Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

This book by Professor David W. Blight of Yale University recently won the Pulitzer Prize, and it’s well deserved. The book is richly researched and beautifully written.

The book is a complete biography of Douglass. “Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, a slave, in Talbot County, Maryland, in February 1818, the future Frederick Douglass was the son of Harriet Bailey, one of five daughters of Betsy Bailey, and with some likelihood his mother’s white owner. He saw his mother for the last time in 1825, though he hardly knew her. She died the following  year. Douglass lived twenty years as a slave and nearly nine years as a fugitive slave subject to recapture. From the 1840s to his death in 1895 he attained international fame as an abolitionist, editor, orator of almost unparalleled stature, and the author of three autobiographies that are classics of the genre. As a public man he began his abolitionist career two decades before America would divide and fight a civil war over slavery that he openly welcomed. Douglass was born in a backwater of the slave  society of the South just as steamboats appeared in bays and on American rivers, and before the telegraph, the railroad, and the rotary press changed human mobility and consciousness. He died after the emergence of electric lights, the telephone, and the invention of the phonograph. The renowned orator and traveler loved and used most of these elements of modernity and technology. Douglass was the most photographed American of the nineteenth century … Although it can never really be measured, he may also have been, along with Mark Twain, the most widely traveled American public figure of his century. By the 1890s, in sheer miles and countless numbers of speeches, he had few rivals as a lecturer in the golden age of oratory. It is likely that more Americans heard Douglass speak than any other public figure of his times. Indeed, to see or hear Douglass became a kind of wonder of the American world.” [p. xiv]

Much of the early part of the book has been plowed before, either through Douglass’ autobiographies or other biographies and writings about and by Douglass. But this book has new insights into Douglass after the Civil War occasioned by the inclusion of information from a new set of papers. “This book exists because of my lifetime interest in Douglass. But I would not have written it had I not encountered the extraordinary private collection of Douglass material owned by Walter O. Evans of Savannah, Georgia. The Evans collection, cited so many times in my notes, makes possible many new insights into the final third of Douglass’s life. The younger Douglass–the heroic escaped slave and emerging abolitionist–is better known, in part because of the author’s first two autobiographies. The older Douglass, from Reconstruction to the end of his life in 1895, has never been so accessible or rendered so fascinating and complicated as in the Evans collection. This biography is, I hope, the fullest account ever written of the last third of Douglass’s complex and epic life.” [pp. xvi-xvii]

This is primarily the story of Frederick Douglass, but along the way Dr. Blight explains the historical times in which Douglass lived. For example, he explains why the Wye plantation, on which Douglass lived as a child, was a slave society, at least in microcosm, and how a slave society differs from a society with slaves. “Historians have made a distinction between ‘societies with slaves’ and ‘slave societies.’ In the first, as Ira Berlin has argued, ‘slaves were marginal to the central productive processes,’ and the master-slave relationship was not the ‘exemplar’ of life itself. But in a slave society, the master’s authority over his bondmen defined all social relations, and all economic production depended intimately on the slaves’ brawn, brains, and compliance. In a slave society, from dawn until dusk, everyone woke, labored, worried about money or hunger, ate, played, competed, loved, hated, married, worshipped God, sang, dreamed, and died in a world shaped at every turn by slavery, a system in America Douglass once defined succinctly as ‘the granting of that power by which one man exercises and enforces the right of property in the body and soul of another.’ ” [p. 20] Dr. Blight, through his in-depth knowledge of both historiography and the current scholarship, is able to bring nuggets like that into the narrative to illuminate our understanding of the world Douglass inhabited. Another example is the divide among abolitionists. “But [William Lloyd] Garrison no longer spoke for the entire antislavery movement. By 1840 the American Anti-Slavery Society broke apart forever in a schism. In response to the near collapse of moral suasion as a guiding strategy, Garrison, if anything, took it to an even higher intensity. He argued that the whole of American society, especially the North, needed a ‘moral revolution’ in values, a transformation from a nation of sin and infamy to the goal of human perfection. Garrison was a great organizer, an intrepid newspaper editor, and sometimes a magical platform speaker. But he could also demand absolutist doctrines of his followers, as in the biblical injunction he fondly employed: ‘Be ye perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ Garrisonians increasingly gained a reputation for extreme radicalism, of being either dangerous or irrelevant cranks. Sometimes they earned such an image, even among other abolitionists, and sometimes it was merely the by-product of embittered factionalism. Led by Arthur and Lewis Tappan, wealthy abolitionist merchants in New York, a growing cadre of more politically minded reformers came to believe that far more Americans could be reached by antislavery beliefs if immediatism, a radical temperament and the strategy that sought abolition of slavery without delay, did not appear so militant. Garrison outorganized the Tappanites at the 1840 annual convention of the American Anti-Slavery Society, managed adoption of many of his doctrines by narrow margins, and elected the radical feminist Abby Kelley to the executive committee by a tally of 557 to 451. The Tappans and many of their adherents especially opposed women’s equality in reform movements; they bolted the older organization and formed the new American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, based n New York City and devoted especially to a broader political and legal movement against slavery. That group had also been deeply instrumental in forming the Liberty Party, the first antislavery political organization to gain genuine traction in America.” [pp. 105-106]

Dr. Blight gives us a balanced account of Douglass. He identifies areas where Douglass, in his various autobiographies, changed his story, embellished accounts, and kept other things hidden. Douglass, for example, doesn’t name his wife, Anna, in any of his writings. He only refers to her one time as “my wife” in one of his autobiographies. Douglass also may have humiliated his wife by having women with whom he had close relationships living in the same house with his family. The Englishwoman Julia Griffiths was the first. “This extraordinary and ultimately untenable situation of an educated white Englishwoman living in the Douglass home and laboring daily with him on his life’s work, while Anna Douglass raised five children in its midst, leads us to wonder whether the relationship was ever sexual. We do not know for sure, and perhaps it does not matter. The tenderness of their associations and correspondence, and the intimacy with which Julia seems to have nurtured her younger hero, might lead us moderns to assume that of course they slept with each other. But right under the watchful eyes and immediate presence of Anna? Not likely. They already violated norms of appearance, whether they shared a bed or not. Griffiths’s intelligence and deep caring were surely attractive to Frederick. Their mutual affection did not need to be sexual to be fulfilling, at least for Frederick.” [p. 206] Another woman with whom Douglass had a close relationship was the German Ottilie Assing. Assing was undoubtedly infatuated with Douglass and desired for him to live with her in Europe. Like Julia Griffiths previously, Ottilie Assing would live with the Douglass family in Rochester, New York during her long visits. “One additional part-time guest in the Douglass home did not leave as often as Anna Douglass might have wished. For many summers between the late 1850s and 1872, Ottilie Assing came to Rochester and stayed in the house as Frederick’s intellectual and emotional companion. She lived most of the  year in Hoboken, New Jersey, and corresponded with her friend regularly. Assing tried futilely to reshape Douglass’s views on various subjects, especially religion, even as she parroted so much of his own rhetoric in essays for her German readers. How this ménage á trois functioned for so long still remains, in part, a mystery. Assing lived in Rochester for several months at a time, assisting Douglass with the newspaper and writing her own columns for Morgenblatt. He was on the road lecturing for long periods when Assing may have gone back to New Jersey. Assing’s biographer suggests that the two women reached some kind of ‘truce’ by which the arrangement endured. Although Assing sipped tea occasionally wth Mrs. Douglass, she held Anna in utter contempt, disrespecting her lack of education, and even at times privately denigrating her role as homemaker. As Leigh Fought has written, Assing’s annual visits were intrusions on the household, to say the least. In letters to Douglass, Assing referred to Anna as ‘border state,’ as the misfitted wife and unnatural impediment in the way of the German woman’s designs and alternative views of love and marriage. Assing hoped that once the war ended, a separation or divorce might finally happen and she might be able to walk tall as the rightful ‘Mrs. Douglass.’ Assing and her host were probably lovers, and his response was surely as responsible as her pursuit. But she would be sorely disappointed on the notion of severing the marriage.” [p. 387]

Douglass, as an abolitionist writer and speaker, was ultimately a propagandist, and he didn’t always feel encumbered by a need to adhere strictly to the truth in his writings and speeches. Dr. Blight identifies areas where Douglass went beyond the facts to try to illustrate a greater truth or to gain support for his viewpoint. In the case of his autobiographies, it backfired on him when what he wrote about the family of the slave owner to whom he had belonged didn’t appreciate his depictions, which went beyond what actually occurred. These cases of embellishment, though, were exceptions rather than the rule.

Professor Blight is an engaging writer. Although the book is rather large, with over 760 pages of text, and is filled with information it never bogs down. I highly recommend it.

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