American Founder Frederick Douglass
A book review of Yale Historian David W. Blight’s masterful new biography of Frederick Douglass
If the animating spirit of the American experiment is to secure the blessings of liberty for the individual and for posterity then the preeminent founding father of America’s creed and country is Frederick Douglass. Few other people in the national history have advocated so beautifully, or so harrowingly, for human freedom and liberty as has the Sage of Cedar Hill. That his visage does not grace the stony permanence of Mount Rushmore alongside his junior counterparts of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln is a testament to the poverty of our country’s historical awareness and its enduring racial inequality. Until this error is remedied David W. Blight’s new biography — a book as weighty in its nearly 1,000 pages as Mount Rushmore’s ageless granite — must suffice as witness to the great man’s life.
Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom stands as the curious reader’s first stop in Douglass’s biographical corpus. Too often volumes from this school produce more of a symbol than a human in full. What emerges from Blight’s deep immersion into the life and times of his subject, however, is a well-written and honest account of the man more so than the myth. Here you’ll find not only the famous bardic hymns of human freedom and autonomy but also a portrait of the frailties and foibles of the man who produced them.
The song of freedom sounded early in young Frederick Douglass’s life. Born into slavery, his first act as a freedom fighter was the liberation of his own self. Though he later extolled the hard virtues of independence and self-reliance, his personal freedom was the result of a kind of group effort. Blight’s telling of this portion of his story starts with the wife of Douglass’ enslaver, Sophia Auld. Sophia taught Douglass the alphabet and in so doing served as an unwitting agent of Douglass’s liberation. His enslaver soon discouraged these lessons but it was too late. The young man had caught the reading bug. In passages that will move the heart of any booklover, Blight pages through the young life of a slave enamored of reading and the awesome effect this passion exercises over the mind. Douglass’s newfound love culminates in his fateful discovery of Caleb Bingham’s The Columbian Orator, a collection of political essays, poems, and speeches that celebrates not only eloquence and articulation but also, most importantly for young Douglass, the importance of human rights and the liberal natural rights tradition.
The Columbian Orator and the inspiration it lit in young Douglass’s soul blazed a path forward all the way through his daring escape from slavery, his career as an abolitionist expert in oratory and writing, his support of female suffrage, and, eventually, his role as a federal political operative in the nascent post-Civil War United States of America. And here is where Blight’s biography separates itself from other treatments of Douglass’s life. Blight’s telling of this journey is critical biography, not worshipful hagiography. Most books on Douglass, particularly his own autobiographies, understandably, present the American myth of the completely self-made man. Not so with Blight. Instead, what emerges is a portrait of a fully human individual, faults included.
Perhaps the most important addition that Blight adds to Douglass’s story is his depiction of Douglass’s wife, Anna Murray Douglass. If your only knowledge of Frederick Douglass comes from his autobiographies you’d be forgiven for forgetting that Douglass was ever married. Anna appears but scant little in the autobiographies and this is a real tragedy because the role she played in abolitionism in general and her husband’s life in particular is quite substantial. In terms of abolitionism she was a dedicated member of the Underground Railroad and she also offered domestic support to the Douglass home while her husband engaged in his ceaseless travels of oratory and advocacy in support of the abolitionist cause. Anna is also responsible for her husband’s escape to freedom, providing him money for the escape and clothing purloined from her work as a laundress.
He’s lucky to have met her and this luck of his seems to have followed him around, aiding in the building up of his career and success. Certainly Douglass’s industriousness and effort contributed to his success, more so than most things, but the role of good fortune and luck can’t be downplayed when looking at his life. His first lucky break, of course, is that he was taught to read when most others in his situation were not. He also got lucky when his enslaver sent him to Baltimore, a cosmopolitan port city teeming with opportunity, even for its enslaved population. Inexplicably, his enslaver even allowed Douglass to return to Baltimore after failed attempts to runaway. Luck also followed Douglass into freedom where he fell in with supportive members of the abolitionist movement, some of whom acted as financial benefactors for the rest of his life.
It is this quintessential American life that we celebrate today, and there are few better ways to celebrate it right now than to read Blight’s new biography. In it you’ll find the complicated and stirring story of a man who is at once easily slighted yet enduringly potent in his determination, a great moral philosopher yet also a potential adulterer, a towering individual of the abolitionist movement yet also but a part of the collective of that movement. With this book Blight achieves what Douglass himself sought after in his bid for freedom: the humanization of a man.