2018-11-08 / Around Town

New Biography of Frederick Douglas

BOOK REVIEW

Frederick Douglass is a difficult subject for a biographer. Anyone who tries to tackle the life of the famed 19th-century abolitionist is competing against Douglass himself, whose memoirs are among the most important works of autobiography ever written.

Newport figured in a chapter of Douglass’ life as he stopped here briefly with his new wife after escaping captivity. He ran out of money while in the city, and Quakers convinced him to get on a stage to New Bedford, where he began his life as a free man.

The first book Douglass wrote about his life, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave,” exposed Americans to the horrific reality of plantation slavery, disabusing them of romanticized accounts of smiling chattel living side-by-side with their masters. No single book, with the possible exception of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” has had a greater effect on American public opinion.

A new biography, “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” by Yale history professor David Blight, rises to the challenge with a biography as monumental as Douglass himself. The 854-page book would be unbelievable if it were fiction. After Douglass’s second master stopped the reading lessons his wife was giving their new slave, Douglass bribed local urchins to complete his education.

Shipped to Edward Covey, a cruel overseer famous for “breaking” recalcitrant slaves, Douglass challenged him to a fight and won. Normally this would have meant death, either immediately by hanging or simply by being worked to death in the fields, but Covey backed down. Returning to Baltimore, Douglass met a free black woman who helped him escape disguised as a sailor.

Douglass’s voice was so powerful that within three years of escaping slavery he had been recruited as a traveling orator by William Lloyd Garrison, the famous Massachusetts abolitionist. As a speaker, his intelligence and charisma were living proof that African-Americans were the equal of whites. Douglass’s speeches were varied, but they shared the same fundamental theme, the need to include African

Americans in the promise of America’s founding.

While many abolitionists, including Garrison, rejected the Constitution as inextricably intertwined with slavery, Douglass sought to make real Thomas Jefferson’s beautiful phrase, “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Later, during the Civil War, he broke with many fellow abolitionists and opposed a plan to resettle freed slaves in the West Indies or Africa.

Throughout his career, Douglass was first and foremost a patriot. For the first half of his life, his patriotism was rejected by most of his fellow Americans. Later on, even as race relations worsened after Reconstruction, Douglass enjoyed broad acclaim. He was one of the most photographed men of the 19th century and, upon his death, was eulogized as “so highly esteemed by white people that… his entrance into their midst upon any public occasion was always the signal for an enthusiastic personal greeting.”

Fittingly, a champion of America lived the American dream, rising to fame from the lowest birth possible.

Review by Providence’s Ray Rickman, former State Representative and Deputy Secretary of State. Rickman is a noted historian whose nonprofit group, Stages of Freedom, promotes African-American culture in the community.

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