Douglass and the legacy of Mount Misery

August 20, 2006|By IAN FINSETH

Long ago, in the small Chesapeake Bay town of St. Michaels, a slave named Frederick Douglass beat up a white farmer named Edward Covey who had been hired to "break" the difficult young man. That fistfight was a turning point in Mr. Douglass' life, liberating him from fear, and it set him on a path that would lead him out of slavery and into a career as the preeminent African-American spokesman of the 19th century and one of the truly remarkable figures of American history, black or white.

The fight took place at the farmer's home, a relatively modest brick manor called Mount Misery. Today, the five-bedroom home is owned by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, who bought it in 2003, as a weekend retreat, for $1.5 million. It sits on four beautifully landscaped acres.

There's a story here, one involving race and power and history, but little agreement as to what that story means. A handful of left-wing bloggers have suggested that there's something sinister about the historical coincidence, and that it's "not surprising" that Mr. Rumsfeld now owns the house. On the right, meanwhile, a couple of commentators have suggested that The New York Times somehow endangered national security by including a photograph of Mount Misery in a recent feature article about St. Michaels as an up-and-coming resort community where Vice President Dick Cheney, Democratic strategist Joe Trippi and other high-profile figures have second homes.

The current state of Mount Misery (and its previous incarnation as a bed and breakfast) represents a lost opportunity to do right by history. Put charitably, it implies an unfortunate, if all too common, blitheness regarding the value of historical places.

Put less charitably, we might even say it represents an attitude toward U.S. history in which legal property rights take precedence over the uncodified right of the people to their shared cultural past. Mr. Rumsfeld himself might be responsive to such an argument. On April 29, 2005, during an award ceremony for then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Mr. Rumsfeld said this about history: "History is not always generous to the men and women who help to shape it. Great abolitionists like John Quincy Adams and Frederick Douglass would not live to see full equality for African-Americans that they had envisioned and fought to bring about."

Indeed, those who are responsible for preserving and understanding history often fail to give its major figures their due.

Would not the most fitting outcome for Mount Misery be as a monument or museum wherein a key moment from the country's past can find its rightful place in the public memory?

The old Covey house might not possess the importance of the Frederick Douglass House in Washington, but it nonetheless deserves our understanding and preservation. For the estate itself, and the fight between slave and slave-breaker that took place there, are together emblematic of two of the elemental themes of American history: the horrors of legally sanctioned racial violence and the nobility of the struggle against unjust authority.

Mr. Douglass' defeat of Mr. Covey symbolizes perhaps the most important dimension of our struggle: the fight against America's own anti-democratic tendencies. Mr. Rumsfeld professes to want to promote democracy around the world, and to fight for it if necessary. He could help to honor the tradition in which he and others see themselves by honoring Mr. Douglass' lonely personal battle against tyranny.

Preserving Mount Misery as a public site of contemplation, where the meanings of democracy and despotism are given a human face, and a very American face, also would help keep St. Michaels from becoming merely a resort for the wealthy.

That would help preserve its unique and remarkable heritage.

Ian Finseth is an assistant professor of American literature at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and a senior writer at the Commonweal Institute in Menlo Park, Calif. His e-mail is ifinseth@umd.umich.edu.

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