Frederick Douglass is a difficult subject for a biographer.
Anyone who tries to tackle the life of the famed 19th century abolitionist is
competing against Douglass himself, whose memoirs are among the most important
works of autobiography ever written.
The first book Douglass wrote about his life, “Narrative of
the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave,” exposed Americans to the
horrific reality of plantation slavery, disabusing them of romanticized
accounts of smiling chattel living side-by-side with their masters. No single
book, with the possible exception of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” has had a greater
effect on American public opinion.
A new biography, “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” by
Yale history professor David Blight, rises to the challenge with a biography as
monumental as Douglass himself. The 854 page book would be unbelievable if it
were fiction. After Douglass’s second master stopped the reading lessons his
wife was giving their new slave, Douglass bribed local urchins to complete his
Shipped to Edward Covey, a cruel overseer famous for
“breaking” recalcitrant slaves, Douglass challenged him to a fight and won.
Normally this would have meant death, either immediately by hanging or simply
by being worked to death in the fields, but Covey backed down. Returning to
Baltimore, Douglass met a free black woman who helped him escape disguised as a
Douglass’s voice was so powerful that within three year of
escaping slavery, he had been recruited as a traveling orator by William Lloyd
Garrison, the famous Massachusetts abolitionist. As a speaker, his intelligence
and charisma were living proof that African Americans were the equal of whites.
Douglass’s speeches were varied, but they shared the same fundamental theme -
the need to include African Americans in the promise of America’s founding.
While many abolitionists, including Garrison, rejected the
Constitution as inextricably intertwined with slavery, Douglass sought to make
real Thomas Jefferson’s beautiful phrase, “all men are created equal, that they
are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these
are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Later, during the Civil War, he broke with
many fellow abolitionists and opposed a plan to resettle freed slaves in the
West Indies or Africa.
Throughout his entire career, Douglass was first and foremost
a patriot. For first half of his life, his patriotism was rejected by most of
his fellow Americans. Later on, even as race relations worsened after
Reconstruction, Douglass enjoyed broad acclaim. He was one of the most
photographed men of the 19th century and, upon his death, was eulogized as, “so
highly esteemed by white people that…his entrance into their midst upon any
public occasion was always the signal for an enthusiastic personal greeting.”
Fittingly, a champion of America lived the American Dream, rising to fame from
the lowest birth possible.
By. David Blight