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The White World of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

by William S. McFeely
Norton, 465 pp., $24.95

If Abraham Lincoln ultimately transcended the racism that infected most of his white countrymen, he could never forget the virulence, omnipresence, and political usefulness of the disease. When Lincoln, a Republican moderate, spoke out in 1856 against the geographic extension of slavery, Illinois Democrats accused him of “the most ultra abolitionism” and the Illinois State Register claimed that “his niggerism has as dark a hue as that of [William Lloyd] Garrison or Fred Douglass.”1 Two years later, during his great debates with Senator Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln found himself more closely tied to Frederick Douglass, the most celebrated black leader in America—and to the bugaboo of “racial amalgamation.”

Stephen Douglas, in his attacks on Lincoln and the “Black Republicans,” repeatedly referred to his near namesake as one of Lincoln’s “advisers,” as an architect of the conspiracy to destroy the old Whig party, abolitionize the North, and propagate the doctrine of racial equality. In view of Lincoln’s “conscientious belief that the negro was made his equal, and hence is his brother,” Douglas proclaimed, amid bursts of laughter, “he is worthy of a medal from father [Joshua] Giddings and Fred Douglass for his Abolitionism.” On two occasions, at Freeport and Jonesboro, the Little Giant reinforced his appeals to racial hatred with the image of a black man—in this case Frederick Douglass himself—fraternizing as an equal with a young (in one version, “beautiful”) white lady. Referring to an incident in 1854, when Frederick Douglass had reportedly come to Illinois in order “to speak on behalf of Lincoln, [Lyman] Trumbull and abolitionism against that illustrious Senator [Lewis Cass],” Stephen Douglas recalled, “Why, they brought Fred Douglass to Freeport when I was addressing a meeting there in a carriage driven by the white owner, the negro sitting inside with the white lady and her daughter.” “Shame,” cried the Jonesboro crowd. As Douglas made clear when he debated Lincoln at Freeport, where the response of the audience was mixed, the kind of man who thought that his wife should ride in a carriage with a Negro, “whilst you drive the team,” “of course will vote for Mr. Lincoln.”2

After trying repeatedly to overcome the stigma of “niggerism,” Lincoln could not have been pleased when in the fourth debate Stephen Douglas presented a copy of a recent speech made by Frederick Douglass “to a large convention” in Poughkeepsie, New York. Although Stephen Douglas said he had no time to read from the speech, he affirmed that Lincoln’s “ally” “conjures all the friends of negro equality and negro citizenship to rally as one man around Abraham Lincoln, the perfect embodiment of their principles, and by all means to defeat Stephen A. Douglas.” (“It can’t be done,” yelled the crowd.)3

Douglas’s summary was quite accurate. Frederick Douglass, as William S. McFeely tells us, was by then the most famous runaway slave in America. In a long and eloquent address commemorating West Indian emancipation, he eventually turned to the current political contest in Illinois, since he considered Stephen Douglas “one of the most restless, ambitious, boldest and most unscrupulous enemies with whom the cause of the colored man has to contend.” “It seems to me,” Frederick Douglass quipped,

that the white Douglas should occasionally meet his deserts at the hands of a black one. Once I thought he was about to make the name respectable, but now I despair of him, and must do the best I can for it myself. (Laughter.) I now leave him in the hands of Mr. Lincoln, and in the hands of the Republican Party of Illinois, thanking both the latter.

Having exposed Stephen Douglas’s hopeless dilemma of trying to reconcile the doctrine of popular sovereignty with the Dred Scott decision, Frederick Douglass quoted with admiration the central passages from Lincoln’s recent “House Divided” speech.4

But Douglass was far from being a consistent supporter of Lincoln, even after his first cordial meeting with the President in 1863. He was outraged after the election of 1860 by Lincoln’s “slave-hunting, slave-catching and slave-killing pledges,” by which he meant Lincoln’s committment to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, and he exploded with anger in 1862 when Lincoln became involved in colonization schemes based on his longheld view that “a universal feeling,” such as the refusal of “the great mass of white people” to extend equality to blacks, “whether well or ill-founded, can not be safely disregarded.”5 As James M. McPherson has pointed out, Negrophobia was rampant in the dismal summer of 1862, and racial fears “constituted the [Republican] party’s Achilles’ heel.” Looking for indirect means to prepare public opinion for slave emancipation and convinced that “support for colonization was the best way to defuse much of the anti-emancipation sentiment that might otherwise sink the Republicans in the 1862 elections,” Lincoln summoned a committee of free blacks from the District of Columbia for a meeting at the White House.6

No extenuating circumstances can excuse Lincoln’s supercilious tone as he told the members of the delegation that the black presence was to blame for the Civil War and lectured them on their duty to persuade people of color to emigrate to the coal mines of Central America. This was perhaps Lincoln’s worst moment. Yet various black leaders, such as Martin Delany and Henry Highland Garnet, had been better prepared than Douglass to reflect on the basic “fact” or reality that Lincoln tried to describe: the perpetuity of racial conflict and the seemingly hopeless future that black people faced in the United States. Acknowledging that “your race are suffering, in my judgment, the greatest wrong inflicted on any people,” Lincoln grimly observed that “you are cut off from many of the advantages which the other race enjoy. The aspiration of men is to enjoy equality with the best when free, but on this broad continent, not a single man of your race is made the equal of a single man of ours, Go where you are treated the best, and the ban is still upon you.”7

With good cause blacks denounced Lincoln’s address in protest meetings in a number of Northern cities, although a few dissenters agreed that white supremacy and prejudice could never be overcome. Douglass shrewdly noted that

The tone of frankness and benevolence which [Lincoln] assumes in his speech to the colored committee is too thin a mask not to be seen through. The genuine spark of humanity is missing in it, no sincere wish to improve the condition of the oppressed has dictated it. It expresses merely the desire to get rid of them, and reminds one of the politeness with which a man might try to bow out of his house some troublesome creditor or the witness of some old guilt.

Douglass called Lincoln “a genuine representative of American prejudice and Negro hatred” who revealed “all his inconsistencies, his pride of race and blood, his contempt for Negroes and his canting hypocrisy.”8

In one year the exigencies of war had produced revolutionary changes and prospects that wholly transformed Douglass’s view of Lincoln. The Emancipation Proclamation, coupled with the enlistment of black troops in the Union army, showed that a Union victory would depend on black military manpower as well as on the destruction of slavery. In Douglass’s eyes, “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S.; let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”9 Douglass soon became the most famous government agent recruiting black troops throughout the North; his son Lewis, a sergeant major in Colonel Robert Gould Shaw’s celebrated Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts, was one of the lucky survivors of the assault on Fort Wagner.

Despite his conviction that military service could help win the “double battle” against Southern slavery and Northern racial prejudice, Douglass became increasingly angered by the government’s refusal to appoint blacks as commissioned officers; by the disparity in pay between black and white Union soldiers; and especially by Lincoln’s lack of response to the Confederate government’s announced policy of executing or enslaving black prisoners of war. Fortunately, Lincoln issued an order to retaliate against the latter atrocity before Douglass traveled to the White House on August 10, 1863, to present the grievances of his people.

In a letter written shortly after the interview, Douglass emphasized that he “Was received cordially and saw at glance the justice of the popular estimate of his qualities expressed in the prefix Honest to the name Abraham Lincoln.” Nearly four months later, in a speech to an antislavery convention, Douglass elaborated on this point:

I never met with a man, who, on the first blush, impressed me more entirely with his sincerity, with his devotion to his country, and with his determination to save it at all hazards.

Lincoln had good-naturedly referred to a speech Douglass had made attacking “the tardy, hesitating and vacillating policy of the President of the United States.” The President had then defended himself by stressing the tactical importance of timing and preparation in view of the fact that “the colored man throughout this country was a despised man, a hated man.”10 McFeely concludes that Douglass “felt at ease in [Lincoln’s] presence, with no sense of inferiority,” and “came away convinced that once Lincoln had taken a position favorable to the black cause, he could be counted on to hold to it.” For his part, Lincoln, who later summoned Douglass to the White House to discuss a desperate plan to encourage slaves to seek freedom behind Union lines, was reported to have said that Douglass was “one of the most meritorious men in America.”11

In one of the characteristic insights that give unity to his fine biography, McFeely writes that Douglass’s first visit with the President in “the Executive Mansion itself, was a crowning achievement for the [slave] boy who had once sneaked into Wye House,” the Eastern Shore of Maryland mansion of Colonel Edward Lloyd, who employed as his plantation manager Aaron Anthony, Frederick Douglass’s original owner. The progression from Wye House to the White House brings us to an extremely complex question: Frederick Douglass’s relationships with whites.

Although Douglass (originally named Frederick Bailey) experienced the appalling cruelties of slavery, the wrath of Negrophobic mobs, and the more subtle slights and cuts of unconscious racism, he also had a series of unique encounters with white people that seemed to refute Lincoln’s basic assumption about the universality and intractability of racial prejudice. From his early childhood as a slave boy who could only fantasize about the identity of his white father, Douglass, who was extraordinarily attractive, encountered whites who played with him, nurtured him, protected him, educated him, guided him, praised him, saved his life, endowed him with financial support, cheered and applauded him, loved him, and honored him. It was not out of character for Douglass at age sixty-six to marry a white woman twenty years younger than he; or for him to return as a celebrity to the plantation manor, where, as McFeely puts it, “the once-slave sipped madeira with a great-grandson of the lord of Wye House, whose portrait, still on its walls, the slave child had once surreptitiously studied with wondering imagination.”

McFeely is sensitive to the nuances of Douglass’s relationships with whites and portrays these ties and close relations without ever suggesting a betrayal of race on Douglass’s part or even a desire to be white. McFeely also does his best to animate Douglass’s intimate relationships with blacks: with Betsy Bailey, his heroic grandmother who provided him with an example of resourcefulness when he spent his first six years in her small cabin; “good Father Lawson,” a Baltimore lay preacher; John and Henry Harris, field hands and close friends with whom the seventeen-year-old Douglass risked life and limb in an abortive conspiracy to escape bondage; Anna Murray, the free black woman whom Douglass married after they successfully fled from Baltimore to the North; Thomas James and other free black abolitionists who gave protection, support, and encouragement to the fugitive couple as they finally found refuge in New Bedford, Massachusetts. If these ties with an African-American community remain shadowy, it is not a shortcoming of McFeely’s research, which is more extensive than that of any previous Douglass biographer. The surviving record, including what McFeely calls Douglass’s “three unidentical autobiographies,” shows, along with an unswerving dedication to racial equality, a constant attraction to the white world.

As a small child Frederick developed a close friendship with Daniel Lloyd, the lonely son of the patriarch of Wye House. Though Daniel was five years older, the two boys played and sported about the estate; Frederick attentively studied the behavior of Daniel’s private tutor, brought from Massachusetts to educate the aristocratic colonel’s son. At age seven, McFeely writes, Frederick “simply knew that he belonged inside the great house…[and] was ready to move in. There was only the fundamentally silly problem that, by accident, he was a slave.” Slave or not, he was made into “something of a pet” by Lucretia Anthony Auld, his owner’s daughter and the wife of Thomas Auld, who acquired title to Frederick through inheritance (and who may well have been his father).

Drawing on a masterful study by Dickson J. Preston,12 McFeely captures Douglass’s complex and ambiguous relationship with the Auld family: Lucretia and Thomas, Thomas’s brother, Hugh, his wife, Sophia, and the latter couple’s young son Tommy. Douglass’s later attacks on the Aulds, which were part of his indictment of the entire slave system, “do not fully hide the fact,” McFeely points out, that the adults “were four perplexed and limited people struggling to respond to the needs of an unusual boy who was also a slave.”

The Aulds made a number of extraordinary decisions that unintentionally prepared the way for Douglass’s successful escape into freedom and for developing his brilliant talents as an orator, writer, and social critic. In 1826, when Frederick was eight, Lucretia and Thomas decided to send him to Baltimore to live with Hugh and Sophia, who owned no slaves. In the normal course of events, as the Aulds well knew, Frederick would have remained within the stunting environment of the Eastern Shore and would probably have grown up to be a field hand, in continual danger of being sold like many of his relatives into the Deep South. When Sophia Auld welcomed Douglass into her home as a genuine human child, he later recalled, he encountered for the first time “a white face beaming with the most kindly emotions,” a woman who became “more akin to a mother, than a slaveholding mistress.” Except for one brief but frightening interruption when he was forced to return to Eastern Shore and was in danger of being sold, Frederick lived in this “haven of cheerful affection” until he was fifteen, a household, as McFeely writes, “that gave him the security and a neighborhood that gave him the stimulation he needed to expand his wonderfully curious mind.”

Treating Frederick like the older half brother of her own son Tommy, Sophia read passages of the Bible to both boys and began to teach Frederick to read. Despite Hugh’s disapproval and strong misgivings about subverting the foundations of white supremacy, he took no effective steps to prevent Frederick from studying Tommy’s spelling book, reading the newspapers, hanging around the docks with a gang of boys oblivious to slavery, or buying and studying his own copy of a book entitled The Columbian Orator, a compilation of great speeches extolling liberty and conveying the message, in McFeely’s phrase, that “oratory was power.”

As the precocious slave boy weathered the storms of adolescence, he became increasingly aware that his fate lay in the hands of Thomas Auld, the master in whom he hoped to find, according to McFeely, “an uncle, an older brother, perhaps even a friend.” Or, one might add, a father. When Thomas, now a shopkeeper in St. Michaels, Maryland, arranged for the return of the fifteen-year-old from Baltimore, Frederick futilely hoped that Thomas’s religious conversion would “rescue him through either manumission or the creation of some special world within slavery.” McFeely is convinced that “Frederick loved Thomas, and that love was returned,” despite Douglass’s brutal treatment by the farmer to whom Douglass was hired out and despite his later attempts to deny the complexity of his feelings toward Auld. The crucial fact is that Thomas Auld finally saved the rebellious teenager from an armed posse of would-be lynchers, resisted immense public pressure to sell Frederick out of the state, and sent him back to Baltimore to learn to be a skilled laborer, with the promise “that if he worked diligently at a trade (and stayed out of trouble) he would set him free when he became twenty-five.” As McFeely astutely concludes, when Douglass finally achieved his great goal of freedom,

he would be a debtor. Frederick Bailey owed his chance to seek freedom not to the camaraderie of the brave Henry Harris, but to the largesse of an ambiguous Thomas Auld. For his freedom—for his life—he would for the rest of that life be beholden to a white man whom he had loved and whom he now had to remember to loathe.

After his triumphal speech in 1841 to a wildly enthusiastic abolitionist audience in Nantucket, Douglass’s relationships with individual whites were far too numerous and labyrinthine to be easily summarized or characterized. As he took up a career of ceaseless touring, public speaking, and agitating, often removed for extended periods from his illiterate wife and his growing children, white abolitionists traveled with him, roomed and dined with him, invited him to their houses, joined him in facing hostile crowds, and sat with him at night when he was denied a bed or berth because of his color. Douglass never expressed greater gratitude than he did to William A. White, a Harvard graduate and abolitionist agent whose head was gashed and teeth knocked out when he saved the already injured Douglass from a possibly lethal blow at the hands of a racist Indiana mob. “I shall never forget how like two very brothers we were ready to dare, do, and even die for each other,” Douglass wrote to White, recalling that his friend had left a “life of ease and even luxury…against the wishes of your father and many of your friends” to do “something toward breaking the fetters of the slave and elevating the dispised black man.”

Like numerous white abolitionists, Douglass suffered a painful break with the overbearing and doctrinaire William Lloyd Garrison, whom he continued to respect as a courageous pioneer. One may detect covert racism in the efforts of some white abolitionists to keep Douglass in a subordinate role, in their criticism of his “ingratitude,” and in their indignation over his intimacy with Julia Griffiths, an Englishwoman who became an adoring companion and a kind of business manager for his newspaper, the North Star. But in reading McFeely’s biography, one is struck by the absence of racism or subservience in Douglass’s long and rich friendships with abolitionists like Amy and Isaac Post, Abby Kelley, Parker Pillsbury, Gerrit Smith, and Ottilia Assing, a German admirer and probable lover about whom McFeely presents important new material.

The fact that Douglass was accepted by many whites as a respected equal—especially during his nearly two years in Ireland, Scotland, and England in 1845–1847, where he became a celebrity, and “people of the highest rank,” as his publisher wrote, “contend[ed] for his company”—helps to explain his underlying optimism about the imminent conquest of racial prejudice. No black leader I know of was more acutely sensitive to white condescension or more aware of the ubiquity in the Northern United States of the refrain, “We don’t allow niggers in here!”13 But no other leader was so sanguine on the prospects for racial equality and racial integration, or so convinced that these goals were part of a more general struggle for women’s rights, temperance, and social uplift. The very qualities that made Douglass such an effective and eloquent critic in the pre-emancipation era have rendered his legacy increasingly open to question.14

Horace Greeley summed up a central antislavery and Republican dogma regarding the effects of slavery on human progress:

Enslave a man and you destroy his ambition, his enterprise, his capacity. In the constitution of human nature, the desire of bettering one’s condition is the mainspring of effort.15

Clearly enslavement had no such effect on the “mainspring” of Frederick Douglass, and he presents a special problem for his modern biographers. Modern academia, devoted as it is to producing elites, has long professed a deep suspicion as well as distaste for upward mobility. McFeely almost conveys a shudder when he mentions Douglass’s “best-known stock-in-trade lecture,” on “Self-Made Men.” Yet when every allowance is made for the blacks and whites who educated Douglass and who gave him indispensable support, his life still adds up to a stunning case of individual achievement—an achievement that defied the prevailing system, not one that showed that merit was rewarded “regardless of race.”

Occasionally, McFeely’s portrait is marred by remarks revealing the shadow of the Douglass he would like to find—a convivial populist who, having worked as a caulker and field hand, never lost a taste for merging and carousing with the proletariat. McFeely shows little sympathy for Douglass’s remarkable self-discipline, temperance, ambition, and commitment to bourgeois moral values. Yet the very traits that made Douglass a great writer, powerful orator, and one of his century’s most trenchant critics of slavery, racism, and sexual inequality were inseparable from his drive for self-improvement. It was this confidence that social democracy could actually be advanced when individuals are enabled to overcome seemingly insuperable obstacles that provided a bridge of respect between Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.

  1. 1

    The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vols. 1–9, Roy P. Basler, editor (Rutgers University Press, 1953), Vol. 2, p. 344.

  2. 2

    The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 3, pp. 3, 5, 6, 10, 55–56, 105. Jonesboro, located toward the southern tip of Illinois, was far more hostile to abolitionists than was Freeport, in the extreme north of the state.

  3. 3

    The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 3, pp. 171–172.

  4. 4

    The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews, John W. Blassingame, editor (Yale University Press, 1979), Vol. 3, pp. 233–237. As the editors of the Douglass papers note, Douglass raised the issue that Lincoln posed some weeks later in his famous “Freeport question,” “although forms of the question had been extant for some time” (p. 234, note 36). For Douglass’s visit to Illinois in 1854, including his views of Stephen Douglas and play on the common name, see Frederick Douglass Papers, Vol. 2, pp. 541–559.

  5. 5

    The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 2, p. 256.

  6. 6

    James M. McPherson, The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 506–509; The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 5, pp. 370–375; David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass’ Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee (Louisiana State University Press, 1989), pp. 122–147. McFeely writes that President Lincoln “had only two private conversations with Douglass—and none with other black leaders, except for the famous meeting with creole de couleur gentlemen from New Orleans just before the president’s death…” (p. 235). Since the first interview with Douglass was not entirely “private” (Senator Samuel C. Pomeroy was present), this appears to be an error. But McFeely may not regard the brief responses of the black delegation headed by Edward M. Thomas to constitute a “conversation,” even if these were the first free African Americans to have an official audience with an American president.

  7. 7

    The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 5, pp. 371–375.

  8. 8

    Blight, Frederick Douglass’ Civil War, p. 139.

  9. 9

    McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 564.

  10. 10

    Frederick Douglass Papers. Vol. 3, p. 607.

  11. 11

    Gabor S. Boritt, Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream (Memphis State University Press, 1978), p. 174. In 1865, McPherson notes, “Lincoln went out of his way to welcome Frederick Douglass to the inaugural reception on March 4,” and also admitted blacks for the first time to White House social functions (Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 840).

  12. 12

    Dickson J. Preston, Young Frederick Douglass: The Maryland Years (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), reviewed in this journal by George M. Fredrickson, June 27, 1985.

  13. 13

    See Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (Arno Press reprint, 1968), pp. 371–373.

  14. 14

    For the ambiguities of Douglass’s literary legacy, extending from Booker T. Washington to Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X, see David L. Dudley, My Father’s Shadow: Intergenerational Conflict in African American Men’s Autobiography (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).

  15. 15

    Quoted in Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 46. Douglass showed precisely how the wounds inflicted by slavery were used to stigmatize the victims: “Ignorance and depravity, and the inability to rise from degradation to civilization and respectability, are the most usual allegations against the oppressed. The evils most fostered by slavery and oppression are precisely those which slaveholders and oppressors would transfer from their system to the inherent character of their victims. Thus the very crimes of slavery become slavery’s best defence. By making the enslaved a character fit only for slavery, they excuse themselves for refusing to make the slave a freeman” (Frederick Douglass Papers, Vol. 2, p. 507).

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