A compelling, detailed life of Frederick Douglass

February 17, 1991|By Vince Fitzpatrick | Vince Fitzpatrick,Mr. Fitzpatrick is the author of "H. L. Mencken" and co-author of "The Complete Sentence Workout Book."

FREDERICK DOUGLASS.

William S. McFeely.

Norton.

465 pages. $24.95.

Maryland signified the worst and best of times to Frederick Douglass, for he experienced both servitude and acclaim in his native state. Born into slavery on the Eastern Shore -- he never knew his father and lost his mother early -- Douglass came to Baltimore in 1826 at age 8 and returned a decade later to serve in the shipbuilding trade. In 1865, he reappeared under far different circumstances.

He was honored at the dedication of Baltimore's Douglass Institute, established to "promote the intellectual advancement" of the city's black community. "When I left Maryland twenty-seven years ago," Douglass explained, "I did so with the firm resolve never to forget my brothers and sisters in bondage, and to do whatever might be in my power to accomplish their emancipation."

He accomplished this, and far more. He viewed slavery, euphemistically called the "peculiar institution," as America's most pervasive evil and bludgeoned it in every available forum. As a slave child, he had witnessed beatings and murder, and eaten mush from a trough. By the end of his long, tumultuous and distinguished career, he had advised presidents, served as America's minister to Haiti and gained acclaim as "the most famous black man in the world."

Renowned as an autobiographer, Douglass celebrated himself and his people in four volumes that appeared between 1845 and 1892. He published essays in America's most distinguished periodicals and edited four newspapers. A magnificent orator -- his voice was "one of the great instruments of the nineteenth century" -- he spoke throughout America and abroad.

Refusing to play safe, he said exactly what he thought. Some audiences applauded. On other occasions, he was pelted with eggs and assaulted on stage. An arsonist burned down his house in Rochester.

He attacked the established church for its refusal to condemn slavery -- he found "Christian slaveholder" a grotesque paradox -- and prodded politicians to move more quickly. He helped slaves to escape on the Underground Railroad and, during the Civil War, recruited black soldiers for the Union Army. After Appomattox, he pushed hard for the passage of the 15th Amendment granting blacks suffrage and attacked measures in the South designed to hinder the black vote.

In brief, Douglass served as a public conscience during some of America's stormiest years. Biographer William S. McFeely perceptively calls him the "black Savonarola."

A professor of American history at the University of Georgia, Dr. McFeely received the 1982 Pulitzer Prize in biography for his life of U. S. Grant. The present volume details the life, work and times of Frederick Douglass. Exhaustively researched, providing a compelling narrative of an extraordinary life, the book is eminently fair to its subject. Douglass requires neither special pleading nor apology.

A thorny individual, Douglass could be vain -- "a man not loath," Dr. McFeely remarks, "to stand in the full light of praise for his accomplishments." Douglass also could be self-righteous, and he found it easier to deal with causes than with his family. His first marriage was far from idyllic -- his wife never learned to read and bore the domestic burdens while her famous husband toured the country -- and his second marriage to a white woman horrified his children.

Autobiographers don't always tell the whole truth. Memory tends to be selective and self-serving, and old battles can be conveniently replotted. This biography shows, to the edification of posterity, that Douglass sometimes engaged in a few stretchers along the line.

This volume is just as successful in detailing Douglass' times as it is his life and work. A man of huge energy with extensive contacts, Douglass interacted with some of the more controversial figures in 19th century America. Dr. McFeely is especially good in discussing Douglass' relationships with William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown.

At first, Garrison, the famous abolitionist and editor of the Liberator, served as Douglass' mentor. As time passed, the pupil received more acclaim than the teacher, and the relationship grew bumpy.

In one of the more incendiary episodes during his career, Douglass knew of Brown's plans to attack the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry but refused to join. After Brown was captured, newspapers accused Douglass of complicity, and he fled America for a short time.

Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth populate these pages, as does Harriet Beecher Stowe. Douglass also knew both Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who were campaigning for women's suffrage at the same time that he was seeking the franchise for blacks. Immediately after the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870, Douglass called for an amendment enfranchising women. But they encountered the same bureaucracy that exasperated Douglass and did not acquire the vote until a half century later.

"I have for years," Douglass reflected at 76, "had no constant abiding place -- been a 'stranger and a sojourner as all my fathers were' -- sometimes at the North -- sometimes at the South -- sometimes on the land and sometimes on the sea." He was a voyager, both literally and figuratively.

Douglass was born almost exactly 200 years after a Dutch ship carried the first black slaves to Jamestown, Va. He refused to accept what he encountered on Maryland's Eastern Shore, and he declined to keep quiet. From the beginning of his public life in 1841 until his death 54 years later, his journey was costly to him and his family. But his travels helped others find a home.

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