Frederick Douglass’s 19th Century

The Double Battle

Frederick Douglass’s moral crusade.


Let me begin on a personal note. Over half a century ago, my uncle, the historian Philip S. Foner, rescued Frederick Douglass from undeserved obscurity. Beginning in 1950, he edited four volumes of Douglass’s magnificent speeches and writings, each with a long biographical introduction that chronicled his rise to international renown as a crusader for abolition and racial equality. It is difficult to believe, given his prominence during his lifetime, but Douglass was virtually unknown outside the black community at the time. Almost all of the books about him were by black writers—Benjamin Quarles, Shirley Graham Du Bois, even Booker T. Washington—or by white ones, such as my uncle, oriented to the Old Left and attuned to the problem of racial justice. My own high-school history textbook, by Columbia University professor David S. Muzzey, contained no reference to Douglass (indeed, the only black person mentioned by name in the entire book was Toussaint L’Ouverture).

Today, Douglass is ubiquitous. Avenues, plazas, and schools are named in his honor. He has been the subject of poems, novels, and plays and is among the few African Americans whose statues grace the public landscape. Every aspect of his life, it seems, commands scholarly attention. In the past few years, books have appeared about Douglass’s ideas on race and politics; the public reception of his writings; his relationships with women; the similarities and differences between him and his contemporary, Abraham Lincoln; and his ideas on freedom as compared with those of Frantz Fanon and Michel Foucault. There is even a Douglass encyclopedia. Indeed, Douglass’s fame has attained such heights that even President Trump—not known for his deep familiarity with American history—appears to have heard of him.

Douglass’s current status as a national hero poses a challenge for the biographer, making it difficult to view him dispassionately. Moreover, those who seek to tell his story must compete with their subject’s own version of it. Douglass published three autobiographies, among the greatest works of this genre in American literature. They present not only a powerful indictment of slavery, but also a tale of extraordinary individual achievement (it is no accident that Douglass’s most frequently delivered lecture was titled “Self-Made Men”). Like all autobiographies, however, Douglass’s were simultaneously historical narratives and works of the imagination. As David Blight notes in his new book, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, some passages in them—especially those relating to Douglass’s childhood—are “almost pure invention,” which means the biographer must resist the temptation to take these books entirely at face value.

There are other challenges as well. Douglass was born in 1818, and his life spanned almost the entire 19th century. He experienced both rural and urban slavery and played a crucial role in the abolitionist movement and the Civil War. He became a leading proponent of Reconstruction, when the Constitution was amended to create, for the first time in this country, an interracial democracy, and he lived to witness the imposition of a new system of racial inequality in the South. He edited newspapers and delivered thousands of speeches. He also went to great lengths to control his visual image. The most photographed American of the 19th century, Douglass was fully aware of the widespread circulation of demeaning caricatures of black Americans. His own portraits, dignified and arresting, unadorned with background accoutrements, embodied the claim of African Americans to freedom and equality.

To tell Douglass’s story, then, one must possess excellent research skills, a full command of the voluminous literature on his era, and a humane appreciation of the issues central to his career, which reverberate down to the present. Fortunately, Blight, who teaches American history at Yale, has all of these qualities. He has long been drawn to the study of Douglass: His first book, published 30 years ago, examined Douglass’s career during the Civil War. Douglass was also a key protagonist in Blight’s best-known work, Race and Reunion (2001), a prizewinning study of the battle over the memory of the Civil War. In it, Blight argued that Douglass advanced an “emancipationist” vision of the war that stressed the centrality of abolition and the promise of equal citizenship to the conflict’s meaning. But as wartime passions faded and the nation retreated from the promise of equality, Douglass saw this vision eclipsed by a “reconciliationist” memory in which the war was depicted as a family quarrel between white Americans that had little to do with slavery.

More recently, Blight became aware of a set of scrapbooks compiled by Douglass’s son that contain thousands of newspaper clippings chronicling the last three decades of his father’s life. With these, Blight has been able to delve more deeply than previous scholars into a period that many have depicted as an anticlimax, when the fiery moral crusader became a Republican Party functionary and government bureaucrat. Overall, the result is a consistently engrossing book that is likely to remain the definitive account of Douglass’s life for many years to come.

In an age known for political oratory, Douglass was one of America’s greatest public speakers. Even as an enslaved child, Blight relates, Douglass came to grasp the power of words and secretly learned to read and write. After his escape from slavery at the age of 20, language became his weapon. Blight quotes extensively from and offers astute analyses of Douglass’s remarkable speeches, including great set pieces such as his oration on the Fourth of July and its meaning to slaves—a devastating condemnation of the hypocrisy of a nation that proclaimed its devotion to freedom but held millions in bondage—and his speech at the unveiling of a statue of Lincoln in the nation’s capital, a penetrating exploration of the extent and limits of the Great Emancipator’s policies regarding slavery and black citizenship.

Over six feet tall, with a powerful baritone voice, Douglass made an indelible impression as a lecturer. “He was the insurgent slave,” wrote one listener, “taking hold of the right of speech, and charging on his tyrants the bondage of his race.” Like any accomplished orator, Douglass was also a performer. He would point out that according to Southern law he was a “thing,” not a man, and then, drawing himself up to his full height, proclaim: “Behold the thing.”

Before the Civil War, to travel as an abolitionist speaker required courage, and this was especially true for Douglass, since until British admirers arranged to purchase his freedom in 1846, he ran the risk of being apprehended and returned to slavery. More than once, mobs broke up his lectures. But Douglass did not flinch from confrontation. In one incident related by Blight, Isaiah Rynders, the leader of a New York City street gang, brought his followers to disrupt one of Douglass’s speeches. Rynders climbed onto the stage and began spewing racist remarks. Rather than fleeing, Douglass engaged him in an impromptu debate about slavery and race, until Rynders and his gang retreated from the hall.

At the outset of his career as an abolitionist, Douglass adhered to the outlook of William Lloyd Garrison, who insisted that because the Constitution protected slavery, abolitionists could not in good conscience vote, and that the Union itself should be dissolved. But in the 1850s, Douglass changed his mind, aligning himself with Gerrit Smith, who had developed an antislavery interpretation of the Constitution and favored political action against slavery. Douglass also rejected Garrison’s pacifism, advocating violent resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act. During the prewar decade, he also came within the orbit of John Brown, although he declined Brown’s invitation to join the ill-fated assault on Harpers Ferry. (Five black men did join Brown’s private army; their story is compellingly told in a new book, Five for Freedom, by Eugene L. Meyer.)

Returning from a speaking tour of the British Isles in the late 1840s, Douglass declared: “I have no patriotism, I have no country.” But with the outbreak of the Civil War, he wholeheartedly embraced the Union cause. Douglass became, in Blight’s words, a “war propagandist,” whose speeches whipped up hatred of the Confederacy and called for a “merciless” crusade against it, while insisting that only a policy of emancipation could subdue the South. Anticipating the “Double V” campaign of World War II, which called on black Americans to fight racism at home as well as fascism abroad, Douglass spoke of a “double battle” against Southern slavery and against racial prejudice throughout the country. The “mission of the war” (the title of his best-known wartime oration) could not be fulfilled until a new republic, based on universal freedom and civil and political equality, arose from the ashes of the old one. Douglass minced no words in condemning what he saw as Lincoln’s delay in moving toward emancipation; but after twice meeting with the president in the White House, he came to admire him, seeing this self-made son of Kentucky who had risen to prominence through powerful oratory as a kindred spirit.

When the government opened the army to black men, Douglass urged them to enlist. One of the most memorable moments in his autobiographies is his confrontation with Edward Covey, the slave-breaker whom the teenage Douglass physically overpowered rather than allowing himself to be whipped. This altercation, Douglass wrote, made him a man. Now, he proclaimed that military service would not only demonstrate black Americans’ manhood but also stake their claim to citizenship in the reunited nation. Two of his sons joined the famed 54th Massachusetts Regiment; one was seriously wounded in the assault on Fort Wagner, when nearly half the unit lost their lives.

After the war, Douglass found a new role as a “proudly loyal” Republican. President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him marshal of the District of Columbia—making Douglass the first African American named to a position that required Senate confirmation. Later, Benjamin Harrison dispatched him to Haiti as the American ambassador. In what Blight calls his “almost superhuman” speaking tours, which involved innumerable exhausting rail journeys, Douglass struggled to keep alive the abolitionist interpretation of the war’s meaning. In his remarkable “Composite Nation” speech, he outlined a vision of a new America that would transcend race by welcoming liberty-loving people from all corners of the globe—including the widely despised Chinese, the prejudice against whom he condemned.

At the Republican National Convention of 1876, as Republicans appeared to be abandoning the egalitarian impulse of Reconstruction, Douglass courageously confronted his party, asking, “Do you mean to make good the promises of your Constitution?” His plea was largely ignored. By the 1880s, a new generation of black leaders were urging black voters to declare their independence from the party of Lincoln by allying with dissident white Democrats in the South who were challenging the region’s elite. They saw Douglass as having abandoned his principles in exchange for political appointments. Douglass resented their criticism. In 1888, he opposed the candidacy of John Mercer Langston, former dean of the Howard University School of Law, for a congressional seat from Virginia on the grounds that he was not loyal enough to the Republican Party.

Unlike Martin Luther King Jr. and many other black leaders, Douglass did not find the institutional springboard for his activism in the black church. But Blight places more emphasis than previous biographers on the importance of the Bible to Douglass’s rhetorical style and political outlook. The book’s subtitle, “Prophet of Freedom,” is meant to be taken literally. Douglass, Blight writes, saw himself as a “black Jeremiah,” akin to the Hebrew prophets of the Old Testament. From this vantage point, the Civil War emerged as God’s judgment on a sinning nation, its carnage a divinely ordained punishment that made possible redemption and a better future based on equality for all.

Blight frequently invokes the analogy between Douglass and the “old prophets”—perhaps too frequently, as this leads to a relative neglect of the secular foundations of Douglass’s vision: the egalitarian promise of the Declaration of Independence, an inclusive understanding of political democracy (Douglass was one of the few men to attend the Seneca Falls convention of 1848, which demanded the right to vote for women), and the broad commitment to human rights that Douglass imbibed in the abolitionist crusade. Blight describes him as a believer in “nineteenth-century political liberalism,” without really elaborating on what that ideology meant in Douglass’s time, or explaining whether his secular and religious modes of thought reinforced or contradicted each other.

One aspect of Douglass’s politics that Blight does analyze at length is his belief in self-reliance as a key to black progress. It is hardly surprising that the emblematic self-made man declared that black Americans should be “let alone” after the end of slavery. This statement, Blight notes, has been wrenched out of context by today’s black conservatives, who claim Douglass as a forebear of their own hostility to affirmative action and other efforts to assist the less fortunate.

As Blight makes clear, Douglass’s economic outlook cannot be reduced to simple laissez-faire. To be sure, he was not an economic radical. Throughout his career, Douglass retained his faith that in a society resting on “free labor,” any man could make something of himself by following the path of self-improvement. This applied to all oppressed groups, in his view, not only African Americans. Shocked by the “human misery” he encountered in Ireland, Douglass attributed much of it to the abuse of alcohol, not centuries of oppressive British rule.

Douglass fully understood that pervasive racism and violence, often directed at black Americans who managed to get ahead, posed formidable obstacles to black economic advancement. He was less attuned to other impediments, including his own party’s advocacy of high tariffs and deflationary monetary policies, which disadvantaged farmers of both races. In addition, he feared that special efforts on behalf of African Americans would promote an image of them as privileged wards of the state. (Lincoln’s successor as president, the deeply racist Andrew Johnson, made this claim when he vetoed the Civil Rights Bill of 1866.)

Some admirers chastised Douglass for his emphasis on self-reliance. O.O. Howard, former head of the Freedmen’s Bureau, warned that many impoverished black Southerners would “perish if let alone.” But for Douglass, self-reliance assumed the existence of a level playing field that offered equal prospects of success in what Lincoln called the “race of life.” To create such conditions in the aftermath of slavery, Douglass knew, would require massive political intervention: laws and constitutional amendments guaranteeing civil and political equality; the creation of school systems in the South, where they barely existed before the war; the encouragement of black land ownership; and national protection of former slaves against terrorist violence. This was hardly a formula for a “let alone” approach to race relations.

One of the more startling themes of Blight’s book is the candid portrait he offers of Douglass’s “dysfunctional” family life. No doubt, it was difficult to be the child of the great Frederick Douglass. His three sons not only failed to find secure employment but feuded incessantly with their sister Rosetta and her husband, Nathan Sprague. The latter, in turn, dragged his father-in-law into court after the Civil War, charging that Sprague’s sister had been employed to work in the Douglass household and never paid. (They settled out of court.) “Jealousy,” Rosetta wrote in a letter to her father, “is one of the leading traits in our family.”

One of the reasons that Douglass continued his demanding lecture tours after the war was that he had to support a large extended family, including his wife, children, grandchildren, and even long-lost siblings whom he had not seen since childhood and who suddenly made an appearance. Tragedy also stalked the household. Over a two-week period in 1888, Douglass saw five of his grandchildren perish in a typhoid epidemic.

Douglass left behind an enormous public record, but as Blight readily acknowledges, the private man remains frustratingly elusive. Most enigmatic is his relationship with his first wife, Anna, a free black woman whom Douglass fell in love with as a slave in Baltimore. She helped plan his escape and quickly joined him in New York City, where they were married. Anna Douglass prided herself on her genuine skill at managing their household (and, early on, helping to support it by taking on sewing and shoe binding) and on raising their children while her husband traveled the lecture circuit. But Douglass never spoke publicly or wrote about her. In his final autobiography, Anna receives just one mention—and not by name, but as “my intended wife” who helped him escape. Married to one of the country’s foremost men of words, Anna Douglass never became literate herself. This seems to have been a conscious decision, as people tried to teach her. Rosetta wrote touchingly about her desire to make her parents happy, noting that this would be easier “if both were interested in the same pursuits.”

As if all this weren’t trying enough, Anna had to deal with her husband’s close companionship with two remarkable women. Julia Griffiths came from Britain to help manage his first newspaper. Leaving the Douglasses’ home in Rochester, New York, in 1855, she was succeeded by Ottilie Assing, a radical journalist from Germany who translated Douglass’s autobiography and, like Griffiths, offered indispensable help in keeping his newspaper afloat. Each spent months at a time living in the Douglass household. Anna Douglass’s reactions to this situation do not exist in the historical record, although there are hints that she found the presence of these women upsetting. For insight into her state of mind, Blight turns to modern novels and poetry that include Anna as a character—not always convincingly, as these tend to reflect the sensibilities of our own time rather than those of the 19th century.

Griffiths and Assing were both talented women on whom Douglass depended for intellectual companionship, emotional support, and practical assistance. Without their editorial skills and financial acumen, his newspapers could not have survived. Assing belonged to a circle of German exiles from the failed Revolution of 1848 with whom Douglass enjoyed discussing politics on visits to her home in New Jersey (one of which took place on New Year’s Eve, 1870, while Anna remained at home). The modern reader, Blight notes, will want to know if these relationships were “ever sexual.” His answer is judicious: “We do not know for sure, and perhaps it does not matter,” although he does later suggest that Assing and Douglass “were probably lovers.”

Certainly, Assing adored Douglass and despised his wife. For years, she implored him to join her on a romantic holiday in France, although he never did so. After Anna’s death in 1882, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a considerably younger white woman who had been active in the abolitionist and feminist movements. As Blight notes, this was probably the most prominent interracial marriage of the 19th century. Many members of her family ostracized her, but Douglass’s children welcomed Pitts, insisting that it was no one’s business whom their father chose to wed. Soon afterward, Assing, now living in Paris and diagnosed with breast cancer, took her own life. In her will, she left Douglass a considerable sum of money and directed that all of the letters in her possession be burned. With their destruction, any hope of solving the mystery of what Blight calls their “intellectual affair of the heart” also disappeared.

Frederick Douglass died in February 1895. Seven months later, Booker T. Washington gained national applause for a speech at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta that counseled black Americans to concentrate on economic advancement and forswear political activism against the tightening web of disfranchisement and segregation in the South. Douglass would have strongly disagreed. He believed in self-reliance, but not accommodation to injustice. He spent his final years, as always, writing and lecturing, this time as part of a campaign to expose and condemn the epidemic of lynching in the South.

Virginia Woolf once wrote of the 18th-century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft: “We hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living.” How true, also, of Frederick Douglass. We find ourselves today in a political moment that Douglass in his later years would have recognized. “Principles which we all thought to have been firmly and permanently settled,” he wrote, “have been boldly assaulted and overthrown.” His response was not to despair, but to continue the fight. Douglass’s words from 1857 continue to reverberate and inspire: “If there is no struggle there is no progress.”

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