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Frederick Douglass biographer traces the rise of a legendary abolitionist and orator


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. This week, HBO premiered a new documentary about 19th-century abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass. It features several distinguished actors reading from Douglass' speeches and his autobiographies. Here's actress Nicole Beharie reading from Douglass's 1852 speech, "What To The Slave Is The Fourth Of July?"


NICOLE BEHARIE: (Reading) What do I or those I represent have to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and natural justice embodied in that declaration extended to us? What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer a day that reveals to him more than any other days of the year the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham, your national greatness swelling vanity. Your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless, your shouts of liberty and equality hollow mock. The existence of slavery in this country brands your humanity as base pretense and your Christianity as a lie.

DAVIES: The documentary, titled "Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches," is inspired by historian David Blight's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Douglass. Today, we'll listen to some of my 2018 interview with Blight, who is a professor of history at Yale. Blight's book deals with Douglass's autobiographies, which describe his escape from slavery to freedom, but it also illuminates less well-known parts of Douglass's long and remarkable life - his break with abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, his complicated personal life, his support for and bitter feud with leaders of the women's suffrage movement and his years as a Republican Party functionary when he took patronage jobs in the government. Douglass was a powerful orator, and Blight says the most photographed person of the 19th century. Blight's book is "Frederick Douglass: Prophet Of Freedom."


DAVIES: Well, David Blight, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Tell us about Frederick Douglass's early life. Where was he born? What was his life like as a slave?

DAVID BLIGHT: Well, first, thank you, Dave. It's great to be back on FRESH AIR. Frederick Douglass was born along a horseshoe bend in the Tuckahoe River on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in 1818. It's a - kind of a remote backwater at that point of the American slave society. He was born on the Holme Hill Farm, which was owned by his then-master, Aaron Anthony. His mother was a still young woman named Harriet Bailey. He was probably born in his grandmother Betsy Bailey's cabin, although we don't know for sure, and he never will know exactly who his father was, although one candidate is Aaron Anthony himself. Douglas was always told that his father was his master or one of his masters.

So one of the facts of his youth that everyone should know is that he was, in essence, an orphan. He never knew his father, and he never saw his mother after the age of 6, and he had to practically invent images of her. He had very little memory of her. So as a child, he's essentially - not altogether abandoned, but he's left without parents. And then he grows up, for 20 years, as a slave - about 11 of them on the Eastern Shore and about nine of those years in Baltimore, which, in fact, the city has everything to do with the fact that he would ever be able to escape.

DAVIES: Right. In Baltimore, he lived among some - a lot of freed Black men - right? - and women.

BLIGHT: That's right. That's right. Baltimore was a great ocean port and a great shipbuilding city. And when - in the year he escaped, 1838, Baltimore had about 130,000 people. It was a big ocean port city. It only had about 3,000 slaves, but it had about 17,000 free blacks. It was a very large, very active, energetic, free Black community, and he grows up amidst them as well, especially amidst them. And it's there that he would have met Anna Murray, who became his first wife, probably when he was 18 or 19. He got involved in three or four different churches. He was involved in a debating society. And he had a relative freedom of movement within the city in its confines. But he also had this visual and emotional and imaginative window on the world with the ocean port, with all the great ships that would come in and out of Baltimore Harbor. And it's there that he discovered his literacy and his eventual genius with words and language. It's there where he first began to cultivate his abilities as an orator and even probably his abilities as a writer.

DAVIES: Right. He was fortunate in that Sophia Auld, who was the wife of his then-owner, started teaching him the alphabet, and he built on that and learned to read kind of in an enterprising way with other sources. How did he...


DAVIES: ...Come to escape? Can't have been easy.

BLIGHT: No, it wasn't easy. It was a brave plan. He hatched it with Anna, his fiance at the time, as well as a few other people, clearly, who were in on the planning. He got on a train in late August 1838. And by three train rides and three boat rides across rivers, he ended up in New York City in about 38 hours at the base of Chambers Street, right down in the Lower Manhattan on the Hudson River side. It was an extraordinary escape through what one might call the Underground Railroad, but he did this essentially all on his own, with Anna's help.

DAVIES: They made their way to Massachusetts. Was it New Bedford? Do I have that right?




DAVIES: And then...

BLIGHT: The whaling town.

DAVIES: Right. He works and ends up becoming quite an orator at an early age. How did that happen?

BLIGHT: Well, he'd already practiced oratory even while he was a slave, and it gave the young Douglass, the teenager, a source of power, a source of something he was good at. He was good at getting on his feet and just trying to speak. Now, he wasn't well-formed yet by any means, but when he gets to New Bedford, he's 21, 22 and 23 years old. They lived there three years. He worked down in the docks. He worked in a foundry. He did all kinds of odd jobs, but he very quickly joined the local AME Zion Church, a Black church, and within a year or so, they had him preaching. They said, this kid can preach. Put him up front. And he then learns to preach from the text, which is, of course, the Protestant tradition.

And it's there in that AME Zion Church, as well as a couple public meetings, where he gets discovered, so to speak, by the Massachusetts abolitionists who are disciples of William Lloyd Garrison. And in the late summer of 1841, they invited this very young man - he's 23 years old - out to Nantucket, to a big antislavery convention. And it was there in the athenaeum on Nantucket, where he gave his first speech to a roomful of abolitionists, a roomful of white people. In essence, he got up and told some of his stories about his youth, about being a slave, and he was a hit, a huge hit. And they hired him to then go out on the road as an itinerant lecturer across New England at first and eventually, within a year or two, all across the Northern states.

DAVIES: He eventually becomes and establishes several newspapers and, for the next 20 years, becomes an activist.

BLIGHT: Yes, for abolition. He began with - a pacifist as Garrison was. How did Frederick Douglass' views about the means to abolish slavery evolve between then and the Civil War?

BLIGHT: Yes, that's a fascinating aspect of his life because he undergoes a kind of ideological, strategic, even intellectual transformation in the late 1840s, early 1850s. I think it's the first great transformation of his public life. He also had quite a breakdown in this period. He could barely make ends meet for his family. He's trying to be the self-made man who could not provide.

But he embraced, for example, things like the possible uses of violence. And that's in the wake, one must know, of the Fugitive Slave Act, which radicalized a lot of people. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made everyone complicitous with returning fugitive slaves to their owners if they could be found. And by the - by 1851, 1852, Douglass is writing editorials with lines such as, why do slave catchers fear having their throats cut? It's because they deserve to have them cut.

He also embraced political parties vehemently. He came to see that if you don't attack the law and you don't find a way to change the power at the base of slavery, you would never destroy it. So he's moving - not only moving away from Garrison, he's moving full force into the politics of anti-slavery. It's not going to be a smooth ride by any means through the 1850s. But by '51 and '52, he's become a thoroughgoing political abolitionist, believing in political parties, believing in political activism.

And I also should say here that this moment when he does have a real emotional breakdown, he spent days at a time bedridden, even with paralytic limbs, he said. And he couldn't even work on the newspaper. It's also a period in which he wrote some of his greatest works, which has probably been true of lots of great writers. But it is certainly true of Douglass.

DAVIES: As he becomes a celebrated author and speaker, he has a wife, Anna, who...


DAVIES: ...Never learns to read and write, right? And what was that relationship like as far as...

BLIGHT: Well, over time, it became very difficult. One has to be honest about it. The man who becomes the most famous African American writer, orator, intellectual in the world was married to a woman who remained largely illiterate. She did not share his intellectual life or his professional life. Anna almost never traveled with him, and he traveled all the time as an itinerant orator. So it became, with time, a very traditional marriage.

Anna ran the house. She was a brilliant, domestic woman. But as a marriage in which he could share his intellectual curiosity and enormous ambition, that was not that kind of marriage. Douglass never wrote much of anything about Anna in his 1,200 pages of autobiography. There's one mention of his wife, Anna, and she's called my wife. He also didn't write much about his children, at least in the autobiographies. We have a lot of letters where we can get at those relationships. But Douglass did not discuss his more personal standing in his life in his many, many pages of autobiography.

DAVIES: Historian David Blight, recorded in 2018. His Pulitzer Prize-winning book is "Frederick Douglass: Prophet Of Freedom." We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're listening to my 2008 interview with historian David Blight. This week, HBO premiered a new documentary about Frederick Douglass, inspired by Blight's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, "Frederick Douglass: Prophet Of Freedom."


DAVIES: He would continue to be a great orator throughout his career. He lived until the age of 77. We have no recordings of Frederick Douglass. I imagine...


DAVIES: In all the years you spent working on this, you must have wished you could have heard him. Do you have an idea in your head of what he might have sounded like?

BLIGHT: Well, we know a lot about what he sounded like from the way people described him. He had a deep baritone, we're told. He could modulate it a lot of different ways. There are many, many written descriptions. I have lots of clippings from local newspapers around the country of people describing the first time they saw Douglass or heard Douglass, what he sounded like, what he looked like. So we know a fair amount about it, but we also know a lot about the nature of his rhetoric just from reading it.

He was terrific at this craft of starting out a speech slowly, calmly, you know, restfully, drawing an audience into some kind of situation but nothing flamboyant about it, but then slowly, but surely, working toward some kind of resolution, some kind of point, some kind of argument, some kind of moral message, and then sometimes in that last part of his speech, reaching these exuberant crescendos that would just come out of him in shouts or in roars, people would say. He had that ability of performance. And he gained that by the simple, you know, power of repetition.

But he had a performative way of delivering his oratory that people just flocked to see. In fact, I say in the book at one point that seeing and hearing Douglass became, through the course of the 19th century, a kind of American wonder of the world. If you came to America, you wanted to see Douglass speak if you could. It was that kind of an event.

DAVIES: Douglass watched the crises over slavery build towards the Civil War. He was prepared to see a war in order to see slavery ended. What was his attitude towards Abraham Lincoln? Did they have a relationship?

BLIGHT: Douglass did have a relationship with Lincoln but not until the war years. Douglass first became aware of Lincoln during the Lincoln-Douglas debates. He followed it in the newspapers. And Douglass was even out in Illinois during one or two of the debates.

DAVIES: And we should note this is not (laughter) Lincoln versus Frederick Douglass, but Stephen Douglas.

BLIGHT: No, no, no. Sorry. Stephen Douglas, yeah...

DAVIES: Right.

BLIGHT: ...For the Senate race in 1858. He became intrigued with Lincoln then. And of course, two years later, Lincoln runs for president. But their relationship was very testy at first. Douglass was one of Lincoln's most ferocious critics in the first year or year and a half of the war because the war wasn't being made against slavery. And they were even trying to return fugitive slaves. So before they ever met, Douglass had said some of the harshest things any critic of Lincoln had ever said.

DAVIES: But things changed over the course of the war? I guess...

BLIGHT: They did.

DAVIES: ...The Emancipation Proclamation was probably critical there.

BLIGHT: It was absolutely critical. Into 1862, Douglass was still hammering away at Lincoln. At one point, he called him the most powerful slave catcher in the country. But after the preliminary proclamation, September '62, and of course the final proclamation, January of '63, Douglass' tune on Lincoln greatly changed. And then especially with the recruiting of Black soldiers in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation - and Douglass got deeply involved personally in recruiting members of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Two of his own sons were members of that regiment.

He slowly but surely changes his tune about Lincoln. He comes to see the war now as a crusade led by Lincoln and the Republicans to not only save the Union but do it by destroying slavery. And he would - everywhere he got a chance to say it, he would say, freedom to the slave is freedom to the nation. Freedom to the slave is the preservation of the Union.

DAVIES: You know, when he was a young abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, like William Lloyd Garrison, didn't think the U.S. Constitution could be used to grant true equality. He came to regard it differently and saw the Civil War as a chance for, in a way, a second American revolution. And of course, the question was whether the slaves in the South would truly be given the rights of citizenship. And in 1866, he leads a delegation of blacks to meet with Andrew Johnson, who was the - who had become president after Lincoln's assassination, himself essentially a white supremacist. What happens at this meeting?

BLIGHT: It's an extraordinary meeting. And it's a debacle. Douglass leads his delegation February 1866 of about 12 Black men to the White House to meet with Johnson to talk to him about Black civil and political rights, because at that point, the nature of the reconstruction laws and the soon-to-be 14th Amendment was all up in the air. The debates were just beginning to happen in Congress, and there was Andrew Johnson, seemingly standing in the way of it all. And did he ever. They had a bitter and terrible exchange that lasted almost an hour.

Andrew Johnson gave a speech to this delegation that Douglass led, a bitter speech. He blamed Black people for the war. He told them they should really colonize themselves outside of the country; they should really leave, that political rights, especially the right to vote, was just never really going to be possible. And when Douglass tried at times to interrupt or interject, Johnson would tell him to be quiet and just listen. And they were forced basically to listen.

Douglass finally, toward the end of this meeting, got in a few lines and a few questions. He demanded the right to vote. He said the right to vote for Black people is ultimate peace and freedom to the whole country. But as they were leaving, Andrew Johnson was overheard saying - and it was recorded even in the newspaper - that Douglass, he's just like every other N-word I've ever known; he'll as soon cut your throat as anything. And Douglass overheard that. This is the president of the United States.

Douglass then went back. And with his older son, Lewis, who was at this meeting, they wrote a kind of a manifesto letter that was published denouncing Andrew Johnson and protesting. But most importantly, Douglass did what he always did. He went to his desk, and he wrote a barnburner of a speech. He called it "The Perils To The Republic." It was like - it was a speech of warning, you know, that Andrew Johnson stands in the way here of the fruition of the victories of the Civil War.

And he took that speech on the road in the summer of 1866. He's still giving it in 1867. And it has so many modern echoes today, especially the line where he says, it is all well and good. Our Constitution and our laws are all well and good when a good man is president, but what do we do with our laws and our Constitution when a bad man is president? He was, of course, referring to Andrew Johnson.

But this is - what's fascinating about that encounter is that it's at this moment of revolutionary change. And all things seemed possible about Reconstruction in the South and in the Constitution if it can be enacted, if it can be done over the veto power of the president. But it's quite an encounter, and there's really never been another meeting quite as bad (laughter) between any other president and a delegation of Black leaders.

DAVIES: Historian David Blight recorded in 2018. His Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Frederick Douglass: Prophet Of Freedom," inspired a new HBO documentary, which premiered this week. The film, which features several actors reading from Douglass' writings, is titled "Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches." We'll hear more of my interview with David Blight after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. This week, HBO premiered a new documentary about the 19th century abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass. Titled "Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches," it features several distinguished actors reading from Douglass' writings. The documentary was inspired by the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Douglass by Yale historian David Blight. We're listening to my 2018 interview with Blight. His book is "Frederick Douglass: Prophet Of Freedom."


DAVIES: Frederick Douglass is known as a real champion of women's suffrage. I think he was the...


DAVIES: Only male speaker at the Seneca Falls meeting in 1848, right?

BLIGHT: Yes. He's the only male speaker. He wasn't the only male signer of the Declaration of Sentiments at Seneca Falls, but he was the only Black person even attending it.

DAVIES: Right.

BLIGHT: He embraced women's suffrage early and often...

DAVIES: And...

BLIGHT: ...Except he got into a big problem later (laughter).

DAVIES: Well, that's what I wanted to get to.

BLIGHT: (Laughter) Right.

DAVIES: He befriended Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and in the end they had a falling-out. It was over principle.


DAVIES: What happened?

BLIGHT: Well, there were competing principles, of course. When it came time for the 15th Amendment, the voting rights amendment that passed in 1869, Douglass had a terrible falling-out with Susan Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who are the - and others but they were the two great leaders of the women's suffrage movement. And the whole debate was essentially about whether women would be included in the voting rights amendment, and they were not. And the reason, of course, was that everyone with one eye open knew that if you put women's suffrage into that amendment, it never would have passed first the Congress and certainly wouldn't have passed in the state legislatures. So Douglass took the position that, as he put it, it was the Black man's hour. And this was the one chance to get the right to vote for Black men and that, for now, women would have to once again wait.

Well, Stanton and Anthony were - had run out of patience. They weren't going to wait any longer. But the problem was they've pushed back and fought back with racist language, terribly racist language against Douglass and against Black men generally. And Douglass handled most of that as a gentleman with grace, except he also threw about some rather stereotypical claims. For example, he said, well, educated women can still have their husbands voting, and their husbands can vote their interest, which rings pretty badly on our ears today. But it was one of those moments when you had to make choices. And he took the choice of favoring the 15th Amendment 'cause it got at least Black male suffrage into the Constitution.

DAVIES: You know, he was - became committed to the Republican Party. And one of the most interesting things, I think, about the last half of your book is we see Frederick Douglass become a political insider. I mean, this...

BLIGHT: Right.

DAVIES: ...Guy who was a radical outsider, he gets patronage jobs. And the interesting thing is that as he embraces the Republican Party in the last half of the 19th century, it is a party that has essentially abandoned, you know...


DAVIES: ...The effort to grant Blacks real citizenship in the South. It is becoming increasingly the party of big business.

BLIGHT: Right.

DAVIES: You know, it's tariffs. It's free trade. It's anti-labor unions.

BLIGHT: Right. Right.

DAVIES: Does he go with all of that?

BLIGHT: He goes along with it. He never gives up on the Republican Party. It can seem like a difficult thing to explain. But his usual explanation was he had nowhere else to go politically. He used to say, you know, the Republican Party is the ship and all else is the sea. There was no other political home for Blacks. The problem was the Republican Party, as you say, moves away from enforcement of the Reconstruction Act, moves away from the Southern problem, moves away from enforcement of Black voting rights and civil rights and even moves away from enforcement against terrorist groups, for God's sake. It's a difficult thing for him, and he does levy some pretty brutal criticisms of the Republican Party over time, but it's from within the party. He always campaigned for the Republican candidate. He always said it is still the party of emancipation. It is still the party that saved the Union, and it must somehow find its way back to its creeds, even when it was pretty clear it was not. And this was, as I said, one of the disputes he has with a new generation of Black leadership who was asking, should they remain loyal to a party that no longer really speaks for their interest?

DAVIES: In 1877, after this - well, in the later years of a very long and distinguished career at which he is a very well-known and respected orator and writer, he goes to Maryland and tracks down his former master, Thomas Auld.

BLIGHT: Right.

DAVIES: What do we know of this meeting?

BLIGHT: It's an amazing meeting. Thomas Auld, Douglass believed, was on his deathbed. He turned out not to die for roughly another year. But he went back to St. Michael's in - on the Eastern Shore, the very town in which Auld had held him as a teenage slave and beaten him, by the way, and then rented him out to other, you know, slaveholders at times as a field hand. But he went back, he met Auld with great publicity. He had press in tow. We have numerous, you know, press reports of this, which is how we know a fair amount about it. And he went to Auld's bed, and they met for about 20 or 25 minutes. Douglass tells us they both shed tears. It was a kind of a meeting of epics in years. By then, Auld, of course, knew how famous Douglass was. But Douglass quite directly appears to have asked Auld, are you my father? - or in some way he asked him. He's trying to find out his birth, his paternity, his roots and so on. But Auld did not say, yes, I'm your father. Maybe he couldn't. I don't know. My own guess is that Auld is probably not his father, but that's a pure guess - educated guess, I guess.

DAVIES: And did they talk about their relationship of ownership in bondage?

BLIGHT: They did, to some degree, according to Douglass, who is our - he's his own eyewitness for this, you have to remember. Yeah, they did. And I think Douglass also brought up the fact that he had befriended Auld's children, his daughter and son, just to try to understand probably whether they were actually kin. But even more importantly on that visit, Douglass went over to Easton, Md., where he gave an incredible speech in an old Black church. And then he went out to the Tuckahoe River to the Horseshoe Bend on a cold November day, dug his hands down in the soil where he believed his grandmother, Betsy's, cabin would have stood trying to see if he could understand, where in his imagination he could find his mother in that soil, where he could find his grandmother in that soil, how he could even understand who he was. And most importantly, he was always trying to understand, how could a slave boy from that spot become who he became? How could a kid as a slave from that side of the Chesapeake, cross the Chesapeake and become this world-class orator, writer and thinker and even statesman? He was always trying to even grasp and understand his own story as he kept telling it.

DAVIES: In a speech in 1875, he got a lot of attention when he seemed to sort of condemn some charitable efforts aimed at Blacks and kind of embraced the idea of Black self-reliance. And this is something which causes modern day conservatives and even libertarians to claim him as one of their own. What was his view?

BLIGHT: Well, he early and often favored self-reliance for his fellow Black people. Virtually all Black leaders in the 19th century preached a kind of self-reliance. What else could they do in a society that either enslaved them, segregated them, defined them out of the Constitution and later on, of course, even used terror to eliminate them? So self-reliance was a matter of inevitable necessity in some ways. But what modern conservatives, as you said, especially the libertarians have done, is they've plucked out a speech from 1875, but many others too before that and after that, where Douglass would answer the question, what does the Negro want? Which was always bandied about. And his answer would be, let him alone. Leave him alone. Let him alone.

And he would say, give him fair play, which meant enforce the law, enforce his or her rights, don't kill them when they're trying to vote and so forth. But what modern conservatives have done is they plucked out pieces of rhetoric here and there, and they've said, a-ha, you see? Douglass was not only a Republican, but he believed in individualism and self-reliance and self-help, which meant he didn't advocate for government assistance and so forth.

I have to say it's a terrible misuse and appropriation of Douglass because it ignores, I would argue, 80% or 90% percent of the rest of his ideas and the rest of his life. He was not anti-government in the least. He believed in activist, interventionist use of federal power to destroy slavery, to destroy the Confederacy and to reconceive the U.S. Constitution. But it's what we do with historical figures. But it's often a rather slippery misuse of the past. He did preach self-reliance. There's no question about that. But you have to go back into that context and understand why.

DAVIES: David Blight, thanks so much for speaking with us.

BLIGHT: My pleasure. Thanks for having me, Dave.

DAVIES: Historian David Blight recorded in 2018 his Pulitzer Prize winning book, "Frederick Douglass: Prophet Of Freedom," inspired a new HBO documentary about Douglass which premiered this week. It's titled "Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches." Coming up, we remember physician and public health advocate Paul Farmer, who died Monday. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.