FREDERICK DOUGLASS: Prophet of Freedom, by David W. Blight. Simon & Schuster, 888 pp., $37.50.
Frederick Douglass’ journey from slavery to freedom to renown is one of the astounding stories of 19th-century America. Born Fredrick Bailey in 1818 on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to a slave woman and a white man whose identity remains unknown, Douglass made a daring escape from captivity in 1838, settled in the North — he lived in Rochester for many years — and quickly emerged as a star orator and ferocious abolitionist. With an almost unmatched rhetorical firepower, Douglass mounted a devastating critique of slavery, its psychological effects on both master and enslaved, and its dire meanings for the Republic. Self-taught, Douglass was blessed with abundant literary gifts that he showcased in hundreds of articles and a series of classic autobiographies.
In one of the year’s most impressive biographies, Yale historian David W. Blight captures the many sides of this complex man. Blight has spent the better part of his scholarly career pondering Douglass’ odyssey. Even if the author's prose can shade into a fulsome ripeness, "Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom" is superb. It gives a full portrait of Douglass’ political evolution, his family life and the emotional upheavals born of Douglass’ unlikely trajectory from slave to, as he often put it, a “self-made man.”
Blight methodically details the emergence of Douglass as a prominent figure in the years leading up to the Civil War and the fractious tendencies of the antislavery movement. Tall and strikingly handsome — he was often photographed in elegant garb and starched white shirts — Douglass was a defiant speaker, melding Old Testament thunder with sarcasm, irony and withering scorn. Christian wrath resonated in his speeches denouncing the nation’s vile compact with slavery: “Oh! be warned! be warned! A horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation's bosom,” he told the audience at a July Fourth address in 1852. “The venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic.”
Douglass moved from the tutelage of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and the extreme pacifist wing of the movement into political agitation and an embrace of righteous violence. As Blight observes, Douglass’ calls for vengeance were partly a salve to the wounds, both physical and emotional, inflicted on him by slavery. He forged a close friendship with fanatical abolitionist John Brown, though he (wisely) declined to participate in the doomed raid on Harpers Ferry, which the fiery Brown hoped would stoke a slave uprising.
Amid a demanding speaking schedule that took him from Ohio to Ireland, Douglass watched his family grow. He had five children with wife Anna, herself an ex-slave. Yet he sought the companionship of other women who were more his intellectual equal; Blight provides a sensitive account of his controversial relationships with Julia Griffiths Crofts, an English abolitionist, and Ottilie Assing, a German activist and editor. Both spent extended periods of time in the Douglass household. It was a unique multiracial experiment, even if it put great strain on Anna. Douglass was devoted to his sometimes wayward offspring: “Slavery had denied him a father; he would never let that happen to his children,” Blight explains.
Douglass took stern delight in the immediate aftermath of Confederate secession. “Douglass wanted the clarity of polarized conflict,” Blight writes. “He wanted war.” He had hoped the newly formed Republican Party would embrace, in his words, “the brave and inspiring march of a storming party,” but he settled for the “slow processes of a cautious siege.” Still, he furiously rebuked Abraham Lincoln, later a friend, for Lincoln’s initial caution about the slavery issue and reluctance to take up the cause of abolition. Douglass believed this should be the singular focus of the Union cause: “No war but an Abolition war,” he thundered in 1864, as the conflict reached its grim climax. “No peace but an Abolition peace; liberty for all, chains for none; the black man a soldier in war, a laborer in peace.” Douglass agitated for equal pay for black soldiers, a vexing issue in Union armies. (Two of his sons served: One, Lewis, was seriously wounded in South Carolina serving with the famed 54th Massachusetts black regiment.)
Blight does not scant the last third of Douglass’ life — he died in Washington, D.C., in 1895 — nor the brief triumphs of Reconstruction. Douglass fought vigorously for black (male) suffrage, only to see a violent white counterrevolution eclipse the gains of emancipation. To the charge that Douglass lapsed into quiescence and conservatism, Blight is forthright: “He kept his fangs filed on issues of racism, violence, states’ rights, and the nation’s memory.” Douglass endures as central figure in the great saga of race and slavery in America.