FREDERICK DOUGLASS: PROPHET OF FREEDOM By David Blight reviewed by Eric Foner


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Pat Young

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Eric Foner begins the review by recalling that in the mid-20th Century, Frederick Douglass was a virtually forgotten figure in mainstream American history:

Let me begin on a personal note. Over half a century ago, my uncle, the historian Philip S. Foner, rescued Frederick Douglass from undeserved obscurity. Beginning in 1950, he edited four volumes of Douglass’s magnificent speeches and writings, each with a long biographical introduction that chronicled his rise to international renown as a crusader for abolition and racial equality. It is difficult to believe, given his prominence during his lifetime, but Douglass was virtually unknown outside the black community at the time. Almost all of the books about him were by black writers—Benjamin Quarles, Shirley Graham Du Bois, even Booker T. Washington—or by white ones, such as my uncle, oriented to the Old Left and attuned to the problem of racial justice. My own high-school history textbook, by Columbia University professor David S. Muzzey, contained no reference to Douglass (indeed, the only black person mentioned by name in the entire book was Toussaint L’Ouverture).

Today, Douglass is ubiquitous. Avenues, plazas, and schools are named in his honor. He has been the subject of poems, novels, and plays and is among the few African Americans whose statues grace the public landscape. Every aspect of his life, it seems, commands scholarly attention. In the past few years, books have appeared about Douglass’s ideas on race and politics; the public reception of his writings; his relationships with women; the similarities and differences between him and his contemporary, Abraham Lincoln; and his ideas on freedom as compared with those of Frantz Fanon and Michel Foucault. There is even a Douglass encyclopedia. Indeed, Douglass’s fame has attained such heights that even President Trump—not known for his deep familiarity with American history—appears to have heard of him.
 

Pat Young

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Douglass's modern prominence poses a problem for biographers:

Douglass’s current status as a national hero poses a challenge for the biographer, making it difficult to view him dispassionately. Moreover, those who seek to tell his story must compete with their subject’s own version of it. Douglass published three autobiographies, among the greatest works of this genre in American literature. They present not only a powerful indictment of slavery, but also a tale of extraordinary individual achievement (it is no accident that Douglass’s most frequently delivered lecture was titled “Self-Made Men”). Like all autobiographies, however, Douglass’s were simultaneously historical narratives and works of the imagination. As David Blight notes in his new book, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, some passages in them—especially those relating to Douglass’s childhood—are “almost pure invention,” which means the biographer must resist the temptation to take these books entirely at face value.
 

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Foner thinks David Blight is well-credentialed to write this biography:

To tell Douglass’s story, then, one must possess excellent research skills, a full command of the voluminous literature on his era, and a humane appreciation of the issues central to his career, which reverberate down to the present. Fortunately, Blight, who teaches American history at Yale, has all of these qualities. He has long been drawn to the study of Douglass: His first book, published 30 years ago, examined Douglass’s career during the Civil War. Douglass was also a key protagonist in Blight’s best-known work, Race and Reunion (2001), a prizewinning study of the battle over the memory of the Civil War. In it, Blight argued that Douglass advanced an “emancipationist” vision of the war that stressed the centrality of abolition and the promise of equal citizenship to the conflict’s meaning. But as wartime passions faded and the nation retreated from the promise of equality, Douglass saw this vision eclipsed by a “reconciliationist” memory in which the war was depicted as a family quarrel between white Americans that had little to do with slavery.
 

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In case you thought that historians couldn't find new sources on a famous man:

More recently, Blight became aware of a set of scrapbooks compiled by Douglass’s son that contain thousands of newspaper clippings chronicling the last three decades of his father’s life. With these, Blight has been able to delve more deeply than previous scholars into a period that many have depicted as an anticlimax, when the fiery moral crusader became a Republican Party functionary and government bureaucrat. Overall, the result is a consistently engrossing book that is likely to remain the definitive account of Douglass’s life for many years to come.
 

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More from the review:

One aspect of Douglass’s politics that Blight does analyze at length is his belief in self-reliance as a key to black progress. It is hardly surprising that the emblematic self-made man declared that black Americans should be “let alone” after the end of slavery. This statement, Blight notes, has been wrenched out of context by today’s black conservatives, who claim Douglass as a forebear of their own hostility to affirmative action and other efforts to assist the less fortunate.

As Blight makes clear, Douglass’s economic outlook cannot be reduced to simple laissez-faire. To be sure, he was not an economic radical. Throughout his career, Douglass retained his faith that in a society resting on “free labor,” any man could make something of himself by following the path of self-improvement. This applied to all oppressed groups, in his view, not only African Americans. Shocked by the “human misery” he encountered in Ireland, Douglass attributed much of it to the abuse of alcohol, not centuries of oppressive British rule.

Douglass fully understood that pervasive racism and violence, often directed at black Americans who managed to get ahead, posed formidable obstacles to black economic advancement. He was less attuned to other impediments, including his own party’s advocacy of high tariffs and deflationary monetary policies, which disadvantaged farmers of both races. In addition, he feared that special efforts on behalf of African Americans would promote an image of them as privileged wards of the state. (Lincoln’s successor as president, the deeply racist Andrew Johnson, made this claim when he vetoed the Civil Rights Bill of 1866.)

Some admirers chastised Douglass for his emphasis on self-reliance. O.O. Howard, former head of the Freedmen’s Bureau, warned that many impoverished black Southerners would “perish if let alone.” But for Douglass, self-reliance assumed the existence of a level playing field that offered equal prospects of success in what Lincoln called the “race of life.” To create such conditions in the aftermath of slavery, Douglass knew, would require massive political intervention: laws and constitutional amendments guaranteeing civil and political equality; the creation of school systems in the South, where they barely existed before the war; the encouragement of black land ownership; and national protection of former slaves against terrorist violence. This was hardly a formula for a “let alone” approach to race relations.
 

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Foner places Douglass's modern significance:

Virginia Woolf once wrote of the 18th-century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft: “We hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living.” How true, also, of Frederick Douglass. We find ourselves today in a political moment that Douglass in his later years would have recognized. “Principles which we all thought to have been firmly and permanently settled,” he wrote, “have been boldly assaulted and overthrown.” His response was not to despair, but to continue the fight. Douglass’s words from 1857 continue to reverberate and inspire: “If there is no struggle there is no progress.”
 

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#8
Thanks for posting this review. I've been looking forward to the publication of this book on one of the most interesting characters in our history.
 
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I am approaching this subject through The Problem of Slavery In the Age of Emancipation, David Brion Davis, Alfred A. Knopf 2014.
Author Davis makes a point that although trace of brutality left on people like Douglass by slavery were telling, the real damage was to white people in the slave holding states who could not form a complete identity independent of slavery.
Regardless, if one can see Mr. Douglass as a man who overcame tremendous obstacles, the viewpoint is one of hope.
 

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...the real damage was to white people in the slave holding states who could not form a complete identity independent of slavery...
..it seems to this day, even this forum.* On that basis I'm gonna have to see how the author arrived at that conclusion, and what other insights that book (The Problem of Slavery In the Age of Emancipation, Davis) might have to offer, thanks.


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* I was beginning to feel that, as obvious as it's been to me, too few have grasped what's behind the Confederate apologist mantra
 
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