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Self-Made Hero

The Mind of Frederick Douglass

by Waldo E. Martin Jr.
University of North Carolina Press, 333 pp., $27.50

Frederick Douglass was not only the most famous Afro-American of the nineteenth century; when he died in 1895 he was one of the best-known Americans of any race. A eulogist plausibly compared his international reputation to Lincoln’s. No other black spokesman before Martin Luther King, Jr., was able to appeal to whites on behalf of racial justice and equality with so much force and effect. Part of his prestige and influence came from his skill with the written and spoken word; he was a great orator at a time when elocution was highly valued and a forceful writer whose three autobiographies (published in 1845, 1855, and 1881) rank with the best written by Americans. But it was more the substance than the style of his autobiographical writings that made him such a remarkable and intriguing figure. At a time when most whites viewed blacks as inherently inferior to themselves, he rose from the depths of slavery to such a height of Victorian eminence that he challenged this prevailing assumption in a dramatic fashion. Racists did, however, have a solution to the Douglass problem; they simply attributed his undeniable intelligence and character to his white father.

Douglass was born on the eastern shore of Maryland in 1818, the son of a slave woman and an unknown white man (probably his master). Sometimes the slave offspring of white fathers were treated with special consideration, but this does not seem to have been the case with Douglass. His earliest years were spent happily enough at the isolated cabin of his elderly grandmother, but at the age of six he was sent to the great plantation where his master was serving as a steward for one of the largest landowners on the eastern shore. Here he viewed some of the incidents of brutality that he later recorded in his autobiography; personally, however, he suffered from chronic hunger rather than physical abuse. His greatest deprivation was the loss of a mother he had rarely seen: she died after paying him one brief visit in his new home.

Douglass was saved from a life of plantation drudgery, at least temporarily, when he was consigned to the household of a shipwright in Baltimore. Here he received kind treatment, especially from his mistress, who served for a time as a kind of surrogate mother. She started to teach him to read but was then induced to give up the effort in the face of strong public sentiment against making slaves literate. Douglass found ways to continue his education surreptitiously. Eventually he came to possess a copy of The Columbian Orator, a collection of famous speeches in defense of liberty which included an attack on black enslavement. From this great source of Enlightenment and American Revolutionary rhetoric, Douglass derived his basic ideas and the elements of his own oratorical style.

When Douglass was fifteen, a change in his ownership restored him to a plantation, where he faced the dismal prospect of spending the rest of his life as a field hand. Finding him sullen and resentful because of his altered circumstances, his new master rented him out to a local farmer with a reputation as a “negro breaker.” What most readers remember most vividly from Douglass’s autobiographical writings are the accounts of his subsequent degradation and his recovery from it by standing up to the Negrobreaker and besting him in a fair fight, thus winning immunity from further punishment.

Such things happened; faced with defiance from valuable slaves who clearly showed that they would rather die than be whipped, masters or overseers sometimes took the path of least resistance and acquiesced. After being returned to his owner and rented out again, Douglass continued on the path of resistance and plotted with other slaves to escape to the North. The conspiracy was uncovered before it could be acted on, and Douglass was thrown in jail. But now he had a most extraordinary piece of good luck: instead of being sold to the deep South—the usual fate of would-be runaways—he was sent back to the shipwright in Baltimore and allowed to become an apprentice artisan.

Although harassed and beaten up by the white apprentices with whom he worked, Douglass learned his trade and was eventually granted the ultimate privilege of skilled slaves—the right to “hire his own time.” While working and living independently in return for a weekly payment to his master, he planned his escape. Exactly how he managed it was concealed in his pre–Civil War autobiographies for obvious reasons. His escape turned out to have been one of the easiest and least harrowing on record when he revealed his method after the war. He simply borrowed some papers indicating free status from a Negro sailor, boarded a train, rode to freedom, and then mailed the papers back to their owner.

These early years as a Maryland slave (Douglass was twenty when he escaped) are the subject of Dickson J. Preston’s Young Frederick Douglass. A model of historiographic detective work, this engaging study reveals some things about Douglass’s background that he did not know himself. Preston shows for example that Douglass was mistaken about the year of his birth and always considered himself to be a year older than he actually was. He also traces his genealogy and reveals that Douglass was part of a self-conscious kin group—the Baileys—who had roots on the eastern shore going back more than a century. Although some of the fathers in the line, like Douglass’s own, were unknown or undesignated whites, a series of matriarchs had managed to preserve a distinctive family tradition.

As a relatively acculturated Afro-American clan, the Baileys probably looked down upon newer arrivals from Africa—a tendency that may help to account for Douglass’s own assimilationism and relative indifference to his African roots. But why was Douglass himself silent in his writings about the kinship network of which he was a part? Perhaps he had been torn from it at too young an age to be fully aware of its extent and character. But another intriguing possibility is that he suppressed knowledge of these family ties because they did not accord with the self-image that he tried to convey in his writings—the image of a man who had made himself out of almost nothing. Preston’s account raises such questions but does not clearly answer them.

Preston deals more effectively with another kind of selectivity or distortion in Douglass’s remembrances. In his first autobiography of 1845, Douglass apparently exaggerated the cruelty, if not of slavery itself, at least of the treatment he personally received at the hands of some of the whites he condemned by name. Douglass in fact conceded as much later in his life, softening the picture of his last master in later versions of his autobiography and even paying this former owner a friendly visit after the war. It is understandable and even pardonable that the young abolitionist of 1845, afire with zeal to strike a blow for black freedom, should have put the worst possible face on his own experience of servitude.

Waldo E. Martin’s The Mind of Frederick Douglass deals with Douglass’s postslavery career as an abolitionist and spokesman for black rights. But it is less a biography than an authoritative description and analysis of Douglass’s thought. Martin’s originality comes from his contention that Douglass was more than an important contributor to the development of black ideologies and strategies of protest; he also deserves a high place, Martin believes, in American intellectual history.

After escaping from slavery and taking a new name to conceal his identity, Douglass became a major figure in the abolitionist movement. He first allied himself with William Lloyd Garrison and the wing of the movement that placed moral purity above political expediency. The Garrisonians refused to vote or hold office and condemned the Constitution as a “covenant with death” because it seemed to sanction slavery. As the first runaway slave to become an abolitionist orator, Douglass roused a sensation when he told audiences of his personal experiences as a bondsman. Because he was so well spoken, however, there was widespread skepticism whether he was really a fugitive. It was partly to prove his authenticity that Douglass wrote his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, thereby putting himself in danger of recapture and extradition because he wrote about specific names and places.

After publishing this masterpiece of antislavery polemic and autobiographical art, he fled to England, returning to the United States only after British wellwishers had arranged to purchase his freedom. For condoning this purchase, and thus seeming to acknowledge the legality of slavery, Douglass was criticized by purists in the American antislavery movement. This reaction contributed to his estrangement from the perfectionist doctrines and paternalistic racial attitudes of the Garrisonians. His intention to follow an independent course was soon revealed when he founded an antislavery newspaper of his own against the wishes of Garrison and his supporters, who did not welcome a journal that would threaten the preeminence of their own organ—the Liberator. There was more than a hint of race prejudice in the ferocious attacks they leveled at this black man who refused to accept white guidance and leadership; at one point the Garrisonians even spread malicious gossip about Douglass’s relationship with a white Englishwoman who assisted him with his paper.

Douglass’s independence eventually extended to matters of doctrine; his editorial line gradually shifted from the quasi anarchism of the Garrisonians toward the “moderate” abolitionist view that political action was justified and that the Constitution could be interpreted as an antislavery document. During the 1850s, Douglass supported efforts to make slavery a national political issue. He rejoiced in the rise and ultimate triumph of the Republican party, even though this new sectional party was committed to stopping the spread of slavery and not to ending it completely. His growing pragmatism and accommodation to gradual change through the political system was strengthened during the war when he supported the Lincoln administration in its halting steps toward emancipation, while at the same time criticizing it for not going faster. Recognizing that Douglass was preeminent among black leaders and a potentially valuable political ally, Lincoln sought his advice and treated him with conspicuous respect. The war and the resulting emancipation solidified Douglass’s faith in American values and institutions and made him a lifelong optimist about the prospects for black equality.

Douglass’s postwar career was considerably less exciting and heroic than his earlier abolitionist phase. As Martin put it, an “activist-reformist” style of leadership was replaced by an “emblematic-patriarchal” mode. Although he continued to protest vigorously against racial discrimination and injustice, his new role as a political insider and stalwart Republican turned him, for most purposes, into a Gilded Age conservative, an exemplar of the black cause through his personal eminence and success rather than through his leadership in mobilizing blacks to struggle for equality. For his loyalty to the Republicans—which persisted even after Reconstruction when the party had in effect deserted southern blacks—he was rewarded with appointments as United States marshal and recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia, and finally, toward the end of his life, as American minister to Haiti. Meager as these patronage rewards may now appear to be, they represented the highest nonelective positions attained by any Afro-American in the nineteenth century.

Martin’s characterization and assessment of Douglass’s thought reveal why his legacy is a troublesome one for contemporary black intellectuals. A central ideological debate for many black scholars and writers today is over the relative merits of nationalism and Marxism (or how the two can be reconciled). Douglass provides little help to either side. As an assimilationist and a procapitalist liberal, he could easily be taken as a precursor of modern black conservatism, as represented by Thomas Sowell or even Clarence Pendleton. (Martin shows for example that Douglass was more likely than not to oppose special programs to help blacks that went beyond guaranteed suffrage, legal equality, physical protection, and the right to compete in a free market.)

Martin is rather hard on Douglass for his thoroughly bourgeois point of view, his adherence to the American dream of individual success, and his belief that white or Euro-American values were superior to Afro-American folk traditions. He finds Douglass important because he exemplified so many strands of nineteenth-century thought—romanticism, idealism, individualism, liberal humanism, and an unshakable belief in progress. But his very representativeness also means that most of his ideas now seem obsolete, the reflection of “a simpler, romantic view of America.” Douglass’s vision of the future as a melting pot in which all racial and ethnic differences will dissolve into “a composite American nationality” seems from our modern, pluralist perspective not only utopian but wrongheaded. But there is a central aspect of Douglass’s thought that seems not in the least bit dated or irrelevant. He was the most insistent and perhaps the most effective critic of the doctrine of innate racial inequality produced by nineteenth-century America. Not only did Douglass attack racist ideas in his speeches and writings, but he conceived of his entire career and all of his achievements as living proof that racists were wrong about black abilities.

Martin has given considerable attention to Douglass’s antiracist egalitarianism, but he does not give much consideration to how this aspect of his thought fits in with his endorsement of what many people today would take to be naive and outdated liberal-Victorian shibboleths. The fact is that Douglass was attracted to the democratic-capitalist ideals of his time because they could be used to attack slavery and white supremacy. His favorite rhetorical strategy was to expose the hypocrisy of those who professed adherence to the Declaration of Independence, democracy, and equality of opportunity but also condoned slavery and racial discrimination. It would have been strange indeed if he had not been inspired by liberal idealism, because it proved its worth for the cause of racial equality during the sectional crisis that eventually resulted in black emancipation and citizenship. These points may seem obvious, and Martin would hardly dispute them. But considering them seriously might make us think twice before concluding that Douglass’s ideology was basically flawed. If one accepts the proposition that Douglass’s deepest commitment was to black equality and that other beliefs and causes were secondary and of value mainly for their potential contribution to the primal aim, then it is hard to fault him for seizing the best weapons at hand.

Martin is justified, however, in portraying the last twenty years or so of Douglass’s life as a relatively ineffectual and uncreative period. When Reconstruction was overthrown and the North acquiesced in the revival and triumph of southern racism and segregationism, Douglass had no new strategy or insight to offer. He retained what was now clearly a misplaced faith in the Republican party and the inevitability of progress. What Martin’s topical and analytical approach to Douglass’s thought may obscure is the extent to which ideas that may have been fresh and effective in one period became stale and unproductive in another.

To argue that all of Douglass’s thought revolved around race might seem to undercut Martin’s claim that he was a central figure in American intellectual history and not just a spokesman for blacks. But if one accepts the fact, which intellectual historians have been averse to doing, that race and racism have been major preoccupations of the American mind, with an importance comparable to that of liberalism, romanticism, pragmatism, and other standard subjects in the history of ideas, then Douglass retains his significance. As our most profound and eloquent advocate of racial equality (with the possible exception of Martin Luther King, Jr.) Douglass should certainly be accorded a place in the pantheon of American thinkers and writers. To do otherwise may be racist in itself.

Martin succeeds in covering all major aspects of the “mind” and persona that Douglass presented to the world. He is particularly good on Douglass’s cultivation of the image of himself as hero, selfmade man, and exemplar of the American success myth. Douglass was selfmade in a double sense: besides literally turning himself from a slave into a notable and respected public figure, he also created an idealized persona in his autobiographical writings. If Douglass the autobiographer makes himself at times unbelievably virtuous, highminded, or precocious (as Martin points out, when writing about his childhood he attributes remarkable wisdom and perceptiveness to himself as a boy), it must be acknowledged that he had excellent reasons for self-enhancement. He saw his own life as a model of achievement for blacks in need of hope and inspiration and an object lesson for white believers in black incompetence and immorality. Casting himself in the heroic mold was an essential part of his campaign against white supremacy.

One wishes, however, that Martin had probed more deeply into the man behind the image. That Douglass must have had to struggle with deep inner conflicts to make himself the man he became emerges only fitfully from Martin’s account. Although he analyzes the variations in the ways that Douglass refers to his paternity in successive versions of his autobiography, he does not pursue the Oedipal or other personal implications of his having been sired by an unknown white man. Since he was writing an intellectual biography rather than a psychological study, Martin may have felt justified in his neglect of Douglass’s emotional life. Perhaps, too, he was afraid of entering into speculations that went beyond his evidence. But one could conceivably gain a deeper understanding of Douglass’s ideas by looking for their psychological correlatives.

We get the impression from Preston’s more intimate account that Douglass was more ambivalent about his relationship to white masters, fathers, father figures, and mother surrogates than he was normally willing to reveal in public. One does not have to revive the pernicious stereotype of the “tragic mulatto” wandering between two worlds to acknowledge the probability that Douglass had to deal both emotionally and intellectually with racial ambiguity and ambivalence. Martin’s account of his thought clearly shows that the white world both attracted and repelled him, as did what he perceived to be the world of most blacks. He accepted Euro-American culture and values but was bitterly angry at whites for not living up to what he took to be their own ideals. He identified with the political struggles of blacks but could be contemptuous of the way most blacks actually lived and thought. What Martin calls his “ageless and transcendent humanism” was in part an effort to submerge such cultural tensions in a search for timeless truths that obliterated race. Such preoccupations might also have served as a form of therapy and as a way of overcoming inner conflicts. Douglass, like George Washington, was a man as well as a monument, and we still have a way to go before we fathom the depths of his personality as well as we now understand the range of his thought.