Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight, Simon & Schuster, 2018; $37.50
The 19th century’s most photographed black man and one of the era’s most prolific writers and speakers, Frederick Douglass was a philosopher, constitutionalist, theologian, and advocate of natural rights. Emulating Jeremiah and Isaiah, he cast himself as a prophet scornful of slaveholders, their poor white neighbors, Democrats—and Christianity itself, for countenancing the peculiar institution.
Born into bondage, Douglass hardly knew his mother, who died early, and never learned his white father’s name. A slave owner’s wife taught him to read on the sly. The book Columbia Orator introduced the youth to notions of freedom, liberty, and human rights; a semi-literate laborer gave him faith and an “insatiable desire for knowledge.” Teaching fellow slaves to read molded him into the “greatest antislavery orator of the 19th century,” Blight writes.
Escaping at 20 to New Bedford, Massachusetts, he found a mentor—later, a tormentor—in radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. At an 1841 event, Garrison invited Douglass, 23, to speak. The younger man’s extemporaneous story so enthralled listeners that Douglass went on the lecture circuit, eliciting laughter and tears. “I have no love for America,” he declared. After nine years as a fugitive, Douglass toured the British Isles, where activists raised funds to buy his freedom.
In 1847, Douglas founded the North Star to pillory slavery in the South and racism in the North. He espoused a radical reading of the Constitution, claiming the nation’s fundamental document required abolition. Decrying the Fugitive Slave Act, he advocated killing slavehunter “bloodhounds.” A friend of John Brown—the alliance led to Douglass’s flight to Canada, then to England—Douglass argued against the Harpers Ferry Arsenal attack.
Fort Sumter crystallized Douglass’s view that God meant to destroy the South. Demanding the Union Army enlist blacks, he recruited them into uniform. Afterwards, he advocated black enfranchisement and equal rights, but no coddling for former slaves. “If the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall,” he thundered. He served three presidents, writing three autobiographies whose tone varied by the era. He could be petty and self-destructive. An archivist of slights, he trash-talked Native Americans, Catholics, and the Irish. Blight, who uses this well-documented doorstop to take petty shots of his own at today’s GOP, fails to note that Douglass cherry-picked the Bible, skipping contradictory epigrams. Aficionados will find much to like here.
—Richard Culyer writes in Hartsville, S.C.