The Portable Humanist Podcast SeriesListen to Vermont Humanities talks while you’re on the go.
Writing the Life of Frederick Douglass
David Blight is Professor of American History at Yale University and is one of the foremost authorities on the Civil War and its legacy. In 2019, he won the Pulitzer Prize for History, for his biography of Frederick Douglass, “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.” Here he discusses Douglass’s life and explains why he calls him “The prose poet of American democracy.”
Professor Blight has spoken about Frederick Douglass – and other topics – for our First Wednesdays series of public lectures, and at several of our annual Fall Conferences, most recently in 2018.
David Blight: He lives for the great struggle over slavery in American political life. He lives for the Civil War. He lives in the Civil War. He has much, much, much to say about that. He lives through Reconstruction. He lives through the betrayal of Reconstruction, its defeat. And he lives to the beginnings of the Jim Crow system. It’s a long, epic life. And no one in 19th-century America had more to say, left us more to think about in his writing, than Frederick Douglass about all of those great issues.
Welcome to the Portable Humanist, the podcast where you can listen to Vermont Humanities talks and learn when you’re on the go. I’m Ryan Newswanger.
David Blight is Professor of American History at Yale University and Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance & Abolition. He is one of the foremost authorities on the Civil War and its legacy. In 2019, he won the Pulitzer Prize for History, for his biography of Frederick Douglass, “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.”
Professor Blight has spoken about Douglass – and other topics – for our First Wednesdays series of public lectures, and at several of our annual Fall Conferences, most recently in 2018.
When his talk at Bethany Church in Montpelier was cancelled due to the COVID 19 pandemic, he graciously agreed to record his lecture.
David Blight: And today I’m going to talk about this new biography that I wrote about Frederick Douglass. Now, I’ve lectured on Douglass before up in Vermont at different stages of this project. But what I’d like to do today is introduce you to Douglass and discuss how I organized this life of an extraordinary 19th-century American and talk about his meaning, how he might be useful to us right now, even in this kind of crisis we are undergoing with the Coronavirus and this test of our moral imagination, of our historical grounding, of our historical patience, and a test of how we perceive the relationship of people to government in a republic like ours.
David Blight: Douglass had much to say on all of these matters. I think I’d like to begin with just a passage from Douglass in the midst of the crisis of the Civil War. We’re in a crisis now and everyone has been saying that now for weeks. We are looking for analogies. We are looking for precedents.
David Blight We are using the term unprecedented it seems all the time, and some I events are to a degree unprecedented. And certainly this kind of pandemic in the United States, for that matter the rest of the globe, has few other parallels, certainly in the modern era.
David Blight But in the midst of the Civil War in the winter of 1864, February to be exact, Douglass took a speech on the road that winter called the “Mission of the War.” I’ll come back to more about who Douglass was and these ubiquitous speaking tours he would do. He wrote this speech in late fall 1863, not only a very short time after Lincoln crafted his Gettysburg Address, and the two speeches in effect had the same argument. Lincoln’s was very short. Douglass’s was rather long.
David Blight “Mission of the War” was a speech in which Douglass declared, and in the most robust terms, how this was a war caused by slavery. This was a war for the remaking of an American union, re-imagining of a US constitution, and a war to destroy slavery. In that speech, he called the purpose of the Civil War a national regeneration, he said. And that was the war’s, quote, “sacred significance.”
David Blight But he also said this: “The most hopeful fact of the hour,” said Douglass, “is that we are now in a salutary school—the school of affliction. If sharp and signal retribution, long protracted and overwhelming, can teach a great nation. It can teach a great nation respect for justice. Surely we will be taught now and for all time to come. A salutary school, a school of affliction to be taught by affliction.”
David Blight So what we’re undergoing, we’re undergoing an education by affliction? Probably—that’s what great crises do. We either face them or we don’t. We usually are changed by great crises. And of course, the Civil War changed America forever.
David Blight I want to go back to, though, why I did this book. It’s very important for me to say this, because without my encounter with Walter Evans, the great collector in Savannah, Georgia, I would never have written this book. I had done my first book on Douglass way back in graduate school. It was called Frederick Douglass: A Civil War. It is a much narrower treatment of the meaning of the Civil War and Douglass, his life and his ideas.
David Blight: I had edited editions of his first two autobiographies. I had written lots of essays on Douglass. I put the wonderful book, The Colombian Orator, back in print in 1997. That’s the book Douglass discovered as an eleven- and twelve-year-old that so inspired his life as an orator. Etcetera. I’ve written essays, and Douglass had been some piece or part of every other book I’ve ever written.
David Blight: But I had Douglass completely out of my life. He was gone for good until almost 13 years ago now, I went to Savannah, Georgia, to give yet another lecture on Frederick Douglass’s narrative, his first autobiography, to a group of middle and high school teachers.
David Blight: And as I arrived there, my host, which was the Georgia Historical Society—its chief historian, Stan Deaton, said that day something like there’s a local gentleman here who’s a collector and he’d like to go to lunch with us later. And I apparently said something rather inappropriate, like, I guess so. At least that’s the way they tell the story. And that day, I met Walter Evans. Walter is an African-American retired surgeon who grew up in segregated Savannah. He went north for his higher education to Howard University in Washington, D.C. Part of his education was also in Hartford, Connecticut. And then he went to the University of Michigan Medical School, and then worked as a general surgeon, a very successful general surgeon in Detroit for over 30 years. And that gave Walter and I a lot in common because I grew up in Flint, Michigan, just up the road from Detroit. We had a lot of Detroit and Michigan stories to share.
David Blight: But most importantly, that day when I met Walter, he took me over to his house, which is a big, beautiful brownstone on Jones Street in Savannah, if you’ve ever been there. And he got out on his dining room table, a major portion of this Douglass collection. And some of you out there around Vermont may be collectors, and you collectors are an eccentric lot. You buy from each other, you buy at auction, and some of you really know what you have. And Walter is one of those. He collects not only African-American manuscripts and rare books, but his art collection is in all likelihood even more important than his book and manuscript collection. He has one of the finest private collections of African-American art anywhere in the world.
David Blight: But that day I saw on his dining room table a major portion of his Douglass manuscript collection. The core of it consists of nine very large Douglass family scrapbooks that were kept largely by two of Douglass’s sons during the last 30-odd years of their father’s life. The collection also has a lot of family papers, a lot of letters, some extraordinary, indeed priceless short narratives by two of the sons. He had four surviving adult children, three sons and one daughter. But two of those sons wrote handwritten narratives or reminiscences of their parents, which are gold for a biographer. And it was not a “Road to Damascus” moment, I must confess to you. My first reaction was, Oh, my God. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to write a new biography of Douglass. That’s too big. That’s too hard. Let somebody else do that. And I took months to decide.
David Blight: And when my agent, Wendy Strothman, got wind of this, she was instructing me every day. “You’re gonna write this. You’re gonna do this.” “No, I’m not.” “Yes, you are.” “No, I’m not.” “Yes, you are.” Finally. Yes, I was.
David Blight Anyway, without encountering the Evans collection, I would never have written this biography. And here’s why it is so important. If Americans tend to know anything about Douglass, they tend to know the young Douglass. They tend to know the slave, the former slave who wrote that narrative when he was only 27 years old and published it in 1845. The greatest of all the slave narratives. They may have read it, read him in school. And it’s this young Douglass who escapes from slavery, who becomes the great orator.
David Blight: They might even know about the Douglass of the 1850s, who becomes this very prominent abolitionist, not only through his oratory, but through his newspaper and so on. They might even know something about Douglass’s role at the time of the Civil War.
David Blight: But they don’t know much at all about the older Douglass, the aging man, the post-Civil War Douglass, the Douglass who’s going to live all the way to 1895—thirty years after the Civil War and emancipation. [12.6s] It turns out—and this is where the Evans collection is so crucial—that collection largely covers the last third of Douglass’s life, and it is chock full of thousands of newspaper clippings which were kept by the sons. In fact, the family somewhere there in the 1880s hired a clipping service called the American Bureau so that everywhere Mr. Douglass went—and he did speaking tours every year for months on end at a time all across the north, and eventually even into parts of the Deep South. Wherever he went, clippings tended to come back from wherever he spoke. And this is a goldmine for a biographer. You get anecdotes, you get stories, you get the local event that happened in Kokomo, Indiana, or Racine, Wisconsin or Iowa City, Iowa or wherever, Ohio. Nothing against Ohio.
David Blight: So it turns out, as many of you out there in this audience possibly know, aging can be fascinating. What happens to this patriarch, this man who is at the head of a very large extended family—four surviving adult children, twenty-one grandchildren, two or three fictive siblings who at various times adopted him or he adopted them. And often a variety of other hangers-on who were always around Douglass because he was Douglass, because of his fame and sometimes because they thought he had a lot of money, which he didn’t really. What happens to this aging patriarch? Well, he’s got at times what we moderns would call a rather dysfunctional family.
David Blight His sons had had terrible struggles getting and keeping good jobs and employment. His daughter Rosetta, who had the best education of his children, made a terrible marriage to a Civil War soldier, a former slave, a fugitive slave named Nathan Sprague, with whom she had seven children. But that didn’t work out very well.
David Blight What happens, furthermore, to an old radical outsider, you know, the old radical abolitionist who experiences in the middle of his life—he’s only in his 40s at the time of the war and of emancipation and this transformation—what happens to that old radical outsider when he becomes a kind of political insider? When he begins to get a toe—more than a toe—inside the Republican Party, and then a toe inside the federal government, eventually with three different kinds of appointments in the federal bureaucracy? Marshal of the District of Columbia, Recorder of Deeds in the District of Columbia, which were salaried jobs; and eventually a US minister to Haiti. From three different American presidents. What happens to that old radical outsider who becomes a kind of a political operator? What kinds of deals does he make? What kinds of compromises did he have to make with principle? That’s fascinating.
David Blight And what happens to the old leader, the aging leader? This greatest spokesman of his race, as he was often called. What happens to that great leader when the next generation comes along, the next generation, particularly of younger black male leaders, all of whom were born free and were college educated? And here’s Douglass with no formal education whatsoever. Well, what happened is what always happens between generations: the next generation wanted to knock him off. And it turns out Douglass didn’t want to be knocked off his pedestal. And he often threw mud back at his rivals, sometimes even worse than they threw at him. That’s fascinating, too.
David Blight The aging Douglass, it turns out, is truly interesting. Real, in some ways quite modern. So it’s the Evans collection that opened up that final third of Douglass’s life.
David Blight And I again say all tribute to Walter and Linda Evans, who invited me into their home, and indeed once I committed to doing this book, I spent, I don’t know, probably at least six Yale spring breaks in Savannah, Georgia. I always stayed in a B&B or a cheap hotel, and the Evanses only had two rules for me, by the way. One was don’t come before 8:00 a.m., which was fine. And the other was never put your coffee cup on the same table with the docu ments. Always my coffee was off in the corner. Those are the only rules. I could stay as long as I wanted. And I did, days on end. I stayed into the evening many days. Their dining room table became my archive. And in some ways, the greatest archive I’ve ever worked in.
David Blight So those of you who have this book, or if you get this book, you’ll note that I dedicated the book to Walter and Linda Evans and to my best friend, who died as I was writing the book, Jeffrey Ferguson.
David Blight: Now, who’s Douglass? Well. He’s born in 1818, out along a little horseshoe bend in the Tuckahoe River on the eastern shore of Maryland, across the Chesapeake. He’s born nobody from nowhere. A slave from that region had little, if any, chance of ever escaping, although a significant number of fugitive slaves did escape out of Maryland and particularly out of the eastern shore. Harriet Tubman is another famous one. But still the odds were against him.
David Blight What made it possible for him to ultimately escape was moving to Baltimore, or being sent to Baltimore. He will spend 20 years as a slave. Nine of those 20 he spent in the city of Baltimore. He went back and forth between Baltimore and the Eastern Shore. But by being in Baltimore, he was in an urban center. He was in a maritime port, a great port.
David Blight He saw the great clipper ships. He worked in the docks. He worked in a shipyard. He learned skills as a caulker, and many other skills. He learned how to work with tools. And he lived among—and this is terribly important—he lived among a very large free black population. In the year Douglass escaped from slavery in 1838, there were about 3,000 slaves in the city of Baltimore, but there were about 17,000 free blacks.
David Blight: It was in that community that he walked about, lived, attended church, got engaged in a debating society, made friends, met his first wife, his betrothed, his fiance, Anna-Marie, and managed to begin to imagine a world that was bigger and larger. He referred to those years in Baltimore as his “Baltimore dreams.” Which, of course, meant getting out, becoming free. Escaping.
David Blight: He’ll spend nine years as a fugitive slave in the 1830s and 1840s. Now, but as I mentioned, he is going to live all the way to 1895. It’s a long, epic life. And look what happened in the middle of it. Slavery. Which he experienced himself emotionally, psychically, physically, and about every aspect it could throw at a young human being. He lives for the great struggle over slavery in American political life and had much, much to say about that. He lives for the Civil War. He lives in the Civil War. He has much, much, much to say about that. He lives through Reconstruction. He lives through the betrayal of Reconstruction, its defeat. And he lives to the beginnings of the Jim Crow system, the Jim Crow era, and especially to the beginning of the horrible era lynching by the 1890s. It’s an epic life. It’s a long, epic life. And no one in 19th-century America had more to say, left us more to think about in his writing, than Frederick Douglass about all of those great issues.
David Blight: Let me give you a sense now of how and why I organized this book. Now, I will wrap up with just a kind of fairly rapid-fire list of why Douglass is still significant, still so important in a whole variety of legacies right to this minute. Now, any biographer has to kind of find a way to impose some order on his or her subject. If anybody writes your biography someday, they’re gonna go to whatever sources you left for them or that others could assemble about you, and they’re going to have to put that in some order. We do. We tend to kind of impose some kind of order on this disorderly past. It isn’t just some perfect lining it up and telling it in the order that it all happened, although I do believe biography should be done in a pretty careful chronological order because that’s how we live life. So I organized this story, and it is a story, around basically six themes. There are others, but this is how I had to understand my own throughlines if you want the big themes.
David Blight: And I wasn’t always aware exactly of what the throughlines were when I was doing it. But as the book went on and I kept writing chapter after chapter, and one chapter would sort of morph into the next, always my outline would be there in front of me, but it would change a bit. Lives have that way of changing. But I finally came up with basically six ways to organize this life.
David Blight The first was—or themes if you want—the first is words. It’s as simple as that. Words. Douglass is all about language. He’s all about his words. He became a genius with words. Precisely how is not always easy to discern, although how he came by literacy while he was a slave, how he came by the uses of that literacy, how he came by his passion for literacy—we do know a good deal about that. Just exactly why he was so good at capturing an event or a process in history with this metaphor or that metaphor or that story is always, like any great writer, a mystery. But words. He was a man of words. He wrote millions of words. He wrote twelve hundred pages of autobiography. Three of them. The first in 1845, Narrative of the Life. The second one in 1855, his long-form masterpiece, My Bondage and My Freedom, about a four hundred and thirty page autobiography. He writes the third one in 1881, the aging man summing up this life and doing a lot of name dropping, but also giving us a treasure trove of detail about a lot of events. That one’s called The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. And he revised that again eleven years later, in 1892, and added six chapters.
David Blight: He wrote hundreds and hundreds of the short-form political editorials in his newspaper, first called the North Star, later called Frederick Douglass’s Paper, which he edited for 16 years between 1847 and 1863, the longest-lasting black abolitionist newspaper in the 19th century. Douglass was a journalist and a very good one, although that newspaper barely survived the times. He wrote one novella called The Heroic Slave in 1852. Would that he had tried fiction more often. He actually wrote quite a bit of poetry, too. But he tended to be the kind of poet who put his poetry in the drawer. Actually, that’s where most of it belonged. Poetry in verse was not his best suit. Poetry and prose was. I’ll come back to that. And lastly, the speeches—the orations, some of the greatest orations of American history. The Fourth of July speech of 1852, now widely read on the Fourth of July in communities around America. I believe you do it in Vermont. The Mission of the War speech, which I already quoted, from the midst of the Civil War. His famous self-made man speech and many, many, many others down to the last great speech of his life, called The Lessons of the Hour, which was all about lynching, that he first put together and in a certain draft in 1893, and he will give all across the country in 1894 up to within basically a month or so before he died in early 1895. It’s in the speeches that many Americans first encountered Douglass now. Millions of words. He’s a creature of words.
David Blight The second big theme of the book, and I’ve already named it, are the autobiographies themselves. The autobiography, as it turns out in Douglass’s case, are both source and subject. They are a source, they’re a tremendous source, especially for his early life while he was a slave. But they’re also a subject in the sense that you have to keep explaining why did this man keep writing about himself? Why does he keep writing his life over and over and over? Was it just pure vanity? Did he need the money? The answer is yes to that. And actually, his first two autobiographies sold very, very well. But there are other reasons. Douglass came to believe that he had really—well, first of all, he understood very early on words were really his only weapon. Language was the only real power that he had. Henceforth, his story was his great possession, his source of power, and the club, if you like, with which he could beat on his country’s conscience.
David Blight: But I also think it’s important to note here that Douglass came to—I believe he came to— understand that his story didn’t just belong to him. His story was now a possession he had to share. It was a burden he had to tell over and over: the slave who would become free, who would achieve some kind of significance, if not indeed greatness, in a country that confined black people to slavery. And then at best, second-class citizenship, and at worst, a people the objects of terror, the objects of brutal discriminations, and the objects of murder.
David Blight: So: words and the autobiographies. And I have to say, too, about the autobiographies, Douglass in those twelve hundred pages reveals very, very little about his private life, his personal standing. And we learned something of that from his early life. But his family, his two marriages, his relationships with his sons and daughter, even his relationships with rivals and compatriots and associates and the anti-slavery movement—Douglass’s private life is essentially off-limits in the autobiographies. To get at that part of his life, you have to find other means. You have to get in by side doors. You have to get in from the letters he left us to work with and the letters other people wrote to him and about him.
David Blight: In fact, as a biographer, I have this—all biographers have this—great fantasy that we want to get our subject. We want to bring him back to life, sit them down in a room, have at them for hours if we can. My fantasy is Douglass in a seminar room with no windows. The doors are locked. He can’t get out. No bathroom breaks. And I get to have at him with my long list of questions that he never fully answered for us. And I might even invite a few other Douglass scholars with me to just help me. I have a lot of questions to ask.
David Blight: Third big theme in this book, and it’s very important, is the Bible—simply the story of the ways in which Douglass became so steeped in the Bible. And I mean the Bible now as a source of storytelling, a source of wisdom, a source of metaphor, a source of, even, characters. As much as I mean as a source of faith now, Douglass does begin, without question, with a deep Christian faith. In his youth and into his early adulthood, he never, ever gave up on this kind of providential conception of history. He never relinquished his kind of millennial apocalyptic vision of history. His own personal faith did alter with time, I don’t think there’s any question about that. He became more of a skeptic in his personal beliefs. But that’s less my subject in this book than it is the way Douglass came to use the Bible as a literary source. And it’s all over his rhetoric. Virtually every major Douglass speech is laced, if not driven, by a metaphor that is almost always from the Old Testament. His favorite book of the Bible was Isaiah. So was Jeremiah. Ezekiel. He would use Genesis at times, especially the Noah’s Ark story. The Bible was his source of resolve, of ancient wisdom, of metaphor, and as I’ve said now, story-telling.
David Blight: Now, I had a tremendous dilemma with this and writing this book, I’ll be very honest with you. And that dilemma was I wanted to use the word “prophet” in the title. And I, of course, did. There it is. But “prophet” is a big word. You can’t just throw that around like candy or popcorn. You don’t use the word “prophet” without being clear on what you mean. At least I don’t think we should. We throw it around though often, don’t we? Oh, that was prophetic because somehow somebody said something that ended up predictive. That’s not prophecy. [39.0s] I had trouble with this subject because I don’t have formal theological training, but I do have some friends who do theology and they were very helpful to me, especially Donald Shriver, who used to be the president of Union Theological Seminary in New York City. A rabbi here in New Haven, Connecticut, named Jim Ponet. And then a couple other people who also helped me—my friend Richard Rabinowitz. They all guided me to whom to read both the Old Testament in particular. They told me to read Robert Alter; Don Schriver told me to read Walter Brueggemann, [a] great scholar of the Old Testament who wrote dozens of books. But Don Shriver sat me down and said, you got to read this, this, and that by Brueggemann. And it was Jim Ponet, my friend, the rabbi, who told me, David, you had to read Abraham Heschel. And I did.
David Blight: And I am embarrassed to say I had never read Heschel before about four years ago. And thank God I did. Heschel was the great Jewish theologian, or one of the greatest, of the 20th century. He wrote many, many books. But in his book entitled The Prophets, written in the 1950s, a very long tome, he has many definitions of what a prophet was and is. His template is, of course, the Hebrew prophets of the Old Testament. And in this tradition— although Heschel would never use the term “Judeo-Christian”—in that tradition, the prophets were those storytellers, if you like, who found somehow the language to capture the pain in life. The great transformations in history, the most difficult things that are happening to people, the prophet was that person—that Jeremiah, that Isaiah, that Ezekiel—who could find the words to explain what was happening to people when almost everyone else could not find those words.
David Blight: Here’s just one of Heschel’s many definitions of what is a prophet: “The prophet,” said Abraham Heschel, “is human. Yet he employs notes one octave too high for our ears. He experiences moments that defy our understanding. He is neither a singing saint nor a moralizing poet, but an assaulter of our minds. Often his words begin to burn where our conscience ends.”
David Blight: An assaulter of our mind. The prophet is the person who says the things to us we don’t want to hear, who reminds us of what we deny. Who reminds us of the history that we step around, don’t want to face, and don’t want to be touched by. The prophets are there to trouble us, to make us not feel good. If a prophet just makes you feel good, then he’s not a real prophet.
David Blight: In fact, if you meet somebody who says they’re a prophet, they’re not. Prophets don’t declare they’re a prophet. They have to earn it, they have to show it, have to demonstrate it in words, —usually in words, sometimes in actions. Heschel at another point said the true prophet is that person who has probably been shattered by something in life so in order that they can then shatter us. Prophets don’t make us feel good. They’re not fun to have lunch with.
David Blight The more and more I read Heschel and Brueggemann, Robert Alter, and others, more and more I began to see there in their writings passages where I would realize, Oh, aha, that’s Douglass. Whoops, aha, that’s Douglass. He had that ability to find the words the rest of us can hear, the rest of us can’t find. He had that ability to come up with the music of words to explain our condition. If you read Douglass, you will realize that.
David Blight: The fourth, fifth, and sixth big themes of this book I can do fairly quickly. And by the way, each of these I tried to weave throughout, not just taking one section here and one section there to cover one of these themes. They’re all interrelated. But the fourth I’ve already named, I’ve already mentioned. It is: How did this radical old outsider, through a crooked path, become a political insider? It’s a fascinating story. And as soon as he becomes a public person in the 1840s, I try to develop this part of his life. And it, of course, comes into full relief when you get to the postwar Douglass, to the reconstruction years and Douglass’s life. The fifth big theme is what every biographer has to try to do, especially in modern biography. You have to find the right balance somehow between the public life and the private life, especially if this is a very public person. And Douglass was a very public person who eventually had a rather extreme problem with this idea of fame.
David Blight: But Douglass didn’t write about his private life, as I mentioned, and so you have to find other ways to get at it. Now, I had several little vows with myself in writing this book, and some of them I upheld and some of them I think I probably did not very well. But one of my vows was to never, never separate these two, private and public, if I could help it. That there would be no chapter that was just solely private or just solely public. There wouldn’t be a chapter just on the wives or on the children or on this friendship with so-and-so, or just a chapter on some aspect of his public performance. No, they had to be woven together because that is the way we live our lives. You don’t get up every day—except maybe now during the Coronavirus—and live only your private life if you’re a public person. In fact, even those of us who are isolated and completely stranded at home right now are bursting out. We’re trying to find some way to have a public life. We’re looking for connection, however we can get it. In my teaching, [like] everyone is right now, I’m trying to teach online. I’m teaching remote, I’m teaching by Zoom, I’m teaching into this camera. But it is an attempt to have that public persona, which is partly what teaching is—private learning committed to public purpose. We don’t just live a private life or a public life any given day. Maybe on Thanksgiving you want to live a private life. By the end of the day with old Uncle Harry, you wished you were back in public.
David Blight: Anyway, last but not least, the sixth big theme of the book. And again, as soon as Douglass becomes a public person in the 1840s, I weave this in and then throughout, I hope. And that is Douglass the intellectual. Douglass the artist. Douglass the writer. The performer, the orator, the journalist. And in recent years, we have seen that scholars in many disciplines have finally come to treat Douglass as a serious intellectual.
David Blight: There are no less than three books on Douglass by political philosophers. They especially are attracted to Douglass’s profound embrace, through most of his public life, of the natural rights tradition that he draws from the Enlightenment, from the Declaration of Independence, from the secular revolutionary enlightenment of the Age of Revolution in the late 18th century. Law professors have discovered Douglass and written lots of essays on Douglass’s constitutional thought, especially his embrace in the 1850s of the anti-slavery interpretation of the Constitution. Literary critics have been studying Douglass for decades now. That especially kicked in in the 1970s and into the 80s, when in black literary criticism almost everybody doing it had to cut their teeth on writing an essay on Douglass’s narrative. Douglass’s literary strategies have been the subject of serious literary criticism now for many, many years.
David Blight: Some of us have treated him as quite a theorist or a thinker about both individual and collective memory. He became a profound spokesman of trying to preserve or forge what I’ve called an abolitionist or emancipationist memory of the Civil War. I wrote a whole book called Race and Reunion where Douglass is a major, major figure—about how the memory of the Civil War was processed in the 50 years after the event. And now even Douglass, as the religious and theological thinker, some of us have not taken that quite seriously as well. So there’s Douglass, the artist, the intellectual.
David Blight: And I’ll venture one thing with you. You know, when you’re writing biography, you always end up with certain aspects of your subject’s life that you just can’t know for sure. And there are other things you actually do know. And I’m almost certain that if I could get Douglass in this room across from the seminar table from me and I could ask him a question like, “So, Mr. Douglass, what about your life and your achievements are you most proud?” Now, his initial response would probably be that, say, something about his sons who were in the Union Army, or—I don’t know— maybe that he was US minister to Haiti. He’d probably go for some kind of public thing like that, but I’d push him even more. I’d say, “No, no, no, sir. In your own work.” And I’m almost certain he would say, “Well, that I became a writer. That I am a writer.”
David Blight: That a former slave could write his story, could write his way into history, could write so much poignant, discerning analysis of race, of racism, of the nature of slavery, of what the Civil War meant, of what it meant to destroy slavery, of what it meant to recreate the US Constitution through those three great amendments, and what it meant to see that defeated and betrayed. I think he would say that “I’m a writer.” I can’t prove that. That’s what I think.
David Blight All right. Now to end, let me just run you through a few ideas. And these, by the way, come out of, now, frankly, a year and a half of doing book talks on this book all across the country and the kinds of questions I’ve been asked. I’ve been asked so many different kinds of questions in the Q&A process. And by the way, I want to say the audiences I have come to appreciate most—and I mean this—are audiences like you, humanities councils, which draw in the public, the discerning, reading public that cares about history, that cares about books and cares about knowledge. Audiences at bookstores—and I’ve spoken in many bookstores, some great bookstores, which right now are all closed down and pray to God are going to survive this era of Corona. I love speaking in public libraries, and I have indeed spoken in the Brattleboro Public Library and others in Vermont. Give me this public audience anytime, frankly, rather than another history department. But anyway, this little list that comes out of responses and questions I’ve been feeling over the past year or so.
David Blight: First, we’re remembering Douglass now, we’re thinking about him. We’re yearning for people like him because Douglass was the prose poet of American democracy. He found a way with words, as I have said, to capture the meaning of this thing called America, especially if it could be, in effect, destroyed and recreated, destroyed and redeemed, destroyed and reimagined. Which is what happened with the Civil War.
David Blight: Secondly, I think, with unsurpassed eloquence he explained the nature of slavery in both physical and mental terms. If you want to understand what slavery was, what slavery did to the broad society, what slavery did to slave holders, to their minds, and what slavery did to the psyche—not just the bodies, but the psyche of the enslaved—no better place to look than Douglass’s writings, and particularly in the autobiographies.
David Blight: Third: He expressed—I think with a kind of terrible honesty, and sometimes a savage irony—both the power of America’s creeds, our basic creeds, and our propensity for hypocrisy, or the hypocrisy with which his country contradicted and denied those creeds. Irony was Douglass’s mode, and sometimes bitter irony. Read the Fourth of July speech; that’s its lifeblood.
David Blight: Four: It was amazing to have access to all these newspaper clippings about Douglass’s many, many, many travels out on the lecture circuit, because what I became aware of is that to see and to hear Douglass became a kind of wonder of the American world. Seeing Niagara Falls was a wonder of the American world. Seeing New York City was a wonder of the American world. But it is amazing how many people recorded the day they saw Douglass, the one time they saw Douglass speak. What he sounded like, what he looked like. Douglass was an American phenomenon to be seen, to be heard, to be in the presence of.
David Blight: Fifth: In this mode of legacies, he was a women’s rights man in an age when there weren’t very many women’s rights men. Now that’s a complicated story, of course. Douglass was one of the few male speakers—he was the only black male speaker—at the Seneca Falls Convention in upstate New York in 1848. He signed the Declaration of Sentiments at Seneca Falls, and of course embracing women’s suffrage. He was in favor of women’s economic rights. He supported the bill in the state of New York that would have given women relative equal rights in terms of economic affairs, like rights to private property after a divorce. That bill never got through the New York state legislature, but he supported it.
David Blight: He was always a women’s rights man. In fact, when he came back from the Seneca Falls convention in 1848, the masthead on his newspaper, which he had just founded, was “Right is of no color or sex.” That was on the masthead of his paper. Now, he’s going to later have, of course, a terrible falling out with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and a few other leaders of the women’s suffrage movement, although not all of them. And that’ll be over the 15th Amendment of 1869 and ’70. The 15th Amendment was finally put into law and voted out of Congress and eventually ratified. It only gave the right to vote to men. It was an amendment largely to devise a means to use the black male vote. Now, everyone knew that if you put women’s suffrage into the 15th Amendment, it never would have been passed. It never would have gotten out of Congress. An all-male Congress. And so in the wake of that, Susan Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton blew up. They had run out of patience. That part was understandable. They had given up their cause during the war while it was the black man’s hour, as it was said. But now they weren’t going to wait any longer. And they fought back, and they threw the rhetoric back, and they used the N-word. And they said terrible things about uneducated black men going to the polls when sophisticated white ladies couldn’t. And they attacked Douglass in vicious ways. It was one of the most difficult collisions or episodes of Douglass’s life. He took most of it like a gentleman, but not all of it.
David Blight: Sixth: Douglass could be a radical thinker and an advocate of a kind of political liberalism at the same time. He could be a radical thinker sometimes. But then other times, he was a kind of 19th-century liberal in the sense that he wanted to work through institutions. He preferred reform to revolution. Most of the time, though not all the time. The fascinating thing about Douglass is you can’t keep him in any one box. Sometimes he is basically a revolutionary. Other times, no, no, no, no. He’s a reformer. Many examples of that. If you read the book, I hope you find them.
David Blight: Seventh: At times—and how many other people can you think about in this sense, perhaps yourselves—at times he both loved and hated his own country. Hmm? Loved and hated his own country. Have we not all maybe at times in our lives, if we’ve lived long enough and through enough events, enough transformations, enough hideous leadership as opposed to great leadership, to remember those times when we might love our creeds but hate the way we abuse them?
David Blight: He strongly believed—and you can see here now I’m giving you a kind of litany of contradictions, can’t fit Douglass into any box—he strongly believed in a kind of self-reliance for black people. Self-reliance. Lift yourselves up, bootstraps ideology. Yeah. He believed that, he preached it. In a century when you had to. But at the same time, he fiercely fought for activist interventionist government to free slaves, defeat the Confederacy, and protect black citizens against terror and discrimination.
David Blight: He was both a preacher of self-reliance and an advocate of activist intervention as government. There’s no reason you couldn’t be or can’t be both. The trouble is today, the American right, especially the libertarian American right, loves to appropriate Frederick Douglass as this prophet, they say, of the self-made man and of self-reliance, and they pluck quotes—they have some favorite ones—out of context to try to portray Douglass as one of them. As a kind of early libertarian who was somehow a believer in limited government. Which he was not.
David Blight: Ninth: It’s a fairly lengthy list, but it is only a few more. Douglass forged a hard-earned kind of pragmatism out of his own political experience. Out of a kind of disappointment at times, out of a despair at times, and sometimes out of tremendous victories. A pragmatism in the true philosophical sense, in the William Jamesian sense, a pragmatism that doesn’t just say, “Oh, I will do what works.” No, it’s the pragmatism that says I will have the humility to know that I don’t have everything figured out. That I have to remain, as much as is humanly possible, a creature of an open mind, willing to change my strategy from this to that or from this to that in order to achieve the ultimate aim. His was a hard-earned kind of pragmatism.
David Blight: Tenth: I’d argue, and I do in the book, that Douglass was fundamentally not a self-made man, despite all the claims that he made himself to a degree and that people today, particularly on the political right, want to make about him. There were many people who helped make him, especially women, from his grandmother, his mother—although he hardly knew her—to his two wives, Anna of 44 years, and Julia Griffiths, his extremely important dear friend, [a] British woman who came over and for six years helped him edit his newspaper, help raise money for it. Without Julia Griffiths, that newspaper would never have survived. There were other women abolitionists who aided him, helped him, raised money for him, [who] were his sounding boards. There were men who were his sounding boards, like his dear friend James McCune Smith, the black abolitionist physician doctor, highly formally educated, alter ego of Douglass’s, who wrote the introduction for his second autobiography, My Bondage and Freedom, which is really the first biography ever written of Douglass.
David Blight: Eleventh: This picks up one of my big themes in the book. Douglass seized the King James language of the Bible and used it to deliver the most enduring critique of slavery, the coming of disunion, civil war, emancipation, reconstruction and beyond that any American delivered.
David Blight: And twelfth: I would say we remember Douglass because there was always a kind of morality to his politics. Doesn’t mean he was always right. Doesn’t mean that he always had the high ground by any means. There are issues I could point to, like the Kansas Exodus, like his venture into the Freedman’s Bank, which failed miserably on his watch. There are others. But with Douglass, there was a moral core to the purpose of his politics, which I think we desperately yearn for today.
David Blight Now, I think I will end here with just one quote, a very simple passage from Douglass. It’s actually I think on this poster; I’ve had all sorts of wonderful posters that have come out for various talks I’ve given. I forget where this one was. Oh, Randolph College in Virginia. But anyway, when Douglass got to the end of his second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom—as I mentioned earlier, this is his long-form masterpiece—it’s ten years after the first autobiography. He’s no longer a Garrisonian abolitionist. He’s no longer a practitioner of moral suasion alone. He’s become a very political abolitionist. He’s even now very openly advocating or flirting with the possible uses of violence as a means of destroying slavery. Although he had no perfect prescriptions as to how that was to be done.
David Blight: But when he got to the ending—you know, endings as a writer are important. You build up to endings. You don’t quite know where endings are going until you get there, and you hope something happens and makes a good ending. It was his ending, and I’m slightly paraphrasing, but he said “As long as heaven allows me to do this work, I will never forget my humble origins. And I will do it with my voice, my pen, and my vote.” My voice, my pen, my vote.
David Blight ]I’ve loved that line ever since I first read it, I think. I use it a lot. I even have a t-shirt with that quote on the back. Because it’s all any of us have. Unless you have great wealth and you believe you can somehow live above the rest of the society—and man, are people getting a lesson in that right now in the time of Corona—unless you believe you can somehow live above the rest of us, it’s all any of us have. Our voice, our pen, and our vote. And most of us don’t even have the pen. We have a voice and a vote.
That’s Pulitzer Prize winner David Blight, speaking about Frederick Douglass. He’s the author of “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.”