The man we know today as Frederick Douglass was born on a Maryland farm in 1818 to a white man he never met and a black mother he never saw after the age of seven. He escaped to freedom when he was twenty, joined the abolitionist movement, and rose to become not only one of the nation’s foremost opponents of slavery, but also one of the most insightful intellectuals of 19th-century America. His curiosity and intellectual persistence drove him to ask profound questions about issues ranging from the origin and nature of slavery to the philosophical implications of photography. He was a writer of immense skill whose grasp of history, political philosophy, literature, and law was extraordinary—all the more so considering that he had no formal education. As an activist and orator, Douglass sought to turn American society toward the virtues he embraced and worked tirelessly to embody: independence, integrity, and self-mastery. Along the sometimes daunting path of his life, Frederick Douglass discovered—in a sense, created—his own manhood.
When he was seven, Douglass was sent to live in Baltimore with Hugh and Sophia Auld, relatives of the man who “owned” him. At first, he found city life more agreeable than life on the plantation. But that changed quickly after he asked Sophia to teach him to read. When Hugh learned what she was doing, he flew into a rage. Literacy, he roared, would ruin a slave by awakening in him a longing for freedom and motivating him to run away. Even as a young boy, Douglass instantly recognized this outburst as “the first decidedly anti-slavery lecture to which it had been my lot to listen.”1 The maintenance of illiteracy was essential to the perpetuation of slavery.
So Douglass kept up his reading lessons on the sly, tricking neighborhood white children into teaching him. He later explained:
When I met with any boy who I knew could write, I would tell him I could write as well as he. The next word would be, “I don’t believe you. Let me see you try it.” I would then make the letters which I had been so fortunate as to learn, and ask him to beat that. In this way I got a good many lessons in writing.2
In 1831, Douglass spent some coins he had saved on a copy of The Columbian Orator, an anthology meant for students of elocution, which included passages from famous speeches about freedom. Douglass devoured the book as well as reports in Baltimore newspapers about the growing agitation over slavery. Congressman John Quincy Adams was then denouncing slavery in the House of Representatives, and local papers reprinted his speeches. William Lloyd Garrison, who had recently been jailed in Baltimore for his fiery attacks on slavery, also began publishing his own abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, that year. Douglass had once wondered what the word “abolitionist” meant when he saw how it threw master Hugh into fits. Now he knew. “I had a deep satisfaction in the thought that the rascality of slaveholders was not concealed from the eyes of the world,” he later wrote of this discovery. “I was not alone in abhorring the cruelty and brutality of slavery.”3
When he was fifteen, the Aulds sent Douglass to live with Hugh’s brother, Thomas, in the small town of St. Michaels, Maryland. Thomas was far crueler than Hugh had been, and Douglass came to loathe him in short order. He was, Douglass thought, “incapable of a noble action.”4 He kept his slaves hungry and was alternately swaggering and petty. When he converted to Methodism not long after Douglass’s arrival, the young man held out hope that it would soften his master’s harsh treatment. But instead of making Thomas more humane, his newfound religion had the opposite effect. He became even more heartless and commanding, and starved Douglass and the other slaves more often.
Douglass began talking back, refusing to call Thomas “Master,” and taking food from the pantry. Fed up with Douglass’s intransigence, Thomas leased him to Edward Covey, a nearby farmer. Covey was able to hire slaves at a discount rate in exchange for his own peculiar service; he specialized in breaking slaves’ spirits.
For the next six months, Douglass endured weekly beatings for infractions real and imagined. Sometimes Covey assigned him impossible tasks and then beat him for failing. Other times he would sneak up on Douglass and bludgeon him for no reason at all. Covey aimed not just to degrade the fifteen-year-old’s will, but to induce constant paranoia and total subservience, and to eradicate any vestige of self-direction and personal efficacy.
Douglass came to call this “brutification”: the transformation of a person into an automaton. “As the serpent-charmer of India is compelled to extract the deadly teeth of his venomous prey before he is able to handle him with impunity,” he explained a decade and a half later, “so the slaveholder must strike down the conscience of the slave, before he can obtain the entire mastery over his victim.”5 Such “mastery” required the slaveholder to “destroy all sense of high moral and religious responsibility.” Consequently, slaves were punished not only for disobedience, but even for obeying a master too well. “Does he answer loudly, when spoken to by his master, with an air of self-consciousness? Then, he must be taken down a button-hole lower, by the lash.”6 Such arbitrary persecution was aimed at terrorizing slaves into feeling that they were constantly being watched and that no independent thought or action was safe.
The goal was to wreck the enslaved person’s sense of individuality by eradicating self-generated and self-perpetuating action and rendering the victim utterly subservient. Such perverse training was a rudimentary form of the treatment that would later be refined and mass-produced in 20th century totalitarian labor camps. The goal of the camps, as Hannah Arendt put it, in words strikingly similar to Douglass’, was to “murder . . . the moral person in man” by eradicating any space for conscientious protest, preventing any solidarity among the oppressed by keeping them constantly struggling for survival, and even converting some into accomplices of further oppression.7
Slave masters employed all of these tactics. They separated families and punished even a hint of resistance to prevent slaves from organizing and protesting. They demanded that slaves act cheerfully—that they sing or profess contentment at all times. Slave masters issued arbitrary edicts backed by cruel and unpredictable punishment. And they rewarded slaves who betrayed runaways or served as overseers, thus enlisting the enslaved into perpetuating slavery.
After six months, Covey’s tactics began to work on Douglass. Early in his stay at the farm, the young man had sometimes found himself gazing at the nearby Chesapeake Bay, imagining he was aboard one of the passing ships, free to sail to unknown lands. But Covey’s torment began at last to douse his desire to dream at all. “My natural elasticity was crushed; my intellect languished; the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died out; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me, and behold a man transformed to a brute!” He became “a living embodiment of mental and physical wretchedness,” “completely wrecked, changed, and bewildered.” He had been rendered incapable of thinking about his future or contemplating his past; his sole focus was on getting through the day and finding something to eat. Although it’s not a certainty, there is reason to believe that he also began to drink.8
Yet, in the end, Douglass was not crushed. On a hot summer day in 1834, when Covey delivered one especially severe beating, Douglass ran away to Thomas Auld’s store to beg Auld (still his legal master) for help. Though shocked by Douglass’s bloodied condition, Auld ordered him to return to Covey, who prepared to beat him again for having run away.
Here, at the threshold of what could have been Douglass’s total psychological destruction, he found within himself the strength to refuse. “Whence came the daring spirit necessary to grapple with a man who, eight-and-forty hours before, could, with his slightest word, have made me tremble like a leaf in a storm, I do not know,” he said afterward. “At any rate, I was resolved to fight.”9
He wrapped his hands around Covey’s throat and squeezed until blood ran from his fingernails. The two fought for hours until Covey at last stumbled away. In an effort to save face, he called loudly so that his other slaves would overhear: “I would not have whipped you half so hard if you had not resisted.”10 In fact, he had not whipped Douglass at all.
Nor would he ever again. Douglass had discovered not only that he could defend himself, but that the effort to do so had revived his self-respect. It was a crucial lesson for Douglass: “Men are whipped oftenest who are whipped easiest.”11 He would not be reduced to complicity with his own oppression, because he would not abandon his own conscience or surrender his sense of self-worth. For the rest of his career, he recounted his fight with Covey as the critical turning point in his life, and when the Civil War began, he demanded that black Americans join the army to fight for themselves. Borrowing a line from the poet Byron, he adopted as his motto, “Who would be free must himself strike the blow.” Freedom was not a gift that anyone should wait passively to be given.
Not long after the Covey incident, Douglass was rented to another master, but after a failed attempt at escape, he was sent back to live with Hugh and Sophia Auld in Baltimore. For three years, he attempted to save money to buy his freedom. But in 1838, after an angry dispute with Hugh, he resolved once more to flee. Disguised in a navy uniform, he boarded a Delaware-bound train and, within days, was walking the streets of New York City, a free man.
Anna Murray, a free black woman Douglass had courted in Baltimore, joined him there, and they were soon married. An abolitionist friend suggested that they adopt a new name to protect themselves against possible recapture. But taking a new name was also, for many escaped slaves, an opportunity for self-definition: a chance to symbolize and make real the sense of personal efficacy previously denied them. Another escaped slave, William Wells Brown, explained in his 1847 memoir that he chose to call himself “William” instead of “Sandford”—the name that “had been forced upon me”—because he “detested the idea” of being known on his master’s terms. He “would rather have adopted the name of ‘Friday’ and been known as the servant of some Robinson Crusoe,” he wrote, “than to have taken his [master’s] name.”12
The newlyweds drew inspiration from a character in Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake, a phenomenally popular epic poem centering on a rebellious Scottish family in the 16th century.13 In one passage, the aged James Douglas returns home in disguise after a long exile and wins an athletic competition. The king who had persecuted Douglas does not now recognize him, and he rewards Douglas with a prize of gold. Douglas, in scorn, tosses it away:
Indignant smiled the Douglas proud,
And threw the gold among the crowd,
Who now with anxious wonder scan,
And sharper glance, the dark gray man;
Till whispers rose among the throng,
That heart so free, and hand so strong,
Must to the Douglas blood belong.
In admiration of Scott’s character, Frederick and Anna adopted the surname “Douglass.” They would never again be known on any master’s terms.
Because Douglass had worked in a Baltimore shipyard before his escape, his abolitionist friends suggested that he could make a living in New Bedford, Massachusetts, capital of the nation’s whaling industry. He and his wife arrived there September 16, 1838, and he began immediately looking for employment. “I was indeed free,” Douglass wrote, “from slavery, but free from food and shelter as well.”14
Finding a job was the next stage in Douglass’s discovery of his own manhood. Years later, he found himself hardly able to articulate the feeling of liberation that washed over him when he earned and kept his first dollar. “To understand the emotion which swelled my heart as I clasped this money, realizing that I had no master who could take it from me—that it was mine—that my hands were my own, and could earn more of the precious coin—one must have been in some sense himself a slave.”15 The sensation of self-ownership and responsibility gave Douglass a sense of his own maturity and personal significance that he never forgot. “I could spend it as I pleased,” he wrote. “I could buy hams or herring with it, without asking odds of anybody. That was a precious dollar to me.”16
Of course, it was not just that he was free to spend his dollar on hams or herrings without permission; it was that he had earned it through his own labor and chose to spend it responsibly, to support his wife and children. By seizing the opportunity to become his best self, he found that he could cultivate the feelings of rightness, maturity, and freedom he was experiencing into a lasting sense of self-esteem. Laboring in the shipyards of New Bedford “was new, dirty, and hard work,” he wrote, but he did it “with a glad heart,” because “I was now my own master. . . . I was at work for myself and newly-married wife. It was to me the starting-point of a new existence.”17 This was the sensation of pride—what Aristotle called the “crown of the virtues”—an experience that forever afterward defined for him the meaning of being a free man.18 He was not only liberated, but he was proving to himself—through his own efficacy and sense of responsibility—that he was worthy of his freedom.
It was not long after, however, that he found this sense of pride sometimes entangling him in conflict. A year after his escape, he joined the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts, which was overseen by the devout Christian pacifist and anarchist William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison dispatched Douglass on lecture tours throughout the North, but he soon clashed with his colleagues. Many in the abolition movement were devout Quakers or Christians of other sects who emphasized humility, self-effacement, and nonresistance to oppression, and they sometimes objected when Douglass spoke about the nature and causes of slavery or expressed his view that violence was sometimes a proper recourse. They preferred that he confine himself to telling his story. “Give us the facts,” they commanded. “We will take care of the philosophy.”19 But Douglass could not comply, and some abolitionists regarded his refusal as arrogant. He was “the least loveable and the least easy of all the abolitionists with whom I have come into intimate association,” wrote one. “I think his selfishness intense.”20
Douglass certainly despised being treated with condescension and felt that he often was the target of such treatment. Most of the abolitionists were white Northerners, and he got the distinct impression that they expected him to obey their commands for that reason. Still, the twenty-year-old Douglass tried to comply with their demands and focused his energies on improving himself and doing what he could to further the abolitionist cause.
For the next decade, he traveled the country lecturing, often being violently attacked, and frequently being refused accommodation in hotels, restaurants, trains, and steamboats. All the while, he read, wrote, and built his oratorical skills. These he improved to the point that audiences began accusing him of being a fake; no former slave, they thought, could possibly be so eloquent.
Garrison and other abolitionists decided the best way for Douglass to prove his authenticity was to write out his story. The result was the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, which Garrison published in 1845. It quickly became a bestseller. But because the book named names, it exposed its author to a serious risk of recapture. To avoid this, he traveled to Britain on a yearlong lecture tour, leaving behind his wife and four young children.
The tour was a rousing success and introduced Douglass to a world without the racial prejudices he faced in America. He met with some of Europe’s leading intellectuals and politicians, including several who rejected Garrison’s methods.
Garrison regarded political engagement as anathema. Along with pacifism, he preached that voting or running for office only sanctioned the hopelessly corrupt system that maintained slavery. The United States Constitution, he claimed, was an evil document—a “compact with hell” that protected the practice of slavery. Adopting the slogan “No union with slaveholders!” he demanded that the northern states secede from the union in order to explicitly repudiate any sanction of slavery, and he burned copies of the Constitution during his speeches. As a consequence, he was almost as hated in the North as he was in the South and was nearly lynched by a mob in the streets of Boston.
Yet in Britain, antislavery activists had made substantial progress by participating in the political system. They abolished slavery in Britain’s colonies by act of parliament. This and other reforms proved that although politics sometimes required compromise, political action could nevertheless relieve the suffering of slaves.
It seems likely that Douglass’s conversations with European abolitionists helped spark his ultimate rejection of Garrison’s anarchism and pacifism. As Douglass scholar Robert Levine writes, “by the time Douglass returned to the United States in May 1847, he had pretty much gone his own way.”21 In fact, he took a significant step toward repudiating Garrison while he was still in Great Britain; he published two new editions of the Narrative, adding a new introduction and—because he thought the portrait that appeared on the first page made him look too effeminate—commissioning a new engraving of himself that he regarded as more masculine. He also added a reply to a critic who had defended the Aulds and Covey against Douglass’s charges and claimed that Douglass could not have written the book. The man had known Douglass in Maryland and could not believe that the broken-spirited laborer he recalled could have penned such elegant prose. “You knew me under very unfavorable circumstances,” Douglass answered:
When I lived with Mr. Covey, the negro breaker . . . I was then a mere wreck; Covey had beaten and bruised me so much, that my spirit was crushed and broken. Frederick the Freeman is a very different person. . . . I feel myself a new man. Freedom has given me new life. The change wrought in me is truly amazing.22
Thanks to the efforts of British admirers who raised money to enable Douglass to buy his freedom, he returned to the United States in 1847 a free man. With the money that was left over, he decided to start his own newspaper, disregarding Garrison’s objections. He moved to Rochester, New York, and began publishing The North Star, later retitled Frederick Douglass’ Paper.
The abolitionists in New York differed starkly from the Boston-based Garrisonians. Led by the radical philanthropist Gerrit Smith, the New Yorkers rejected Garrison’s anarchist politics and the notion that the Constitution was a pro-slavery document. In 1851, after years of public debates over these issues, Douglass announced a change of opinion; he was now persuaded that the Constitution, properly interpreted, gave slavery no protection and even included provisions that could be used to end the practice—if political leaders had the will.
Moreover, Douglass now recognized that abolitionists who refused to participate in politics had a perverse sense of priorities—focusing more on their own moral purity than on ending slavery. As Douglass put it, “If I were on board of a pirate ship, with a company of men and women whose lives and liberties I had put in jeopardy, I would not clear my soul of their blood by jumping in the long boat, and singing out no union with pirates. My business would be to remain on board and . . . exhaust every means given me by my position to save the lives and liberties of those against whom I had committed piracy.”23 For the abolitionist movement to swear off politics in order to keep its hands clean meant to abandon the cause of abolition. Having started out to free the slave, the Garrisonans “end by leaving the slave to free himself.”24
Garrisonians reacted badly, accusing Douglass of opportunism and claiming that he had changed his mind only because Smith donated money to his newspaper. In truth, Douglass had been persuaded, not bought. He understood the importance of maintaining his independent judgment, even when doing so damaged long-held friendships. So he did not hesitate to disagree with friends and considered it a point of honor to alter his opinion when warranted by arguments or a change in circumstances. After the Civil War, for example, when black leaders urged freedmen to move to Kansas and other Western states to escape the oppression of Jim Crow, he stood almost alone in opposition. Yet, after visiting the South and seeing for himself the awful conditions prevailing there, he openly changed his mind.
Although he took no pleasure in upsetting Garrison and others by repudiating their views, his new position was “naturally derived and honestly” held.25 Intellectual independence—including the willingness to admit when he had erred or changed his views—was another essential virtue in Douglass’s vision of manhood.
In 1861, Douglass initially welcomed the outbreak of the Civil War. It meant the end at last to all compromises with supporters of slavery. And, in his view, it vindicated what he had come to believe about the Constitution: that slave masters, not the abolitionists, ought to fear it. The Constitution empowered Lincoln and the government to restrict the expansion of slavery and potentially to crush it.
But Douglass was disappointed time and again by what he viewed as Lincoln’s temporizing on the moral questions that had sparked the war. The president’s insistence that he was fighting to preserve the union rather than to eradicate slavery outraged him, and the administration’s refusal to enlist black soldiers finally moved him to travel to Washington, D.C., in hopes of meeting with the president. Amazingly, although he had no appointment, he was quickly ushered into the White House where Lincoln greeted him warmly, almost brotherly.
The president explained his fear that enlisting black soldiers would drive whites, especially in the border states of Missouri and Kentucky, into the Confederate cause. Douglass still disagreed—arguing that black soldiers surely would more than make up for any such losses—but he respected the president’s honesty and willingness to hear criticism. Moreover, Lincoln had shown Douglass the same respect he would have shown to any white visitor.
The enlistment question was important to Douglass because of the relationship he saw between military service and independent manhood. Facing their Confederate enemies, he believed, was crucial to enabling the freedmen to rebuild their self-esteem, just as Douglass himself had experienced in his fight with Covey years earlier. Thus, when the Lincoln administration at last began accepting black troops into the military, Douglass threw himself into the work of recruitment. “Decried and derided as you have been and still are, you need an act of this kind by which to recover your own self-respect,” he wrote in an address to freed slaves and black northerners.
You have to some extent rated your value by the estimate of your enemies and hence have counted yourself less than you are. You owe it to yourself. . . . You will stand more erect, walk more assured, feel more at ease, and be less liable to insult than you ever were before. . . . Thus in defending your country now against rebels and traitors you are defending your own liberty, honor, manhood and self-respect.26
Douglass, now forty-five, briefly considered military service himself, but he realized that his abilities were best used for recruitment. (His sons Charles and Lewis, however, did enroll in the famous 54th Massachusetts, which proved its mettle shortly afterward in the attack on Fort Wagner, South Carolina.)27
Notably, Douglass’s arguments for enlistment did not appeal to a principle of self-sacrifice, but instead to self-esteem. “Enlist for your own sake,” he told his readers. “You are a man,” and “manhood requires you to take sides.” Anyone “who looks upon a conflict between right and wrong, and does not help the right against the wrong, despises and insults his own nature, and invites the contempt of mankind.” Military experience would teach practical skills—particularly the use of firearms, which Douglass knew would prove crucial even after the war’s end. And, he wrote, black soldiers would “win applause even from the iron lips of ingratitude.”28
Douglass’s view of the manly virtues thus paralleled Aristotle’s description of the “great-souled man” (megalopsychos) in the Nichomachean Ethics. Such a man, Aristotle wrote, “does not run into trifling dangers, nor is he fond of danger . . . but he will face great dangers, and when he is in danger he is unsparing of his life, knowing that there are conditions on which life is not worth having.”29
However, Douglass got his mental image of manhood not from Aristotle, but from the popular literature of the time. It was the age of high romanticism, during which writers such as Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, Alexandre Dumas, and Victor Hugo created timeless characters of nobility, idealism, and strength—qualities Douglass came to view as essential to a freeman’s personality. These qualities were particularly represented by Edmond Dantès, the main character of his favorite novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, who is betrayed by his loved ones, suffers wrongful imprisonment, spends his time in captivity learning in secret, and then escapes to work his revenge upon his enemies. It is not hard to see why Douglass identified with the book.
He made his own modest contribution to this literature in 1853, when he published a novella—his only attempt at fiction—titled The Heroic Slave. Based on the Creole mutiny, an uprising onboard a slave-trading ship similar to the later, more famous rebellion on board the Amistad, the story depicts the real-life leader of the uprising, a Virginia slave named Madison Washington, as “one of the truest, manliest, and bravest” of men. In Douglass’s portrayal, he is strong—with “arms like polished iron”—but gentle, kind, and intelligent, with a “full and melodious voice” and a longing for freedom.30 He flees to Canada but is captured when he sneaks back over the border in an effort to liberate his wife. He is placed aboard the Creole but manages to break free and lead the slaves to rebel. They steer the ship through a storm to safety in Nassau, where under British law, they are all freed. Although the story lacks the depth and richness of tales by Dumas or Hugo, the character of Madison Washington dramatized an ideal for Douglass—a hero with “a true man’s heart.”31
This reveals an unmistakably masculine element in Douglass’s perspective, and the prominent leftist academic Angela Davis has criticized him for “the extent to which [his] equivalence of ‘freedom’ and ‘manhood’ meant that women were excluded by definition from enjoying the full benefits of freedom.”32 But this is unfair.
Douglass was a Victorian-era American, and he may have been influenced by prevailing cultural attitudes toward women, but he certainly did not dismiss them from the ideal of self-determination. On the contrary, he was a lifelong feminist who attended the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention and agitated for female equality literally until the day he died (of a heart attack, just hours after addressing a woman’s suffrage convention). Nor did he view military service as an exclusively male prerogative. “It is not true that women cannot perform military duty,” he told a Boston audience in 1886. “There is no more thrilling chapter in the history of the war in the Netherlands than that which describes the defense of Leyden, where wives fought beside their husbands, and sisters beside their brothers, and where the women were as brave and enduring as the men.”33
Douglass always recognized that female slaves had it worse than their male counterparts, and he certainly would have applauded such contemporary escapees from bondage as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who, in her memoir Infidel, describes her longing for freedom in words that echo his own: “Because I was born a woman,” she writes of life in Somalia and Saudi Arabia:
I could never become an adult. I would always be a minor, my decisions made for me. I would always be a unit in a vast beehive. I might have a decent life, but I would be dependent—always—on someone treating me well. I knew that another kind of life was possible. . . . I wanted to become a person, an individual, with a life of my own.34
Another escapee from modern slavery, Yeonmi Park, who fled North Korea in 2007, invokes Douglass by name in her memoir. After reaching Seoul, she read Frederick Douglass’s 1855 “Letter to my Former Master,” and, she writes, it “made me wonder what kind of letter I might write to Kim Jong Un if I had the nerve. Maybe, like Douglass, I would tell him that I was a human being and he didn’t own me anymore. Now I owned myself.”35
In 1861, as part of a touring lecture series, Douglass presented his ideas on photography, which he regarded not only as an art form, but as an aid in developing one’s character. His lifelong fascination with photography led him to have his picture taken at every opportunity—making him the most photographed American of the 19th century. His audience of Victorian-era Christians would naturally have considered it vain for Douglass to have his photo taken so often. But in Douglass’s view, having a portrait made was a serious and honorable act. The “picture-making faculty” is “the divinest of all human faculties,” he argued. It allows man to project an ideal not just in his mind, but in a tangible way, which helps make that ideal achievable. According to Douglass, photography enables man “to invent his own subjective consciousness into the objective form” and to give chosen ideals “form, color, space, action, and utterance.”36
Douglass held that having one’s portrait taken, like writing one’s autobiography, is a means of capturing one’s virtues, and that it serves both as a reward to oneself for accomplishing one’s values and as an incentive to further achievement. As he put it in a later lecture on photography, pictures “translate into living forms and colors the outgrowths of the inner life of the soul.”37 Photography, according to Douglass, was an example of a crucial human skill: the ability to contemplate and realize values.
These lectures built on his most important statement of the nature of the virtues, which he had made in his earlier lecture “Self-Made Men.” It was in this lecture, first composed in the late 1850s and revised and delivered scores of times over the remainder of his life, that Douglass most fully explained his theory of manhood. The presentation focused on what Douglass considered the quintessential American type:
The men who owe little or nothing to birth, relationship, friendly surroundings; to wealth inherited or to early approved means of education; who are what they are, without the aid of any favoring conditions by which other men usually rise in the world and achieve great results. . . . who are not brought up but who are obliged to come up . . . often in open and derisive defiance of all the efforts of society and the tendency of circumstances to repress, retard and keep them down.38
Citing such examples as Abraham Lincoln and the polymath Benjamin Banneker, Douglass emphasized that “the chief agent in the success of self-made men” was “not luck, nor is it great mental endowments, but it is well-directed, honest toil.” The self-made man was he who, through “self-culture and self-help,” was able to rise above the situation of his birth and make of life what he chose. Douglass did not deny that everyone, even self-made men, depended at times on the assistance of friends and family. What made the self-made man different was self-direction. “Personal independence” is “the soul out of which comes the sturdiest manhood,” he told his audience. And the virtue of self-dependence, he said, “must be developed from within.”39
Although he viewed the Civil War as a struggle for “national rebirth,” it turned out that peace, in many ways, would be as challenging as slavery had been, especially for the freedmen. Douglass emphasized their need for self-reliance, education, and hard work. They did not need handouts, he insisted, but justice and freedom:
Everybody has asked . . . “What shall we do with the negro?” I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! I am not for tying or fastening them on the tree in any way. . . . And if the negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! If you see him on his way to school, let him alone,—don’t disturb him! If you see him going to the dinner-table at a hotel, let him go! If you see him going to the ballot-box, let him alone,—don’t disturb him! If you see him going into a work-shop, just let him alone,—your interference is doing him a positive injury. . . . Let him fall if he cannot stand alone! If the negro cannot live by the line of eternal justice . . . the fault will not be yours, it will be his who made the negro, and established that line for his government. Let him live or die by that. If you will only untie his hands, and give him a chance, I think he will live.40
In 1877, the Hayes administration abandoned Reconstruction and ushered in a reactionary trend of white supremacy that federal officials had little inclination to oppose. The last quarter of the 19th century proved bitter for many freedmen. Lynch “law” and Jim Crow segregation spiraled toward what historians now call the “nadir” of black American history. Toward the end of his life, Douglass even declared that the end of slavery had proven to be “a stupendous fraud—a fraud upon [the freedman], a fraud upon the world.”41
The withdrawal of federal troops from the South left black Americans at the mercy of terrorist bands such as the Ku Klux Klan, which committed atrocities at a pace uncommon even when slavery was legal. Lynching of blacks became routine, rising to a high of 161—almost one every other day—in 1892, three years before Douglass’s death. Yet the tools were all at hand for putting an end to the terrorism, if only Americans had the will to use them. “There is no Negro problem,” Douglass told an audience at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. “The problem is whether the American people have honesty enough, loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own Constitution.”42 Although the Constitution could inspire and enable men of virtue to protect the rights of all, it was powerless without them.
Douglass did not live to see the lowest depths of the Jim Crow era; he died a year before Plessy v. Ferguson. But in the closing decade of his life, he took a personal step that once again demonstrated his ideal of “self-dependence.” On January 24, 1884, two years after the death of his first wife, he remarried—this time to Helen Pitts, a white woman who worked in his office. Daughter of abolitionists, Helen had worked as a teacher in freedmen’s schools in the postwar South before illness forced her to return home. But her family practically disowned her for marrying a black man, which scandalized “polite” white society. Douglass was disappointed but unmoved. Choosing a wife was a moral prerogative of an independent man—and Douglass pointed out the hypocrisy of conservatives who condemned interracial marriage after having done little or nothing to oppose slavery. They apparently were fine with white masters raping female slaves but were now aghast at the idea of peaceful, voluntary relationships between whites and blacks.
Nonetheless, his self-assurance was tested, especially when condemnation came—as it did in the case of his marriage—from other black Americans. Even his own children were cold toward Helen, and other black friends treated her so badly that on one occasion when the journalist Ida Wells visited, Douglass remarked to her that she was the first guest in his home who had treated Helen with respect. “Nowhere in the world are the worth and dignity of manhood more exalted in speech and press than they are here [in the United States], and nowhere is manhood plain and simple more despised than here,” he lamented in the final edition of his memoirs.43
Manhood was never a “plain and simple” matter to Frederick Douglass. It was an achievement, a discovery that required strenuous effort and focused attention—and that rewarded him with a sense of dignity, self-possession, and a happiness that he knew he had earned. The “business of unfolding and strengthening the powers of the human soul” was “a permanent vocation,” he wrote.44 To create one’s self required unstinting effort; it required holding a vision in one’s mind and continuing toward it, regardless of the obstacles. Langston Hughes captured this idea in a poem that celebrated Douglass and other spokesmen of the American Dream:
When a man starts out with nothing
When a man starts out with his hands
Empty, but clean,
When a man starts to build a world,
He starts first with himself
And the faith that is in his heart—
The strength there,
The will there to build.45
Douglass, perhaps America’s foremost example of the “self-made man,” began without owning even his own body. From the moment when he first stood up for himself against Edward Covey, he focused unswervingly on making himself a man worthy of honor. He knew that the result—self-esteem and the awareness that that esteem was deserved—was something that nobody could ever take away. Booker T. Washington later illustrated the point with a story he had heard from the old man himself. Once, when traveling by train, Douglass had been ordered by a conductor to leave his seat and sit in the baggage car. A white passenger came back to commiserate. “I am sorry, Mr. Douglass, that you have been degraded in this manner,” he said. “They cannot degrade Frederick Douglass,” came the reply. “The soul that is within me no man can degrade.”46
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1. Frederick Douglass: Autobiographies, edited by Henry Louis Gates (New York: Library of America, 1994), 527.
2. Douglass: Autobiographies, 44.
3. Douglass: Autobiographies, 537.
4. Douglass: Autobiographies, 554.[groups_can capability="access_html"]
5. Douglass, “Slavery and the Slave Power,” Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, edited by Philip Foner and Yuval Taylor (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1999), 167.
6. Douglass: Autobiographies, 295.
7. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., rev. ed. 1976), 451.
8. Douglass himself never said this, but John Stauffer infers it quite plausibly. John Stauffer, Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln (New York: Twelve, 2008), 32, 332.
9. Douglass: Autobiographies, 588.
10. Douglass: Autobiographies, 590.
11. Douglass: Autobiographies, 822.
12. William Wells Brown, “Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave (1847),” in Slave Narratives, edited by William L. Andrews and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (New York: Library of America, 2000), 417.
13. Lady of the Lake proved so popular that it was adapted for the stage in musical form, and one song from it, “Hail to the Chief,” was adopted as the official anthem of the presidency. Ironically, it also introduced the symbol of the burning cross that the Ku Klux Klan embraced in the postwar era. Why exactly Douglass added a second “s” to his name is not known, although there was a Douglass street near the Baltimore home where he grew up. Douglass was also a common spelling of the name. Senator Stephen A. Douglas, who sparred with Abraham Lincoln, dropped the second “s” from his name in the 1840s. Martin H. Quitt, Stephen A. Douglas and Antebellum Democracy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 56.
14. Douglass: Autobiographies, 649.
15. Douglass: Autobiographies, 654.
16. Douglass: Autobiographies, 415. Historian James Oakes observes that Abraham Lincoln—who grew up in such poverty that he once called himself as a former slave—described a similar experience when relating how he earned his own first dollar at the age of eighteen. En route to New Orleans on family business, Lincoln was asked by two steamboat passengers to take them on his raft to their ship, out in the middle of the river. As they climbed off his raft, “each of them took from his pocket a silver half-dollar and threw it on the bottom of my boat. I could scarcely believe my eyes as I picked up the money. You may think it was a very little thing, and in these days it seems to me like a trifle, but it was a most important incident in my life. I could scarcely credit that . . . by honest work I had earned a dollar. The world seemed wider and fairer before me. I was a more hopeful and thoughtful boy from that time.” James Oakes, The Radical and The Republican (New York: Norton, 2007), 39–40.
17. Douglass: Autobiographies, 358.
18. Aristotle, “Nicomachean Ethics,” in The Basic Works of Aristotle, edited by Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941), 992.
19. Douglass: Autobiographies, 367.
20. Richard Davis Webb, letter to Maria Weston Chapman (May 16, 1846), Boston Public Library Rare Books Department, https://www.digitalcommonwealth.org/search/commonwealth:qz20vq71g.
21. Robert S. Levine, The Lives of Frederick Douglass (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016), 76.
22. Quoted in Levine, Lives of Frederick Douglass, 106.
23. Douglass, “The Dred Scott Decision,” Selected Speeches and Writings, 352.
24. Douglass, “The Anti-Slavery Movement,” Selected Speeches and Writings, 324.
25. Douglass: Autobiographies, 390–92.
26. Douglass, “Why Should a Colored Man Enlist?,” Selected Speeches and Writings, 529–30.
27. Charles was not at the battle, but Lewis suffered an injury that forced him out of the service.
28. Douglass, “Why Should a Colored Man Enlist?,” Selected Speeches and Writings, 529.
29. Aristotle, “Nicomachean Ethics,” 993–94.
30. Douglass, “The Heroic Slave,” Selected Speeches and Writings, 220.
31. Douglass, “The Heroic Slave,” Selected Speeches and Writings, 245.
32. Angela Davis, introduction to the City Lights edition, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2010), 28.
33. Douglass, “Who and What Is Woman?,” Frederick Douglass Papers, edited by John W. Blassingame and John R. McKivigan IV (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991), vol. 5, 260.
34. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel (New York: Free Press, 2008), 187.
35. Yeonmi Park and Maryanne Vollers, In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom (New York: Penguin, 2016), 257.
36. John Stauffer et al., Picturing Frederick Douglass (New York: Liveright, 2015), 133.
37. Stauffer et al., Picturing Frederick Douglass, 43.
38. Frederick Douglass, “Self-Made Men,” monadnock.net/douglass/self-made-men.html (accessed February 19, 2018).
39. Douglass, “Self-Made Men,” in Frederick Douglass Papers, vol. 5, 550.
40. Douglass, Frederick Douglass Papers, vol. 4, 68.
41. Douglass, “I Denounce the So-Called Emancipation as a Stupendous Fraud,” Frederick Douglass Papers, vol. 5, 715.
42. “Appeal of Douglass,” Chicago Tribune, August 26, 1893, 3.
43. Douglass: Autobiographies, 962.
44. Douglass, “The Blessings of Liberty and Education” (September 3, 1894), Frederick Douglass Papers, vol. 5, 622.
45. Langston Hughes, “Freedom’s Plow,” artmuseum.unm.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Langston-Hughes-Freedoms-Plow.pdf, (accessed February 19, 2018).
46. Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery (New York: Doubleday, 1907), 99–100.[/groups_can]