David W. Blight’s Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

The man the world would come to know as Frederick Douglass was born into slavery as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey on a plantation in Talbot County, Maryland, but he shed his middle names soon after shedding his manacles, giving himself the surname Douglass, the first of many lifelong acts of reinvention. Today we remember Frederick Douglass as one of slavery’s most vocal and effective critics, using his uncommon eloquence with language to rebuke his birth nation and call its conscience to account. His life was a long and continuous struggle against American racism, first aimed at abolishing slavery and later at salvaging the promise of the Lincoln presidency during Reconstruction, but the principle accounts of his existence have always been his own, first in the record of the numerous speeches he gave, and then, more significantly, in the three autobiographies he left to posterity. Princeton professor of history David W. Blight, a lifelong student of not only American history but of Frederick Douglass’ role in it, was nonetheless convinced that a new, fuller account of his life is necessary for modern audiences. “How Americans react to Douglass’s gaze,” Blight tells us in his introduction, “indeed how we gaze back at his visage, and more important, how we read him, appropriate him, or engage his legacies, informs how we use our past to determine who we are.” Blight’s readership seems to agree with him: Prophet of Freedom was an instant sensation upon its publication in 2018, topping best-seller lists and earning nearly every accolade for which it was eligible, including the Pulitzer Prize for History, the Lincoln Prize for a historical work covering the Civil War period, and the Los Angeles Times Prize for Biography.

Much of that acclaim, no doubt, is testament to how intrinsically interesting the life of Frederick Douglass truly was: a slave who won his independence; a self-taught scholar whose skills as an orator, even by admission of his fiercest critics, placed him alongside the likes of Abraham Lincoln and William Jennings Bryan; and a true celebrity, one of the most widely travelled and most photographed Americans of the 19th century, recognizable in every State and across the Atlantic as the standard-bearer for emancipation and individual rights. Despite his outsized public persona – or perhaps because of it, Frederick Douglass was notoriously private about his personal life and guarded with his emotions. His autobiographies, for example, though stirring narratives of his times and of the political struggles he faced, make scant mention of his friends, as opposed to his allies, and almost no mention of his wife or children. As Blight puts it,

In his memoirs he is a self-made hero who leaves a great deal unsaid, hidden from his readers and his biographers. Douglass invited us into his life over and over, and it is a rich literary and historical feast to read the music of Douglass’s words. But as he sits majestically at the head of the table, it is as if he slips out of the room right when we so wish to know more – anything – about his more private thoughts, motivations, and memories of the many conflicts in his personal life. Confronting the autobiographer in Douglass is both a pleasure and a peril as his biographer.

That very reticence, however, is an opportunity for an intrepid biographer, and David Blight, whose lifelong devotion to Douglass must surely be unmatched by any living historian, is more than equal to the task of rescuing the great man’s private life from obscurity. How many hundreds of thousands of pages of primary material must Blight have poured through to create this 800-page monument to a single man’s life? There are, for starters, the voluminous Douglass literary output, from the autobiographies to the hundreds of recorded speeches, but more important, for uncovering information about Douglass the man, were his vast correspondence, much of them scattered among public and private collections.

The public life of Frederick Douglass was already well known, and though it, of necessity, forms the backbone of this book’s narrative, Blight deftly weaves into this larger narrative – into which all of America was so painfully implicated – the smaller details, memories and experiences that make up a life. We learn, for example, of the strain that Douglass’ almost superhuman speaking schedule placed upon his first wife, Anne, especially when she was left alone to raise their children, and of the rift in their marriage exposed by his public calling. Anne was devoted to him utterly, and bore the difficulties of her role with head held high, but she was ill-matched to the ambitious and learned man, who never succeeded in teaching her to read. While she busied herself in their garden, or with raising their children or managing the household expenses, he devoted himself to the cause of abolition, and eventually sought intellectual companionship elsewhere. In later life, we learn of the terrible financial strain placed on him by his extended family – his children and grandchildren, even their spouses – whose struggles and debts Douglass assumed as far as he could. The sum total of his earnings from speaking engagements, book sales, and government posts, including a brief stint as consul-general to the Republic of Haiti, ought to have made him a very wealthy man, but the obligations he assumed took their toll, and he could never quite quit the strenuous speaking circuit for the more comfortable, leisurely retirement he had earned. To this stress, unfortunately, was added tragedy, for in his old age Douglass outlived his first wife, two of his children, and even some of his grandchildren. His brief correspondence about these events show that Douglass was no less eloquent on life’s eternal subjects than he was on the great political battles of his day.

Blight has succeeded in breathing new life in Douglass’ story, and in making him painfully relevant for new audiences and new political battles. He has also brought to life an extraordinary man, someone manifestly a product of his times and, against all odds, a shaper of them. Having accompanied him through the ups and downs of his life, from his triumphal meeting with Abraham Lincoln after the second inauguration to the petty racial slights he endured throughout his life, we turn the final pages with reluctance, loath to leave Frederick Douglass behind us as we are slow to say goodbye to friends. This I take to be the mark of a genuinely successful biography.