Frederick Douglass- Prophet of Freedom


Douglass, born a slave, would become the most important African American of the nineteenth century.and one of the great writers of his era. He first made his reputation as the most celebrated orator of the abolitionist movement. Drawing from his personal experience, he developed a genius with words and held audiences spellbound for hours. This former slave met with Lincoln at the White House and rejoiced in the victory of emancipation. He would become a loyal Republican for the rest of his life, steadfast in his commitment even when challenged by younger men who accused him of blind allegiance to his party. He saw the promise of Reconstruction dashed by the resistance of former slaveholders, and he fought this betrayal ferociously. As a lecturer, he likely reached more listeners than any American in the century, as he moved around the country by train, a marathon traveler for the abolitionist cause. The activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton saw him at Boston's Faneuil Hall and spoke for many white women when she wrote, "He stood there like an African prince, conscious of his dignity and power, grand in his physical proportions, majestic in his wrath, as with keen wit, satire, and indignation he portrayed the bitterness of slavery." Douglass's private life was complicated. His children were financially dependent on him even as adults. His second marriage to a white woman scandalized even some of his supporters.

Blight's well written tome of more than 750 pages is full of richness on the life of this towering figure in nineteenth-century American history.

Weekly Topics

1.    Intro + Chapters 1-3:  Birth (1818) & early life as a child slave on a Maryland plantation; exposure to city life in the bustling port of Baltimore

2.    Chapters 4-7:  Back on the plantation, as a teenager, resisted the abuse of a brutal overseer, he became a man; escape to New England with the help of friends; marriage to Anna and arrival in New Bedford, Mass. as penniless newlyweds to start a new life; Douglass took the abolitionists traveling circuit by storm (early 1840's)

3.    Chapters 8-10:  Douglass became a Garrisonian in body & mind; words became a source of influence and power; writing for publication in other than newspapers; tour in British Isles, joined by William Lloyd Garrison (1845-6)

4.    Chapters 11, 12:  On his return home, facing the challenge of finding balance between public and private demands; intense debate over slavery in 1850's Washington, D.C.; close working relationship with Julia Griffiths and rumors of an affair; the struggle to feed his family and support his newspaper; public split with Garrison

5.    Chapters 13, 14:  The Old Testament, an inspiring source of intellectual and emotional control; delivery of one of the greatest speeches in American history (1852); divisive issues of the Fugitive Slave Act and colonization outside the US; political activism (1850's); friendship with the writer James McCune Smith; Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), repeal of the Missouri Compromise & Dred Scott decision

6.    Chapters 15, 16:  Douglass met John Brown.  Their 12-year relationship - a good lens through which to view both men; when news broke of Brown's 1859 raid, he realized he was in dire trouble; escape into exile; seismic breaks (Brown's raid, the 1860 election & secession) when people are taught by events

7.    Chapters 17, 18:  His long rehearsal as a war propagandist reached it final phase, as he yearned for war (spring 1861); in 1862 he preached unapologetically, "These cloudless skies, this balmy air, this brilliant sunshine (making December as pleasant as May), are in harmony with the glorious morning of liberty about to dawn upon us."

8.    Chapters 19, 20:  Civil War became a family affair, two sons enlisted and a third became a recruiter of black troops; the Emancipation Proclamation - everyone is liberated; Gettysburg Address, as Lincoln and Douglass spoke from the same script; with the death of one America, out of the ashes came a second American republic; "our work is not done"

9.    Chapters 21, 22:  Sacred efforts to achieve "freedom, progress, elevation, and perfect enfranchisement of the entire colored people;" search for meaning in Lincoln's death; antislavery had done its work - what would become of Douglass and family after abolition?; he identified with Othello

10.    Chapters 23, 24:  Reunion with brother Perry and family, illiterate with values bred in decades of slavery (1867); challenges of supporting his growing clan; domestic discord; campaign for Grant and hope for a presidential appointment (1868); ratification of Fifteenth Amendment (1870); maintained a breathtaking speaking schedule; financial strain as family enterprises failed (1874)

11.    Chapters 25, 26:  Questions of what peace among the whites would bring; frustration and anger from recent personal losses & professional failures (1875); unraveling of Reconstruction; disputed election of 1876; consultations with Pres. Hayes and appointment as marshal of the District of Columbia, an important & lucrative office

12.    Chapters 27, 28:  Joys and sorrows with family; campaign for Garfield (1880); death of first wife, Anna (1882); opposed voices calling for blacks to seek independence from (white) political parties; recorder of deeds for the District; the aging man could still write and speak with brilliance and vigor; ebb and flow of hope and despair; Democrats won back the White House (1884); marriage to Helen Pitts, a white woman

13.    Chapters 29, 30:  Full-throated jeremiad against the depressing state of American race relations; charged both political parties with immoral inaction; escaped to vacation in Europe with Helen (1886); appointed US minister to Haiti by Pres. Harrison (1889); controversy over the character of US interest in Caribbean; he understood realpolitik but preferred enlightened self interest

14.    Chapters 31 + Epilogue:  Douglass met Booker T. Washington (1892) - differences in leadership styles and purposes of two men; support for renomination of Pres. Harrison; suffered health problems but remained astonishingly active; death came suddenly (1895);  if slavery and race were centerpieces of American history in nineteenth century, no one represented that saga quite like Douglass


Blight, David W., Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom, Simon & Schuster, 2018