David W. Blight
Simon & Schuster, 912 pages
Reviewed by Donald W. Shriver
A great life deserves a great biographer. In Yale historian David Blight, Frederick Douglass has one.
Born into slavery in Maryland, Douglass’ life spanned the tumultuous years of 19th century America (1818-1892). At age 11, he began to listen carefully to the reading of the Bible aloud by Sophie Auld, wife of his owner Hugh Auld, who warned her of the dangers of that gift.
“There will be no keeping him,” said Hugh, once he hears of that ancient liberation of Hebrew slaves and complaints to God by the distressed Job. Eventually, Douglass planned his escape from the Wye Plantation at age 18. A fugitive at risk of being hauled back into slavery and now aided by abolitionists, he reached a whaling port in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where – thanks to his obvious talent for Bible study – he became a teacher and preacher in the AME Zion Church. He felt safe there because of the many Quakers in town — safe enough to marry Anna Murray, a free slave from Maryland. For their 40 years of marriage, she “remained largely illiterate, but she understood arithmetic and budgets,” making it possible for “her family survival.” She and Frederick would become the parents of five children. His post-slavery, cross-country schedule of lectures would not have happened without Anna’s faithful domesticity.
Her fugitive husband was soon discovered by leaders of the abolition movement to be a firsthand authority on the evils of slavery. He could argue for abolition on the basis of the Bible using his self-taught mastery of public speech. Douglass became one the great public lecturers of the 19th century. He would speak on thousands of occasions in every northern state. Drawing from his knowledge of the Bible and his personal suffering, he proved that slave owners were shrewdly pragmatic in their laws against teaching slaves to read. People who attended his lectures came away in tears from his eloquence, but also rocked in laughter as he mocked the alleged biblical justification of the right to own another human’s body, mind and labor. No wonder that William Lloyd Garison and other abolition leaders saw in him a great opportunity. Here was an opponent of slavery who could describe from experience what it was like to be a slave.
Over the years Douglass wrote three autobiographies. Holding copies in his hands, he often wondered that a former slave could author published books. Up to the end of his life, many prejudiced whites denigrated his books, but he was confident that his mission was to offer proof in spoken and printed words that he was fully a human being. His mastery of public speech convinced many of his hearers to agree.
Late in the war, President Abraham Lincoln welcomed him to a White House reception as “my friend Douglass” after a staff member had diverted him to a side corridor.He had often been diverted to segregated cars in rail travel. As the indignities of coming Jim Crow laws emerged in the postwar South, they summoned in him perennial protests. Appointed in the postwar years to diplomatic posts in Haiti and Washington, D.C., he continued to see himself as capable of representing a country and not only one of its minorities. In that, he anticipated the coming status of a Martin Luther King Jr.
In today’s world, the spoken word seems less promising than that purveyed electronically. But face-to-face speech stirred support of the coming war along with printed words from Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Douglass’ travels to the British Isles brought courage to abolition leaders there who also encouraged him in their success with William Wilberforce in abolishing Britain’s international slave trade. At the same time, he joined the horror of some English Christians over the potato famine in Ireland that was to prompt 2 million Irish to emigrate to the United States, where many of them would see themselves as rivals to the wage work of newly freed black slaves. Douglass shied away from the pacifism of most American abolitionists; he was too aware of the violence that supported the “cotton kingdom” to believe that it should be abolished without a mass resort to violence. In postwar politics of Reconstruction, he was sure that withdrawal of federal troops from the South would free some militant-mined survivors of the war to refight it. Over time, through new Jim Crow laws and the lawless eruption of lynching, he found allies in other black leaders, especially Ida B. Wells.
David Blight’s earlier book “Race and Union” vividly tells this story in a way that will help any reader of this biography to understand how partial was the national victory over slavery and racism in the war of 1861-65. Douglass would have understood why the civil rights movement of 1955-70 saw itself as “the second American revolution,” and would have grieved with scholars (such as the late James H. Cone) that the notion of white supremacy dies hard in America and the western world.
Douglass said that “the human heart is a seat of constant war” over who deserves to be ranked as the better of us. Perhaps this is more clearly said: Who deserves to control the rest of us? After his enslavement and much reading of the Bible, Douglass knew the only Christian answer is “No one.”
In our fractious national politics we quarrel over what makes America great. Any reader of this looking for reminders of the best answers from history should read this great biography of a great American.
Donald W. Shriver is president emeritus of Union Theological Seminary in New York.