Now everyone wants a piece of Frederick Douglass. When a statue memorializing him was unveiled at the United States Capitol in 2013, members of the party of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell sported buttons that read frederick douglass was a republican. More recently, the Republican National Committee issued a statement joining President Donald Trump “in honoring Douglass’ lifelong dedication to the principles that define [the Republican] Party and enrich our nation.” Across the ideological divide, former President Barack Obama has lauded Douglass, as has the leftist intellectual Cornel West. New books about Douglass have appeared with regularity of late, and are now joined by David W. Blight’s magnificently expansive and detailed Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.
A history professor at Yale who has long been a major contributor to scholarship on Douglass, slavery, and the Civil War, Blight portrays Douglass unequivocally as a hero while also revealing his weaknesses. Blight illuminates important facets of 19th-century political, social, and cultural life in America, including the often overlooked burdens borne by black women. At the same time, he speaks to urgent, contemporary concerns such as Black Lives Matter. Given the salience of charges of cultural misappropriation, griping about his achievement would be unsurprising: Blight is a white man who has written the leading biography of the most outstanding African American of the 19th century. His sensitive, careful, learned, creative, soulful exploration of Douglass’s grand life, however, transcends his own identity.
In the wake of Douglass’s death in 1895, it was African Americans who kept his memory alive. Booker T. Washington wrote a biography in 1906. The historian Benjamin Quarles wrote an excellent study in 1948. White historians on the left also played a key role in protecting Douglass from oblivion, none more usefully than Philip Foner, a blacklisted Marxist scholar (and uncle of the great historian Eric Foner), whose carefully edited collection of Douglass’s writings remains essential reading. But in “mainstream”—white, socially and politically conventional—circles, Douglass was widely overlooked. In 1962, the esteemed literary critic Edmund Wilson published Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War, a sprawling (and lavishly praised) commentary on writings famous and obscure that omitted Douglass, and virtually all the other black literary figures of the period.
Keenly attuned to the politics of public memory, Blight shows that the current profusion of claims on Douglass’s legacy bears close scrutiny: Claimants have a way of overlooking features of his complex persona that would be embarrassing for them to acknowledge. Conservatives praise his individualism, which sometimes verged on social Darwinism. They also herald Douglass’s stress on black communal self-help, his antagonism toward labor unions, and his strident defense of men’s right to bear arms. They tiptoe past his revolutionary rage against the United States during his early years as an abolitionist. “I have no patriotism,” he thundered in 1847. “I cannot have any love for this country … or for its Constitution. I desire to see it overthrown as speedily as possible.” Radical as to ends, he was also radical as to means. He justified the violence deployed when a group of abolitionists tried to liberate a fugitive slave from a Boston jail and killed a deputy U.S. marshal in the process. Similarly, he assisted and praised John Brown, the insurrectionist executed for murder and treason in Virginia in 1859.