Frederick Douglass: Greatest African-American of the 19th Century 

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Frederick Douglass:  Prophet of Freedom
By David W. Blight
Simon & Schuster
October 2018

Frederick Douglass was the Martin Luther King Jr. of the 19th century. Former slave, author, orator, and statesman, Douglass was the principal black figure in the fight to abolish slavery. Over his long career, he became one of the best-known Americans of his day.

Henry Ford famously once said:  “History is more or less bunk.” And many Americans nowadays appear to take him at his word, preferring to live in the present and ignore the past. But the past determines how the present unfolds, and David W. Blight in his majestic biography, Frederick Douglass:  Prophet of Freedom, demonstrates to his readers the importance of understanding the history of the fight to abolish slavery in America and the subsequent struggle for equal rights in the Reconstruction and Jim Crow periods.

In his 764-page volume, Blight chronicles the life of Douglass from his earliest days as a slave on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to his life as a fugitive slave in the North, his fame as an extraordinarily powerful orator, his meetings with President Abraham Lincoln, and finally his leadership of the African-American in the post-Civil War era. 

With America still embroiled in seemingly intractable racial turmoil, Blight’s biography of Frederick Douglass is a timely and vital reminder that chronicles the genesis of many of our current racial issues.

Douglass wrote three autobiographies:  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1892). Accordingly, readers know a great deal about his life from when he was born in 1818 until his death in 1895. Blight spares the reader no details as he recounts Douglass’s life year by year, including most aspects of his personal life as well as his public life.


Escape from Slavery

Douglass was the product of a multi-racial union. His mother was an African-American slave named Harriet Bailey who died when Douglass was seven, but the identity of his white father was unknown to Douglass and to history. Spending his early years on a Maryland plantation, Douglass lived in Baltimore from the age of eight to fifteen, where a kind-hearted woman, Sophia Auld, taught him the alphabet and set him on the path to learn how to read. Sent back to a plantation at the age of fifteen, Douglass worked for a poor farmer, Edward Covey, who whipped him brutally and frequently. Douglass tried to escape unsuccessfully several times in 1836 and 1837. But then in 1838, at the age of 20, he was aided by a free black woman in Baltimore, Anna Murray, who was five years older. He had fallen in love with her. She encouraged his flight to freedom and gave him money and support. Wearing a sailor’s uniform, he went north by rail and steamboat to Philadelphia, an anti-slavery bastion, and then continued on to New York City to the home of a safe house of the abolitionist David Ruggles. Some days later, Anna Murray followed him to New York City, where they married shortly after she arrived.

Frederick and Anna soon moved farther north, as Frederick was a fugitive slave and might be captured at any moment. They were the beneficiaries of a remarkable network of people who helped fugitive slaves, later called the Underground Railroad. They were directed to the home of free blacks Nathan and Mary Johnson in New Bedford, Massachusetts. At breakfast the next day, Johnson recommended that they choose a new name. Frederick wanted to hold on to the name Frederick “to preserve my sense of identity,” but asked Johnson to choose his family name. Johnson picked Douglass, having been influenced by the book that he had been reading, Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake. Douglass was the name of the Highlander in the book.

In 1838, New Bedford was a booming whaling town of 12,000. Perhaps 300 of the 1,000 blacks there were fugitive slaves. Within three days, Douglass found work, doing all sorts of odd jobs. Two children were born to Anna and Frederick within three years of their arrival at New Bedford.

In 1839 in New Bedford, Douglass found his real calling – public speaking. Shortly after arriving there, Douglass began attending the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, serving as sexton, class leader, clerk, and preacher. As he gained experience as a preacher, his reputation grew. He later wrote that a real sermon must engage the “intellect, emotion, and will” – good advice for preachers of every stripe. In 1840, he was discovered by white abolitionists. It was at this time that Douglass and the great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of The Liberator, met. 


Star Orator

As Douglass’s fame grew, he was invited to attend a convention of the Bristol County Anti-Slavery Society on Nantucket in August 1841. He gave a series of extraordinarily powerful speeches which captivated the 1,000 white and black abolitionists assembled.  Garrison, who heard the speeches, echoed Psalm 8:5 when he wrote that “they had found one in intellect richly endowed – in natural eloquence a prodigy – in soul manifestly created but a little lower than the angels.” As Blight writes, “a star was born in three days on Nantucket.” 

Within a week, abolitionists brought Douglass to churches and town halls all over the New England speaking circuit for a three-month period. He earned adulation but also faced resistance, hatred, and violence. Tall, handsome, brown, careful of his appearance, dignified, and possessing a powerful and sonorous voice, he had an astonishingly broad knowledge of slavery and vital anti-slavery strategies. Yankee audiences had never seen anything like him. He was a sensation.

After three years in New Bedford, he moved his family to Lynn, Massachusetts, where in 1845 he wrote, at the age of 27, the first of his three autobiographies — Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. The book made him world famous. Shortly after writing it, Douglass embarked on a twenty-month speaking tour of England, Ireland, and Scotland, where he gave an estimated 184 addresses to British and Irish sympathizers of the American abolitionist movement. His tour spurred the sale of 11,000 copies of the book, and moreover, Douglass made a number of friends who would play an important role in supporting him financially over the coming decades.

He returned home to Lynn in April 1847 where he soon launched his own newspaper, the North Star, as he wanted to have a mouthpiece for his race. Subscriptions to the paper never came close to covering its costs so Douglass depended on gifts and contributions from friends and abolitionists both here and in Europe. The effort to keep the paper afloat over the years was a constant drain on Douglass’s energy and finances. Finding great support for his efforts from citizens of Rochester, New York, Frederick and Anna and their four children moved there; Rochester would be their home for the next several decades.


Douglass and John Brown

One of the chapters of the abolitionist movement that Blight thankfully recounts in considerable detail is the remarkable story of John Brown and Harpers Ferry. If slavery was America’s original sin, Brown is truly a martyr in the fight to rid the country of this great evil. Brown was a devout Christian, and he was willing to put his principles into action. He was also courageous, and his intensity and charisma encouraged others to follow him. Born in Torrington, Connecticut, he married twice and had twenty children. Brown was a Calvinist who took the Bible seriously. Brown wrote to Douglass, with whom he was intimately acquainted, quoting from the book of Deuteronomy:  “Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped” (thus making immoral the federal Fugitive Slave laws) as well as “Thou shall not oppress him.” With his strong Christian worldview, Brown despaired over the “wicked” laws of his country. Then Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and Brown went to Kansas in the fall of 1855 to make war on slavery. So did his sons. Six of Brown’s sons and one son-in-law fought in Kansas in the brutal and bloody struggle between pro-slavery bands and Freesoilers, and one son was killed, two wounded, and two others were imprisoned and tortured. Brown himself led a raid on pro-slavery supporters, “the Pottawatomie massacre,” which resulted in the savage murder of five men.

While staying at the Douglass’s home in Rochester, Brown discussed with Douglass at length his plan to establish an interim government in Virginia if his raid on Harpers Ferry were to succeed. Douglass wholeheartedly agreed with Brown’s condemnation of America’s wicked laws dealing with slavery but distanced himself from Brown’s plan to capture a large U.S. weapons arsenal. Brown also tried to enlist Harriet Tubman in his plan. Tubman advised Brown and gave him moral support but never promised to join him. After liberating eleven slaves in Missouri (killing one slaveholder in the action) in 1858 and helping them escape to Canada, Brown turned his attention to Harpers Ferry. As Brown’s raid drew near, Douglass met with Brown and tried to persuade him to abandon the plan, as he was going into a “perfect steel trap.” When news of Brown’s disastrous raid in October 1859 reached Douglass, he was in Philadelphia. U.S. government authorities sent a telegram to the Philadelphia sheriff ordering that Douglass be arrested as a co-conspirator, but the telegraph operator was an anti-slavery man who delayed passing the message on for three hours while Douglass’s friends spirited him over to New Jersey from where he travelled to New York. New York was no safer, as New York authorities were ordered to arrest him, so friends helped him to a ferry on Lake Ontario which brought him to Canada. From Canada, Douglass went to England again. He was now in exile. 

After John Brown was executed and it became clear to the public that Douglass had distanced himself from Brown’s assault on Harper’s Ferry, Douglass returned inconspicuously to the United States in April 1860. He approved of Lincoln as the best choice for president but did not believe that he went far enough in attempting to rid the country of slavery. After Lincoln was elected, Douglass took part in a gathering at Tremont Temple in Boston to commemorate the first anniversary of the execution of John Brown. It turned out to be a three-hour brawl with insults, curses, fisticuffs, and furniture thrown between abolitionists and Unionists. At one point, Douglass was dragged from the podium by his hair, but he gave as good as he got. Finally the police were called to clear the Temple.


Civil War

In the Civil War, many Northerners fought to preserve the Union, not to free the slaves. Although he hated slavery, President Lincoln was initially in this camp, as he feared he would lose the support of the Border states if he moved too quickly on slavery. Thus, during the first 18 months of the war, Douglass was a strong critic of Lincoln, urging him to lay out a policy for abolishing slavery. As Lincoln’s policy turned toward emancipation, Douglass became more supportive of Lincoln.

But Lincoln supported a policy of colonization for the four million slaves that would be freed if the North won the war. In August 1862, the President called a meeting with a number of leading black ministers from Washington D.C and read them a detailed statement about colonization and the reasons why he thought it should be carried out in Central America. Douglass regarded colonization as racist, as the presumption was that blacks and whites could never live together in harmony. Douglass levelled ferocious criticism against Lincoln in his paper, and blacks around the North exploded in protest against Lincoln.

Lincoln then dropped his support for colonization, and as 1862 drew to a close, he instead promulgated the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring by executive order that slaves in states at war with the federal government were free. There was a huge celebration in Boston on January 1, 1863, the date the proclamation took effect, at Tremont Temple, at which Douglass played a major role.

As the war ground on with an appalling level of casualties on both sides, Douglass’s major theme in 1863 was the recruitment and enlistment of Negro soldiers. As more and more black soldiers enlisted, Douglass spoke out for fair and equal treatment for Negro troops. Douglass had two meetings in the White House with Lincoln, and during the second one in 1864, Lincoln, keeping the governor of New Jersey waiting, asked Douglass’s advice on a number of subjects.

As the 1864 presidential election drew near, many feared that Lincoln might lose. The platform of the Democrats, supported by their nominee George McClellan, who as a major general had led the Union troops under Lincoln, was to split the country North and South – with slavery remaining entrenched in the South. Douglass supported Lincoln in this election and the Republican Party for the rest of his life. After Lincoln won a resounding victory, he pushed for passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the federal constitution abolishing slavery.

The 2012 movie Lincoln does a fine job telling the story of how the House finally passed the amendment. In the end, the vote was 119-56, with 16 Democrats voting for it. However, 14 of the Democrats were lame ducks whose terms were over in March,1865 and had been promised patronage jobs by the Lincoln administration. Eight abstained. Once again, the Democratic Party was overwhelming pro-slavery.

Abolitionist leaders like Douglass were delirious with joy at the amendment’s passage. As the war drew to a close, Douglass was optimistic about changes that would come in the South. When President Lincoln gave his sublime Second Inaugural Address, Douglass wrote that “it was more like a sermon than a state paper.” Douglass attended the party at the White House following the Inauguration, and he was stopped by guards at the entrance. He insisted that Lincoln be told of his presence, and when Lincoln saw what was going on, he welcomed Douglass by booming out so all nearby could hear, “Here comes my friend Douglass. There is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours.”


Reconstruction (1865-1876)

During the sorry chapter in American life known as Reconstruction, great efforts were made by the Radical Republicans to consolidate politically the gains made by the North’s victory in the Civil War. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendment were passed. The first abolished slavery while the next two were designed to ensure that blacks were treated equally with whites – especially at the ballot box. When white Southerners fought back with the Ku Klux Klan and white mobs using violence, lynching, and murder, the Grant administration stationed troops in the South to see that justice was done. Despite the imposition of martial law in many parts of the South, there were shocking and terrible massacres of blacks in Memphis and New Orleans, and in many states, blacks were kept from voting by the use of terror and murder.

As one of the most prominent men in America, Douglass used his bully pulpit to fight for true reconstruction and racial justice. He was tireless in his speaking engagements, often venturing into the deep South to speak despite constant threats of violence and death. Douglass had hoped the Civil War would accomplish racial justice, but he came to realize that the struggle for black equality was just beginning. He wrote, “The settled habits of a nation are mightier than a statute.” But he never gave up. In 1876, the presidential election – the closest in American history – was finally settled by a commission of eight Republicans and seven Democrats. The commission decided for the Republican, Rutherford B. Hayes, but the price was that federal troops were withdrawn from the South. Jim Crow laws to the disadvantage of blacks became the iron policy of the South. Throughout this section of the book, the author often takes Republicans to task for not pushing through the Reconstruction policy of racial equality but rarely criticizes Democrats for their murderous behavior during this period nor the imposition of Jim Crowe for the next 80 years.


Final Years (1876-1895)

In 1872, a fire (most likely arson) destroyed Douglass’s home in Rochester, where he had lived for 21 years. Rather than rebuild his home, Douglass decided to move his large family in Washington D.C. to take advantage of his standing in the Reconstruction years as the most famous black statesman in the country. In 1877, President Hayes appointed him to the position of Marshal of Washington D.C. – a largely ceremonial position but with a salary that helped him sustain his family. In 1891, Douglass was appointed minister and consul general to Haiti, but he was not able to influence events due to the complicated military and political issues surrounding U.S.-Haitian relations. As Jim Crow laws permeated every aspect of culture in the South and racial inequality was the norm in the North, Douglass preached the need for self-reliance for blacks and for fair treatment of blacks by whites. His approach to interracial issues at this time was much the same as that of Booker T. Washington, whose star was rising. They admired each other, and Washington invited Douglass to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to give the commencement address in 1892.

Ten years earlier, Douglass’s beloved wife, Anna, who had been so instrumental in Douglass’s escaping slavery, died. Her funeral was an extraordinary public affair, with more than three thousand people in attendance. Two years later, Douglass married in a private ceremony Helen Pitts. She was a highly educated white woman, having graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1859, and an activist in other causes such as women’s rights and temperance. Their union was remarkable, as there had never been such an open interracial marriage by such a famous and important black man.

Douglass was energetic and active right up to his death. He died of a heart attack at home in 1895 at the age of 77. After the funeral in Washington, attended by a huge mixed-race audience of the great and small alike, his casket was taken through the streets of the city and and then to City Hall in New York City, where both Lincoln and Grant had laid in state. Then his body was taken to Rochester, New York for burial. His death unleashed an extraordinary outpouring of eulogies, articles, and remembrances in churches and towns throughout the country. 

The trajectory of Douglass’s life – from slave to self-made man to orator to statesman – was an inspiration to many. As a former slave, his intelligence and brilliance as an orator was something that few people ever forgot. His ability to engage the listener’s mind, body, and soul was unmatched. As a devout Christian, often drawing his themes from the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah, Douglass frequently appeared as a prophet right out of the Old Testament. His role in the leadership of the abolitionist movement was critical. His three autobiographies were read by hundreds of thousands – both here and abroad. He was one of the most photographed figures in the 19th century. And he was courageous – both intellectually and physically, braving countless mobs and brawlers, as he travelled across the country.

America would not see his like again until the 1950s, with the emergence of Martin Luther King.


Robert H. Bradley is Chairman of Bradley, Foster & Sargent Inc., a $3.8 billion wealth management firm that has offices in Hartford, Connecticut and Wellesley, Massachusetts. Read other articles by him here.