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Frederick Douglass (September 2018): Biographies

By Duncan R. Jamieson


Four contemporaries wrote biographies of Douglass. James M. Gregory, Professor of Latin at Howard University, wrote Frederick Douglass the Orator, highlighting his brilliant career as an orator. Unitarian clergyman and author Frederick May Holland wrote Frederick Douglass: The Colored Orator to vindicate Douglass for his socialist views and his involvement with John Brown. Holland based his narrative on interviews with Douglass and his son at their Rochester, New York, home. Though remembered as the first African American novelist of note, lawyer and political activist Charles Chesnutt wrote Frederick Douglass, a biography lavish in its praise. The first book by and about an African American in the “Beacon Biographies of Eminent Americans” series (Small, Maynard & Company), Chesnutt’s biography viewed Douglass as a true American hero with impeccable character who brought immeasurable benefit to African Americans.

Booker T. Washington was nine when slavery ended. Like Douglass he devoted his life to African American uplift. He is best remembered for his address at the Cotton States and International Exposition, where he suggested whites and blacks could be equal in all things economic while separate in all things social. His eponymous biography drew on reminiscences of S. Laing Williams, a long-time close associate of Douglass. Washington concentrates on Douglass’s public career during the height of the anti-slavery movement, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the beginnings of the Jim Crow era, with only a glance at his private life. This volume is a part of the “American Crisis” series of biographies.

Douglass didn’t resurface until the early years of the civil rights revolution when Shirley Graham Du Bois, the second wife of civil rights activist W. E. B. DuBois, wrote There Was Once a Slave: The Historic Story of Frederick Douglass. Dodge focuses on those with whom he associated in the United States and across the Atlantic, and the part he played in freedom’s cause. Her biography received the Julian Messner award for combating intolerance in America. Next, the distinguished African American historian Benjamin Quarles wrote what became a pioneering biography. In Frederick Douglass he contends that the greatest contribution Douglass made in his antebellum activity was to bring whites into the abolitionist cause. The newer edition includes an introduction by James McPherson, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Civil War historian.

The author of Frederick Douglass: A Biography, Marxist historian Philip S. Foner helped establish African American history as a recognized subset of American history. As a fervent integrationist, Douglass labored for equality for all. At the zenith of the Civil Rights Movement, some described Douglass as the first Freedom Rider and the first sit-in activist. Abraham Lincoln, Foner wrote, described Douglass as “the most memorable person I have ever seen.” Along with Quarles, Foner helped rescue Douglass from obscurity. The next biography of importance, Slave and Citizen: The Life of Frederick Douglass, comes from Nathan I. Huggins, W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of History and Afro-American Studies at Harvard University. In this volume in the Library of American Biography, Huggins details Douglass’s life as a fugitive slave, an abolitionist, and a diplomat who sought freedom and human rights for all.

This reviewer’s mentor at Michigan State University, intellectual historian Douglas T. Miller, is the author of Frederick Douglass and the Fight for Freedom, a volume in the “Makers of America” series. Miller traces the life of Douglass from escaped slave to persuasive editor, writer, and orator, examining Douglass’s connection with the abolitionist John Brown. Historian William S. McFeely’s Frederick Douglass won the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize in 1992. McFeely builds on the Quarles biography, exposing many of the myths Douglass put forward in his autobiographies. For example, despite his contempt for the working class, Douglass remained totally devoted to the dignity and equality of all. In Frederick Douglass: Reformer and Statesman, L. Diane Barnes, associate professor of history at Youngstown State University, Ohio, places Douglass in the broader context of American history. She views him as the most prominent African American activist in the nineteenth century. In the edited work Douglass in His Own Time, John Ernest (English, University of Delaware) introduces Douglass through the public and private writings of those who knew him. Ernest demonstrates Douglass’s oral and written abilities, his presence in front of crowds, and his ability to express his belief in social justice. Robert S. Levine, Distinguished Professor (of English) at the University of Maryland, authored The Lives of Frederick Douglass, a biography of Douglass’s autobiographies. Levine details Douglass the social reformer, orator, and writer. He is especially interested in the interactions between Douglass and those who influenced his life: Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, William Lloyd Garrison, and Douglass’s former master Thomas Auld.

The most recent biography is by attorney and Cato Institute adjunct scholar Timothy Sandefur. Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man is built around his most popular lecture, “Self-Made Men.” The sanctity of the individual guided Douglass’s every action. He emphasized the importance of honor, integrity, and affection as fundamental to enduring success.

Two biographies bookend Frederick Douglass’s life. The New York Review of Books described Dickson J. Preston’s Young Frederick Douglass: The Maryland Years as “a model of historiographic detective work … this engaging study reveals some things about Douglass’s background that he did not know himself.” Through local documents and sources and Douglass’s family roots, Preston reveals those aspects of his formative years that laid the foundation for his later fame and accomplishments. The latest edition includes a new forward by Douglass scholar David W. Blight. John Muller, librarian, journalist, and local activist, has written Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia. Involved in local politics, instrumental in the formation of Howard University, and District of Columbia marshal, Douglass lived his last eighteen years at Cedar Hill, pursuing to his death his twin passions for African American and women’s rights.