Reflections on David Blight’s Biography of Frederick Douglass
Douglass was born a slave on the Eastern Shore of Maryland; he was often badly beaten and semi-starved by cruel slave owners, their overseers and slave breakers. He never knew his father; his mother, a field hand, died when he was about 3-4 years old; he was raised by his grandmother until he was about 7 when he went to the plantation to work as a slave. In an extraordinary odyssey, he became the preeminent African American speaker and leader, writer, editor and newspaper publisher in the twenty years of lead up to the Civil War and during its turbulent aftermath. During his long life of activism he faced every issue from racism and political corruption to misogyny and nativism to a retrograde Supreme Court, which we all must now confront and combat yet again in the administration of President Trump. Douglass was the Nelson Mandela-like leader and then revered figure of his time and place. It remains to be seen who will become the best leader to preserve and strengthen American democracy in our own time, but it’s really up to each and every one of us to take action, just as the people of Hong Kong have been taking responsibility to preserve and secure their democratic freedoms.
Douglass learned to read in Baltimore, a thriving ship-building city, a city of many European immigrants, few slaves and many free black citizens. He learned his life’s values by reading the Bible. His first teacher was his owner’s wife. She was in turn reprimanded by her husband who believed that educating slaves would destroy slavery, and thereafter, she sought to block his reading; that was the law in most slave owning states. Douglass learned public speaking by reading a book on oratory. As a teenager he began to organize fellow slaves to study the Bible and discuss their slave conditions, the Egyptian bondage and the Exodus. He remained a dedicated Christian throughout his long life, and his speeches are filled with the lessons and words of the Bible. On his second effort, he successfully fled North to freedom in New York and Massachusetts where he was joined by his wife, a free black woman from Baltimore.
He quickly became a renowned speaker, activist, writer and organizer for abolition and emancipation, an initial disciple of William Lloyd Garrison. He was one of the earliest supporters of equal rights and women’s suffrage and worked closely throughout his long career with many highly educated white women. He was frequently harassed by white racist mobs on his speaking tours in New England and the Midwest. Eventually he left for Canada and then England to avoid recapture as a fugitive slave. There he continued his lectures on the evils of slavery and the need for abolition. He was stunned to find civilized European societies far freer from the racism, hatred and bigotry so widely pervasive throughout the US.
After his return to the US, he split with Garrison and his followers over the issues of constitutional interpretation, the principles of disunion and non-participation in political parties, and the respective roles of non-violence and violence in promoting change. The adherents of Garrison believed that the Constitution sanctioned slavery, that a new constitutional convention and the birth of a new nation were necessary to non-violently abolish slavery; they abhorred political parties. Douglass and his wealthy abolitionist colleague and supporter Gerrit Smith interpreted the Constitution and Declaration of Independence to bar slavery, favored participation in political parties, and did not rule out violence as a means to end slavery.
Throughout the 1850’s, the pro-slavery forces in Congress (the Fugitive Slave Act, the Kansas-Nebraska Act) and the Supreme Court (e.g. the Dred Scott case) won a series of ultimately Pyrrhic victories, which steadily expanded the reach, the territory and the powers of the slave owners. The “Know Nothings” were on the rise – a nativist, anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic movement. The abolitionist forces were on the defensive everywhere within the federal government’s institutions.
At the same time popular anti-slavery sentiment was on the rise in Northern and Midwestern states and their state governments, and the Republican Party was formed to represent their interests. Despair at the rapidly receding prospects for domestic reform of the nation and the growing powers of the slave owners led to violent resistance by some abolitionists, such as the massive Northern resistance to enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, the Free Soil movement and Bloody Kansas, and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. Brown sought to recruit Douglass to lead a slave revolt throughout the South and a guerilla war based in the Appalachian Mountains; Douglass came close to joining but declined to lead a military expedition.
The 1860 presidential election of Abraham Lincoln precipitated Southern efforts to secede, the Civil War, the Second American Revolution, and the adoption of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments that ended slavery, decreed full citizenship, assured non-discriminatory due process and equal protection of the laws and the right to vote for African Americans.
Douglass played key roles in persuading Lincoln to accept African Americans into the military, in recruiting African Americans to join the Union army, in the adoption and implementation of Reconstruction, in the passage of the constitutional amendments and of the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1875. He became a lifelong Republican Party stalwart in recognition of its key role in liberating the South from slavery – such a very far cry from the GOP’s positions on the issues and its standing with nearly all voters of color today.
As a key part of Reconstruction, educators came from across the nation to educate the newest US citizens, the newly freed men, women and children in the South. Among the enduring achievements of this reform era was a system of universal public education for all children in every state. The spread of universal public education in the US was far in advance of European nations like England and Germany that educated only the children of the elite and exclusively in private schools. Prior to the Civil War, only the children of the wealthy Southern planters were being educated – largely by tutors or in small, exclusive private schools. By 1900, a generation after the Civil War, the Southern literacy rate had soared to 50%; the children of poor whites and blacks alike benefited from the spread of public education throughout the South.
The South began to dismantle Reconstruction through widespread burnings, killings, beatings and intimidation of new African American citizens seeking to participate in democracy and new economic opportunity. The federal troops and marshals were withdrawn after the disputed election of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, as the Republican Party began its retreat from its reform era leadership. The nation moved towards its Gilded Age of great industrial fortunes and widespread labor exploitation in the burgeoning new American factories. Jim Crow segregation and agrarian sharecropping replaced the civil rights reforms of the Reconstruction era, and a new apartheid took hold throughout the South lasting for the next century; Southern Democrats regained and retained their political ascendancy for the next 100 years. Racial discrimination in housing and job opportunities was pervasive throughout the North as well. The Supreme Court in the Slaughterhouse Cases, the Civil Rights cases and in Plessy v. Ferguson dismantled the reach of the Civil Rights Act and of the 14th and 15th Amendments. It would take a full century to reverse these very bad court decisions and their horrendous impacts on American life.
After the Civil War, Douglass preached doctrines of hard work, and self-reliance for African Americans and the crucial importance of public education. He advocated “fair play” – in other words the federal government should protect its African American citizens from beatings, killings and discrimination by both state and local governments and local actors.
His lineal successors were first-rate educational institutions for African Americans in the South like the Tuskegee Institute (Booker T. Washington) and the birth of the nation’s premier civil rights leadership organizations such as the NAACP (W. E. B. Dubois) and Legal Defense Fund. He battled both whites and African Americans who favored returning African Americans to Africa; he maintained that the future of the African American was in making America a more perfect union. He reconciled with his former slave owners and visited with honors the same Eastern Shore plantations where he had been enslaved as a child and teenager. He reunited with some of his brothers and sisters who had survived slavery and supported them. He nurtured and mentored the next generation of great African American leaders.
Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “A Team of Rivals”, Ron Chernoff’s “Grant” and Blight’s “Douglass” give a far fuller understanding of the events and personalities leading up to, during and in the aftermath of the Civil War than our standard American history texts, which portray a heroic Lincoln, an ineffectual or corrupt Grant and barely mention Douglass’ crucial role in unmasking the horrors of slavery, combating the pervasive racism North and South, and inspiring the long, uphill, against-all-odds struggles of African Americans to fully participate in America’s political, educational and economic spheres. These three great leaders of the Civil War and first Civil Rights era certainly deserve just as much attention, acknowlegement and appreciation as the oft-revered Revolutionary War founders of our nation.
Prepared by: Lucien Wulsin