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Thursday, April 2, 2009

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.)

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