Frederick Douglass biography by Yale historian a lesson for our time

David Blight, professor of American history at Yale University, has written a new biography, "Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom."

David Blight, professor of American history at Yale University, has written a new biography, "Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom."

NEW HAVEN — It’s a good year to think about Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who became the most famous African-American of his time, and who never ceased to hold hope for his country despite seeing it fall from the hopefulness of emancipation to the re-emergence of overt racism.

This year, the bicentennial of Douglass’ birth in February 1818, is a year when racism and other forms of bigotry have been shown still to be very much alive, most recently in the shooting deaths of worshipping Jews and warnings by President Donald Trump that a caravan of asylum seekers walking toward the U.S.-Mexican border is allegedly harboring invading criminals. And it’s also a year in which African Americans, women, Muslims and LGBTQ candidates gained new ground in state and congressional elections.

With the publication of his 888-page biography, “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” Yale University historian David Blight is shining new light on a man who overcame huge obstacles to become one of the most important figures of American history.

Besides being widely taught not only by historians but by political philosophers and law professors, Douglass is “getting a lot of attention because his ideas, his writings, are timely. We’re having an enormous racial reckoning,” said Blight, professor of American history at Yale and director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale.

“He’s the greatest example of the former slave who became the great intellectual writer and orator on our biggest social problem, and we’re still living out some of those legacies,” Blight said. “Look at the racialization of our policies again, coming from the top, and it’s being done because it works.”

Douglass lived enslaved for 20 years and for nine more as a fugitive. Born before the Civil War and emancipation, he lived through Reconstruction and the founding of what Blight calls the “Second American Republic” with the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution. He saw the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings and Jim Crow laws, and became internationally famous for his writing and his oratory.

“There may be no better example of an American radical patriot than the slave who became a lyrical prophet of freedom, natural rights, and human equality,” Blight writes.

Douglass, self-taught, studied the Bible and Shakespeare and, before his death in 1895, he “loved and used” the electric light, the telephone and the phonograph, although “the greatest orator of the 19th century never got recorded,” Blight said. “If it ever turns up, it’ll be magic.”

The new biography especially expands our knowledge of the last third of Douglass’ life through Blight’s study of a private collection of papers owned by Walter O. Evans of Savannah, Georgia.

Douglass is being appropriated by both liberals and conservatives, Blight said, but right-wing conservatives, wearing buttons that claim him because he was a Republican, celebrate Douglass only for being “the great self-made man” and claim that “therefore he was a believer in limited government.”

But Douglass was a radical all his life, Blight said, and “believed in activist federal government without which slavery could never have been destroyed, the Confederacy could never have been defeated. … The truth is all black leaders in the 19th century preached self-reliance. They had to.”

Blacks had experienced a society that had “enslaved their people, then terrorized their people, then they denied them citizenship, denied them political and civil liberties.” Like President Abraham Lincoln, Douglass was a Republican, but the 19th-century Republican Party was more like today’s Democratic Party than the current GOP, Blight said.

Right-wing and libertarian Republicans “can pluck out what they want” from Douglass’ words, but “he was always a radical outsider,” Blight said.

Douglass also made the news in February 2017 when Trump made a speech during Black History Month in which it wasn’t clear the president knew that Douglass had been dead for 122 years. Trump said: “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.”

Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey and changed his name based on a character in Walter Scott’s poem “The Lady of the Lake,” Blight said. He was the most photographed American of the 1800s and, with the possible exception of Mark Twain, the most widely traveled, Blight writes. He may have given more speeches to more people than any other American and it is Douglass’ words, both spoken and written in three autobiographies, the abolitionist newspaper he edited, the North Star, and many other publications, that are his greatest contribution, Blight said. He calls Douglass “a genius with language … who only had one essential weapon in his life and that is his words.”

Douglass also was “so steeped in biblical language and biblical stories,” especially those from the Hebrew Bible.

Blight said that “one of the big themes” in his book is that “I try to chart the course of a man who was a political outsider, a radical outsider … but through the course of the Civil War and then emancipation … he transforms increasingly into a political insider.” While he never was elected to office, he held three appointed offices, including minister to Haiti.

“He also undergoes in his aging years a lot of attacks from the younger generation,” born after slavery, who “want to displace him,” Blight said. “Douglass becomes the aging sage of a revolution he helped to bring about and now he has to, in his older years, fight to preserve that revolution.”

But despite seeing the erosion of race relations at the end of the 1800s, “to his dying day he’s still trying to argue that America can still live up to this ideal,” Blight said, which was that “your right to equality is inherent in nature, nature itself. Douglass believed that above all things. He thought that if the United States could undergo an Armageddon like the Civil War and re-create itself, we could do it again.”

Douglass also “was a thoroughgoing women’s rights man,” Blight said. “He not only believed in women’s suffrage, he believed in women’s economic rights. He’s one of the greatest thinkers we’ve ever had on this question of what America’s promise really is … the fulfillment of anyone’s potential.”

After the war, Douglass began to speak about America’s possibilities. “He already imagined the future … America would become more mixed race. … In time he imagines this society where race … would be conquered,” Blight said. In a famous speech, he described the “Composite Nation” in advocating that Chinese be accepted as immigrants. But he soon lost his optimism.

“I’ve always found it fascinating,” Blight said. “Imagine that (speech) in 1867 and yet within at least a few years or several years he put that speech aside. … It shows us how quickly something can rise and then fall.”

Blight said the idea of a united nation is being challenged by those whose only interest is self-interest. “In the academy in particular, we’ve grown into some excess,” he said. “Instead of learning history together, instead of imagining a society that can still be a composite whole, we’re letting people retreat into whoever they are. If they choose, they can come to college and learn about themselves.”

Blight also writes about how Douglass tried to balance his public and private lives. He had two wives, the first a free-born black woman, the second a white woman 20 years younger than himself. “It was the most scandalous marriage of the 19th century,” Blight said. He had four children and 21 grandchildren.

Finally, though, Blight presents Douglass “as a thinker, as an intellectual, as a commentator on everything from the Constitution or race and racism itself to war and peace, the Civil War … and even the meaning and definition of this thing called America. He became one of those rare minds of great depth and ambition.

“That little boy from nowhere, out of the eastern shore of Maryland, through a series of lucky breaks and his own driving ambition … became a genius with words who left enormous commentary on all of these great questions of his time.”