Monday, December 24, 2018

Just Finished Reading - Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight was one of my top three anticipated books of 2018. The problem with anticipating books (and movies and albums) is that sometimes they let you down. This one certainly did not let me down.

I had read Douglass's three autobiographies, as well as the William McFeely biography, along with a host of other studies on Douglass over the last two decades, but none of them come close to the research, narration, and analysis that Blight provides. As one might imagine choosing what to put in and leave out about such an accomplished man's life can be quite the challenge, and although Blight uses over 750 pages to tell Douglass's amazing story, he crafts it in such a way that the abolitionist's life story melds seamlessly from one decade to the next and from one cause to the next.

What this book really made clear to me is that Douglass was a life-long fighter. Blight does a fantastic job of telling about Douglass's enslaved experience and how he developed almost an addiction to reading and learning as a boy. His transition from fugitive to abolitionist spokesperson and then move from Garrisonian moral suasion proponent to practical activist are explained so well by Blight. Douglass's life of struggle to better all humanity comes thorough vividly. His efforts at abolition are not done solely for the enslaved, although they obviously are of primary concern, but he also sees that when freedom and liberty are achieved for all, that all actually benefit. When Douglass helped defeat slavery, and who could argue that he did not play a significant role with all of the speaking, writing, and recruiting, he moved to the next challenge. When citizenship was obtained with the 14th amendment, he moved to the next hurdle, voting rights, and when the 15th amendment passed, he continued to fight for the rights of the poor, women, and other marginalized people as the nation and racism evolved in the post-Civil War decades.

Another intriguing aspect that Bright brought to my attention was Douglass's politics. Although originally a proponent of the Liberty Party, and at first a reluctant supporter of the Republican Party, due largely to their initial support of colonization and lack of moral repugnance against slavery, Douglass eventually became a Republican stalwart. He viewed the 19th century Republicans as the agents of progressive change and the opposing force to Democratic conservatism. Douglass's disdain for Andrew Johnson and his stump support of men such as Grant, Hays, Garfield, and Harrison shows clearly his political leanings. Douglass was never afraid to wave the bloody shirt or remind Americans of his memory of what the Civil War was about or what resulted from it, and he never gave up fighting for better world until he drew his last breath in February 1895.

Lastly, although sometimes challenged by a lack of sources, Blight give us a better picture of Douglass's family relationships. Blight tries as much as possible to inform us about first wife Anna, who died in 1882, and second wife Helen Pitts, a 20-year younger white woman, who survived Douglass. He tells about the sibling rivalries among the great abolitionist's children and some of their challenging spouses. And he tells us about the women who worked for Douglass, such as German Ottilie Assing, who desired to be Mrs. Douglass, and editorial assistant Julia Griffith Crofts, who worked tirelessly in support of Douglass and abolitionism.

This is a masterpiece of biography. It is now the definitive work on America's foremost 19th century African American and it could not come a better time. Douglass's story of rising from enslavement to man of many prominent positions is one that is both educational and inspiring. I most highly recommend it!

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