Frederick Douglass — Prophet of Freedom

A brief review of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight cannot do justice to Douglass’s multi-layered life and his impact in the nineteenth century. Douglass was born into slavery on Maryland's Eastern Shores as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey (1818–1895), the son of Harriet Bailey and perhaps also the son of his mother’s white owner (9). A runaway slave at the age of twenty, his freedom was later bought by English friends. He rose in stature in the pre-Civil War abolitionist movement, and exercised enormous influence during the war and the mostly failed postwar Reconstruction where in the largely unrepentant South violence, lynching, and state-sanctioned discrimination were endemic. He lacked formal education yet wrote and spoke with unparalleled eloquence and erudition. He was editor of several journals, wrote three autobiographies, was perhaps the “most photographed American of the nineteenth century,” and it’s “likely that more Americans heard Douglass speak than any other public figure of his time” (xiv). He travelled over one hundred thousand miles by land and sea as he combatted the evils of slavery, advocated for the rights of his people to be fully considered Americans, and denounced the failures of Reconstruction (666).  

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Douglass has been appropriated and misappropriated for political purposes. To the surprise of many today, Douglass was a lifelong Republican and campaigned for Republican presidential candidates. Douglass castigated the Democratic Party as the party of slavery, Ku Klux Klan, and enemies of Reconstruction. He called them the “party of murder, robbery, treason, dishonesty, and fraud” (532). He emphasized both black self-reliance and government enforcement of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments to the Constitution (Abolition of Slavery, Citizenship Rights, Right to Vote Not Denied by Race). Along with his calls for black self-help, were his “demands for education, wages, protection in the workplace, civil rights, and suffrage” (425). He denounced and opposed colonization and emigration schemes that released the federal government from protecting freed slaves and from recognizing their inherent rights and equality under the law.

US Supreme Court decisions consistently denied equal rights to fugitives and freed slaves. Dred Scott v. Stanford (1857) “upheld a slaveholder’s rights to use and transport his private property in slaves under the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment” (277). In 1883 the Supreme Court, in United States v. Stanley, consistent with a states’ rights interpretation, ruled that “the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment applied only to states and not to individual acts of discrimination by a person or a business establishment” (646). The Court went further and declared “unconstitutional the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which only eight years earlier had explicitly guaranteed all citizens ‘the full and equal enjoyment of accommodations, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances . . .’” (646).

To say the least Douglass led a courageous, complicated life filled with contradictions. He knew well his King James Bible. His oratory was peppered with biblical echoes of the Exodus, along with prophetic jeremiads from Isaiah and Jeremiah. His family life was often chaotic and heartbreaking as he bore the burden of “patriarch and provider for his troubled extended family” (718). His first wife Anna was an illiterate freedwoman who skillfully and devotedly managed household affairs for decades and endured long periods of separation during his frequent absences. After Anna’s death, he married a white woman, Helen Pitts, which provided the national press “a field day with this racial, sexual, and family drama” (650).

Blight might be excused for his error in stating that “Jesus had been stoned for blasphemy before and after his raising Lazarus” (664). He has, however, provided a riveting account of Douglass’s rise from a runaway slave to a government diplomat to Haiti. Douglass died in his home from an apparent heart attack which ended his “joyous and turbulent tempest” (752). Before the return of his body to Rochester, NY for burial, “his casket was taken through the streets of Washington, guarded by a contingent of 150 black Grand Army of the Republic veterans” (754). Douglass enjoyed great fame, bore decades of indignities, and was both honored and Jim Crowed to the end of his life. He was a nineteenth-century giant, a remarkable man who made friends and enemies in his pursuit of justice and in his indefatigable combat for the freedom and equality of his people.

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