‘Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom’ Is as Monumental as the Man It Chronicles

Noted historian David W. Blight offers readers the fullest portrait of Frederick Douglass yet in this "biography of a voice".

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom
David W. Blight
Simon & Schuster
Oct 2018

Even for an esteemed scholar like Yale history professor David W. Blight, chronicling the life of someone of Frederick Douglass’s magnitude is an immense undertaking. Blight has published works on a variety of topics relating to the history of slavery and the antebellum era, most notably, his 2001 work Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Harvard University Press), which details the nation’s abandonment of the war’s emancipationist legacy in the half-century after its conclusion in favor of reconciliation on the basis of a shared investment in white supremacy. Blight has also contributed to recent editions of two of Douglass’s autobiographies and, in 1989, published his first book, Frederick Douglass’ Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee (Louisiana State University Press). In his latest and most thorough analysis of the “Lion of Anacostia”—Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom— Blight pulls off the difficult trick of capturing both Douglass’s outsized greatness and deep humanity. As a result, the historian has produced the most comprehensive and insightful study of Douglass’s life yet published.

Like many biographers of famous, consequential figures, Blight argues that Douglass possessed paradoxical qualities. This fact, along with the former slave’s storied career as an abolitionist and civil rights icon “make[s] his story so attractive to biographers, as well as to so many constituencies today” (xv). Douglass was, Blight contends, among other things, a man who “fought against mob violence, but believed in certain kinds of revolutionary violence.” In a theme that he returns to repeatedly, Blight continues, “In his own career [Douglass] heroically tried to forge a livelihood with his voice and pen, but fundamentally was not a self-made man, an image and symbol he touted in a famous speech, and through which modern conservatives have adopted him as a proponent of individualism” (xv).

Throughout the text, Blight decries these conservatives’ efforts to adopt Douglass as one of their own. The GOP likes to point out—correctly—that Douglass was a committed Republican from the founding of the Republican Party in the 1850s until his death in 1895. Certainly, Douglass made a number of speeches that—presented out of context—have proven useful to contemporary conservatives. In such addresses, Douglass called on African Americans to practice self-improvement, both as individuals and as part of a larger community, in the difficult post-emancipation years. For Blight, though, Douglass always coupled this self-reliance rhetoric with the conviction that the federal government owed freed African Americans’ assistance in blazing a path from slavery to freedom to citizenship.

When today’s Republicans single out Douglass’s unfortunate—and confusing— Reconstruction-era statement that African Americans—should be “give[n] … fair play and let … alone” (563), Blight is quick to explain that “‘let alone’ meant rule of law and social peace. It meant stop killing the freedmen and denying them access to civic life, make the revolution of emancipation real, enforce it by law, protect it in the courts, teach it in schools, keep the ballot box safe and free to defend that revolution, and reimagine government itself as the source and shield for a brave new economic world” (564). This is hardly the language of Reaganism (or Trumpism), and Blight clearly finds the conservative rediscovery of Douglass self-serving and cynical.

In detailing the life of a man who made his living as a writer, newspaper publisher, and orator, Blight rightfully centers his biography on Douglass’s words. In the first chapter, before engaging in a lengthy treatment of Douglass’s first two decades as a slave, Blight explicates one of his greatest speeches, delivered in 1876 at a ceremony dedicating the Freedmen’s Memorial, or Emancipation Memorial, in Washington, D.C. The monument features the figure of Abraham Lincoln standing and gesturing over a rising, newly freed black man. Rather than celebrate Lincoln uncritically as the Great Emancipator, Douglass used the occasion to take turns criticizing and praising the martyred leader. “He was preeminently the white man’s president,” (6) Douglass thundered, before stating: “The race to which we belong were not the special objects of his consideration” (6-7). After reproducing these and other words that credited Lincoln’s role in facilitating black freedom, Blight concludes, “Douglass found a middle way, a historically balanced remembrance of Lincoln in this new moment of national trial,” as Reconstruction was coming to an end in the South, and blacks were too often being left to face white racism and violence by themselves, without the protection of the federal government (7).

It is Douglass’s belief in the justness of American ideals, along with his denunciation of the country for failing to make good on those principles, especially when it came to its treatment of African Americans, that rests at the core of what Blight describes as his “biography of a voice” (xvii). As an orator, Douglass frequently gave versions of the same speeches over and over, and in reading Blight’s book, one is struck by Douglass’s ability to soldier on despite the monotony of a life frequently lived—out of financial necessity—on the lecture circuit. In these addresses, Douglass hammered home, again and again, his assertion that America must fully embrace its republican principles by destroying slavery and assisting blacks in entering a world of political and economic opportunity. Douglass’s jeremiads, as Blight aptly calls his Old Testament-inspired speeches, never veered from this primary goal over Douglass’s more than 50 years as a public figure.

Blight leaves no aspect of Douglass untouched. Readers will find thorough examinations of Douglass’s years in slavery and his daring escape from bondage, his falling out with the Garrisonian wing of the abolitionist movement, his famous antebellum speeches like “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”, his increasing radicalism during the sectional crisis of the 1850s, and his celebration of emancipation and black military service during the Civil War. Blight even speculates—a bit too much, perhaps—about topics for which the historical record offers less than definitive answers, including Douglass’s possible extramarital affairs and his difficulty in finding domestic bliss with his first wife, Anna, and their five children.

Blight’s biggest scholarly contribution lies in his parsing of the final three decades—the least studied period—of Douglass’s life. Drawing on a privately owned archival collection located in Savannah, Georgia, Blight shows that Douglass’s post-Civil War career, although less heralded than his earlier period of activism, exhibited considerable continuity with the better-known episodes in Douglass’s tireless battle for racial justice. Douglass lambasted the failures of Reconstruction, and as Jim Crow began to overtake the South toward the end of the 19th century, he found himself re-energized. In speeches like 1889’s “The Lesson of the Hour”, Blight relates, “he condemned all talk of a ‘Negro problem.’ As he had so often before, he declared such a problem the nation’s dilemma with racism and not with his race” (687-688).

As Douglass settled somewhat uncomfortably into his role as elder icon of the movement for black freedom and equality, he literally became a statesman, briefly serving as the U.S. minister resident and consul general to Haiti and Chargé d’affaires for Santo Domingo in the Republican administration of President Benjamin Harrison. Douglass struggled to promote American foreign policy goals without ignoring the desires of the Haitian people, resulting in his resignation of his commission two years later. Even as he strove to support American expansionism, Blight maintains, “Douglass argued that as long as white supremacy lay at the root of American foreign affairs, the country could never achieve noble aims abroad” (710). White supremacy, Douglass grasped, remained firmly rooted in US society, too. In his 70s, Douglass would find new targets for his righteous indignation, including white southerners who lynched African Americans in an effort to enforce the boundaries of the emerging system of segregation.

Supported by voluminous research and featuring clear prose and an unparalleled mastery of its subject’s life and times, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom is a monumental work of history, one that will prove eye-opening, accessible, and satisfying for both academic and non-academic readers alike. Blight presents an American giant as a three-dimensional human being, who never wavered in his fight to inspire his country to fulfill its founding ideals. Blight’s book will surely stand as the definitive Douglass biography for years to come. While it shows Douglass as a man of his time, it also suggests that his storied legacy still has much to teach us about the need for courage and an unwavering commitment to racial justice.