the family’s permanent relocation to Washington. Two years later, Douglass accepted the presidency of the Freedman’s Bank, created by the Freedman’s Bureau and chartered by Congress in 1865 to help African American veterans and former slaves. With 37 branches in 17 states and the District of Columbia, the bank appeared to be successful, but that was not what Douglass found. The Depression of 1873 had taken its toll, and the bank was in serious trouble with substantial liabilities and few reserves. Douglass informed Congress of its insolvency before depositors lost all of their money. The bank failed in June 1874. Another casualty of the downturn was the New National Era, which had been losing subscriptions and was forced to shut down.
Douglass’s chief source of income at the time was his speeches, forcing him to keep up an exhausting schedule. This pressure eased in 1877 when President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him U.S. Marshall of the District of Columbia, making him the first African American confirmed for a presidential appointment by the U.S. Senate. It came with a lucrative salary, providing him financial security and enabling him to purchase Cedar Hill, a 15-acre estate in Anacostia. Later, in 1881, President Garfield appointed him the Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia.
Anna, whose health was declining, passed away on August 4, 1882, at 69. Blight writes that in the period before and after her death Douglass “seems to have fallen apart.” Rosetta said that her father was inconsolable and “seemed to feel that she was a protection to him in so many ways.” Answering a condolence letter, he wrote, “Mother was the post in the center of my house and held us together. . . . life cannot hold much for me now that she has gone.” A year later, he “fell ill,” in what Blight thinks was more likely an emotional breakdown.
Two years after Anna’s death, Douglass married Helen Pits, a 48-year-old educated white woman who worked as a copyist in the Recorder’s Office. Helen had met Douglass when she was 14 and he had stopped by to visit her family on a lecture tour. She had been involved in the abolitionist, women’s rights, and temperance movements, and in 1863 she became a teacher for the American Missionary Association, one of the Northern benevolent societies that recruited and financed the “Yankee schoolmarms” who went South after the Civil War to teach the freedmen. Douglass’s sudden elopement with Helen was a shock to his children, who had no idea about their relationship. Helen’s father was so outraged that he refused to talk to her; Douglass, meanwhile, was criticized by the black community because he had not chosen a black woman as his wife. True to his insistence on personal freedom, Douglass answered that God had granted the human race natural rights and among them was “the right to marry whom one pleased.”
The period of Reconstruction had initially been one of optimism for African Americans, but when it ended in 1877, as Hayes removed the last Federal troops from the South, Democrats gained control of the Southern states, reversing the rights and protections that had been promised to African Americans. Douglass, who believed that the right to vote was paramount, denounced laws meant to disenfranchise them through poll taxes and literacy tests. His speeches and writings increasingly focused on the growing violence against blacks in the South, especially lynching.
Douglass began to work with Ida B. Wells on an anti-lynching campaign. Wells, an African-American journalist and newspaper editor, had been investigating and documenting conditions in the South. Douglass wrote to her that “There has been no word equal to it in convincing power. . . . I have spoken, but my word is feeble in comparison.” She told him that his article “Southern Barbarism” inspired her work. To help advance it, Douglass gave her introductions to people who could be of help and financial support. Douglass influenced other young black leaders, among them W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, although he might not have agreed with DuBois’s radicalism and Washington’s willingness to accommodate.
On February 20, 1895, after attending a meeting of the National Council of Women in Washington, DC, Douglass died of a heart attack. He was 77. The next day, despite opposition from the Southern states, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution to adjourn out of respect for him. On February 25, after a small family service at Cedar Hill, Douglass’s body lay in state at the Metropolitan AME Church. Thousands of people, both black and white, passed by. Blight writes, however, that his memorial was “primarily a black-Washington solemn tribute to its most famous resident.” After a four-hour service, his casket was taken by train to New York City, where it lay in state for two hours, then on to Rochester, New York, where he was buried on February 27.
As much as Blight, Sandefur, and Dilbeck agree on Douglass’s important place in American history, they disagree on his primary influence and how the answer to that question affects his legacy. As Blight asks, “what shall we make of ‘our Douglass’ in our own time?”
Sandefur, a lawyer at the free-market Goldwater Institute, argues that the most important influence on Douglass was his embrace of the Founders’ classical liberalism, which is embodied by today’s libertarianism. While Sandefur writes that he does not consider Douglass a conservative, the Right has not hesitated to use his book to claim him as one of their own.
According to Sandefur, Douglass became a “leading champion of the principles of the American founding because he believed that “[i]ts basic principles are that all people are fundamentally free and equal—none the natural ruler over another—and consequently, that each person has the right to pursue happiness without interference from others or from the state.” Douglass also viewed “individual rights in terms of private property, in that a person’s right to freedom is a manifestation of his rightful, inalienable ownership of his mind and body.” Because of this, Sandefur contends that Douglass cannot be considered “a conservative but a radical—a radical for individualism” and this is “also what distinguished him from progressivism or any variety of collectivism.”
As evidence, Sandefur points to one of Douglass’s most popular speeches, “Self Made Men,” which he delivered more than 50 times to African American religious and educational institutions and to Native Americans. Sandefur named his book after the speech but changed his subtitle from the plural to the singular, implying that Douglass himself was a “self-made man.” However, Douglass admitted that in life no man is truly self-made. His goal in making the speech was to inspire his audience by providing hope as well as a blueprint for success. For Douglass, the worst thing that could happen to African Americans after slavery was for them to become a dependent class and be treated as a separate nation as had the Native Americans. To avoid this, he told them that it was essential for them to stand on their own two feet, fight for their rights, and insist on being treated as equals in American society.
To make the case that Douglass was a “radical for individualism,” Sandefur points to his answer about what should be done to help the slaves once they were emancipated. He said that America should “give the Negro fair play and let him alone. . . . Throw open to him the doors of the schools, the factories, the workshops, and all mechanical industries. For his own welfare, give him a chance to do whatever he can do well. If he fails then, let him fail.” He went on to say he did not think they would fail but would ultimately succeed in a country that respected work and was, unlike Europe, “predominantly the home and patron of self-made men.”
Blight is having none of it. A week after Sanderfur’s book was published, he wrote an op-ed in the New York Times claiming that Sandefur was mischaracterizing Douglass as “‘a radical for individualism’ who was never concerned with ‘the interests of the collective.’” The latter was not true, Blight argues, because, while “Douglass strongly believed in self-reliance [he] demanded an interventionist government to free slaves, defeat the Confederacy and protect black citizens from terror and discrimination.” The freedmen would be safe “only within the state and under law.”
Blight, however, acknowledges that it is tempting to cherry-pick Douglass’s thoughts and actions because he delivered contradictory messages calling for self-reliance or for government help at different times. Blight also contends that while Douglass used his own story to inspire others by presenting himself as “self-made” he was not, because “without many people, especially women (his grandmother, two wives, a daughter and countless abolitionist women who supported his career) as well as male mentors, both white and black, he would not have survived and become Douglass.” He is wrong here, because Douglass had a different set of criteria for what it meant to be self-made, which didn’t preclude receiving help along the way. In his speech on the subject, Douglass defined self-made men as those “who under peculiar difficulties and without the ordinary helps of favoring circumstances, have attained knowledge, usefulness, power and position.” From his observation and experience, he said, “the chief agent in their success is not luck, nor is it great mental endowments, but it is well directed, honest toil.” It would be hard to find anyone who worked harder than Frederick Douglass: a true self-made man by his own definition.
Dilbeck tells us his goal in writing his religious biography of Douglass was “to explain the substance of (his) faith and to show how it shaped his career.” In this he is successful. After Douglass’s conversion at 14, Dilbeck writes that it was the Bible that provided him with the means to address the institution of slavery. For Douglass, “the abolitionist movement epitomized the true Gospel of Christ in action,” and the Bible played a major role in how he came to view the Constitution, because he believed that the Bible, like the Constitution, “was a radical message of liberty and human dignity.”
Douglass never gave up hope or his belief in God. In 1890, when things looked bleak, he delivered a speech called “The Race Problem” to an African American audience at the Metropolitan AME Church in Washington, DC, telling them:
I have seen dark hours in my life, and I have seen the darkness gradually disappearing and the light gradually increasing. One by one, I have seen obstacles removed, errors corrected, prejudices softened, proscriptions relinquished, and my people advancing in all the elements that go to make up the sum of general welfare. And I remember that God reigns in eternity, and that whatever delays, whatever disappointments and discouragements may come, truth, justice, liberty, and humanity will ultimately prevail.
Reading Sandefur and Dilbeck’s books side by side, one can only conclude that both classical liberalism and prophetic Christianity were essential in making Douglass the man he became. Blight’s biography seeks to put both strains into perspective and to reconcile them. He writes that Douglass’s
personal faith no doubt changed over time; the early influence of Father Lawson in the streets of Baltimore, Douglass’s early years preaching from biblical texts in the AME Zion Church, gave way to a widely read, politicized mind and advocate of the natural-rights tradition. But as he employed the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the new creeds of the nation’s second founding against his own country, he never gave up on the Exodus story nor the majesty of Isaiah’s wisdom nor Jeremiah’s warnings.
If Blight cites Douglass’s prophetic Christianity more frequently than his classical liberalism, this is likely due to Douglass’s early conversion and Blight’s heavy reliance on his speeches—tinged as they so often were with the rhetorical tradition of the Hebrew Prophets.
All three books were published in 2018, the year of Douglass’s bicentennial. Democrats, Republicans, and the President came together that year to pass the Frederick Douglass Bicentennial Commission Act, charged to “plan, develop, and carry out programs and activities” to honor him. Blight, Sandefur and Dilbeck have all made important contributions. Blight writes that Douglass “saw to the core of the meaning of slavery, both for individuals and for the nation, and then captured the multiple meanings of freedom—as idea and reality, of mind and body—as perhaps no one else ever has in America.” Sandefur believes that Douglass was “an authentic genius” who is entitled “to a place among America’s Founding Fathers,” and Dilbeck believes that he “is one of the most important and heroic figures in American history.”
One of Douglass’s contemporaries left perhaps the most fitting tribute. On the occasion of his funeral Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote, “Frederick Douglass is not dead! His grand character will long be an object lesson in our national history. . . . His lofty sentiments of liberty, justice, and equality, echoed on every platform over our broad land, must influence and inspire many coming generations!” Stanton would be happy to know that 201 years after his birth, her prophecy still rings true.