Frederick Douglass: Prophet Of Freedom, by David W. Blight
Sometimes I wonder whether books like this help or hurt the agendas of those who are writing them. I must admit that this book talked a lot more about the personal life of the subject than I had previously known, but that is definitely not for the best. The author’s comments about Frederick Douglass reveal some of the darker tendencies that have always been present in the left, tendencies towards militant self-righteousness, fractiousness, a parasitic relationship to government, and the like, and all of those are present in the life of Frederick Douglass. Whether he is relying on his wife to keep house while he goes off speaking in public or he is tactlessly flirting with interested women who he brings into his own house as lodgers, or whether his sons are simultaneously whining about racism (in ways that seems strangely contemporary) while also sponging off of their father and engaging in competition with others involved in the same task, or whether they are working as swamp monsters to monopolize positions within the federal bureaucracy, this book demonstrates the unseemly and morally hypocritical side of the leftist, and shows that Frederick Douglass was always one of his kind, whether he was being a self-righteous zealot against the supposed evils of his time or whether he was sucking on the teat of government and seeking to make the public pay for the support of him and his hapless heirs.
This hefty work comes in at about 750 pages and 31 chapters and covers the entire span of Douglass’ life. The first handful of chapters discuss Douglass’ experience in slavery and the way that he gathered his education and his early family life and how he seized the chance for freedom. The next ten chapters after that then concern his career as an antebellum antislavery agitator, including his relationship with such leaders as Garrison and his attraction to the violent solutions of John Brown, in whose unsuccessful raid he was considered (not without reason) to be a co-conspirator by the State of Virginia. The next six chapters after that discuss his role during the Civil War in both encouraging antislavery among Northerners and in urging his sons and others to enlist, and then seeking to use his political influence to ease the way of his sons and prevent them from suffering the consequences of their injuries or folly. By the time we get to the last ten chapters of the book, which discuss Douglass postwar work, we see certain patterns in place where Douglass talks a lot while struggling to make things work on a practical level, dealing with relationship drama, the struggles of being a patron of a large group of hangers on, and dealing with the sorrows of life like losing his first wife, marrying a much younger white second wife to considerable ridicule and controversy, and having his own home burn down by suspected arson. In the end the book shows Douglass as a man, a complicated and not always wise man.
Part of what makes this book a bit more of a chore to read than it would otherwise be is that it spends a great deal of time talking about Douglass’ postwar career, which is far less edifying than his early antislavery efforts. To a certain extent, if one was a charitable reader, one can overlook the overheated rhetoric of Douglass in youth as being the sign of passion for a noble cause that he is somewhat excessive in support of, and moreover one where he had an immense degree of personal trauma and injury involved in the horrors of slavery even if his own experience was not nearly as bad as it could have been. Unfortunately, those excuses of the failures of the self-made man sound increasingly hollow as Douglass fails to mature in his older years, still angry at the world, still hypocritical in his own personal life, still seeking to live as a parasite rather than from the labor of his two hands, still seeking political influence and political jobs (including Ambassador to Haiti) or failed journalistic efforts, the sign of a leftist who has no practical bent or desire for productive labor. Naturally, the book implicates his sons and son-in-law as being equally incompetent and equally dependent on the teat of big father or big government for their own well-being, which demonstrates the failures of the left in ways that the author does not seem to fully understand or appreciate.