Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

27 Apr

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

-David W. Blight

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a good example is worth a thousand pictures. Anyone who disputes the intellectual capabilities of black – or mixed-race – people must somehow dismiss the existence and achievements of Frederick Douglass, a man who was born a slave and rose to be one of the foremost political figures in the American Civil War era. Douglass’s mere existence is a rebuke to racists who believe that the slaves were well-treated, or that they were somehow destined to be slaves … or, for that matter, that they were effectively children who needed ‘adults’ to keep them. Douglass rose from the very worst conditions in his era to show what he could do.

Blight’s biography is astonishingly detailed, although – unlike some of the best biographies I have read – it tends to be dry in places. It starts with Douglass’s birth – his father is unknown, although Douglass himself believed that he was fathered by his mother’s master – and his early life as a slave child. Blight pulls no punches when it comes to describing the horrors of slavery, from frequent whippings and abuse to how easily slaves could be discarded for being ‘uppity.’ Douglass tried hard to maintain his dignity – he learnt to read, he tried to stand up to his master – but it wasn’t easy. Given a chance to escape, he took it. He and his wife fled north, to a state where runaway slaves were (relatively) safe. The threat of being kidnapped and dragged back to the south was a constant threat, at least until the outbreak of war.

This early experience drove Douglass’s life. He rapidly became a prominent speaker, defending the rights of slaves and fighting for their freedom. He had no truck with the religiously-motivated antislavery activists, believing that ‘shaming’ the kidnappers of runaway slaves was doomed to fail. He believed that kidnappers should be fought, that killing them was the only way to get them to stop. He was, of course, right. The outbreak of war between the north and south sharpened Douglass’s drive to put an end to slavery. He worked hard to encourage black men to join the army, when permitted, claiming that it was the only way to prove themselves. Again, he was probably right.

The end of the war brought both triumph and defeat. The CSA had been defeated, but the after-effects of slavery and racism lingered on. Douglass struggled to keep the fire of freedom alight with mixed results, as successive American governments wavered backwards and forwards on the issue of freedom and rights for the black population. Douglass had a very public position – both as Marshal of DC and Ambassador to Haiti – but this was both a blessing and a curse. To some extent, he lost touch with the realities of black life; he was the only major black figure to oppose the Kansas Exodus, something that cost him in his later years.

Douglas himself was, very much, a single-issue activist. And who can blame him? Blight makes it clear that it was this cause, freedom for his people, that drove most of Douglas’s life. He could be blind at times, seemingly unaware that others – Lincoln, in particular – needed to juggle a number of different issues. Lincoln appeared to promise that black soldiers would be given the same rights as their white counterparts – did Lincoln trick Douglas? Did Douglass hear what he wanted to hear? Or was Lincoln trying to balance a number of competing interests?

This had other effects, some good and bad. Douglass was not opposed to women’s suffrage, but believed that black suffrage should come first. He sounded, by modern standards, rather patriarchal, insisting that (white) women could appeal to their fathers, brothers, husbands (all of whom were voters); a statement that must have sounded like a bad joke to women who had been victimised by any (or all) of the above). Later, after seeing women treated as property in Egypt, he may have changed his mind on this. (He liked Islam’s habit of racial equality – AQ’s leadership is composed of racists – and a few other things, but this would probably be used against him in the modern era.

He was very perceptive when it came to many issues, ranging from black education to freedom and social rights. He didn’t want his people to become wards of the state, but merely to be given fair play. (“Give [the negro] fair play and let him alone, but be sure you give him fair play [as] a man before the law.”) He had no truck with some other issues, most notably the Lost Cause mythmaking. He brutally dismissed General Lee. “He was a traitor and can be made nothing else.”

He was also very perceptive about Haiti’s relationship with the United States. He grasped that Haiti could not be seen to be bending to US pressure, nor to be making concessions at gunpoint. Nor, in any way, could it surrender control over its territory … which is what the US was really asking. Douglass deserves credit for recognising that this was the case, although his influence was limited. In some ways, he was a poor ambassador who ended up putting the interests of Haiti ahead of America’s short-term interests – noble or naive?

Douglass’s personal life was, in some ways, a reaction to his childhood. His first wife – Anna, a black freedwoman – is something of an enigma, a character who never spoke in her own voice. We know what she did, but not what she felt about it. Douglass had many relationships with other women, which may have been friendships or something more: Blight points out that, regardless of the truth, these relationships were used against him. Douglass’s female admirers may have offered him intellectual stimulation that he couldn’t get from Anna; they may have had romantic ambitions concerning him, but Douglass valued his family life (and his duties as a father) to ever leave his wife.

He tried to be a good father to his children, particularly his sons. He did well, but – at the same time – he may well have been a little overbearing. His clan had problems – financially speaking – and some of his children may never have fully stood on their own two feet. Against this, it must be noted that Douglass did better than his father (whoever he really was); he might have been exasperated, at times, with his kids, but he never abandoned them.

Douglass’s second wife was white, a union that was challenged by many on both sides of the racial divide. Accusations of what we would call a ‘mid-life’ crisis were hurled at him, along with other – even less kind – suggestions. Douglass, to his credit, never bowed to pressure from his detractors. This second match was childless, but it brought both of them great happiness.

It is rare, these days, for anyone not to have feet of clay. Douglass had his strengths and his weaknesses, but the former effortlessly overpowered the latter. He was a remarkable man – and it is greatly to Blight’s credit that he manages to show the transition from half-black slave to towering intellectual. Douglass was neither an angel or a demon, but a man.

At the same time, the book has a tendency to drag in places. Blight is admirably through, but he lacks Douglass’s intellectual capacity. There are a multitude of details that are lacking, ranging from background insights into American society to Douglass’s own thoughts and those of his fellows. His wife remains an enigma, for better or worse. Blight is also coy about some of Douglass’s engagements, wondering if they were more than friendships. The truth is that we simply don’t know.

I enjoyed reading it. But it was more of a drag than I expected.

2 Responses to “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom”

  1. Guy Marc GAGNÉ May 2, 2019 at 1:37 pm #

    Bios tend towards the hit or miss category in my experience.
    Sometimes, it is not even a question of the biographer’s talent but, rather
    misgivings ensuing from insight into a person whom we discover was far from
    what we had envisaged!

  2. Ken May 4, 2019 at 6:22 am #

    People are human, even great people or heros. They make mistakes and have flaws.We have to weigh the good and the bad that the person did. What I want is truth.

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