Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David Blight

Takeaway: Well-written biography of a fascinating man.

I first came across David Blight when I listened to a podcast of his Yale College History class on the Civil War and Reconstruction. I have not read any of his books previously, but based on my enjoyment of that class and my interest in (but complete lack of knowledge about) Frederick Douglass, I jumped on an advanced copy. I did not leave enough time for this very long book and bought the audiobook.

It is hard to be too glowing about Frederick Douglass. Primarily self-taught, Douglass eventually wrote three autobiographies and was a publisher of newspapers for roughly 20 years. Douglass was the first Black man appointed to a job that required Senate approval. He was later appointed minister to Haiti (roughly equivalent to ambassador). He may have spoken in front of more people than any other single person in the 19th century in the United States. After the death of his first wife, he married Helen Pitts, a White woman, making theirs the first prominent interracial marriage.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom is the only large biography of Frederick Douglass I know. David Blight is well qualified. He has written introductions to Douglass’ autobiographies. Blight has written about slave narratives (former slaves writing about their history as slaves and their escape) as well as the Underground Railroad. Blight also won the Bancroft Prize (one of the most prominent awards for history writing) for his Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. That book is largely about historical memory, which is especially evident as Blight discusses how Douglass remembers himself and his life and how that changes over time.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom is not just about a fascinating character of history but a complex portrayal of Douglass. One of the points that was made in Harriet Tubman’s biography, Bound for the Promise Land, was that Tubman, like many other historical characters, is easily minimized to the one thing that people know about them. Frederick Douglass is known as a former slave and abolitionist. Some people may know about his autobiographies and have read one of them, but Blight presents a much more complex character, with Douglass’ strengths and weaknesses. And there are lots of both strengths and weaknesses.

Those weaknesses are probably as interesting to me as the strengths. Some of those weaknesses were personal, and some were systemic to the era or his social location. Both Tubman and Frederick Douglass had large extended families that, over time, they became responsible for. The reality of both pre and post-Civil War era was that many Black people (former slaves or always free) had almost no ability to provide for themselves. There were many who were injured or aged and could not work for themselves. But also many young and healthy people who were capable of work but were significantly discriminated against. Douglass and Tubman worked until their death because their prominence allowed them to earn money to support others in ways that others in their circle could not.

Personal weaknesses are interesting to understand as well. Douglass met a free Black woman in Baltimore and encouraged her to leave with him (separately) when Douglass escaped slavery. She joined him soon after he left, and they quickly married and established a life together. They were husband and wife until she died in 1882 when she was about 68 or 69. They had five children together. Anna Murray Douglass was the center of their home. But there was significant conflict or, at the very least, real difference.

Anna never learned to read, but Frederick Douglass was a man of words. Anna rarely traveled, and Frederick was often not home. Anna cared for all of the home and family, and Frederick focused outside the home primarily. During their early life with young children, Frederick often lived apart from the family even when he was not traveling to speak because of his work. After completing his first autobiography, Frederick went on a speaking tour of the United Kingdom and was gone for nearly two years. Even later, when he was home a bit more, he frequently traveled. Because Anna never learned to read, their communication when apart was always through intermediaries, often their children, who would write for Anna and read Frederick’s responses to her.

Frederick Douglas, throughout his life, had close relationships with White women. Many of them raised funds for Douglass’ paper or other work. Several White women were significantly involved directly in his work. Both now and at the time, Frederick’s relationship with Julia Griffiths and Ottilie Assing raised gossip. Both women were professionally involved with Frederick. Julia, who met Douglass during his UK tour, came to Rochester, NY, to help with the Douglass’ paper, and spent much of that time living in the family home. Julia eventually married and moved to Canada and then back to England. Frederick and Julia continued to correspond throughout their lives, and Julia continued to raise money for Douglass and assist him from England.

Ottilie Assing left an enormous amount of correspondence, and her correspondence with others made it clear that she wanted Douglass to leave Anna and marry her. She tried to get him to come to Europe with her (she was German), but while they had a close professional and personal relationship (and maybe an intimate one), Douglass did not leave his wife for Ottilie, although she did frequently live at their home for long periods.

It was not just Frederick Douglass’ personal life and systemic cultural issues that were weaknesses. Douglass made bad decisions at times. Before the Civil War, Douglass had slavery as the enemy to point to. After the Civil War, Douglass knew that former slaves needed education, jobs, voting rights, and many other things. But as a practical matter, there were limits to what could be done. One of the bad decisions, in hindsight, was to ask women to delay their right to vote until later. Douglass was not wrong that the vote needed to be extended to former slaves and freedmen to protect their rights. Douglass had been a strong proponent of women’s rights before the Civil War. But after the Civil War, Douglass was afraid that if he put his weight behind women’s suffrage as well as Black suffrage, neither would get the right to vote.

The era was an era of corruption and graft. This was expected as part of the payment system. Until it was too much, and there was a backlash. That backlash against Black officeholders was an excuse. Because White officeholders had been corrupt and part of patronage systems and nepotism long before there were Black officeholders. Douglass suffered his share of problems because, after the Civil War, the federal government was one of the few places that could have a reliable income. Douglass and others moved to Washington, DC, and entered government service. It does not appear that Douglass was part of an extensive system of corruption, but he did not seem to see the winds changing and supported Grant and other Republicans involved in large corruption systems.

I could keep going on and on about Frederick Douglass’ life. Because any part of his life would likely be enough to have made him famous. There is more than enough material for a 900-page biography. I actually finished wishing several parts of his life had more detail. Blight suggests that Douglass may have had more photographs taken of him than any other 19th-century figure. In many ways, that is probably true about much of the documentation of Douglass’s life. It is incredible how much detail is retained. But some areas are virtually empty. Anna is hard to document because she did not write any letters, and Douglass wrote little about her. There was much about Douglass’ faith, but I wanted more. There was much about his family’s problems, and even with the significant detail, I wanted more.

Douglass outlived 10 of his 21 grandchildren and two of his five children. The 19th century was still an era of many early deaths. Douglass lived a full life. But still, it was a life that felt like it could have held so much more. Like any good biography, I finished this long book wanting more.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David Blight Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Audiobook 

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