The Lives of Frederick Douglass
In honor of the premiere of The Abolitionists on PBS this week, I decided to publish a very old essay of mine on Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, two of the featured characters in the film. This essay originally appeared in 2004 on my old blog, where it appeared in two parts. For this version I have made some slight changes, added a few pointers to primary sources that have since been digitized, and fixed a few broken links.
Many Americans are familiar with the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, published in 1845; it is certainly the most famous personal narrative of slavery ever written. (In 2002, the City of Baltimore sponsored a city-wide reading of the Narrative, which the mayor lauded as an “example of perseverance and determination.”) But fewer readers are aware that Douglass wrote another autobiography in 1855, entitled My Bondage and My Freedom. Probably even fewer are aware that a third autobiography was published in 1881, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.
The most notable feature of the second autobiography is that by 1855, Douglass had more “bio” to “graph.” Seventeen years had passed since his escape from slavery in Maryland, and ten years separated him from the book that made him a celebrity. In that decade, he had established himself as a lecturer on the antislavery circuit, toured Great Britain to much acclaim, received funds from British friends to purchase his freedom, and founded his own newspaper in upstate New York. My Bondage and My Freedom covers these new events as well as most of the same episodes that were in the Narrative. But these episodes in Douglass’s life as an enslaved Marylander are almost always embellished with greater detail in his second book. More detail was partly a retort to skeptics who doubted the authenticity of the Narrative. But the richer detail of the second book is even more important as an example of Douglass’s incisive and innovative thinking about the problem of slavery.
The Narrative had a mostly propagandistic function: it was intended as an exposé of slavery’s brutality. My Bondage more directly exposed Douglass’s inner experience in slavery. And it illuminated the connections between that experience and his thought. The narrative logic of the first book assumed that readers would infer antislavery conclusions from the episodes it related. The second book complicated and multiplied the possible conclusions that a reader could reach. For one thing, it corrected what some readers might have perceived in the Narrative as an antislavery argument based primarily on the poor treatment of particular slaves. My Bondage and My Freedom made more explicit what the Narrative had implied: that it was not just cruel treatment, but the idea of slavery itself that repulsed Douglass and provoked his desire to escape.
In the second book, for example, when discussing the kindness of Mrs. Auld, a Baltimore mistress who helped teach him how to read until rebuffed by her husband, Douglass emphasizes that the slave-master relationship corrupted whatever kind feelings existed between him and Auld. (Compare this and this.) Her treatment of Douglass was incidental to the problem of slavery. “Nature had made us friends,” he wrote in My Bondage, “slavery made us enemies. … It was slavery—not its mere incidents—that I hated. I had been cheated. … The feeding and clothing me well, could not atone for taking my liberty from me.” In the first place, then, My Bondage and My Freedom contains subtle but significant differences in Douglass’s recounting of his experience in “bondage.” This book was not a litany of “mere incidents”—it was a meditation on “slavery” and why Douglass hated it.
The second autobiography also extends the story of Douglass’s “bondage” into the story of his “freedom.” Douglass’s life as an abolitionist after 1845 goes a long way towards explaining why he felt a second book was needed by 1855. Today, My Bondage and My Freedom interests antislavery historians mainly for what it tells us about Douglass’s conflicted relationship with radical white abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips.
Garrison and his allies—usually known as the Garrisonians—played a crucial role in launching Douglass’s career as a professional abolitionist. Conversely, Douglass’s fame as a speaker and moral authority as a fugitive lent credibility to the Garrisonians as antislavery leaders. As Douglass recounted in both the Narrative and My Bondage and My Freedom, he was introduced to the world of Northern antislavery in the late summer of 1841, while living in New Bedford, Massachusetts and working as a day laborer. In August, at an abolitionist meeting in Nantucket, Douglass delivered a rousing speech that greatly impressed Garrison. Soon afterwards, Douglass was hired by the Garrisonian American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS) as a lecturer, and it was this association that also helped bring the Narrative into print.
Both Garrison and Phillips wrote introductory letters to the 1845 edition, vouching for its author’s credibility as well as associating themselves with this powerful new voice. And when the Narrative attracted attention and seemed likely to endanger Douglass, the Garrisonians’ contacts with British abolitionists gave Douglass an entrée into the United Kingdom, where he toured throughout 1846 addressing large audiences. But it was during this trip abroad that Douglass’s relationship with the Garrisonians began to fray around the edges, a strain that worsened in 1847 after Douglass returned home, now a legally free man who was intent on becoming his own editor.
The reasons for strain between Douglass and the Garrisonians were both personal and ideological. On a personal level, Douglass sensed a patronizing tone among many of his patrons, a mistrust of him that in many cases bordered on or crossed over into a malicious bigotry. While touring in Britain, for instance, Douglass learned that Maria Weston Chapman, a leading Boston Garrisonian, had corresponded with some of Garrison’s friends in Ireland and warned them to keep an eye on Douglass’s management of his money. Incensed by this and other letters, Douglass wrote an anguished reply to Chapman that foreshadowed his eventual break with the AASS.
But those personal conflicts cannot be separated from the ideological disagreements that increasingly divided Douglass from the Garrisonians—disagreements about the wisdom of “buying” slaves in order to free them, for instance, or about the position of the Constitution on the issue of slavery. At any rate, by the early 1850s, both faultlines—the personal as well as the principled—had opened into a complete fracture, with both parties sniping at each other and crying foul. Douglass repudiated the Garrisonians; the Garrisonians likewise repudiated Douglass. These new circumstances, in Douglass’s mind, called for a new autobiography, and My Bondage and My Freedom was the result.
Many scholars rightly blame this fracture partly on the persistence of racial prejudice among white Garrisonians, which explains why some of them (like Chapman) treated Douglass with a condescending paternalism. Many Garrisonians failed to see past “Douglass the Fugitive” to Frederick Douglass himself. For example, in My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass recalled that at the Nantucket meeting, Garrison followed Douglass’s speech with one of his own, “taking me as his text.” This was a revealing aside. In the early years of their acquaintance, white Garrisonians often referred to Douglass as if he were mainly a Walking Counterexample, a living rebuttal to the argument that black people were degraded by nature. His life was first and foremost a “text” to which they could turn for proof that former slaves could “rise,” just as the Narrative was a text they could use to prove the cruelty of Southern bondage.
This was a strategy whose intention was to combat Northern racial prejudice rather than to condone it. But it was understandable when Douglass lost patience with constantly being gestured at, rather than being freed to gesture in whatever direction he chose. Moreover, in driving the point home that Douglass had risen from degradation to dignity, the Garrisonians often lingered a little too long on the degradation and not as long on the dignity. In early 1842, while introducing Douglass to an antislavery meeting at Faneuil Hall in Boston, Garrison said, “It is recorded in holy writ, that a beast once spoke. A greater miracle is here to-night. A chattel becomes a man.”
Such analogies—which seem to suggest that Douglass’s transformation from slave into orator was as miraculous as Balaam’s donkey learning to speak—are rightly galling to our ears. But it is possible to exaggerate the extent to which they were galling then, even to some black abolitionists. In his early years as an abolitionist, Douglass also used himself as an example of the extraordinary transformation from chattel-hood to manhood that only freedom could effect. In My Bondage and My Freedom, he excerpted a letter that he wrote to Garrison shortly after he set foot on British soil, where legal proscriptions and social discrimination against free blacks were less pronounced than in the Northern states. “I breathe,” Douglass exulted, “and lo! the chattel becomes a man.”
Douglass and many other black abolitionists used such masculine language to imagine the passage from slavery to freedom as a passage from childishness and ignorance into manliness and respectability. Statements like theirs and Garrison’s were rhetorically strategic: they confronted the terrible fact that Southern slaves were legally bought and sold as if they were beasts of burden. In antebellum newspapers, advertisements announcing rewards for the return of fugitive slaves were routinely printed directly adjacent to advertisements that announced rewards for the return of runaway horses. Given such pervasive visual iconography, it was radically subversive to suggest that Douglass had been changed from a “chattel” to a “man.”
In short, Douglass’s breach with the Garrisonians had less to do than one might think with the fact that they viewed black abolitionists as respectable and black slaves as degraded. Douglass himself held the same view. Rather, what bothered Douglass was the way that Garrisonians expected Douglass to play the role of the degraded slave, to straddle the chasm they both saw between bondage and freedom. For example, white Garrisonians often advised Douglass not to be quite so eloquent, fearing that Douglass’s excellence on the platform would give ammunition to skeptics who doubted that he had ever been a slave. And since they viewed Douglass’s life as a propagandistic “text,” they encouraged him to stick to the story. In My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass singled out this kind of advice as insulting, constraining, and above all, boring:
During the first three or four months, my speeches were almost exclusively made up of narrations of my own personal experience as a slave. ‘Let us have the facts,’ said the people. So also said Friend George Foster, who always wished to pin me down to my simple narrative. ‘Give us the facts,’ said Collins, ‘we will take care of the philosophy.’ Just here arose some embarrassment. It was impossible for me to repeat the same old story month after month, and to keep up my interest in it. It was new to the people, it is true, but it was an old story to me; and to go through with it night after nights, was a task altogether too mechanical for my nature. ‘Tell your story, Frederick,’ would whisper my then revered friend, William Lloyd Garrison, as I stepped upon the platform. I could not always obey, for I was now reading and thinking. New views of the subject were presented to my mind. It did not entirely satisfy me to narrate wrongs; I felt like denouncing them.
That last line can be read as a thinly veiled critique of the Narrative itself and an apologia for its sequel. It was also an indictment of the Garrisonians’ attempts to direct his life story in the way they saw fit. There certainly were elements of racial prejudice in some of these efforts to “pin” Douglass to his Narrative. But there is still much ambiguity on this point. Since many freed people took new surnames as signs of their independence—Douglass changed his from “Bailey” to “Douglass”—we may be meant to see Garrison’s whispering to him as “Frederick” as an insult. Yet it might equally be seen as evidence of the real intimacy and friendship that existed between Garrison and Douglass prior to their parting of the ways.
Racial prejudice, at least, was the interpretation offered by James McCune Smith, the black abolitionist and medical doctor who wrote the preface to My Bondage and My Freedom, assuming the role that Garrison and Phillips had claimed in the Narrative. Such gentlemen, Smith said,
although proud of Frederick Douglass, failed to fathom, and bring out to the light of day, the highest qualities of his mind; the force of their own education stood in their own way: they did not delve into the mind of a colored man for capacities which the pride of race led them to believe to be restricted to their own Saxon blood. Bitter and vindictive sarcasm, irresistible mimicry, and a pathetic narrative of his own experiences of slavery, were the intellectual manifestations which they encouraged him to exhibit on the platform or in the lecture desk.
It is also accurate to say, however, that Douglass’s growing dissatisfaction with the white Garrisonians had as much to do with his pride in respectability as it did with their “pride of race.” As Douglass read and thought, he understood himself to be moving farther and farther away from his former life on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The white abolitionists’ advice to adopt the persona of Frederick Bailey seemed like an attempt to deprive him of what he understood as “freedom”—the freedom not to act in what he perceived to be a “slavish” way. In short, although race was at issue in the breach between Douglass and the Garrisonians, so was respectability: Douglass did not disagree that “freedom” meant the education and uplift of black Americans. He too believed, with them, that escaping slavery meant elevating oneself from a degraded state. What he disliked was the way they encouraged him to mimic that former state.
Personal conflict with white Garrisonians, then, was one seed of which the fruit was Douglass’s second book. The roots of that personal conflict were entangled with weeds of racial prejudice that sprung up even in the soil of radical white abolitionism. But there were other seeds of discontent sown between Douglass and his former friends, and their eventual rift also had to do with severe doctrinal disagreements.
Garrison and Douglass each needed the other for their joint movement to grow. As James McCune Smith put it in the introduction to Douglass’s second autobiography, “It is not too much to say, that he formed a complement which [the Garrisonians] needed, and they were a complement equally necessary to his ‘make-up.’”
Yet by the time My Bondage and My Freedom was published in 1855, both complements and compliments had given way to open conflict between Douglass and the Garrisonians. As we have seen, part of the blame belongs to the persistence of racial prejudice among some white Garrisonians—a condescension of which Douglass became acutely aware while he toured Great Britain in 1846. Yet prejudice alone does not explain the rift between Douglass and his former friends.
Nor should we patronize Douglass with the condescension of posterity by assuming that he was but a passive victim, who played no active role in the rift. As McCune Smith also suggested in his foreword to My Bondage and My Freedom, one of Douglass’s own personality traits may have been an extreme sensitivity to any hint of patronization—a trait that certainly would have been understandable in a man with his history and in his circumstances. “The same strong self-hood,” wrote Smith, “which led him to measure strength with Mr. Covey,” (the slave driver immortalized by the famous fight scene in Douglass’ Narrative) “and to wrench himself from the embrace of the Garrisonians, and which has borne him through many resistances to the personal indignities offered him as a colored man, sometimes becomes a hyper-sensitiveness to such assaults as men of his mark will meet with, on paper.”
It may be impossible, however, to judge finally whether Garrisonians’ insensitivity or Douglass’s sensitiveness was most to blame for the complex personal friction between the two parties. What is clear is that the friction only encouraged Douglass’s desire for independence. And however justified or understandable that desire might have been, it is also clear that Douglass framed his break with the Garrisonians in the most provocative of ways by publishing My Bondage and My Freedom. The title itself was edgy. It claimed Douglass’s narrative, his life, as his own property: “My Bondage and My Freedom.” In the introduction, Smith’s implicit comparison between Covey and the Garrisonians also suggested that Douglass’s “Freedom” from Southern “Bondage” would not be the book’s only plot. The book would also conclude by framing Douglass’s relationship with the Garrisonians as itself a kind of “Bondage,” and his decision to found his own newspaper in Rochester as a new birth of “Freedom.”
Sparks flew in the closing chapter of the book, when Douglass recounted the objections that many Garrisonians had to his newspaper. These objections were interpreted by Douglass as accusations that he was “ambitious and presumptuous.” Such words certainly had not been unknown in Garrisonian circles when the subject of Douglass’s new venture came up. Although he tried hard to convince his former allies that he knew what he was doing, Douglass wrote that he was “not sure that I was not under the influence of something like a slavish adoration of my Boston friends.” Douglass knew that the Bostonians would be pricked by the word “slavish,” no matter how carefully it was swaddled in awkward syntax (the double negative that began the sentence) and qualifications (“something like” … “adoration” … “friends”). The inflammatory word was “slavish.” And in the years after 1855, Douglass fanned the flame. In an 1857 speech, he declared:
I know, my friends, that in some quarters the efforts of colored people meet with very little encouragement. We may fight, but we must fight like the Sepoys of India, under white officers. This class of Abolitionists don’t like colored celebrations, they don’t like colored conventions, they don’t like colored Anti-Slavery fairs for the support of colored newspapers. They don’t like any demonstrations whatever in which colored men take a leading part. They talk of the proud Anglo-Saxon blood, as flippantly as those who profess to believe in the natural inferiority of races. Your humble speaker has been branded as an ingrate, because he has ventured to stand up on his own right, and to plead our common cause as a colored man, rather than as a Garrisonian. I hold it to be no part of gratitude to allow our white friends to do all the work, while we merely hold their coats. Opposition of the sort now referred to, is partisan opposition, and we need not mind it.
Comparing Garrisonians to the colonial officers of the British empire? These were strong words indeed, especially when one considers that they were uttered in the year of the “Sepoy Mutiny” in India. But Douglass’s 1857 speech also brings us to a second important dimension of the Garrisonian rift, for it suggests that the break had to do not only with personal offense, but also with “partisan opposition.” Douglass’s break occurred at the same time that the antislavery movement as a whole was fracturing, and not just along faultlines dividing white and black reformers.
In the 1840s, many white abolitionists, like Gerrit Smith, James Birney, and Lewis Tappan, increasingly disagreed with the Garrisonians about major strategic and dogmatic issues, like the question of whether violence could be used in the service of antislavery goals. Many black abolitionists also broke with Garrisonians on precisely this issue. Another major disagreement revolved around the Garrisonians’ opposition to forming political parties to run antislavery candidates for local and national offices. Some Garrisonians opposed politics because they were near-anarchists who believed that all human governments were sinfully coercive. A larger number opposed antislavery parties because they believed the Constitution itself was a proslavery document, a “covenant with death” as Garrison put it. Any political action within the existing framework—even voting, according to some—was corrupted before it began. Beginning in 1842, Garrison and many of his supporters carried this logic to its fullest extreme by calling for “disunion” between the North and the South.
In 1854, a year before My Bondage and My Freedom was published, Garrison dramatized the radicalism of these positions by publicly burning a copy of the Constitution at a Fourth of July picnic for abolitionists. Long before that act, however, Douglass had already dissociated himself from such incendiary views. Against the Garrisonians, he agreed with Gerrit Smith and others that the Constitution was not necessarily proslavery, but had only been made so by misinterpretation. He believed that political action was not only justified on behalf of abolition, but positively required if it could be effective. In My Bondage, Douglass spelled out his change of opinion on these subjects. Even after he had moved to Rochester to start his new paper, Douglass continued to be “on the anti-slavery question, a faithful disciple of William Lloyd Garrison, and fully committed to his doctrine touching the pro-slavery character of the United States, and the non-voting principle.” But in 1851, following the passage of an even more stringent Fugitive Slave Law by Congress, Douglass “became convinced that there was no necessity for dissolving” the Union, and “that to abstain from voting, was to refuse to exercise a legitimate and powerful means for abolishing slavery.” Douglass also concluded that the Constitution, far from being a pact with the devil, as Garrison called it, was “an anti-slavery instrument.”
These conclusions placed Douglass firmly on the side of the Garrisonians’ opponents within the antislavery movement, and they reopened the wounds of earlier schisms. Douglass’s close friendship with McCune Smith and Gerrit Smith and his complicated relationship with John Brown (see this book) made the wound wider. By 1853, Garrison wrote to his friend, Samuel J. May, that “with Douglass, the die seems to be cast. I lament the schism, but it is unavoidable.” It was made unavoidable partly by Douglass’s commitment to positions on which Garrison could admit no compromise. And as the years wore on, the wounds only festered. By 1860 Garrison wrote in another letter to May that Douglass’s plans to be at an upcoming meeting “powerfully repel me from attending. I regard him as thoroughly base and selfish, and I know that his hostility to the American Anti-Slavery Society and its leading advocates is unmitigated and unceasing. … In fact, he reveals himself more and more to me as destitute of every principle of honor, ungrateful to the last degree, and malevolent in spirit. He is not worthy of respect, confidence, or countenance.”
Garrison is notorious for his unflinching positions, and his tendency to impute false motives to anyone who disagreed with him. In that sense, he was an equal opportunity offender. His public reproaches of white enemies within the movement could be as harsh as those that he uttered privately against Douglass in 1860. So what should we make of such hard words?
We might turn again to what Douglass made of them in the concluding pages of My Bondage and My Freedom.
Here was a radical change in my opinions, and in the action logically resulting from that change. To those with whom I had been in agreement and in sympathy, I was now in opposition. What they held to be a great and important truth, I now looked upon as a dangerous error. A very painful, and yet a very natural, thing now happened. Those who could not see any honest reasons for changing their views, as I had done, could not easily see any such reasons for my change, and the common punishment of apostates was mine.
Douglass’s statement might seem to settle the issue, except that it ultimately opens up the same questions with which we began about how to explain the rift between Douglass and the Garrisonians? Were the causes as simple as racism among white abolitionists? Or did Garrisonians prove that they thought of Douglass as equal to their white opponents by dignifying him with “the common punishment” that they meted to all “apostates”? The question remains a fascinating one, even today, precisely because it is difficult to answer.1