This summer, I read The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1882), the autobiography of the great African American orator and abolitionist, famous in his time but often neglected or forgotten today. Part slave narrative, part political memoir, the book is very touching and inspiring, as well as very insightful in describing the disastrous moral, religious, social and political effects of slavery on the United States.
Despite many bitter experiences, Frederick Douglass seems to have been a very noble and kindhearted person, who cared deeply for the elevation of his people. I also admired his willingness to learn and to change his views when appropriate. As a young man, after escaping to Massachusetts from a harsh life as a slave in Maryland, he became a staunch follower of William Lloyd Garrison. According to the Garrisonians, the Constitution of the United States, since it allowed for slavery in the South, was a pro-slavery document, and, therefore, any participation in the American political system was morally wrong. Abolitionists, Douglass thought, should refrain from voting, and the Northern states should immediately dissolve the Union with the Southern states. Later, after further research and study, Douglass broke with the Garrisonians. He concluded that the Constitution was actually an anti-slavery document, and that the American political system was intended to promote liberty and justice. Thereafter, Douglass' concern became preserving the Union and working to end slavery within the framework of the Constitution. He put this determination to great effect during the Civil War, actively recruiting black troops for the Union cause.
Like many abolitionists, Douglass initially despised Abraham Lincoln for tolerating slavery where it already existed in the South, and for merely opposing its extension into new territories in the hope that this containment would ultimately lead to the extinction of slavery. After actually meeting Lincoln, however, Douglass developed a deep personal admiration and affection for the President. In the fragile and explosive political climate of the time, Douglass also came to appreciate the prudence of Lincoln's incremental approach to emancipation and black civil rights. (By contrast, Douglass thoroughly disapproved of Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson). Nonetheless, Lincoln and Douglass still had their disagreements. On one occasion, Douglass arrived at the White House to seek justice for black Union prisoners murdered or sold into slavery by the Confederates. Outraged, the fiery Douglass recommended that Lincoln should immediately retaliate upon Southern prisoners, whether or not they had personally been involved in the crimes, but Lincoln was understandably upset at the idea of punishing the innocent for the guilty. He also worried that retaliation would lead to a vicious cycle of brutality and revenge. (Eventually, he did issue a retaliatory order, but it was not enforced). In his memoir, Douglass says he respected Lincoln's humane spirit, but still could not agree with him…
After the war, Douglass was naturally overjoyed that slavery had finally come to an end. Yet, he also felt a strange sense of sadness and regret, as if the noblest part of his life were over. He soon realized, however, that there was still much work to be done, and devoted the rest of his life to helping his fellow freedmen to rise.
Here is a short documentary about the life of Frederick Douglass. The actors are well cast, I think, and the film conveys the spirit of his memoir.