Frederick Douglass (1818?-1895) was the greatest African American leader of the Nineteenth Century. He was born a slave on the Eastern Shore in Maryland and grew up on plantations on the Eastern Shore with several years in Baltimore. He was a physically powerful, highly intelligent, and spirited youth and developed quickly a hatred of the slave system. As a slave, he taught himself to read and write, and learned the art of public speaking from the church and from a book of orations popular at the time that feel into his hands. He escaped from slavery at the age of 20 and moved to New Bedford,Massachusetts. He became part of the Abolitionist Movement and achieved fame as a public speaker. He became a newspaper editor and writer. During the Civil War, he assisted in the recruitment of black troops. He met President Lincoln on several occasions and became a great admirer. In later years, Douglass was aligned with the conservative "stalwart" wing of the Republican party and continued to speak out for the rights of African-Americans, to oppose (somewhat belatedly) the end of Reconstruction, and to work for the life of the spirit and the mind.
Frederick Douglass wrote three autobiographies which are given in this volume. The first, shortest, and best was written in 1845, seven years after Douglass had escaped from slavery. It tells in graphic and unforgettable terms the story of Douglass' life as a slave, the growth of the spirit of freedom in himself. and the early part of his life as a free man in New Bedford.
The second autobiography was written in 1855. It repeats much of the earlier story and describes Douglass's visit to Great Britain. A highlight of this volume is the Appendix in which Douglass gives the reader excerpts from several of his speeches, including his perhaps most famous speech "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July."
Douglass wrote his third autobiography in 1888 and edited it substantially in 1893. It describes Douglass's relationship with Abraham Lincoln and John Brown. I also enjoyed the section of the book in which Douglass describes his trip to England, Italy, and Egypt near the end of his life. It is highly intelligent, perceptive and reflective travel writing. There are also excerpts in this final autobiography from Douglass's speeches and letters.
The most striking incident in all three volumes is Douglass's story of how he stood up for himself and became in his own eyes a man of dignity and courage. Douglass had been sent for a year to live with a small farmer named Covey who had a reputation for breaking the sprit of strong-willed slaves. Covey whipped Douglass unmercifully for the first six months. Then, after a whipping which left Douglass scared and weak for several days (he ran back to his old master who ordered him back to Covey) Douglass fought back. Covey attempted to whip Douglass and Douglass resisted. The two men fought hand-to-hand for hours. Douglass could not assume the offensive in the fight (it was enough to resist at all) but more than held his ground and had the better of it. Covey at last walked off and never whipped Douglass again. This incident is strikingly told in each autobiography and marks the moment when Douglass showed he could stand up for himself and not have the spirit of a slave. It is inspiring and it grounded his actions for the rest of his life.
There is much in these books that transcends the resistance against American slavery, utterly important as that is. We have, as I have tried to explain, in this book the voice of personal freedom and self-determination which is something every person must learn and understand for him or herself in deciding how to live. In addition, I get the impression that as Douglass aged he became increasingly committed to the life of the mind and the spirit. This is apparent from his writing and from his interest in travel, in European high culture, art, literature, and music. Douglass learned the meaning for freedom. He tried to devote himself to matters of the spirit in addition to his lifelong quest to improve the lot of the former slave. I think there is still a great deal to be learned here.
Douglass had much to say about the nature of American freedom and democracy. He loved and had faith in them, in spite of the horrible stain of slavery. Here is a wonderful observation from the third autobiography in which Douglass' describes his activities during the Presidential campaign of 1888.
"I left the discussion of the tariff to my young friend Morris, while I spoke for justice and humanity....I took it to be the vital and animating principle of the Republican party. I found the people more courageous than their party leaders. What the leaders were afraid to teach, the people were brave enough and glad enough to learn. I held that the soul of the nation was in this question, and that the gain of all the gold in the world would not compensate for the loss of the nation's soul. National honor is the soul of the nation, and when this is lost all is lost. ... As with an individual, so too with a nation, there is a time when it may properly be asked "What doth it profit to gain the whole world and thereby lose one's soul?"
There is a spirit and a wisdom in Douglass that still has much to teach.
As a man of the Nineteenth Century, Douglass tells us little in his autobiographies of his personal life. Upon his escape from slavery, Douglass married a free, uneducated black woman. Upon her death, Douglass married a white woman, which (as we see briefly in the book) caused shock among American whites and blacks alike. We also see little of Douglass' relationship to his children. The reader who would like to learn more about Douglass' personal life needs to read a biography, such as William McFeeley's "Frederick Douglass" (1891)
Douglass' autobiographies are precious work of American literature and a testimony to the free human spirit.
Until recently that is, and largely thanks to Foner whose efforts were first displayed in five volumes and now in this abridged version. If you can afford them and can find them get the set, but this is an accessible and cheap introduction to a towering figure not just in Afro-American history but in the history of the United States.
After Lincoln (who called him a friend) he is perhaps that nation's greatest orator. He came from a background even humbler than Lincoln's: he was a slave. Self-taught he gave extraordinary speeches, edited newspapers, and for a while took refuge in Britain where he was lauded by almost everyone. It was the British who purchased his freedom, allowing him to return to the United States where he had been in danger of falling fowl of the escaped slaves legislation which allowed slavers to kidnap human beings in the North and take them back to slavery in the South. No wonder so many fled to Canada or in Douglass's case to Britain.
It is the terrible irony of American history that an empire of liberty was built on slavery. The greatest misfortune that nation befell was to win the revolutionary war. Had they lost and stayed within the empire then slavery would have been abolished 30 years earlier than it was, and no civil war would have been fought: at most a few colonies would have rebelled and been crushed by the combined might of the northern states and of Great Britain. As it was freedom for some from the British meant slavery for many.
Douglass did more than anyone to interpret the compromised Constitution as ultimately anti-slavery. Quite an achievement given its origins and wording.
This account of Frederick Douglass' life and time by Henry Louis Gates is the personifaction of Excellence in Achievement through the Human Spirit. In spite of the hardships of slavery, Frederick Douglass continued his fight for freedom. His dynamic oratory and leadership helped him to move barriers for all people. This self educated man rose to great prominence to serve as a testament to the world that if you have courage, persistence and faith in God, you can achieve anything that you set your mind to. He knew the power of education and the spoken and written word, which is manifested in his creating the NorthStar newspaper to communicate to others. Of course you have to have mortal men who believe in you and your abilities. I believe that Mr. Gates captures this strength, this conviction and the essence of Mr. Douglass' spirit and his commitment to make a better life for himself and others like him. His dynamic use of the language allows you to feel conviction and essence of Mr. Douglass' concern. It was like listening to Mr. Douglass speak to me through those pages. I found this book very intriguing and educational. It has something for the world to learn from. Thanks to Mr. Gates and others for bringing this great American (World) hero to the forefront. We need to know and share in the histor and spiriti of this great man. By the way I was named after Frederick Douglass. I strive to be like him as much as I can. I am still working on my oratory!.
Frederick Douglass is a role model for all mankind. He showed us how we can do anything we want in life if we are persistant and have the right attitude. Having nothing in life, not even a chance to become educated, he used every situation as an advantage for himself. He remained positive in adverse situations, had a good work ethic and is a person all races should take lessons from and succeed!