Frederick Douglass: Race and the Rebirth of American Liberalism
Peter C. Myers (University of Kansas Press, 2008), 256 pp.
Americans were born talking and arguing. The United States started out in 1776 throwing off the accident and force that ruled by hereditary right in the old world, inviting mankind to respect the equal rights of human nature and the revolutionary choice of government by consent. But from the very beginning, the accident and force of American slavery placed violent limits on American reflection and choice, and called into question our experiment in self-government. By the time Frederick Douglass escaped to freedom in 1838, the experiment of American slavery was in many ways gaining strength, and the country was stumbling toward the great crisis that would come in Douglass’s mature manhood.
Born into slavery in 1818, Douglass as a young boy was given by his owner’s wife the liberating gift of the English alphabet. He managed by hook and crook in coming years to learn to read and to develop a mastery of the language. He freed himself, gave to himself a birthday (February 3, the date on which he became a free man), took a name, and made of himself not just a free man but an American, even an American gentleman. He gave his first speech to an abolitionist group in 1841. It was a triumph. He was so eloquent that many abolitionist leaders asked him to tone down his rhetoric for fear that no one would believe he had once been a slave. At first, Douglass thought himself an alien within the American order that tolerated slavery, a man without a country. He sided with those who would abolish the evil of slavery regardless of consequences, and had no patience for the constitutional scruples of those, like Lincoln, who resisted abolitionism as firmly as they opposed the spread of slavery. But experience seasoned him; he became a Lincoln supporter and eventually Lincoln’s friend. Here is a great American story that John Stauffer’s Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln fails, alas, to tell with any verve, lucidity, or insight.
Stauffer’s parallel lives theme is a good one, but anyone who wants to read a book devoted to it should read James Oakes’s The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics (2007). Stauffer tells the essential Lincoln-Douglass stories but they die in the telling. He considers his two subjects, whose lives were indeed parallel but also intersecting, as if they represented certain categories beloved in departments of literature. In doing this, he necessarily does injustice to the real and important mingling of their actual lives. It is, for example, enough for him to say that they both came out of obscurity and poverty, both were self-taught and self-made men, both continued to remake themselves from the same books, and that therefore they were both “antithetical to racism” (Lincoln less so). He delights in such banal observations as that both men were “pragmatic” and in “continual flux” and “cultural ambassadors,” as if each represented a different way of becoming human, and were “reformers who believed that history is the activist’s muse.” These giants are thus made smaller, less noble, and less interesting. In the end, both Douglass and Lincoln understood themselves to be Americans trying to establish American justice within a constitutional order that would be worthy of being saved and perpetuated. This central and all-encompassing fact eludes Mr. Stauffer.
Happily, it does not elude Peter C. Myers. His Frederick Douglass: Race and the Rebirth of American Liberalism argues that the “unifying core” of Douglass’s mind was his protracted effort to instruct his fellow Americans—whites, blacks, and all—”on the first principles of government, to bring the nation into consistency with itself and so to conceive a nobler liberalism than America had yet known.”
Myers examines Douglass’s political thought through a statement Douglass made to a crowd on July 4, 1862: “No people ever entered upon the pathway of nations, with higher and grander ideas of justice, liberty and humanity than ourselves.” Myers considers the meaning and the soundness of this thought as well as the difficult road Douglass traveled to get to it; he thus sheds light on how Douglass confronted the issue of race and how it ought to be confronted still. Douglass argued that the natural rights principles of the Declaration of Independence are strong and capacious enough to achieve racial justice. Meyers shows that from about 1851 until his death in 1895, Douglass read the Constitution in light of these first principles of moral and political philosophy.
It was to these principles that he appealed to refute slavery, to protest against privately organized racial discrimination, to encourage public measures expanding opportunities for former slaves, and to facilitate such formal recognition of natural rights as the right to vote and to acquire property. In his appeals to equal natural rights, Douglass was still able, in Myers’s words, to be “hospitable to moderate affirmations of racial identity” and pride, while maintaining the need for long-term reciprocal racial assimilation. What is perhaps less clear in Myers’s account is Douglass’s understanding of natural law as “self-enforcing” and how that self-enforcing natural law would work in the turbulent political life of a free people. But taken all in all, Myers’s volume is the best contribution to understanding Douglass in a generation
Oddly, his study of Douglass has more to say in a few pages than Stauffer says in a whole book about the significance of the relationship between Lincoln and Douglass and what that relationship says about the country that produced such men. The two first met in August 1863, and Douglass was not expecting a friendly encounter. After black soldiers had proven themselves worthy on the battlefield, Douglass had come to Washington to argue that justice demanded equal pay for their efforts. Following a cold reception from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Douglass took his case to the White House.
When he presented his card, he found that, instead of being asked to wait in a long line of office seekers, he was moved to the front of the line. He entered Lincoln’s office to find him completely informal and sprawled out on a sofa reading, with his “feet in different parts of the room.” Hearing Douglass enter, Lincoln stood to greet him saying, “Mr. Douglass, I know you; I have read about you.” Lincoln’s reception of him was “just as you have seen one gentleman receive another,” Douglass would later say. There was nothing affected in Lincoln’s tone or manner. “I have never seen a more transparent countenance,” reported Douglass. He left so impressed with Lincoln’s defense of his policies and with the firmness of his positions—to say nothing of his genuine sympathies with the black troops—that Douglass no longer felt the same level of dissatisfaction on the question of unequal pay. He knew something now that was even more crucial. Emancipation would stand.
In 1864 Lincoln had another meeting with Douglass to discuss what might be the alarming fate of those slaves still behind Confederate lines. In the midst of a war in which the existence of the nation was at stake—and an election in which Lincoln’s (and the nation’s) political future was at stake—Lincoln made time to inquire what might be done for those enslaved men and women who would be beyond his assistance in the event of a failure in the war or the election. Douglass again was impressed by Lincoln’s “deep moral conviction” on the question of slavery and with his brutal honesty about the prospects ahead. And he was taken with Lincoln’s seeming disregard for any prevailing or habitual notions that there should be anything other than perfect equality between them. “In his company I was never in any way reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular color,” said Douglass. Indeed, Lincoln was the only white person of prominence about whom Douglass was ever able to say such words. Considering the large number of prominent abolitionists and Christian reformers with whom Douglass was in frequent communication, this is an impressive testament.
As fate would have it, the last time these two American friends saw each other was on the occasion of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Douglass listened to the speech with the crowd and thought it contained some “brave good words.” Afterward, he went to the Executive Mansion to attend the reception, but was not allowed to enter. When he sent word to Lincoln that he was being detained, the president ordered that he be admitted. Douglass found Lincoln in the elegant East Room, standing “like a mountain pine…in his grand simplicity, and home-like beauty.” Lincoln said, “Here comes my friend,” and took Douglass by the hand. “I am glad to see you,” said the president. Then he asked Douglass how he liked his address, for “there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours.” Douglass famously said, in words that aptly sum up the work to which their lives had been devoted, “Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort.”
Peter W. Schramm is the Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center and a professor of political science at Ashland University.