By David W. Blight
Simon & Shuster – 2018
Reviewed by: Steve Halpern
The first time I read Frederick Douglass’ autobiography, (Douglass wrote three autobiographies) I understood that this had to be one of the most important works of literature available to the public. Although this book is over 100 years old, the language and the story give us an intimate portrait of Douglass’ turbulent and inspiring life. The book also, in my opinion, gives us the best explanation of why the extremely bloody Civil War erupted.
Because I found Frederick Douglass so inspiring, I wrote a biographical poem about his life that can be seen at this link. Frederick Douglass poem
David Blight, in his biography made an incisive attempt to examine what Douglass was thinking throughout his life. While I believe there are limitations to this book, I also believe that Blight has achieved his objective of giving us a more informed view of who Frederick Douglass was.
Anyone who has read Frederick Douglass’ autobiography will recall that while he was a child, he witnessed a slave by the name of Esther being tied up and whipped by a slave owner Mr. Anthony. David Blight asked a useful question: How did seeing this horrendous torture effect the young child who was then known as Frederick Washington Bailey?
We can then ask more questions. What was Douglass thinking when he violated the slave laws as a child and learned how to read? What was he thinking when he risked his life, and fought back against a so-called “slave breaker” by the name of Covey? What was he thinking when he risked his life, and the life of his future wife, by escaping from slavery?
What was he thinking when he was exposed to racial discrimination in the North, and severely beaten while giving and abolitionist speech in Indiana? What was he thinking when abolitionists, who he usually agreed with, slandered him when he developed his own independent ideas? What was he thinking when he needed to leave this country after he wrote his autobiography, because he could then be more easily be apprehended and returned to slavery?
These are the kinds of questions David Blight has attempted to answer. In answering these questions we can see why Douglass felt that the Fugitive Slave Act needed to be resisted with the force of arms. He armed himself, and encouraged everyone to arm themselves, and resist any attempt to send Black people into slavery by legal or illegal means. He felt that murdering a so-called “slave catcher” was merely an act of self-defense against someone who was attempting to rob someone of their rights as a human being.
David Blight gave this summary of how Douglass viewed his support of the Union Army in the Civil War in his newspaper The North Star. “Douglass wanted slaveholders humiliated, then eliminated, and in their wake he might find his place in a dominion of human equality. To get to that distant shore, to a new America, he probed the darkest ranges of human wrath.”
In order to gain a perspective to the life of Douglass, I believe it is useful to summarize his ideas with respect to individuals as well as issues.
Frederick Douglass & William Lloyd Garrison
After Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery, he initially met the abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison and found him to be a breadth of fresh air. Garrison also viewed Douglass as a uniquely important asset to the abolitionist movement. Because of this relationship, Garrison aided Douglass in his transition from being a common laborer, into an ardent advocate and orator for the abolitionist movement.
Because Douglass was such a powerful, articulate, and eloquent speaker, many argued that he never could have been a slave. For this reason, Douglass wrote his first of three autobiographies.
However, this book gave the authorities clear evidence that Douglass had illegally escaped from slavery. This meant that Douglass needed to escape this country to maintain his freedom. Garrison aided Douglass in his escape, and helped him organize a speaking tour of Ireland, Scotland, and Britain.
For the first time in Douglass’ life he felt a sense of equality. During this time, audiences were thrilled by his speeches and the story of his triumphant escape from slavery. British supporters were so inspired by his story, they organized to purchase Douglass’ freedom from a slave-owner in Maryland.
During this time, Douglass felt that the leaders of the abolitionist movement were making unreasonable demands. Because he had been a slave, Douglass was especially sensitive to those who attempted to control his life. However, because of Douglass’ support of abolition, he went along with this relationship for a time.
Upon returning to the United States, Douglass also returned to the nation that viewed him as a second-class citizen because he was Black. He felt that the best way to advance the abolitionist movement was to support the minority political parties that opposed slavery. Garrison and his supporters opposed this point of view. A vicious debate on this question ensued, and Douglass found himself slandered by people he admired in the past.
These were some of the reasons why Douglass moved his family to Rochester, New York and began to publish his newspaper The North Star.
Frederick Douglass & President Abraham Lincoln
Today, we continue to see the institutionalized discrimination against African Americans in education, housing, employment, as well as enforcement of the law. However, I believe that most people today feel gratified that the institutions of chattel slavery, as well as Jim Crow segregation no longer exist. This was not the case in the years when Frederick Douglass lived.
For me, there is one aspect of Douglass’ life that is genuinely heroic. He lived in a profoundly racist era, yet he gave thousands of speeches arguing that the United States would not be able to make any significant advancement, without doing away with racial discrimination.
President Abraham Lincoln was a product of his times. His aided his family in working as a dirt farmer. He managed to escape that reality, became a lawyer, and then a government official. However, Lincoln had never been a slave.
Lincoln always hated slavery. However, for about ten years, Lincoln believed that the answer to the problem of slavery was to ask African Americans to leave this country. He, and many others, had the idea that Black people would then move to colonies in Africa or Central America.
Even after Lincoln became President, he enlisted several African American leaders to aid in his efforts to set up a colony of Black people outside the United States. Lincoln attempted to defend his ridiculous argument, with an even more ridiculous statement. He argued that the primary cause of the Civil War was the fact that Black people lived in this country.
Because Douglass had a completely different life experience than Lincoln, he chastised the President as if Lincoln were an erring child who didn’t know any better. He argued that the real cause of the war was the “cruel and brutal cupidity of those who wish to possess horses, money, and Negroes by means of theft, robbery, and rebellion.” He continued to argue that the idea that Black people should return to Africa, had just as much value as the idea that everyone of European descent, should return to Europe. Black people created enormous amounts of wealth in this country and deserve the right to live here.
Douglass had this opinion of Lincoln at the time: “a genuine representative of American prejudice and Negro hatred.” He summarized Lincoln’s colonization scheme: “It expresses merely the desire to get rid of them (blacks) and reminds one of the politeness with which a man might try to bow out of his house some troublesome creditor or the witness of some old guilt.”
Thinking about these words we might ask the question: Why did Douglass also feel that Abraham Lincoln was one the most important people he met in his life? We can begin to answer this question with what Lincoln referred to as his, “fiery trial” in organizing the Union Army to defeat the Confederacy in the Civil War.
The abolitionists weren’t the only ones who opposed the politics of the slave owners in this country. The slave owners demanded complete control of the federal government in order to maintain their system of human bondage. This meant that the new territories in the West, like Kansas, needed to become slave states. This meant that the Northern states needed to dedicate themselves to apprehending escaped slaves who became neighbors of workers and farmers in the North. This meant that the United States needed to go to war against Mexico, so slave owners would have more land.
Growing numbers of people from all classes began to challenge these measures. These stark differences led to the election of President Abraham Lincoln. Initially, Lincoln and his supporters felt that the differences between the North and the South could be resolved without the abolition of slavery.
However, Lincoln was different from previous Presidents in that he wasn’t going to go along with all the dictates of slave owners. This disobedience of Lincoln was the spark that caused the slave states to break from the Union and to establish another nation where slave owners continued to rule.
Initially most politicians in the North and South felt that the Civil War would be a brief affair and an accommodation suitable to both sides could be reached. Frederick Douglass had a better understanding of what slavery was. He knew, from the beginning, that the Civil War would be a protracted battle that could only have a meaningful conclusion if the entire slaveocracy was completely destroyed.
Lincoln learned through experience that the government of slave owners had no intention of compromise. Yet, while the Union Army had much better resources, in the early stages of the war, the Confederacy was actually winning. This was the “fiery trial” that changed Lincoln’s attitude towards the war.
Lincoln relieved General George B. McClellan of his command as the top Union military officer. He replaced McClellan with General Ulysses S. Grant. General Grant as well as Generals Sherman and Sheridan used the advantages of the Union army to carry out an unrelenting war against the Confederacy. The Confederate resistance to this unrelenting war caused the deaths of perhaps 400,000 Union soldiers.
Most historians agree that the Civil War was the bloodiest war in the history of the United States. I do not agree with that point of view. The facts are that the Confederacy formed another nation with another monetary currency. Understanding this, I believe that only the deaths of Union soldiers should be counted as deaths during the Civil War in this country. In World War II more U.S. soldiers lost their lives than deaths of Union soldiers in the Civil War.
Because of the enormous losses to the Union Army through death, injury, and desertion, the recruitment of Black soldiers became a necessity for a union victory. President Lincoln began to understand this, and argued that he drafted his Emancipation Proclamation because this was necessary to win the war.
For Frederick Douglass, making the Emancipation Proclamation the law of this country was one of the most important events of his life. In all, hundreds of thousands of slaves would simply leave the plantations to gain protection with the Union Army. As a result, the Confederacy experienced food shortages because many slaves no longer worked to produce food.
This extreme change in the political thinking of Lincoln caused Frederick Douglass to view the President as one of the most important people he met in his life.
In this context, there is one more issue that I feel is relevant. Frederick Douglass had two sons who served in combat during the Civil War. However, Douglass never was a soldier in the war and many criticized him for this.
The facts are that Douglass dedicated himself, throughout his life, to the struggle against slavery and then against Jim Crow segregation. He was the central leader in those struggles. He was injured, while in slavery, and as an abolitionist, advancing that struggle.
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln demonstrated clearly that the goals of the Civil War were compromised, in part, because of his death. While we don’t know how Lincoln would have governed in the post Civil War years, we know that the Presidency of Andrew Johnson was a disaster.
Likewise, we need to understand that Frederick Douglass was a central leader for Black rights in this country. In my opinion his contribution to the struggle was just as important as Lincoln’s. Had he lost his life in the Civil War, this would have been a blow to Black rights in this country. After the Civil War, Douglass went on to provide a bridge from the abolitionist movement, to the civil rights movement that would eventually force the government to abolish Jim Crow segregation.
Frederick Douglass, Karl Marx, & Vladimir Illyich Lenin
Frederick Douglass and Karl Marx lived during the same years. They probably never communicated to one another. They had completely different backgrounds, as well as differing philosophical outlooks. These might be the reasons why David Blight didn’t mention the name Karl Marx in his biography of Douglass. Yet, on many of the most important questions Douglass and Marx had similar viewpoints. Why?
Frederick Douglass was born a slave and broke the slave laws just so he could learn how to read. One of the two books that most influenced him was the Bible. Throughout his life he used quotations from the Bible to defend the struggle for Black rights in this country. He ridiculed slave owners use of the Bible to defend the human bondage he considered diabolical.
Douglass’ politics were based on what he felt was rational at the time. In 1952 he ridiculed the celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on the Forth of July. (This speech can be seen on YouTube) In this speech, he asked: What does the slave have to celebrate about a document that denies his or her rights as a human being?
Then, at the beginning of the Civil War, Douglass worked to recruit Black soldiers to risk their lives to support the Union cause.
Then, with the defeat of radical reconstruction, Douglass argued that the government refused to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. Instead, the same government that outlawed slavery, in effect, refused to give citizenship rights to African Americans.
Karl Marx was born into a middle class family in Germany. His father needed to give up the Jewish religion and convert to Christianity in order to get one of the better professional jobs. This enabled Marx to attend a university where he became an ardent student of philosophy.
Marx developed a philosophy that he called dialectical materialism. This philosophy is different from the philosophy of formal logic or pragmatism that we learn in school. In formal logic and pragmatism social problems are resolved by using strategies that have succeeded in the past.
Marx argued that the reality we experience is the result of a history of battles between classes for supremacy. So, in 1929, working people had been toiling at jobs for their entire lives, but discovered that the banks closed their doors and their savings were gone. This isn’t supposed to happen according to formal logic or pragmatism. This reality is one example of why Marx argued that the job of the philosopher isn’t merely to study the world, but to change it.
Marx argued that a central flaw of the capitalist system was what he called the crisis of overproduction. In other words, capitalists are routinely driven to increase the production of commodities. Eventually there are more commodities on the market than workers are buying and capitalists simply close down their factories. Because banks rely on corporate investments, when they stop receiving payments on loans from corporations, banks simply go out of business.
Marx understood how working people have the potential break from this reality. They can push capitalist governments aside, and establish workers governments that make human needs and not profits their central priority.
With this perspective, Marx viewed revolutions as the progressive driving force of history. In his day, he viewed the transition from feudal societies, where royal families ruled, to capitalism where the owners of large corporations ruled and profited from a mass production economy.
Marx wrote about the reality of the United States before the war in an article published in 1861.
“Armed propaganda of slavery abroad was the avowed aim of the national policy; the Union had in fact become the slave of the three hundred thousand slave-holders who held sway over the South. A series of compromises, which the South owed to its alliance with the Northern Democrats, had led to this result.” It was these actions that led Frederick Douglass to argue that Black people had no reason to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1852.
During these same years, Marx also had this to say: “In my opinion, the biggest things that are happening in the world today are on the one hand the movement of the slaves in America started by the death of John Brown, and on the other the movement of the serfs in Russia.” This was one of the reasons why Douglass dedicated himself to recruiting Black soldiers for the Union Army.
Understanding why the thinking of Marx and Douglass began to come together, we can see why both leaders understood that the Civil War would be a bloody and protracted battle for supremacy. Both followed the war carefully and both had confidence that the Union had a real chance for victory. They both understood that the way to defeat the Confederacy was to obliterate the institution of slavery in the United States.
While Frederick Douglass became an admirer of Lincoln, Marx’s organization the International Workingmen’s Association sent a letter to Lincoln congratulating him on his election victory in 1864.
Karl Marx felt that the Union victory in the war strengthened the entire working class. This victory placed the working class in a better position to engage in an international struggle to advance the rights of workers. Along these lines, Marx wrote a three-volume analysis of capitalism where he showed that this system would ultimately collapse, and that the only way for working people to have a future, is to put in place a government that supports our interests.
After the Civil War, the politics of Douglass and Marx diverged a bit. Initially Douglass took jobs with the government, but continued to be critical of the federal government’s refusal to defend the citizenship rights of African Americans.
On this question, Vladimir Illyich Lenin made a crucial contribution to the Marxist movement. Lenin understood that there were many nationalities in Czarist Russia that experienced routine and vicious discrimination. Lenin argued that the working class would never be able to liberate itself unless there was a movement to dismantle every form of discrimination experienced by these oppressed nationalities.
These ideas of Lenin on the national question were relevant in the times of Frederick Douglass and continue to be relevant today.
Frederick Douglass & Martin Robinson Delany
We have seen why Frederick Douglass opposed the colonization ideas of Abraham Lincoln. However, Martin Robinson Delany was an abolitionist who also favored colonization. The reasons Delany gave for his ideas were similar to the ideas of Lenin. Delany believed that, “a people to be free must necessarily be their own rulers.” Delany didn’t feel that this was possible for Black people in the United States.
While Douglass ardently opposed this point of view, he also made plans to visit Haiti, to explore the viability of Black people emigrating to that nation. This was a nation ruled by former slaves. At that time, thousands of African Americans moved to Haiti in an effort to escape the vicious racism of this country.
Clearly, only a minority of African Americans left this country. However, years after the Civil War, Marcus Garvey advanced a similar perspective as Delany. Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association became the largest Black mass organization in the history of this country.
Garvey’s ideas were similar to the ideas of Elijah Mohammed who in turn influenced Malcolm X. While Malcolm argued that Black people need to control their own communities, he wasn’t an advocate of emigrating to Africa. Malcolm X eventually was won to the idea that Black people needed to become a part of an international movement to liberate humanity. Using similar words as Frederick Douglass, Malcolm argued that Black people need to defend their interests, “by any means necessary.”
I believe that Frederick Douglass made a mistake when argued that Black people needed to remain in the Southern states and force the Jim Crow governments to respect their rights. Millions of Black people disagreed with this perspective and became apart of what has been known as The Great Migration. One of the strengths of the Civil Rights movement was the fact that this was an alliance made up of Blacks and whites from both the North and the South.
Frederick Douglass on women’s rights
As we have seen, Frederick Douglass had a unique perspective towards the world because of his years in slavery. During his lifetime, women didn’t have the right to vote or to own property. Growing up in slavery, Douglass viewed women who were self sufficient and worked just as hard as men. Yet, the savagery slave women experienced was just as horrific, or even worse, than the treatment of slaves who were men.
We see an expression of the difference between slave and free women in the words of Sojourner Truth. Sojourner Truth listened to the complaints of women who were free and understood that her experience as a slave was completely different. She asked the question: “Aren’t I a woman?” (This speech can be seen on YouTube - Truth)
Frederick Douglass opposed all forms of oppression. I believe that his experience in slavery gave him even more reasons to support women’s rights. He was proud of the fact that he attended and supported the first meeting demanding women’s rights in this country.
The 15th Amendment to the Constitution was supposed to give all men who were citizens of this country voting rights. This meant that millions of Black men who had been slaves could vote for the first time.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were both pioneer leaders of the movement for women’s rights in this country. They both opposed the 15th Amendment because it failed to give women the right to vote.
Frederick Douglass favored the idea of voting rights for women, but supported the 15th Amendment. He felt the Amendment would be an important advance for Black people who lacked any political power at that time.
Both Anthony and Stanton argued against that perspective. However, in their arguments for women’s suffrage they made outrageous, racist, and demeaning comments about Black men.
Susan B. Anthony argued that by giving Black men and not women the vote, women would become slaves to Black men. These were her words: “Their emancipation is but another form of slavery. It is better to be the slave of an educated white man, than a degraded, ignorant black one.”
This racism within the women’s movement continued. Ida Wells was an African American who became a leader of Black people in the struggle against lynching as well as the woman’s right to vote. She was excluded from a demonstration demanding women’s right to vote, but marched in that demonstration anyway.
I believe that the racist attitudes of some women who demand equal rights continue today in a different form. Today, affluent women as well as working women demand equal rights. However, many affluent women consider their demands as more important than the demands of working women. This is an international problem that can only be resolved through struggle.
David Blight in Philadelphia
I had the opportunity of listening to David Blight talk about his biography of Frederick Douglass at the free library in Philadelphia. Blight is a professor at Yale University and I expected a rigid talk by an Ivy League professor who claimed to be an expert on the life of Douglass. This clearly was not the kind of talk by Blight that I had the pleasure of listening to.
I found Blight to be as engaging as any college professor I’ve ever listened to. He didn’t come across as an expert. Instead, he spent over an hour explaining why he found studying the life of Frederick Douglass to be both fascinating and inspiring. By taking this approach, he took about 200 people in the audience on a journey into the life of one of the most important people who has ever lived in this country.
Blight dedicated his book to Walter O. Evans and Linda J. Evans. Walter Evans was a medical doctor who collected African art as well as manuscripts of famous Black people. Walter and Linda Evans’ collection of the writings of Frederick Douglass became the core of the research Blight used to write his biography.
I believe there is another name that we should credit with introducing us to Frederick Douglass’ life. This is Philip S. Foner. Foner was a college professor at City College in New York City when he was fired for being associated with the Communist Party.
During the time when Foner was blacklisted, he published many books on labor and African American history. One of Foner’s projects was a multi-volume summary of the writings and speeches of Frederick Douglass. Before the publication of this work, few people in the academic community knew who Frederick Douglass was. Today, we can read a single volume of Douglass’s speeches and writings edited by Philip Foner, abridged by Yuval Taylor, and published by Lawrence Hill Books.
While I enjoyed listening to Blight’s talk, there was one point where we are in disagreement. Blight spoke about President Obama’s speech at the opening of the African American Museum in Washington. Blight was impressed with the fact that Obama mentioned only one person in history, and that was Frederick Douglass.
This is how David Blight described Douglass’ attitude toward the Democratic Party that Barrack Obama represents: “Douglass portrayed the Democrats as the enemies of mankind, and of history itself. They were the ‘fiendish. . .hellhounds’ ready to pounce on black people and their allies at their first grasp of power.”
Why did Douglass have this opinion of the Democratic Party? It was the Democrats who enforced the laws of both slavery and Jim Crow segregation.
Clearly Blight would, no doubt, argue that the Democratic Party of today is different from that party in the past. What are the facts?
While the Democrats ran the systems of slavery and Jim Crow, it was the Democratic President William Clinton who drafted a Crime Bill that set the stage for the mass incarceration that we have today.
We might recall how Frederick Douglass advised people to defend themselves against the notorious slave catchers. We might then recall that President Obama deported more immigrants than any other President in history. According to my calculations, Obama deported on the average over 800 immigrants every day during his presidency.
These immigrants might be deported to nations where the prevailing wage is $2 per day. We might speculate as to the cost for a slave owner of sustaining a slave for one day. This might be a similar cost as the wages of many workers in the world today.
In my opinion, there is a direct link from the slaves who escaped human bondage, to the Black people who escaped Jim Crow segregation, to the immigrants who come to this country in search of a living wage.
In any case, I believe that we have a lot to learn from the life of Frederick Douglass. He lived at a time when vicious racist attitudes were the norm. Yet, he engaged in a struggle where he found the words that began to convince people that there would never be any significant advances in this country, until all forms of racial discrimination are eliminated.