“AFTER FRED. DOUGLASS.—” barked an October 1850 headline in the Mississippi Free Trader, the state’s leading Democratic newspaper. The article below it went on to note: “We are very much pleased to learn that a party of Marylanders are in pursuit of the sweet pet and fragrant expounder of the white negroes of the North. He is a fugitive slave, and the intention is to reclaim him under the late Fugitive Slave Law.”
This was an outstanding antebellum example of what we have lately come to call “fake news.” After eight years as a fugitive, Frederick Douglass had been legally emancipated in 1846 when a group of British abolitionists collected funds to purchase his freedom. No party of Maryland slave-hunters was headed north to pursue him, even after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. The Free Trader wasn’t reporting on events; it was indulging in a kind of vicarious hate crime.
Yet in its mix of gossip, malice, and braggadocio, the Free Trader’s false report was characteristic of the opposition that Douglass faced in his lifetime of political struggle. For Mississippi’s Slave Power, Douglass presented an existential threat in two dimensions. First, his physical person, as an ex-slave turned celebrity abolitionist, was a dramatic personification of his radical belief in human equality. To adapt what W.E.B. Du Bois once said of John Brown, Douglass didn’t just use argument, he was himself an argument. Second, Douglass was feared because his oratory had dangerous implications: It might help generate a popular political movement against the slaveholding South. Thus the Mississippi Free Trader reserved equal scorn for the “white negroes of the North”—Douglass’s anti-slavery allies and the larger Northern public that they hoped to awaken.
The power of the antebellum slaveholding class, after all, resided not only in its direct domination of black slaves, but in its ability to divide and exploit an even larger multiracial working class. Douglass knew how well this system worked from bitter personal experience: As a hired slave in Baltimore, he was assaulted by white dockworkers with bricks and handspikes. Yet he remained clearheaded about who benefited from this racial violence. As he wrote in 1855: “The slaveholders, with a craftiness peculiar to themselves, by encouraging the enmity of the poor, laboring white man against the blacks, succeeds in making the said white man almost as much a slave as the black slave himself…. Both are plundered, and by the same plunderers.”
To uproot these plunderers required democratic organization in both the North and South. The obstacles were enormous, Douglass knew, for he seldom underestimated the tenacity of American racism—the prejudices and powers wielded by those Americans “who happen to live in a skin which passes for white.” Nevertheless, the basic premise of his career was that slavery and white supremacy, for all their fearsome might, could be defeated through a political struggle that transcended racial and regional divisions. Only a broad popular movement, led by an abolitionist vanguard but embracing “the masses at the North,” could overthrow “the slave-holding oligarchy” and establish a government truly devoted to liberty and equality for all.
Douglass had no patience for those in the antislavery camp who argued for withdrawal from a hopelessly tainted Union, or for the abandonment of a hopelessly degraded democratic politics. “If I were on board of a pirate ship,” he declared, “I would not clear my soul…by jumping in the long boat, and singing out no union with pirates.” Instead, abolitionists must dig in and fight, trusting in their ability to build a democratic alliance against slavery across the free states. “[T]he slaveholders are but four hundred thousand in number,” he noted, “and we are fourteen millions…we are really the strong and they are the weak.”
For Douglass, political effort without radical moral principle was futile, doomed to a slow, unwholesome demise amid “the swamps of compromise and concession.” But moral courage without political engagement—and without movement-building—was equally barren. “If there is no struggle, there is no progress,” Douglass declared in 1857. The apothegm is justly famous as a defense of left-wing agitation, but it is worth remembering that both of its keywords received equal weight. Douglass did not celebrate struggle for struggle’s sake. He struggled because he believed he would win.
In our own troubled times, with reaction regnant and the formal opposition frail and confused, Douglass’s belief in progress may strike readers as something of a quaint anachronism. But two new books—The Lives of Frederick Douglass, by Robert S. Levine, and The Portable Frederick Douglass, edited by John Stauffer and Henry Louis Gates Jr.—help underline just how urgently his vision of political struggle is needed today.
Both books pay tribute to Douglass’s immense literary talents. In three decades, he went from the dirt floor of a Maryland slave cabin to a private audience in the White House, where he helped recruit slaves into an army whose mission was the destruction of the master class. His was one of the most remarkable and revolutionary lives of the 19th century, and he did not shy from writing about it: first in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), published seven years after his escape from slavery; then in My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), written after his break with William Lloyd Garrison; and finally in The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881 and 1892), which brings his story through the Civil War and Reconstruction.
Levine’s book, which takes these autobiographies as its primary subject, retraces Douglass’s lifelong effort to tell and retell his own astonishing story. Pushing back against the idea that Douglass’s early intimacy with Garrison means that the Narrative should be read as a “black message” inside a “white envelope,” Levine shows how their collaboration—not at all a simple student-teacher relationship—gave the Narrative much of its power.
Levine also chronicles the dissolution of this collaboration. By the late 1840s, Douglass had become dissatisfied with Garrison’s brand of abolitionism, in part because it abjured electoral politics in favor of a nonviolent form of resistance that placed moral principle above political competition. Levine shows how My Bondage and My Freedom reflects Douglass’s growing sense that the battle against slavery required ballots, and might ultimately demand bullets as well. Above all, he describes the antislavery firebrand as a mind in constant motion: “identity is never stable in Douglass; it is tied to the contingencies of the historical moment.” Politics, ultimately, was about timing, and Douglass subordinated his quest for autobiographical self-understanding to his desire to make political change.
In the introduction to their new volume of Douglass’s writings, Stauffer and Gates extend this argument, discovering in his shifting self-representations something of a philosophical principle. Just as Douglass “rejected the idea of a fixed self, so too did he repudiate fixed social stations and rigid hierarchies.” With his own family tree shrouded in mystery—he never knew the identity of his father—Douglass responded by actively embracing fluidity, change, and the wholesome convulsions of a life devoted to struggle and progress.
Born into slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Douglass learned that he could shift his shape, in a fashion, by imitating the voices around him. He preached barnyard sermons on the plantation, affecting the style and cadence of white ministers and addressing his master’s pigs as “Dear Brethren.” His talent for verbal mimicry evolved into a lifelong gift for satirical public speech. Later, on the abolitionist lecture circuit, Douglass would leave crowds in stitches with his canting impression of a hypocritical Southern preacher.
Among their selections, Stauffer and Gates include a previously unpublished 1864–65 speech, “Pictures and Progress,” that highlights Douglass’s own dual sense of himself as an activist and an artist, always striving to remake the boundaries of his world. “Poets, prophets, and reformers,” Douglass argued, “are all picture-makers—and this ability is the secret of their power.”
Douglass himself was especially attracted to the new art of photographic picture-making—a form in which the sitter, as much as the camera operator, could shape the portrait. It was no coincidence, as Stauffer and Zoe Trodd have noted in a recent collection of Douglass’s portraits, that he became the most photographed American of the 19th century.
As a former slave who claimed his psychic freedom in the course of a two-hour fight with the slave-breaker Edward Covey, Douglass well understood the connection between the physical and the political. It was a duality that demanded both heroic acts of courage and tremendous acts of primping. “A man is ashamed of seeming to be vain of his personal appearance,” he observed in “Pictures and Progress,” “and yet who ever stood before a glass preparing to sit or stand for a picture without a consciousness of some such vanity?”
Paying close attention to his own person—a regime that involved meticulous grooming, fashionable dress, and even weight training late in life—wasn’t just Douglass’s concession to Victorian notions of self-improvement: It was a core element of his political character. With his body continually in danger, Douglass responded not by withdrawing into private life, but by carefully fashioning an ever stronger and more confident public physical presence.
For Douglass, while politics flowed inevitably through the private and the personal, it always returned to the public and the collective. “Neither self-culture, nor any other kind of culture, can amount to much in this world,” he asserted, “unless joined to some truly unselfish and noble purpose.”
This is the danger in approaching Douglass as a primarily autobiographical writer. Most Americans today know him through the 1845 Narrative, the single-most-assigned book in US history surveys, according to a 2005 study. But a focus on Douglass’s individual odyssey shouldn’t cause us to forget that he devoted his life to a shared struggle against oppression.
Douglass’s own career would be unthinkable without his collaborations with activists and politicians, from Garrison and Martin Delany and Susan B. Anthony to Charles Sumner and Abraham Lincoln. In his popular antebellum lecture “Trials and Triumphs of Self-Made Men,” Douglass began by acknowledging that there was no such thing: “all had begged, borrowed, or stolen from somebody or somewhere.” As Levine shows, even his autobiographies were chiefly political documents. They were less concerned with exploring his private identity in formation than with exposing public crimes and inspiring a mass movement against them.
It is fitting, then, that Stauffer and Gates have put Douglass’s speeches and journalism at the heart of their new volume. Douglass himself considered his time as a newspaper editor the most important period of his career. “If I have at any time said or written that which is worth remembering,” he concluded in Life and Times, “I must have said such things between the years 1848 and 1860, and my paper was a chronicle of most of what I said during that time.”
Douglass founded his newspaper, The North Star, in Rochester in 1848, on the heels of his ideological split with Garrison and his Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Douglass had grown skeptical of Garrisonian nonviolence, but the essence of the disagreement was about electoral politics: While Garrison and his allies thought abolitionists should boycott elections organized under a pro-slavery Constitution, Douglass came to believe that the ballot box could and must become a vital tool in the struggle against slavery. “Garrison sees in the Constitution precisely what John C. Calhoun sees there,” he wrote—an impregnable fortress against antislavery political action in the United States. But Douglass believed that abolitionism must reject such rigidities, and he insisted that it become a movement that was as creative, forceful, and open to possibility as democratic politics itself.
A great theme in Douglass’s antebellum writing was the necessary subordination of the past—dead, frozen, irrevocable—to the present: alive, fluid, subject to change. Politics must keep up with its times. “We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present,” he declared in his famous 1852 address on slavery and the Fourth of July. “To all inspiring motives, to noble deeds which can be gained from the past, we are welcome. But now is the time, the important time.”
Douglass aimed his remarks at the conservative cult around America’s founders, already well in evidence by the 1850s: “men seldom eulogize the wisdom and virtues of their fathers, but to excuse some folly and wickedness of their own.” But his words were also, in their way, a message to his comrades in the antislavery struggle. If abolitionism was to grow from a moral position into a political movement, its advocates could not let themselves be paralyzed by the weight of past horrors. The bloodstained history of slavery in America—200 years of pillage, torture, and domination—did not drive his thoughts upward, toward the promises of a peaceful heaven, or inward, toward the safety of a beautiful despair. Instead, Douglass turned outward, toward the daily rigors of struggle and the political possibilities of what he called “the ever-living now.”
For Douglass, the American future was not foreclosed. Seldom beguiled by the mythology of national exceptionalism—“Americans are remarkably familiar with all facts which make in their own favor”—Douglass nevertheless rejected the view, as fashionable then as it is now among some quarters of the left, that his homeland was somehow constitutionally impervious to change. “I know of no country,” he declared in 1857, “where the conditions for affecting great changes in the settled order of things…are more favorable than here in these United States.”
This confidence in that dark hour stemmed from a specific political calculation. Reaction, he believed, had overreached itself. The Fugitive Slave Act, the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, and the Dred Scott decision, all “measures devised and executed with a view to allay and diminish the anti-slavery agitation, have only served to increase, intensify, and embolden that agitation.” The advance of the Slave Power, red in tooth and claw, had torn up the old rotten compromises, exposed the bankruptcy of the old party system, and given new vindication to slavery’s most radical opponents. “Hence, the wolfish cry of ‘fanaticism,’ has lost its potency,” Douglass declared in 1855, “indeed the ‘fanatics’ are looked upon as a pretty respectable body of People.”
A new organized power in American politics, the Republican Party, had emerged from the ruins of the antebellum party system. For Douglass, “the great Republican Movement, which is sweeping like a whirlwind over the Free States,” showed that the North was ready to “bury party affinities…and also the political leaders who have hitherto controlled them; to unite in one grand phalanx, and go forth, and whip the enemy.” Even so, Douglass never became an unconditional supporter of the Republican Party, and often, before the Civil War, he appeared as one of its most scorching critics. Yet in a deeper sense, the electoral triumph of Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans in 1860 fulfilled one of his fundamental premises: that slavery in the South could only be challenged through a democratic alliance with “the masses at the North.”
When Southern slaveholders responded to Lincoln’s victory with armed rebellion, Douglass understood it as a reaction to the emancipatory potential of this new alliance. The “war of the Rebels,” he declared in 1863, “is a war of the rich against the poor. Let Slavery go down with the war, and let labor cease to be fettered, chained, flogged, and branded…and then we shall see as never before, the laborers in all sections of this country rising to respectability and power.”
Douglass lived to see his cross-sectional alliance of laborers—what Du Bois later called “the abolition-democracy”—successfully crush the rebellion, destroy slavery, and drive the most profound social revolution in American history. He lived, too, to see that alliance undone, and many of its achievements rolled back, by the resistance of white Southerners and the connivance of a Northern leadership that, as he wrote in 1894, had “converted the Republican party into a party of money rather than a party of morals.”
Struggle begat progress, and progress begat more struggle. This was the work of politics, of public agitation and democratic organization: It never ends. Douglass himself never tired of the fight or lost sight of his horizon—a political force “broad enough, and strong enough, to support the most comprehensive plans for the freedom and elevation of all the people of this country, without regard to color, class, or clime.” For Douglass, that meant ceaseless resistance to all forms of entrenched hierarchy, including the exclusion of women from politics. When he died suddenly on a February evening in 1895, his final day had been spent with Susan B. Anthony and Anna Shaw at a women’s suffrage meeting in Washington, DC.
Douglass devoted his life to eternal war on both “the system” and “the spirit of slavery.” The system went down in 1865, but the spirit, of course, lives on with us today, reorganized and remastered with all the perennial shrewdness of the ruling classes. It lives in every social order that contrives to elevate one group at the expense of another, every economic order that exalts capital and degrades labor, and every political order that denies the possibility of great change.
“This doctrine of human equality,” Douglass wrote in 1850, “is the bitterest yet taught by the abolitionists.” The struggle for that doctrine remains the central struggle of our day. It requires political as well as moral action, organizing as well as orations. Just as in Douglass’s day, we can only prevail if we believe we will win.