Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight
★★★ An authoritative account of an important historical figure. But I felt after reading this book that I had neither perceived the mind of the man nor fully grasped his impact on history.
Douglass is an interesting figure: an escaped slave, a generationally-talented writer and orator, a man who dedicated his life in all aspects to a single cause: abolition, or more generally black rights. He was remarkably driven, courageous, and unwavering when it came to this cause, and he inspired wherever he went. Traveling constantly in service of his work, he was also an absentee father to a dysfunctional family and an adulterer. He was focused to the point of myopia on his mission. But it was the right mission, and he was born at the right time to witness, and play a role in bringing about, singificant progress.
Douglass was absolutely sure of his cause from his first day to his last. Beyond that, he was highly malleable – on principles, ideology, and political strategy, he would hold strong views but often reverse himself, and this seems less a matter of personal evolution than expedience, taking whatever position appeared most useful to the cause at the time. (It’s also interesting that his belief in black equality didn’t prevent him from consistently espousing racist views of Irish and Native Americans.)
He consistently advocated self-reliance, seeing himself as a self-made man, though of course his creation required not only a great deal of talent and personal drive, but also turns of great fortune. As an escaped slave and abolitionist crusader, he often looking with disdain upon both slaves and emancipated blacks for not rising up with him, lamenting that “we ourselves are unconcerned and even contented with our condition.” “I detest the slaveholder, and almost equally detest a contented slave. They are both enemies of freedom.”
Douglass was an absolutist and fought compromise throughout his life. While perhaps this maximized his impact – though it’s hard to tell from this book what exactly that was – it was less a strategic position than the only approach he could imagine. For example, he was deeply ambivalent about Lincoln up to the point of emancipation (and in some ways, beyond), publishing negative perspectives in the run up to the 1860 election, although eventually coming to support him. He was looking for radical ideological orthodoxy and revolution, not political pragmatism, however well-meaning it was, and he beat the drum for the Civil War as an opening to achieve abolition. In many ways, he was naive about politics (as about business and smaller-scale organizational politics) – but then politics was not his field. The book’s portrayal of Douglass as a Jeremiah-style prophet seems right on.
There are two areas I wish the book had given more of a complete account of Douglass – although perhaps both are asking the impossible given the primary sources.
First, though we have a complete recounting of his words and opinions on issues, and what may be termed his “character,” after 900 pages I still feel like I have very little understanding of Douglass’s inner life. For any issue beyond slavery, how does he feel, what does he think, what are his fears? He was very guarded and carefully managed his image (writing no less than three biographies!), so perhaps there is no evidence in the historical record to speak to these questions. But I couldn’t say I know Douglass, the man, nearly as well as I feel I know some other historical figures.
Second, it’s hard to trace the direct lines from the work of Douglass and other abolitionists back to political events like Lincoln’s election, the Civil War, abolition, and black suffrage. These seem to exist almost as parallel tracks, and while Douglass himself interacts with Lincoln and others, it’s hard to tell how much he’s influencing them as opposed to being paid respect (or even managed). Presumably his decades of speaking and publishing for the abolition cause contributed to pro-abolitionist sentiment in the general population. But this is never made clear, and the only place I can recall the book drawing a direct line from abolitionist work to popular opinion or political events is after John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.
It seems likely that the historical record cannot provide clarity on either of these issues. However, to my mind they are some of the most interesting questions about Douglass’s life, and there must be a literature of opinions on them. I would have welcomed some discussion – even speculation, with the appropriate caveats – from the author.