Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Frederick Douglass


"If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing the ground . . . Power concedes nothing without a demand." -- Frederick Douglass.

Fifteen years before the historic Lincoln-Douglas debates on the future of slavery in the U.S., another famous public debate on slavery's future occurred in Buffalo, New York in 1843 -- this one between two former slaves, Henry Highland Garnet and Frederick Douglass, before a gathering of the National Negro Convention. The question: should African-American slaves rise up in violent rebellion against their owners to bring the heinous practice to an end? Garnet lent his support to a resolution encouraging slaves to strike, violently if necessary. Douglass, however, showed his great powers as an orator and molder of opinion by convincing the assembled leaders that any such rebellion would be decisively crushed. Garnet's resolution was narrowly defeated, and Douglass emerged as a member of the front ranks of African-American political life.

As Douglass underwent a personal conversion with respect to the question of an active struggle during the 1850s, however, so would the views of his African-American constituents, and the course of history was indelibly altered.

Born around 1817 in Tuckabee, Maryland, Douglass was the son of a slave mother and an unknown white man, and was almost immediately taken away from his mother to live at another plantation as slave property. Although he suffered treatment usually only accorded to livestock (being forced to eat from a trough and enduring cold winters without adequate clothing and shelter), at the age of 8 he was selected to be a house servant, and was taught to read by the woman of the house. Douglass quickly surmised that the withholding of education from Africans was a principal instrument of the white man's domination, so he absorbed as much as he could when he could, in essence stealing an education.

In 1838, after one unsuccessful escape attempt when he was 16, he stole himself, borrowing an affidavit of freedom from an African-American sailor and settling in Massachusetts under the name "Douglass" to avoid recapture. In 1841, he gave a speech against slavery at a meeting of white abolitionists on Nantucket Island, and was instantly recognized by anti-slavery activist William Lloyd Garrison as a potentially powerful symbol for the movement. Douglass became Garrison's willing protégé, but with his charisma and superior intellect Douglass became much more than a symbol; he rose to be a leader.

His 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, was a sensation, revealing in the first person the inhumanity of the slave system as no white man could. As the leonine Douglass gained his own spotlight apart from Garrison, his views against active resistance by (and on behalf of) African-Americans began to soften. He viewed John Brown's raid as a quixotic spasm, but he predicted that Brown's execution would lead to civil war. Although white leaders on both sides cited "states' rights vs. federalism" as the central issue of the War Between the States, Douglass' voice helped to shift the debate to the human rights conflict underlying the War, and was no doubt one of the influences behind Lincoln's decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

After the Proclamation, Douglass spent much of the rest of the Civil War recruiting African-Americans to fight against the South. After the War, however, Douglass permitted himself to be used as a "token African" by the Republicans to whom he somewhat naively clung, accepting hollow federal appointments (including as consul general to Haiti) from Presidents Hayes and Garfield; yet he maintained enough independence to criticize the manipulation of newly-freed Southern African-Americans. Nevertheless, his wealth and security did eventually alienate him from the realities of the Reconstruction. He drew criticism in 1884 when, 2 years after the death of his first wife (also a former slave), he married Helen Pitts, a white woman; Douglass' reply to critics was characteristically logical and unapologetic: his first wife "was the color of my mother, and the second, the color of my father."

At the height of his powers during the 1850s, he had extraordinarily complex and consistent political views which, through his words, seasoned the consciousness of white Americans. Not only did he lend his name and support to the Seneca Falls women's suffrage convention called by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, but he was active in the temperance movement, calling the distribution of liquor by slave owners as a means of controlling slaves "one of the grossest frauds committed upon the downtrodden slaves" -- a prophetic perspective in light of the systematic exposure of African-Americans to narcotics in the 20th century.

Douglass died on February 20, 1895 in Washington, D.C.

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