We live in an age of politically shrill history: Imperial Legacies is a fine, subtle, and bracing attempt to counter this polemical misuse of history.
At the unveiling of Frederick Douglass’ statue in the Capitol building in 2013, several Republican members of Congress wore buttons that read “Douglass Was a Republican.” In 2020, as part of his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Pete Buttigieg announced a plan to assist black Americans, which he dubbed the Douglass Plan. That both conservatives and liberals should seek to identify themselves with Frederick Douglass is hardly surprising. Yet in order to lay claim to him, each group must highlight some elements of his political thought and career while downplaying or ignoring others. As David Blight’s magnificent biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, makes clear, Douglass was a more complex figure and a more interesting political thinker than contemporary attempts to appropriate him might suggest.
Blight’s book, which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for History, does full justice to both Douglass’ extraordinary public life and his complicated private life. It also carefully traces the development of his political thought. Even to those familiar with Douglass’ autobiographies and memoirs—Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881)—Blight’s account will provide a wealth of new information and insight.
Emergence of a Prophet
Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland in 1818, the son of an African-American woman and a white father, most likely a member of the family that owned his mother. Separated from his mother and grandmother at a very early age, he was sent at age nine from the plantation where he was born to Baltimore, where he lived for several years with the family of his owner’s brother. It was there that Douglass was first taught to read, and he continued to educate himself, voraciously consuming any written material he could obtain, even after he was denied further instruction. After two unsuccessful attempts, Douglass escaped slavery at age 20, fleeing from Maryland to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he found employment as a dock worker. But his horizons soon expanded: he became a frequent preacher at the local African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, then a speaker before local abolitionist groups, and finally he was recruited by William Lloyd Garrison to speak before abolitionist groups more broadly. This launched Douglass’ life-long career as a lecturer, both in the United States and eventually in Great Britain as well.
Blight subtitles his book “Prophet of Freedom,” locating Douglass’ rhetoric in the Bible and particularly in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the other prophets who called the Israelites back to fidelity to God and to His covenant with them. The King James Version of the Bible was among the earliest books that Douglass read, and it remained a source of inspiration for him throughout his life. Even more important, the Old Testament told a story that in Douglass’ mind paralleled the story of the United States, and he emphasized this parallel as a modern-day prophet in his innumerable speeches and writings.
Like the Israelites, Douglass argued, white Americans had strayed from or had never lived up to their fundamental principles, to the covenant enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, and to the commitment to a common humanity and equal rights that it proclaimed. Their infidelity to these principles, reflected in the institution of slavery and in the pervasive racism found even in those states that had abolished slavery, had corrupted the society and led to untold suffering. Like the Israelites, white Americans had to recognize their infidelity, repent, and renew their commitment to the nation’s founding principles. The failure to heed the prophets had led the Israelites to exile and ruin, and the failure to confront the injustice plaguing the society would subject the United States to a similar fate.
In 1845, six years after his escape from slavery, Douglass published his first book, the Narrative, which—drawing upon his lectures—chronicled his life under slavery and perceptively analyzed the effect of slavery on both master and slave. The book brought him international renown. In 1847 he launched North Star, the first successful newspaper owned and edited by an African American, which focused on slavery, race, and politics. Editing this paper forced Douglass to confront in practical terms how best to confront slavery and racism.
Initially, Douglass had followed Garrison’s lead, condemning the United States Constitution as a pro-slavery document, rejecting violence against slavery and slave-owners, and eschewing all political action including voting. But as Blight notes, “Douglass’s journalistic as well as oratorical voice [became more] furious and militant as he became more political,” leading to a break with Garrison. He came to believe that the Constitution, properly construed, was an anti-slavery document, even as he condemned the failure of politicians to act against slavery. He aided fugitive slaves in getting to Canada, and he celebrated violent resistance against slave catchers. He even befriended John Brown, though he prudently rejected Brown’s efforts to recruit him to join the assault on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry.
Winning the War and Losing the Peace
Douglass welcomed the Civil War as an opportunity to abolish slavery and to refound the nation, hoping that a “regeneration by bloodshed” would usher in what Abraham Lincoln called a “new birth of freedom.” Douglass spoke at rallies supporting the war effort, and he encouraged the enlistment of blacks in the Union army, proclaiming that “nothing of justice, liberty, or humanity can come to us except through tears and blood.” Yet even as he did so, he criticized Lincoln for delaying the emancipation of slaves, and he deplored how racism was compromising the war effort. Black soldiers were paid less than their white counterparts, and all black units were commanded by white officers. When Confederate forces began executing black soldiers captured during battle, Douglass attacked the Union’s slow response, insisting that the only way to stop this abuse was by a one-for-one execution of Confederate prisoners.
The Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment brought about the abolition of slavery that Douglass sought—Blight opens his book with an account of Douglass’ famous Freedmen’s Monument Address, delivered at the unveiling of a statue honoring Lincoln. But Douglass’ political vision encompassed more than the end of slavery: “no war but an Abolition war; no peace but an Abolition peace; liberty for all, chains for none; the black man a soldier in war, a laborer in peace; a voter at the South as well as at the North; America his permanent home; and all Americans his fellow-countrymen.” This ambitious agenda would require constitutional amendments. But it would also require a firm commitment on the part of the federal government, lest recalcitrant elements in the South attempt to reverse the outcome of the Civil War through violence and a refusal to enforce the rights guaranteed by the Reconstruction Amendments.
This concern underlay Douglass’ criticism of the presidency of Andrew Johnson, which he dismissed as an “unmitigated calamity” and a “disgrace,” accusing Johnson of pursuing policies that were tantamount to a “surrender by Grant to Lee.” But as Blight notes, Douglass did not remain simply a critic. The stark differences over Reconstruction between the Republican and Democratic parties forced him to ally with the Republican Party and campaign for its candidates, even when he was less than enthusiastic about the party’s nominees. Thus in a speech during President Grant’s 1872 reelection campaign, Douglass characterized the Democrats as “the party of treason” and “in sympathy with the defeated rebellion.” He later described the end of Reconstruction as the “Democratic Party’s counterrevolution of white supremacy in the South”; and as the plight of African-Americans in the South became more dire, his partisan rhetoric became harsher: “every Negro strung up at the crossroads without judge or jury is so strung up by a Democratic mob; every effort to defeat and annul the 14th and 15th Amendments is made by Democrats.”
Justice Clarence Thomas and other conservatives have focused on Douglass’ lectures preaching to black audiences the importance of self-reliance, thrift, and hard work, and his call for African-Americans to be “let alone” to raise themselves out of poverty. This was an important element in his thought, but Blight insists that Douglass’ “let alone” was subject to misinterpretation, both in his time and ours. A comparison with Booker T. Washington is helpful. Washington likewise emphasized black economic development and self-reliance, but he was willing to forego political equality in the interest of social peace. Douglass never was, insisting that government still had an important role, because constitutional rights and equality before the law were the preconditions for blacks having a fair chance to advance themselves. If government failed to secure their rights, African-Americans would be denied the “elbow room and enlarged opportunities” they deserved and would remain mired in poverty and subject to exploitation, as occurred under the “cunningly devised swindle” of the sharecropper system.
By the end of his life in 1895, Douglass had witnessed the rise of lynching and Jim Crow laws, as America retreated from the victories won on the battlefields of the Civil War and confirmed in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. He found little basis for optimism. So Old Man Eloquent (as he was fondly known) returned to his role as prophet, calling Americans back to their constitutional faith. In a famous 1893 speech, he said: “Men talk of the Negro problem. There is no Negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have honesty enough, loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough to live up to their Constitution.” Or as W. E. B. Du Bois put it in The Souls of Black Folk: Douglass “in his old age, still bravely stood for the ideals of his early manhood.”