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Thursday, April 30, 2009

American Christianity and the American Slave, part 3

(See part 1 and part 2.)

Frederick Douglass was quite correct to condemn this twisting of Christ and the Bible to justify slavery in America.

The wider Christian church in America tore itself over slavery, particularly the Methodist church, which split in two over slavery in the 1840s. And Christians formed the backbone of the abolitionist movement. The Second Great Awakening was occurring about this time, which helped fuel the northern Christian response to slavery.

Yet Douglass could not countenance the hypocrisy of a nation and a church that allowed—and even celebrated—slavery. Douglass wrote in the appendix to his Narrative, perhaps thinking in the back of his mind that there was no brotherly affection among believers or forgiveness as displayed in the book of Philemon, that:

“I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me. We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. The man who robs me of my earnings at the end of each week meets me as a class-leader on Sunday morning, to show me the way of life, and the path of salvation.

“He who sells my sister, for purposes of prostitution, stands forth as the pious advocate of purity. He who proclaims it a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read the name of the God who made me. He who is the religious advocate of marriage robs whole millions of its sacred influence, and leaves them to the ravages of wholesale pollution. The warm defender of the sacredness of the family relation is the same that scatters whole families, –sundering husbands and wives, parents and children, sisters and brothers, – leaving the hut vacant, and the hearth desolate.”

Douglass is absolutely right. Like a televangelist who rages against adultery while privately having an affair, or the TV preacher who lives a life of luxury while calling his flock to a life of piety, the slave owners and their enablers talked out of both sides of their mouths. “Marriage is sacred!—but we’re going to sell your wife to a plantation in Alabama.” “Work is holy writ!—but you’ll never see a penny from your labors.”

Douglass continues:

“We see the thief preaching against theft, and the adulterer against adultery. We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the POOR HEATHEN! ALL FOR THE GLORY OF GOD AND THE GOOD OF SOULS! The slave auctioneer's bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealers in the bodies and souls of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity. Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other--devils dressed in angels' robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.”

WOW. As I said in part 1, the man could write.

Many atheists today attempt to claim Douglass as one of their own. But they’re completely mistaken. Douglass believed in Christ, believed in God, believed in what the Bible really said. He rejected how the church existed in America, Scotland, England, etc.—everywhere pious men preached love on Sunday and gathered funds the rest of the week to further slavery, whether through building a church with profits gained from slavery, or robbing a man (a slave) of his just compensation. He couldn’t stomach the hypocrisy, and it made him turn from organized religion—not from God.

Frederick Douglass rightly criticized—repeatedly—Americanized Christianity for its complicity in modern slavery. In the North Star (and later incarnations of his newspaper), in letters and before audiences in America and Great Britain, he pilloried the incongruities and outright hypocrisies of the mainstream churches, and urged people to not give their earthly treasure to support churches that propped up slavery.

The condemnation of Americanized Christianity leaves one feeling dirty and ashamed. Douglass’ words reminds me of the afore-mentioned John MacArthur, one of the strongest of the modern preachers who continually warns about the dangers of Americanized Christianity with its easy believe-ism, prosperity gospel, unbiblical “word of faith” nonsense and the incredible false teaching that has infested American churches.

I’ve never sat in a pew as a slave while the slave master who told me to seek Christ on Sunday applied the whip to me Monday through Saturday. Yet, I can at least appreciate the anger Douglass acquired at the phoniness and hypocrisy of the church in America, and his longing for pure Christianity. It’s easy for me to sit here in 2009 and argue that Douglass and other slaves who believed in God should have listened to Paul more than Moses. I doubt I would have had the fortitude to bow to Caesar while he continually sought to make me less than human.

I am a Bible-believing Christian, and I despair at the twisting of the Word of God by today’s false teachers, phony “prophets” and “faith healers” who prey on desperate people, fatten their own wallets and lead people down the wide road to destruction. But I thank God my challenges were not what the American slave faced.

American Christianity and the American Slave, part 2

Frederick Douglass addresses the paradox of Christian freedom and American slavery more directly in his second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom. While describing the freedom of the mind that he obtained upon absorbing The Columbian Orator, Douglass, 10 years after he escaped, let loose again on Christianity as practiced in America:

“The mighty power and heart-searching directness of truth, penetrating even the heart of a slaveholder, compelling him to yield up his earthly interests to the claims of eternal justice, were finely illustrated in the dialogue, just referred to; and from the speeches of [British statesman] Sheridan, I got a bold and powerful denunciation of oppression, and a most brilliant vindication of the rights of man. Here was, indeed, a noble acquisition. If I ever wavered under the consideration, that the Almighty, in some way, ordained slavery, and willed my enslavement for his own glory, I wavered no longer. I had now penetrated the secret of all slavery and oppression, and had ascertained their true foundation to be in the pride, the power and the avarice of man. The dialogue and the speeches were all redolent of the principles of liberty, and poured floods of light on the nature and character of slavery.

“With a book of this kind in my hand, my own human nature, and the facts of my experience, to help me, I was equal to a contest with the religious advocates of slavery, whether among the whites or among the colored people, for blindness, in this matter, is not confined to the former. I have met many religious colored people, at the south, who are under the delusion that God requires them to submit to slavery, and to wear their chains with meekness and humility. I could entertain no such nonsense as this; and I almost lost my patience when I found any colored man weak enough to believe such stuff.”
There’s a component missing from Douglass’ understanding, unfortunately, but the fault is not his. When Paul wrote “slaves, submit to your masters” (which applies to all working relationships, not just slavery itself) he was saying so from prison. Paul was beaten, whipped, stoned, shipwrecked, spat on and so on, all in the name of Christ—and not just by Romans. Romans were stepping up their persecutions—and Paul knew all about persecution, both as receiver AND giver (back when he was Saul), and the great persecution under Nero was but a few years away. He did not lightly say, “slaves, obey your masters,” knowing full well that many a master was cruel.

Of course, the admonishment was accompanied by a similar admonishment to masters to treat their slaves well, as alluded to in part 1 and explained below.

Like I wrote in the previous part, most masters in America ignored that component by treating slaves as less than human. Therefore, it was very easy for the slave to reject Christianity—or, at the very least, chose Moses over Paul. How can you tell someone to submit willfully and silently to someone who treats you worse than a piece of garbage? Paul did tell first century Christians (and all subsequent Christians) to do just that—even when the situation was intolerable. But could not a man run from such a situation? Could he not act in his own defense? The Lord warned against retaliation—but not self defense. Indeed, He even told his disciples after the Resurrection that they were to buy a sword, presumably for self-defense. In other words, a man comes at you with a knife or whatever intending to do you serious harm or death, you can defend yourself—but you cannot therefore take up your own knife and seek him out later to enact revenge.

But cannot a man run from a cruel master?

The answer is an emphatic yes. When Paul wrote to Philemon, he was not writing to a cruel master. Rather, he was writing to a fellow believer about a runaway slave whom Paul had also led to Christ, and asked that Philemon accept him back as a fellow believer, not as a slave. In America, most slave owners, overseers and traders were cruel toward their “charges.”

Therefore, under Biblical authority, as identified in Acts 4, an American slave could rightfully rebel against master by running away because the master’s exercised authority violated God’s higher law. The cruelty and indifference to the slave justifies it, because God mandated that those in positions of authority be just. When authority defies God’s will and ways, the Christian may safely rebel against authority.

Ephesians 6:5-9
Let’s look more specifically at what the Bible teaches about slave/master (as well as employer/employee) relations—information denied/ignored by slave owners and denied to the slaves:

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free. And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.”
Because the last two verses were denied/ignored in American slavery, men like Douglass came to despise Americanized Christianity.

How could, in fact, a slave hear the Gospel on a Sunday from a slave master, or just about any white person for that matter, yet the rest of the week be treated no better than a piece of sack cloth? Would that not turn him from God? At the very least, it would turn him from the church.

Now, it’s true, Jesus was not out to start revolution—against Rome. Against sin, certainly, but not against the earthly powers, because Christ was about His Father’s business. That’s why, when the people repeatedly sought to make Him king to overthrow the hated Romans, He declined, because such was not His purpose.

“Treat your slaves the same way.” Rare was the American slaveholder who did that. Of course, it was easy to dismiss or ignore Paul's admonisment—really a detailed exploration of Christ's words to (paraphrased) treat others as you would like to be treated—when the slave owner did not even consider slaves to be on the same level of humanity as the white man!

The Descendants of Ham
Along those same lines, American slaveholders twisted scripture in other ways, too. At the beginning of his Narrative, Douglass describes the plight of mixed-race slaves, of which he was one. These were slaves whose father was white—often the master himself. Douglass wrote in chapter 1:

“…it is nevertheless plain that a very different-looking class of people are springing up at the south, and are now held in slavery, from those originally brought to this country from Africa; and if their increase do no other good, it will do away with the force of the argument, that God cursed Ham, and therefore American slavery is right. If the lineal descendants of Ham are alone to be scripturally enslaved, it is certain that slavery at the south must soon become unscriptural…”
A small grain of twisted truth is at play here. After the Flood, Noah’s descendents spread out across the world (Genesis 9). His sons, Ham, Shem and Japeth, were the ancestors of the world’s people. When God scattered Ham, Japeth and Shem’s immediate descendents at the Tower of Babel, they spread out across the world. Shem’s descendents formed the Semitic peoples (Jews and Arabs) who populate what would become the Middle East, and also formed the “oriental” peoples. Japethites formed the basis of Europeans. And Ham’s descendents became the Phoenicans and other Mediterranean sea-faring peoples…and Africans. Ham’s tradition was “servile,” meaning service.

Now, take this to 17th, 18th and 19th century times, and you get a twisting of scripture that the descendents of Ham were to be slaves. The above excerpt from Douglass reads as though he wrote it with wry mirth instead of anger, as if he realized fully how ignorant the slave holders were.

* * *

In part 3, I’ll look more at Douglass’ cry against the hypocrisies of Americanized Christianity of the 19th century, and explore some conclusions.

***to be concluded***

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

American Christianity and the American Slave Part 1

One of Frederick Douglass’ most brilliant insights came at the end of his first autobiography, the Narrative. Douglass, naturally drawing upon his experiences, denounced forcefully Americanized Christianity, which he said bore no resemblance to “proper” Christianity.

Of course, the great given is that not all slave owners were Christian or even claimed to be Christian. But the majority were, and those are who Douglass raged against, as well as their enablers in the Christian church, north and south. You should read the entire appendix and let him explain himself, but here is the main thrust:
“…for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference--so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels.”
(Wow, could he ever write!) What does this mean? Essentially, Douglass is correctly rejecting false piety of the slave masters and their enablers who claim Christ but deny Christ to others. Douglass rejected the Christianity of those who used God’s Word as justification for human slavery. In short, he was saying that what was called Christianity in America wasn’t real Christianity.

There is much truth in what Douglass says. In the late 20th century and early 21st century, believers and atheists debated quite often on whether the Bible promoted or approved slavery. Latter-day evangelicals such as Hank Hanegraaff (whom I respect immensely) say that the Bible condemns slavery in no uncertain terms, yet accepts the reality of slavery by telling people how to cope with it. (Slavery in ancient times was also based on more than race: debt, prisoners of war, etc.) While true, I am not totally convinced that the condemnation is really overt—at least to the uneducated Christian.

Paul and Philemon
The Bible discusses slavery in many places, of course, but two are critical here in this discussion of Douglass, American Christianity and the slave. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul groups slave traders with liars and perjurers and “whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine.” That one passage alone condemns slavery as well as the practice of Americanized Christianity, because although the international slave trade was forbidden in America by national law in 1807, slaves were still bought and traded in America. I wonder if Bible-believing slave owners thought of that! Or they either ignored the passage or believed that they were OK by splitting hairs and thinking that slave traders didn’t include them.

Paul also wrote a letter to Philemon concerning the latter’s slave, Onesimus. He had urged Onesimus, who ran away but then became a believer, to return to his master Philemon, also a believer, but there’s much more going on in this brief message. Mainly, the letter is about forgiveness. On the surface, it seems like a justification of slavery, but it’s not. It also seems like a condemnation of slavery, but it’s not. Rather, Paul was urging Philemon to not only accept Onesimus’ faith, but also forgive him, accept him back and possibly consider his manumission (emancipation). John MacArthur, one of the foremost authorities and preachers on scripture of this or any age, explains what’s happening in Paul’s letter (please forgive the tangent, but there’s a reason for it):

“But it must be noted, because this last one is the most popular approach, seemingly, that no place in Scripture is there any effort ever made to abolish slavery. And at no time did any prophets or preachers or teachers or apostles of the New Testament ever attack slavery. But any call to righteous living, any call to holy love, will eliminate the abuses that are any social system. In fact, quite the contrary, there are throughout the New Testament many, many texts where slavery becomes a model of Christian principle, slavery becomes a picture, as it were, as we are related to God as His slaves and His servants. And repeatedly whether Ephesians 6 or Colossians 4 or 1 Timothy 6:1 and 2, or 1 Peter 2:18, slaves are told to be obedient, submissive, loyal and faithful to their masters no matter how they act, and masters are told to treat their slaves with love and equity and kindness and fairness no matter what they might do.”
Of course, slave masters got the first part down pat, but missed the part where THEY were to treat their slaves just as they treat themselves. (A side note: many people willfully or ignorantly misinterpret the Ephesians passage that wives are to obey their husbands. They always seem to miss the part where husbands are to treat their wives like Christ treats the church, e.g., He loved and care for us so much that He died for us. Somehow, those things always get ignored. But I digress. I'll explore Ephesians more in part 2 of this essay.) To continue:

“So while nothing attacks the institution of slavery, everything in Christian principle attacks the abuses of any social system, including slavery. (Emphasis added.) Slavery was so much a part of the Roman Empire, the whole society was built on it. And by the time of Christ slavery wasn't necessarily what we think it is today, it had been modified. There had been some laws passed and in very many cases slaves were treated very well. In fact, if you read of the ancient literature around the time of Christ, you will find that most writers will say a man was better off a slave than he was a runaway slave, (and) very often better off a slave than he was even a freeman, because as a slave he was assured of care and food and a place to sleep. And if he had a good and kind master, life was very prosperous for him. Slaves by the time of Christ could be fully educated in every discipline, many of them in fact went into medical professions. Slaves could take the benefit of owning their own property and developing their own economics and their own economy. Slaves could leave their estates to their own children. So by the time of Christ slavery had moved away from many of the earlier abuses though those abuses still in some cases did occur. And we'll see that even in the book of James where some Christians who must have been as slaves or servants were treated in a very unkind and physically abusive way. But slavery was changing and the Christian gospel coming into that world and the Christian preachers were not about to change the focus on to a social issue from a spiritual one, you can only imagine that if Jesus and the Apostles had begun to attack slavery what would have happened in the Roman Empire. Sixty million slaves revolting would have been an unbelievable situation. Society would have been thrown in to such chaos and disarray and even you can imagine that when such a rebellion would have begun, slaves would have been crushed and massacred savagely.

“So, there was some reason in the changing mood of the Roman Empire to see some hope for abolishing slavery, and that hope would come through changed hearts. The seeds of the end of slavery were sown in the Roman Empire by the Christian gospel and eventually slavery died. Just as everywhere in the world slavery has died when the Christian gospel came. It certainly was true in America eventually. Christianity, you see, introduces a new relationship between a man and a man, a relationship in which external differences don't matter and we are one in Christ, Jew or Gentile, slave or free, there's neither Greek nor Jew, said Paul, circumcision or uncirumcision, barbarian or Scythian, slave or free man. This does not attack the institution of slavery. In fact, it does the very opposite of that. It tells a slave to go back to his master and be the kind of slave he ought to be to a faithful and loving master. (Emphasis added, because as alluded to, most American slaveholders were just the opposite, even though they styled themselves that way.)

“Its theme then is forgiveness, that is its message, that is its intent. The story behind the letter makes that absolutely clear.” (Source: Part 1 of John MacArthur’s 1991 four-part sermon series on Philemon)

So, while God doesn’t approve of slavery, He uses slavery to further His own means: Saving us.
Yet, many if not most American Christian slave holders used what the Bible said as a flat-out justification for slavery. Instead of the forgiveness in Philemon, they saw “slaves, obey your masters” in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, completely taking what Paul was saying out of context. They saw that slaves were to obey, but ignored the fact that they were to treat them as they treated themselves.

* * *
In part 2, I’ll look specifically at what Paul said to the Ephesians, and how that relates to American slavery.


Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Frederick Douglass on film

As critical a person as Frederick Douglass was, there sure seems to be a dearth of motion pictures about him. Professor Rayford Logan of Howard University, in the 1962 re-issue of Life and Times, wrote that: … A few comments will give depth and understanding to a thrilling narrative, which some courageous movie producer should dare to place on a screen.”

I heartily agree! Logan continued: “To be sure, it would be difficult to find an actor to play the role of Douglass.” Well, maybe in 1960, but not today. There should be plenty of established—or as-yet discovered—actors (black American, of course!) who could play the role of a tall, muscular, lithe and graceful man.

The following is a short list of places you can find Douglass on film (well, actors appearing as Douglass!) in big screen and TV movies:

Primary Douglass documentaries and movies

The Spirit of Frederick Douglass — This 2008 DVD depicts Michael E. Crutcher, Sr., performing as Douglass in the fashion of Hal Holbrook’s award-winning Mark Twain Tonight.

Frederick Douglass: When the Lion Wrote History — a 1994 PBS documentary narrated by Alfre Woodard.

Presenting Mr. Frederick Douglass — This 1994 TV film depicts the fine actor Fred Morsell performing as Douglass in a one man show, also similar to Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight. Sadly, it is unavailable.

A&E’s 1997 Biography of Frederick Douglass — I’m not totally a fan of this Biography effort, because it seems, well, too cursory. However, it is decent enough.

Frederick Douglass: The House on Cedar Hill — This is a rare 1953 documentary short written, directed and produced by Carlton Moss.

Frederick Douglass: An American Life (1984)

“Douglass” in a supporting role

Ken Burns’ The Civil War — Morgan Freeman provided the voice of Douglass for this terrific documentary.

Glory – Raymond St. Jacques portrayed Douglass in a bit role for 1989’s Glory, a somewhat fictionalized account of the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry. The movie, while being one of the greatest war films ever made—and one of the best, period—is something of a minor letdown because two of Douglass’ sons served in the 54th, but never appear in the movie. Still, there’s only so much that can be done in a two-hour film and what WAS done was excellent.

North and South — Robert Guillaume portrayed a rather short Douglass in the 1985 miniseries North and South. The character gives a speech on how slave families are broken up and sold to different plantations, “separated forever.” Guillaume’s Douglass, though, is a set-up for the speech given by the character Virgillia Hazard (Kirstie Ally), who gives a raging condemnation against the “human crop” of plantations.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Frederick Douglass Quiz

How well do you know the country’s greatest abolitionist and 19th century civil rights leader?

Highlight the space belwo each question to reveal the answer.

Easy questions

1) What are the names of Douglass’ three autobiographies?
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, and
The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass

2) How many times did Douglass and Abraham Lincoln meet?

3) What was the name of Frederick Douglass’ first newspaper?
The North Star

4) What is the significance of July 5, 1852?
Douglass gave his famous Fourth of July speech.

5) What were the two books Douglass used to learn how to read and speak?
The Bible and
The Columbian Orator

6) What now-famous rights conference did Douglass attend in 1848?
The Seneca Falls (NY) suffragette conference

7) What was the name of Douglass’ final home, which he purchased himself?
Cedar Hill

Medium questions

1) What radical abolitionist did Douglass support for president in 1860?
Garrit Smith

2) What famous regiment did Lewis Henry Douglass serve in?
54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry

3) What instrument did Douglass’ grandson, Joseph, play?
The violin

4) Who encouraged the elderly Douglass to begin crusading once more?
Ida B. Wells

5) What was Wells’ issue?
Lynching of blacks in the South

6) The friendship between Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of The Liberator, ended by the early 1850s. What was the initial disagreement over?
They disagreed over tactics and strategies. Garrison believed that the abolitionist movement should never get involved in politics. Douglass strongly disagreed.

7) Why were both the families of Douglass and his second wife, Helen, aghast at their marriage?
Helen was white.

Difficult questions

1) What five public/appointed offices did Douglass hold?
U.S. Marshall of the District of Columbia (1877), Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia (1881), Counsel General to Haiti (1888), Charge d’ Affaires for Santo Domingo (1889) and Minister Resident to Haiti (1889)

2) What were the names of his five masters? (These include the men Douglass was "loaned out" to.
Captain Aaron Anthony, Hugh Auld, Thomas Auld, Edward Covey and William Freeland

3) What were the names of his five children?
Rosetta, Lewis Henry, Frederick Jr., Charles Resmond and Annie

4) Name the two parties that nominated Douglass for vice president.
The Liberal Party (1852) and the Equal Rights Party (1872)

5) What famous ancestry did Douglass’ second wife, Helen Pitts, have?
She was a direct descendent of John and Pricilla Alden (who came over on the Mayflower) and a cousin to the famous Adams family (John, John Quincy, Charles and Henry).

6) What couldn’t Douglass’ first wife, Anna, ever do?
She couldn’t read or write.

Frederick Douglass on... Presidents

Frederick Douglass naturally voiced and wrote opinions of many leading figures of the age. Here are a few observations from this manliest of men on various presidents.

Unless otherwise noted, all excerpts are from The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.

Abraham Lincoln

Douglass met Lincoln in person three times. On the third occasion, the day of Lincoln’s second inaugural, Lincoln greeted Douglass in the East Room of the White House as “my friend Douglass."

“Like a mountain pine high above all others, Mr. Lincoln stood, in his grand simplicity, and home-like beauty. Recognizing me, even before I reached him, he exclaimed, so that all around could hear him, "Here comes my friend Douglass." Taking me by the hand, he said, "I am glad to see you. I saw you in the crowd to-day, listening to my inaugural address; how did you like it?" I said, "Mr. Lincoln, I must not detain you with my poor opinion, when there are thousands waiting to shake hands with you." "No, no," he said, "you must stop a little, Douglass; there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours. I want to know what you think of it?" I replied, "Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort." "I am glad you liked it!" he said, and I passed on, feeling that any man, however distinguished, might well regard himself honored by such expressions, from such a man.”

“Mr. Lincoln was not only a great President, but a great man — too great to be small in anything. In his company I was never in any way reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular color.”

“Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.”

See separate entry Douglass on Lincoln in 1876 for details of this speech.

Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson proved no friend of blacks and was one of the most virulently racist men to be president. Douglass got a first glimpse of this at Lincoln’s second inaugural, an impression confirmed when Douglass and a delegation of black leaders met with Johnson in 1866.

“On this inauguration day, while waiting for the opening of the ceremonies, I made a discovery in regard to the Vice-President—Andrew Johnson. There are moments in the lives of most men, when the doors of their souls are open, and unconsciously to themselves, their true characters may be read by the observant eye. It was at such an instant I caught a glimpse of the real nature of this man, which all subsequent developments proved true. I was standing in the crowd by the side of Mrs. Thomas J. Dorsey, when Mr. Lincoln touched Mr. Johnson, and pointed me out to him. The first expression which came to his face, and which I think was the true index of his heart, was one of bitter contempt and aversion. Seeing that I observed him, he tried to assume a more friendly appearance; but it was too late; it was useless to close the door when all within had been seen. His first glance was the frown of the man, the second was the bland and sickly smile of the demagogue. I turned to Mrs. Dorsey and said, "Whatever Andrew Johnson may be, he certainly is no friend of our race.”

Ulysses S. Grant

General and President Ulysses S. Grant fought for civil rights long after the general public had soured on Reconstruction. Because of Grant’s efforts, the 1872 elections in the South were the fairest until the 1960s. Grant names Douglass to serve on a commission related to his ill-fated attempt to annex Santo Domingo, but Douglass was disappointed that Grant never appointed him to an actual office.

“To [Grant] more than any other man the negro owes his enfranchisement and the Indian a humane policy. In the matter of the protection of the freedman from violence his moral courage surpassed that of his party; hence his place as its head was given to timid men, and the country was allowed to drift, instead of stemming the current with stalwart arms.”
(Source: Quoted in Frank Scaturro, President Grant Reconsidered)

As it was, the question [of black enfranchisement] was speedily taken out of the hands of colored delegations and mere individual efforts, and became part of the policy of the Republican party, and President Grant, with his characteristic nerve and clear perception of justice, promptly recommended the great amendment to the Constitution by which colored men are today invested with complete citizenship -- the right to vote and to be voted for in the American Republic.

During the election of 1872, when Douglass was chosen to be vice president on the Equal Rights Party, and liberal Republicans joined with the Democrats, Douglass chose to stick with Grant:
“He was my choice upon grounds altogether free from selfish or personal considerations. I supported him because he had done all, and would do all, he could to save not only the country from ruin but the emancipated class from oppression and ultimate destruction, and because Mr. [Horace] Greeley, with the Democratic party behind him, would not have the power, even if he had the disposition, to afford us the needed protection which our peculiar condition required.

When Grant considered -- and was considered for -- a third term in 1880, Douglass initially thought that Grant would be the better choice:
“I was for General Grant, and for him with all the embarrassment and burden of a 'third term' attaching to his candidacy. I held that even defeat with Grant was better than success with a temporizer.”

Rutherford Hayes

Hayes appointed Douglass to the post of U.S. Marshall for the District of Columbia in 1877. There was some minor controversy over Douglass’ status as Marshall, which he explains in Life and Times. However:

“In so far as my intercourse with him is concerned, I can say that I at no time discovered in him a feeling of aversion to me on account of my complexion, or on any other account, and, unless I am greatly deceived, I was ever a welcome visitor at the Executive Mansion on state occasions and all others, while Rutherford B. Hayes was President of the United States. I have further to say that I have many times during his administration had the honor to introduce distinguished strangers to him, both of native and foreign birth, and never had reason to feel myself slighted by himself or his amiable wife; and I think he would be a very unreasonable man who could desire for himself, or for any other, a larger measure of respect and consideration than this at the hands of a man and woman occupying the exalted position of Mr. and Mrs. Hayes.”

James Garfield

Douglass came to appreciate Garfield in the latter's brief time in office. Garfield had named Douglass the Recorder of Deeds in the District of Columbia. In his last duty as U.S. Marshall, Douglass had been privileged to escort Garfield to his inauguration.

“…[S]oon after he came to Washington, I had a conversation with him of much interest to the colored people, since it indicated his just and generous intentions towards them, and goes far to present him in the light of a wise and patriotic statesman, and a friend of our race.”

“…[W]e have reason for profound regret that Mr. Garfield could not have lived to carry out his just and wise intentions towards us. I might say more of this conversation, but I will not detain you except to say, that America has had many great men, but no man among them all has had better things said of him, than he who has been reverently committed to the dust in Cleveland to-day.”

Benjamin Harrison

The 23rd president appointed Douglass as a diplomat to Haiti. In 1890, the president attempted to get a strong civil rights bill through Congress, attempting to secure the franchise and basic rights for blacks that had been under assault since the end of slavery. The bill failed when Congress changed hands.

“To my mind, we never had a greater President. [Harrison’s efforts] should endear him to the colored people as long as he lives.”
(Source: Benjamin Harrison by Charles W. Calhoun, citing Indiana Magazine of History, December 2004 issue. It’s a curious remark, considering Harrison failed to win his civil rights legislation, whereas Lincoln (obviously) and Grant were much more successful.)

Douglass on Abraham Lincoln in 1876

In 2007 and 2008, no fewer than three books came out exploring the friendship between and “parallel” lives of Douglass and Lincoln. (See the forthcoming Books about Frederick Douglass post for more.)

Not to detract from their books, here is a brief summary: Their relationship/friendship is one of the most fascinating and fateful in American history, albeit not well understood—or even known—until lately. Both men came from extreme poverty, were self-made men, reinvented themselves many times (a major theme of John Stauffer’s Giants) and were brilliant with both the spoken and written language. Douglas was perhaps the greater speaker because he drew his passion from his life’s experiences, whereas Lincoln ably drew upon his lawyerly background to present his arguments. Both men, of course, crafted masterpieces of oratory and literature concerning the question of their day.

And both men sought to destroy slavery. They came at it quite differently, of course, based on their different backgrounds and perspectives. Douglass had the “luxury” of demanding an immediate end to slavery and installation of rights for all—“luxury” meaning he was not beholden to constituencies, as was Lincoln. The railsplitter formed an early opinion that the Union had to get rid of slavery if it were to survive. How that would happen and what the fate would be for blacks was the question.

At times, even while president, Lincoln favored the colonization concept, whereby free and newly-freed blacks would resettle in Africa, on the belief that the two races could never get along. Believe it or not, this was driven by compassion, not racism. Douglass, of course, strongly disagreed with colonization, and his 1848 speech “We Have Decided To Stay” was in a way an answer to Lincoln. (A Douglass contemporary, Martin Delaney, who often wore African robes, favored colonization as late as 1863. The colonization project did happen, which is where the African nation of Liberia came from.)

Douglass, who voted for Gerrit Smith in 1860, chafed at Lincoln’s “slows” in emancipation, unrealistically expecting the president to end slavery immediately now that the battle was joined. But as I said, Douglass had that luxury. Lincoln didn’t.

As his best biographers (Paludan, et al) have written, Lincoln was a pragmatist who drove to end slavery in such a way that it could never be undone. To the abolitionist, Lincoln’s drive to destroy slavery was agonizingly slow. For everyone else, it was abrupt and shocking. The perceptions are not mutually exclusive, because both are true. Lincoln continually felt the tug between doing what was right, doing what was necessary and doing what needed to be done by the book. His tortured road to emancipation involved exploring possible solutions while rejecting (or ignoring) others that moved too quickly in favor of an emancipation policy that would withstand all legal challenge. That policy would be codified into a constitutional amendment that was virtually unbreakable, or, at least, irreversible. (See my essay on Abraham Lincoln (link opens to new site), particularly the section “The tortured road to emancipation,” which explains how and why Lincoln “took his time,” as well as the fantastic resource, Alan C. Guzello’s Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America.)

Even if he didn’t appreciate or fully understand Lincoln’s thinking before and during the war, he understood by 1876.

The two men eventually came to the realization that they needed each other: Lincoln had to be Douglass’ sword to effect emancipation, and Douglass had to be Lincoln’s voice to support emancipation as it needed to happen.

Even though they would meet only three times between 1862 and 1865, Lincoln came to value the relationship with Douglass. After the president was assassinated, Mary Lincoln gave Douglass her husband’s walking cane, which Douglass cherished the rest of his life.

The Oration

On April 14, 1876, Douglass spoke before a gathering of Republican big-wigs, including President Grant, as part of an unveiling ceremony of a monument to Lincoln as emancipator in Washington, D.C. The monument itself…well… leaves something to be desired. The design makes blacks out to be helpless and totally reliant upon Lincoln for freedom. Lincoln appears as an American Christ, leading subservient slaves out of the wilderness. While there is much truth to that (I emphatically support Lincoln as “the Great Emacipator”), the situation was much more complex. Rather than lionize the slain Lincoln by placing him on yet another pedestal, Douglass instead told the truth as he saw it.

“Oration Delivered Upon the Occasion of the Unveiling of the Freedman’s Monument in Memory of Abraham Lincoln” is a mastery of oratory. In the first part, Douglass made his listeners quite uncomfortable as he laid out the case against Lincoln—but then he pulled back to make the case for Lincoln.

“I refer to the past not in malice, for this is no day for malice,” Douglass began, though what he soon said about Lincoln might have felt like malice.

“We fully comprehend the relation of Abraham Lincoln both to ourselves and to the white people of the United States. Truth is proper and beautiful at all times and in all places, and it is never more proper and beautiful in any case than when speaking of a great public man whose example is likely to be commended for honor and imitation long after his departure to the solemn shades, the silent continents of eternity. It must be admitted, truth compels me to admit, even here in the presence of the monument we have erected to his memory, Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man.

“He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country. In all his education and feeling he was an American of the Americans. He came into the Presidential chair upon one principle alone, namely, opposition to the extension of slavery.”
Douglass then refers to Lincoln’s stance toward Union first and foremost—even to the point of enforcing the existing slaws of slavery, as the president discussed to in his first inaugural address. It’s true—and it’s hard to fault Lincoln, because faced with (in his words) “the monumental issue of civil war,” he tried to avoid it. His job, first and foremost, was to protect and defend the nation, and he took a “most solemn” oath to do just that. If destroying slavery didn’t fit into the immediate plans, so be it. Douglass now understood this awesome burden of the presidency, even though it grated on him.

Douglass continued:

“You are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his step-children; children by adoption, children by forces of circumstances and necessity. … for while Abraham Lincoln saved for you a country, he delivered us from a bondage, according to Jefferson, one hour of which was worse than ages of the oppression your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose.”

Then Douglass gave a long list of complaints against Lincoln’s actions, such as overturning general officers’ military emancipation policies, support for colonization, refusal to prosecute murderers of black soldiers, etc., if only to illustrate his bigger point: That none of those complaints ultimately mattered in light of the ultimate conclusion:

“We were at times grieved, stunned, and greatly bewildered; but our hearts believed while they ached and bled. … We saw him, measured him, and estimated him; not by stray utterances to injudicious and tedious delegations, who often tried his patience; not by isolated facts torn from their connection; not by any partial and imperfect glimpses, caught at inopportune moments; but by a broad survey, in the light of the stern logic of great events, and in view of that divinity which shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will, we came to the conclusion that the hour and the man of our redemption had somehow met in the person of Abraham Lincoln.”

(This is where he pulls back and about-faces. By now, no doubt the assembled guests were squirming and murmuring over this choice of speaker. Reading Douglass’ words, I can “hear” certain people thinking such things as, “Wasn’t this occasion to honor Lincoln?” “Didn’t Douglass appreciate that his kind was free because of Lincoln?” “What is this ingratitude!”)

“It mattered little to us what language he might employ on special occasions; it mattered little to us, when we fully knew him, whether he was swift or slow in his movements; it was enough for us that Abraham Lincoln was at the head of a great movement, and was in living and earnest sympathy with that movement, which, in the nature of things, must go on until slavery should be utterly and forever abolished in the United States. …

“I have said that President Lincoln was a white man, and shared the prejudices common to his countrymen towards the colored race. Looking back to his times and to the condition of his country, we are compelled to admit that this unfriendly feeling on his part may be safely set down as one element of his wonderful success in organizing the loyal American people for the tremendous conflict before them, and bringing them safely through that conflict. His great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he must have the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow countrymen. Without this primary and essential condition to success his efforts must have been vain and utterly fruitless. Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible. Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.”
Definitely read the whole speech, because Douglass truly nailed what Abraham Lincoln really meant to the nation as a whole—white, black, Northerner and Southerner. Let me repeat the most salient part: “Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.”

And there you have it: The best summary explanation of President Lincoln’s actions in office you are bound to find.

Side note: Interestingly, John Stauffer, author of Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, criticizes Douglass for not discussing in his speech the worsening situation for blacks in the South, though he did make passing reference to “slavery and barbarism…[which] still lingers to blight and destroy in some dark and distant parts of our country.” The criticism is somewhat valid, because by that time, the nation had wearied of “waving the bloody shirt.” President Grant had wearied of fighting for Reconstruction all but alone. (Stauffer’s criticism of Grant “not caring” about blacks in the South, however, is unjust.)

Book Review

Frederick Douglass by William S. McFeely

Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Date: 1991
Rating: three and a half stars out of five

What this book is / is not

Frederick Douglass is a full-length biography of the greatest American anti-slavery leader and reformer of the 19th century. When I read and wrote this review in the early 2000s, this was the most recent scholarly biography on Douglass. It is not, however, a terribly exciting read or a as well-written as it could have been, for that matter—despite the author’s excellent research.

Main thesis

This is a full-lenghth biography that covers Douglass' entire life., and also the first major biography of Douglass to be produced in several decades.


This was the first full-length biography I read of Douglass (outside of his own Narrative) The prejudice of some of the fellow abolitionists is amazing. Some of them really were condescending, and to them Douglass was more like a novelty, or a tool, than a compatriot. But the sentiment wasn’t that widespread.

There were often tensions within anti-slavery circles, as sometimes other causes fought for equal prominence, such as worker’s rights. But as long as Douglass was on the scene, slavery and black equality was the foremost—even the only—issue.

Also, just learning things about Douglass that I hadn’t known figuratively dropped my jaw, such as some of the details of his post-war career, and his 1840s campaign in Great Britain to get the Free Church of Scotland to return all donations from Southern churches, because the money came from slavery.

Does the author succeed?

No and yes. The reasons have to do with the author’s style and presentation. See below.


The good thing about McFeely’s biography is that the author does not always accept at face value what Douglass wrote in his three autobiographies or his letters. McFeely investigates the surrounding circumstances to determine whether Douglass’ version of events matches—or seems to match—events or the motivations that Douglass assigns to various people in his life, especially Thomas Auld. It is this alertness that prevents McFeely’s work from slipping into fawning hagiography, despite his obvious admiration for his subject.

For example, he challenges Douglass’ loose facts in his curious “open letter” to Thomas Auld published in The North Star in 1850. In it he seemed to hold Auld responsible for all the evils of slavery—but wound up saying that were Auld under his roof, he would shelter him and keep him safe. McFeely corrects Douglass on facts that do not fit the paper record.

But I was extremely annoyed at McFeely’s tendency to subjectively decide what Douglass was thinking and feeling rather than using the actual paper record then speculating on possibilities. Instead of just giving us a portrait of who Douglass was according to Douglass himself and his contemporaries, with all of the enigmatic possibilities and pitfalls that go along with biography of men long-since dead, McFeely also wrote as if he knew exactly what Douglass himself was thinking and feeling—even if Douglass himself didn’t even know!

This psycho-analysis and overall approach was not helpful to understanding Douglass. For example, Douglass was a powerful speaker, and not just with his voice. He had a presence that commanded the room. In a very flowery, even haughty way, McFeely examines whether this led to his having female groupies of a more sexual nature, and he speculates that it is possible, but curiously remarks that the proper gentleman that he fashioned himself out to be just didn’t do things like that—without even speculating that Douglass wouldn’t cheat on his wife. This speculation is just one of the many frustrating things about this book. True, there is a dearth of details on Douglass’ wife, and there were rumors about Douglass and yje white English woman Julia Griffiths, but why not speculate that he remained faithful, in the absence of solid evidence otherwise?

And one thing that I really disliked about McFeely’s work is that he doesn’t let Douglass speak enough for himself. Douglass’ speeches, newspaper columns and autobiographies are not excerpted at any length, and the impressions we get of the subject come more from his contemporaries and from the historian’s interpretation than from Douglass himself. For example, Douglass’ July 5, 1852, speech is arguably his greatest. “The Meaning for the Fourth of July for the Negro” certainly ranks among the most powerful of all the speeches against slavery, and should stand with MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail or Lincoln’s second inaugural address as among the greatest in the land.

McFeely barely builds to the speech—even springing it on the reader in the middle of a discussion of his relationship with Julia Griffiths—and spends a total of one page on it. He excerpts only a small portion of speech before analyzing it. For such an important talk, you’d think that McFeely would have given much more attention than that.

It almost seems as if the author is more concerned with having his say on Douglass than letting the reader let us hear Douglass speak for himself. McFeely’s earlier work, Grant: A Biography, which won a Pulitzer Prize, is in a similar vein because McFeely leaves the reader with a terrible and grossly incorrect impression of Grant. In that work, Grant is left unable to speak for himself, either.

Finally, my ultimate criticism: I don’t feel like I got to know Douglass through this book. It’s almost as if I got to know this book about Douglass.

Main takeaway lessons

While I harshly critique McFeely's style and presentation, I don't deny, but celebrate, that his work is packed with useful information about the life of Douglass. Also, I thank McFeely profusely for truly introducing me to Frederick Douglass, who is now one of my three greatest American heroes , along with Grant and Lincoln.

If there were ever a second Mount Rushmore created, Frederick Douglass would have to be on it.

But just as modern-day civil rights leaders and white liberals would do well to heed the actual words of Martin Luther King Jr., the would equally do well to listen to Frederick Douglass before continuing to push for things like race-based quotas, affirmative action, reparations, race-based “solutions.” From Douglass’s 1865 speech, “What the Black Man Wants”:

“ ‘What shall we do with the Negro?’ I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are wormeaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! I am not for tying or fastening them on the tree in any way, except by nature's plan, and if they will not stay there, let them fall. And if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone!”

Do I recommend this book?

Yes, but only for the most serious students of Douglass. Otherwise, I’d recommend his autobiographies first. That way, Douglass’ prolific written and spoken words flow.

It’s truly sad that there are seemingly a couple of new books out every year about the Kennedys, Lincoln, the founding fathers, etc., but only one full-length biography of one of America’s greatest sons to have been published in the last 40 or so years. (I wrote this originally in 2006, before the recent and welcome deluge of Douglass books that started in 2007.)