Frederick Douglass has been poorly served by biographers. That’s partly because he was his own biographer and did such a good job of it. His three autobiographical works are classics, so eloquent and thorough that it’s hard for a biographer to find new things to say. Certainly none has surpassed Benjamin Quarles’s Frederick Douglass (1948), even though subsequent scholarship, particularly Dickson Preston’s Young Frederick Douglass (1980) and Leigh Fought’s Women in the World of Frederick Douglass (2017), have given us fascinating new information about certain aspects of his life.
But accounts of the Sage of Anacostia have otherwise proven relatively weak. Among the worst in recent years are Maria Diedrich’s Love across the Color Lines, which, in narrating an alleged affair between Douglass and his admirer Ottilie Assing, deals in irresponsible speculation and outright fiction, and William McFeely’s Frederick Douglass, which gets many facts wrong and indulges in odd, sometimes insulting speculation about Douglass’s psychology and that of his family. McFeely’s book reaches a nadir when it describes Douglass’s famous fight with the savage slave-breaker Edward Covey in homoerotic overtones.
At nearly 900 pages of text, David Blight’s new Douglass book aims to be comprehensive, and it does cover a lot. It even draws on a previously unknown collection of Douglass material. Yet for all its thoroughness, it provides few new insights and lacks serious analysis of Douglass’s ideas. Blight spends little time discussing Douglass’s controversial interpretation of the Constitution as an antislavery document, for example, and no time at all examining his religious beliefs, beyond pointing out every single time that he borrowed from the Old Testament for rhetorical purposes — or so it begins to seem. Indeed, Blight seems to assume that Douglass was devoutly religious, when the reality is that Douglass relinquished his youthful piety in his forties, in preference for a vague, pragmatic spiritualism — although he never ceased to quote the Bible on which he was raised. Those quotations were almost always literary rather than dogmatic, and when he discussed religion directly, he rejected the idea that faith can change the universe as being “manifestly . . . in contradiction to sound reason.” “It does not appear,” he said, “that divine power is ever exerted to remove any evil from the world, how great soever it may be.” Douglass was influenced as much by Shakespeare, Hugo, and Dumas as by the Bible, but Blight never discusses them.
More jarring is Blight’s depiction of Douglass as driven by “fantasies of revenge” during the Civil War. He claims that Douglass “yearned” for the “sanctioned killing of slaveholders,” and repeatedly uses words such as “bloodthirsty” to describe him. It’s true that Douglass endorsed violent slave resistance, lionized John Brown, cheered on the Union Army, and strove to enlist black soldiers in its ranks when the war came, but it’s simply false to describe his motivation as “bloodlust” or “vengeance.” Douglass desired the liberation of slaves, not death and destruction, and if the former could have been accomplished without the latter, he would have welcomed it. Moreover, this description of Douglass’s motives contradicts Blight’s later detailing of his subject’s sometimes provocative efforts to meet his former owners on a gentlemanly footing. In 1877 and 1882, he visited the families who had owned him, on terms so amicable that newspapers printed false rumors that he had begged them to forgive him for running away. These aren’t the actions of a man lusting for revenge.
Almost equally off key are Blight’s repeated swipes at what he calls “twenty-first century Republicans” who are “desperate” to claim Douglass as their own. (Full disclosure: In the New York Times in February, Blight counted me among those on the right who “co-opt” Douglass.) He even criticizes Justice Clarence Thomas for quoting Douglass in an opinion. But though he complains that conservatives who cite Douglass are taking him out of context, he quotes Douglass repeatedly in support of liberal perspectives on such contemporary matters as the Black Lives Matter movement, “voter-suppression measures,” and the supposed evils of capitalism. The result is a book that seizes every opportunity to enlist Douglass in support of left-leaning causes while condemning as anachronistic any effort to do the reverse.
Of course, Douglass’s thought is relevant to many of today’s debates. And he fits into neither today’s liberal nor its conservative category. A man of matchless eloquence and profound philosophical depth, Douglass spent five decades writing and speaking on many subjects, from race and slavery to international diplomacy, ethnography, and even photography. His most famous speech — one he delivered some 50 times in the last half of his life — was titled “Self-Made Men,” and it set the theme of his career: Initiative, determination, and freedom, he argued, were the keys to personal success and national happiness. Individualism, in short, was at the heart of his politics as well as his personal narrative.
He sometimes expressed this in surprisingly sharp terms: “The man who will get up will be helped up; and the man who will not get up will be allowed to stay down,” he said. “This rule may appear somewhat harsh, but in its general application and operation it is wise, just and beneficent.” Such words strike the modern liberal’s ear as cold, or, in Blight’s term, “naïve,” and he avoids directly quoting them. But Douglass knew whereof he spoke, having risen through his own efforts from slavery to a position of worldwide renown.
Obviously, Douglass was not denying the importance of giving and receiving aid. Yet Blight disputes the characterization of Douglass as a “self-made man,” on the grounds that he received help from friends and family, and argues that this deflates his self-reliance message. (“You didn’t build that,” one might say.) But that only disproves something Douglass never asserted. He acknowledged that “properly speaking, there are in the world no such men as self-made men” because we all benefit from the help of others, but he focused on people who rose from obscurity and poverty through their own gumption and climbed high after having “built their own ladder.” Such success came through the exercise of virtues we should all emulate. That was his point — and that political and economic freedom, and tolerance of those different from us, enable us to discover and capitalize on the extraordinary potential every person possesses. This, however, can reach fruition only though the prescription Douglass phrased in emphatic terms: “WORK! WORK!! WORK!!!”
That individualism explains why Douglass admonished whites to focus on fairness, not charity, toward former slaves. “There is always more that is benevolent, I perceive, than just, manifested towards us,” he said. But benevolence can become crippling if it fosters dependence. Therefore Douglass’s answer to the question “What should whites do?” was “Do nothing with us! . . . If the negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone!”
Like other modern liberals, Blight finds this language off-putting, and he complains that conservatives “rip” it “from its context” when they quote Douglass to support arguments against today’s welfare state. But that criticism falls short. True, Douglass supported federal efforts to aid former slaves after the war and pleaded with successive presidents to take action against Jim Crow, lynching, and peonage laws that were being used to essentially reinstate slavery in the South. But these calls for government action were necessary precisely because southern state governments did not leave the freedmen alone.
In fact, Douglass, like today’s libertarians, believed that government should protect the rights of all citizens but not operate anything like the modern welfare state. He rejected socialism — a fashionable idea in his day — because it contradicted the principles of freedom to which he devoted his life, and reduced its supposed beneficiaries to dependence and vulnerability. His first biographer, Frederic Holland — whose book Douglass himself endorsed — put it well: Free markets, he wrote, offer hardworking people the chance to profit, while socialism can operate only by compulsion, and therefore “necessarily resemble[s] slavery, in all its cruelties as well as its privations.”
That’s not to say Douglass was a conservative. He was not. He was an outspoken supporter of women’s rights who attended the Seneca Falls Convention, backed the idea of women in combat (in the 1870s!), and married a white woman, a radical crossing of the color line for which his wife’s family disowned her. He rejected the “states’ rights” theory that has long played a role in conservative thought, and he celebrated the terrorist John Brown and the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture. If “radical” means anything, Douglass was a radical — but a radical for individualism.
David Blight’s biography avoids some of the traps into which previous writers fell, although it falls for some new ones — such as lending credence to Diedrich’s flawed tale of the Douglass–Assing liaison. More lamentable is that it spends more time praising than parsing Douglass’s thought. Meanwhile, its length will likely ensure that readers continue to reach for such flawed works as McFeely’s, and those attracted by its purported comprehensiveness will be disappointed by its partisanship and its failure to delve. Frederick Douglass still must await the biographer who can equal the great man himself.