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date: 16 June 2024

Douglass, Frederickfree

Douglass, Frederickfree

  • Mark Richardson


  • North American Literatures

Any writer attempting an overview of Frederick Douglass's life and work confronts an embarrassment of riches: Douglass himself undertook the task not once but three times—in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself (1881), a volume itself reprinted with additional material in 1892. Each book is rewarding in its own right, each sums up a distinct phase in Douglass's long and astonishingly productive career, and together they give us an indispensable record of the nineteenth century: of the abolition movement; the meteoric rise of the Republican Party; the Civil War, Reconstruction; and beginning in the mid-1870s, the bitter forfeiture of the great emancipating enterprise that the better angels of our nature (as Lincoln might have said) have always held in view.

The reader of Douglass's autobiographies will necessarily become acquainted with the details of his eventful life, so it will do here to give only the barest outline. Douglass was born a slave in February 1818 on Maryland's eastern shore, the son of a white man named Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, whom he never knew, and Harriet Bailey, a slave. He labored for his white owner, or for members of that man's family, on a series of farms in Maryland, and also in the city of Baltimore, where he taught himself to read and first resolved, someday, to make himself free. In 1838, using documents he had forged to secure safe passage, Douglass escaped to Philadelphia and then to New York City, where he was joined by his fiancée—a free black native of Baltimore, Anna Murray—whom he then married. The couple settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and started a family. Douglass sought work as a caulker, a trade he had learned in Baltimore, and soon found himself drawn into the abolition movement, of which William Lloyd Garrison was then the leading light. From 1841 to 1847 he worked with the Garrisonians, both in America and in the United Kingdom, before settling in Rochester, New York, where he inaugurated his own paper, The North Star (later Frederick Douglass's Paper). There, he joined in the work of the antislavery Liberty Party, which had been founded by a New York State landholder named Gerrit Smith. After the Civil War, he relocated to Washington, D.C., and became an important figure in the Republican Party, holding such appointments as U.S. marshall for the District of Columbia and recorder of deeds. He campaigned tirelessly in every major election from 1868 to 1892, and served as consul general to Haiti from 1889 to 1891. On 20 February 1895, Douglass died at his house in Washington, which he had named Cedar Hill and which is maintained by the National Park Service.

The Abolition Movement

We can distinguish several important schools of antislavery thought in the period extending from the American Revolution to the Civil War, in two of which Frederick Douglass was a major figure. Thomas Jefferson's generation had, of course, looked vaguely forward to the gradual abolition of slavery, if by no other means than by the work of Almighty God. Proslavery sentiment was not, then, the rule in the South, and opposition to the institution, on moral grounds, was spread fairly evenly throughout the new nation. Obviously, no coherent program of action follows from the hope that slavery shall, simply, evanesce. But in conjunction with the idea of gradual emancipation arose various colonization schemes that sought to repatriate slaves, and in some cases, free persons of color to Africa, or as was sometimes suggested, to Haiti or some other Caribbean nation. Colonization, although never practical, enjoyed a vogue in the early decades of the nineteenth century, and persisted even into the middle years of the Civil War; among its legacies is the West African nation of Liberia.

Against both colonization schemes and gradualism arose the Garrisonian school, named for its founder and animating force, William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison called for immediate and unconditional emancipation, a doctrine he propounded through The Liberator, the weekly antislavery paper he published in Boston beginning in 1831. Immediacy was not the only novel element in his abolitionism; he also demanded full citizenship rights for black Americans. And with Garrison's appearance, the character of the antislavery movement forever changed.

Garrison refined his doctrine over the course of the 1830s. In August 1831 Nat Turner led an insurrection among slaves in Southampton, Virginia. More than fifty whites died in the fighting, and more than a hundred blacks. Virginia authorities called on the federal government, under the terms of the Constitution, to assist it in suppressing the rebellion. For this reason, and because the Constitution obliged states where slavery did not exist to return fugitive slaves to their owners, Garrison concluded that the Constitution was, both in theory and in practice, a “proslavery” instrument. It took some years for the new thinking to settle out, but here was the beginning of Garrisonian “disunionism”: the call for the dissolution of the union, and for nonparticipation in its electoral politics. By 1842 the masthead of each number of The Liberator bore this unequivocal banner: “THE UNITED STATES CONSTITUTION IS A COVENANT WITH DEATH AND AN AGREEMENT WITH HELL! NO UNION WITH SLAVEHOLDERS!” With that, Garrisonian doctrine had matured, and here it would remain until war came in April 1861.

Garrison and his adherents traveled from Maine to Illinois, and beyond. They held rallies; debated their opponents, both within and without the wider abolition movement; distributed pamphlets, books, newspapers; raised money; and, on occasion, ritually burned copies of the U.S. Constitution in town squares. This is the movement Frederick Douglass entered with such force in 1841, and within months he was its most popular orator. His first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, appeared in 1845 with a preface by Garrison; advertisements for it ran in the pages of The Liberator; it was published out of the same office in Cornhill Street, Boston, that printed Garrison's weekly; and the closing paragraphs of the book take special pains to extol the newspaper. Douglass's debt to the Garrisonians is evident in the Narrative from beginning to end.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

Douglass wrote his Narrative, despite the fact that it would expose him to danger, for reasons later set out in My Bondage and My Freedom: “People doubted if I had ever been a slave. They said I did not talk like a slave, look like a slave, nor act like a slave, and that they believed I had never been south of Mason and Dixon's line.” Accordingly, Douglass “wrote out the leading facts” connected with his experience, and thus “put it in the power of any who doubted, to ascertain the truth or falsehood” of his story. In an address before the 12th Annual Convention of the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York City on 6 May 1845, Douglass for the first time publicly identified by name his master, overseer, and a number of other men and women who figure in the Narrative. The book was published within a few days and in August he set sail for England. While abroad, Douglass continued his energetic schedule of lectures, traveling throughout the United Kingdom. His fundraising efforts on behalf of abolitionist organizations were richly rewarded, and in addition, British supporters of Douglass raised $711.66 to purchase his freedom from his Maryland master and thereby put him out of danger of recapture on his return to the United States in 1847.

The prose of this first and briefest of Douglass's three autobiographies is brisk and relatively unadorned. Although it is chiefly narrative in character rather than argumentative, a withering analysis of slavery nonetheless emerges from its pages. Slavery, as Douglass represents it, degrades slave and slaveholder alike. It puts all men out of temper, so to speak—sets the passions over reason, and the body, with all its unruly appetites, over the soul. Quite literally, slavery forces men a few steps down what Garrison, in his preface, calls “the scale of humanity”—down toward the “beasts” and away from the “angels.” Slavery brutalizes men. For that reason alone, if for no others, it is contrary to the whole tendency of enlightenment and progress. So poisonous is the institution in this regard that the only sure recourse left to those who would oppose it is the severance of all ties that bind together slaveholding and nonslaveholding sections of the union: if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off. Douglass's Narrative perfectly supports the exhilarating, but impractical, call to break apart the nation and purify New England of complicity with sin. He would—to borrow a phrase from Wendell Phillips's letter congratulating him on the publication of the book—consecrate anew the sacred soil of the Pilgrims. The Narrative, in Garrisonian fashion, invites not so much the extension and perfection of the American political experiment as a redemptive negation of that experiment, which, for the Garrisonians, had in any event done nothing but compromise, in the most worldly and decadent ways, the original Puritan errand into the wilderness.

My Bondage and My Freedom

Douglass's first autobiography was in all respects a smashing success. By 1849 it had gone through two editions in the United States and three in Great Britain. Why, then, did Douglass publish a second autobiography in 1855? The question is the more intriguing because only seven percent of the new book, by word count, covers ground not traversed in the Narrative; therefore, My Bondage and My Freedom is hardly a supplement to the earlier book and is not by any means its mere continuation. It is instead a radical revision. Moreover, in The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881), the portion of the book devoted to the period through 1855 remains materially unchanged from My Bondage and My Freedom. There can be little doubt that the latter is Douglass's definitive account of himself although, regrettably, it is the earlier, shorter, more Garrisonian, and less politically complex text that is generally taught.

Having examined the Garrisonian school with which Douglass's first book is so intimately associated, we should, before turning to My Bondage and My Freedom, take account of the competing school of political abolitionism. This movement got its start in New York State around the small but influential Liberty Party, whose central figure and financial backer was the philanthropist Gerrit Smith. Smith and the Liberty Party maintained, against the Garrisonians, that the Constitution was antislavery in spirit, notwithstanding the clauses therein that provide for the return of fugitives, for the qualified protection of the slave trade, and for the use of federal power in suppressing insurrection. This position was dubious as a reading of the Constitution. But when put into practice it allowed, as Garrisonian disunionism did not, for the vigorous pursuit, through electoral politics, of a policy of abolition; it held out the productive promise of perfecting the Constitution, a possibility in harmony with the general tendency of American political development. Douglass had begun his drift toward political abolition in the late 1840s. The move was complete in 1851, when he merged his paper, The North Star, with the Liberty Party Paper and accepted financial backing from Smith in the new enterprise. When My Bondage and My Freedom appeared four years later, published by a firm in western New York State, the stronghold of political abolition, it bore a dedication to “Honorable Gerrit Smith as a slight token of esteem for his character, admiration for his genius and benevolence,” and in gratitude for his “ranking slavery with piracy and murder,” and for “denying it either a legal or constitutional existence” (Autobiographies, p. 104). The break with Garrison was irrevocable, and Douglass was castigated in the Garrisonian press, often in tawdry ways, as an apostate who had allowed himself to be “bought out” by Gerrit Smith.

The reader of My Bondage and My Freedom soon discovers that Douglass's apprenticeship to the Garrisonians had not been entirely to his liking. In an account of his watershed inaugural appearance on the podium in 1841, there appears a telling remark. After Douglass spoke, we are told, Garrison “took [him] as his text.” The metaphor is homiletic. Douglass is the text on which Garrison's sermon is based; he is the “matter,” Garrison the expositor; he is the body, Garrison the mind; he is the storyteller, Garrison the interpreter; he deals in facts, Garrison in theory. This, anyway, is the idea, and in it we see intimated the more patronizing features of Garrison's patronage. John Collins, a confederate of Garrison, accompanied Douglass on his first lecture tour, and in introducing him, inevitably called him “a graduate from the peculiar institution” with “his diploma written on [his] back.” Douglass's body was, for the Garrisonians, the originating site of his writing; his scars, and not his words and thoughts, authenticated him. “I was,” Douglass reports, “generally introduced as a ‘chattel’—a ‘thing’—a piece of southern ‘property’—the chairman assuring the audience that it could speak.” “Let us have the facts,” the people told Douglass. So also said George Foster, another Garrisonian, when he tried to “pin” Douglass down to a “simple narrative.” Or again: “Give us the facts,” John Collins would say, “we will take care of the philosophy.” It was not necessarily gratifying to be “taken as a text” for the expounding of other men, or to be pinned down to mere storytelling. Douglass began to feel that he was being discouraged, at least implicitly, from thinking too much. His office, essentially, was to show himself, and to obey.

To be sure, Douglass was on display when he mounted the stage in a way that neither Collins nor Foster nor Garrison, nor any of the white abolitionists, ever was: his black body was the matter, not his mind. Collins enjoins Douglass to “be himself” and “tell his story,” but this may really mean: put on blackface, be a white man's idea of what a black man truly is; otherwise (so goes the unstated argument), no white man will recognize you; to a white audience you will be, and in the most literal sense of the word, “incredible.” The abolitionist lecture hall becomes a theater for the staging of a singularly highbrow sort of minstrel show, with the familiar—and deeply sympathetic, to white hearts and minds—“plantation darkey,” the sort of black man with whom these white northerners could most be at ease. “It was said to me,” writes Douglass, “better have a little of the plantation manner of speech than not; ‘tis not best that you seem too learned.”

Who, then, shall best represent the slave? The question has both political and literary implications, and it was to address both that Douglass wrote My Bondage and My Freedom. In it he would lay claim to the main and most productive tradition in American politics, thereby breaking out of the confinements of Garrisonian doctrine He would appear, in its pages, not chiefly as a black man, and certainly not as a sentimental plantation darkey in contemplation of whom white women might weep, but as, in the words of James McCune Smith's fine introduction to the first edition of the book, the “Representative American man”—as, in fact, the very “type” of his countrymen. This required that any trace of the deference he shows in the Narrative with respect to the Garrisonians be expunged, the better that he might emerge from behind the mask of white patronage. Instead of authenticating prefaces and letters from white eminences, there appears in My Bondage the introduction just quoted, written by a black, Edinburgh-trained physician, James McCune Smith. And he puts the matter unforgettably: “The same strong self-hood” that led Douglass “to measure strength with Mr. Covey,” the “Negro-breaker” whom Douglass challenged and humiliated while still in his teens, led him to “wrench himself from the embrace of the Garrisonians.”

Douglass's “Philosophy” of Slavery

But what of Douglass's philosophy? Douglass takes the view—authorized, if any authority is needed, by the Declaration of Independence—that the will to be free is in fact “an inborn dream” of “human nature,” and thus a “constant menace to slavery” that “all the powers of slavery” are “unable to silence or extinguish.” Slavery, then, can never relax; it is an institution most “unnatural,” whose price is eternal vigilance. Elsewhere, Douglass likens it to a temperamental and delicate machine, which requires “conductors or safety valves”—for example, the “holiday” permitted slaves at the turn of the New Year—“to carry off explosive elements inseparable from the human mind, when reduced to the condition of slavery.” Men and women have to be taught to be slaves and masters. Slavery requires “learned” habits of mind and bearing, of which children are born “naturally” free. “The equality of nature,” Douglass says, “is strongly asserted in childhood.” Young boys, he says, feel a hatred of slavery that “springs from nature, unseared and unperverted.” Nature, in fact, does “almost nothing to prepare men and women to be either slaves or slaveholders.” At such moments Douglass advances what might be termed a romantic, or Rousseauian, argument: social institutions—in this case, slavery—deform us, pervert our native inclination to charity, loving kindness, and fair play. Left in a state of nature, we would all be noble (and democratic) savages. To the hoary question, “Does ‘civilization’ distort or complement human ‘nature’?” he appears to answer: “The former, not the latter.” Dispense with slavery, then, and all will be well, or anyway well enough.

But the ignoble cruelty of slavery as it developed in North America seems to require a more worldly explanation of our inhumanity—a bleaker, less reassuring one; and this, too, emerges in Douglass's narrative. “Inborn” to us, as well as a love of freedom, is a will to power that has markedly cruel features. Douglass's master, we are told, could commit “outrages, deep, dark and nameless.” These outrages, as we know from facts soon narrated, are at once erotic and violent; they are nothing less than sadistic. But lest we see in him a monster, Douglass assures us that Captain Anthony “was not by nature worse than other men,” any one of whom, we are left to conclude, is therefore quite “naturally” capable of binding a beautiful young woman to a ceiling joist with her upraised hands, stripping her to the waist, and after “shocking preliminaries,” and to the accompaniment of “tantalizing epithets,” no doubt lewd in nature, lashing her almost to the point of death, all the while taking “delight” in the prospect. Such is inborn human “nature” when it is allowed an uninhibited self-expression, when it is allowed free reign to satisfy its darker appetites.

And with this notion we light upon a view of mankind rather more Calvinistic than Rousseauian. Men are by “nature” savage—even depraved. They need, desperately, the redemptive complement of “discipline,” of some sort of curb against their “freedom” to act. This discipline may be, to adopt a secular vocabulary, “civilization,” notwithstanding its inevitable discontents, which are simply the price we pay to become something more than “a nation of savages” (to borrow Douglass's phrase for it). As Douglass sees it—and the mild paradox with which he expresses the point is nicely Freudian—the great desiderata are “the just restraints of free society”: reason and chastity. These effect a sublimation, into more socially useful channels, of the rapacious will to power that is, by all appearances, simply the birthright of men. To realize his humanity, to transcend his animality, man must be disciplined—but disciplined with the tempering “whip” of reason, not with the incendiary lash of passion. The problem with slavery is not so much that it entails too much discipline, but that it involves discipline of the wrong kind—discipline that is in fact an expression of license (and lust), rather than an instrument of control. The slave system everywhere “robs its victims,” master and slave alike, of every “earthly incentive” to lead “a holy life.” This fact should chasten us all, for as Douglass says, “Capt. Anthony might have been as humane a man, and every way as respectable, as many who now oppose the slave system; certainly as humane and respectable as are members of society generally.”

The twofold idea, to sum it up, is this: slavery sets the passions free, when in fact they should be imprisoned, and men's passions are everywhere the same. There is in all this a challenge to the more transcendental foundations of New England abolitionism. And Douglass's “philosophy” of slavery, in its bleaker phases, may well explain his willingness to adopt the much more worldly, and much less absolutist, tactic of political abolitionism. It may explain also why he could not, at the end of the day, accept the Garrisonian proposal that New England purify itself of slavery by dissolving the union. Men being what they “naturally” are, we could purify neither them nor any nation they compose simply by cutting the slave states loose. Abolition of the most radical sort—the sort Douglass calls for—is the never-ending effort to conquer what Mr. Kurtz, in Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902), calls the “horror.” The “horror” is simply what slavery brings out into the open, and the events from 1861 to 1865 did not finish the job of dispatching that. Abolition of slavery to instinct, to passion, to intemperance, to the gross sensualism that sees in a man or woman chiefly a body—this we can never take for granted as a thing achieved, or so Douglass implies. Why is this so? Because the plantation, as Douglass imagines it in My Bondage and My Freedom, is not so much a site in Maryland or Georgia as it is an uncharted region of the mind. The “dark continent” was in Kurtz the European, not he in it. Surely Douglass, like Conrad, points to something truly unspeakable in the makeup of men. The great optimism of My Bondage and My Freedom is not the somewhat mystical optimism of Emerson and his disciple Whitman—the sort that says there really is no death in the world, or that evil will bless and ice will burn. It is instead rationalist, secular, and progressive; in a word, it is the Enlightenment optimism of such early republican writers as Thomas Paine, Philip Freneau, and Joel Barlow. Notwithstanding its darker implications as to the nature of humanity—in fact, precisely because of them—My Bondage and My Freedom believes, and simply must believe, in the possibility of a genuinely New World empire of reason and “chastening” liberty, even if that possibility had never been made real. Douglass's worldly optimism quite naturally attended his break with the Garrisonians, and that break, in turn, opened up for his use the revolutionary tradition of the American Founders.

The Columbian Orator

This brings us to a schoolbook called The Columbian Orator. Had not Douglass immortalized it in his autobiographies, this volume, together with its author, Caleb Bingham, would have passed into oblivion and the Library of Congress. The book was published first in 1797, when opinion in America, even in the South, was generally antislavery. The speeches, poems, and extracts it collects, which were memorized by a generation or two of American schoolboys studying composition and public speaking, celebrate liberty and republican ideals, and incidentally include forthrightly antislavery material. The book figures prominently in My Bondage and My Freedom—having once obtained a copy, Douglass used it to learn to read and write—and its title and contents are altogether to the point. The book espouses Columbian ideals, imagining the New World, in the fashion of Bingham's contemporaries Freneau and Barlow, as the place where human liberty, along with redemption from the “feudal superstition” of caste, at last were to be effected. Over the course of his narrative, Douglass himself emerges as the essential Columbian orator. He is a self-emancipated man for a self-emancipated nation, and My Bondage and My Freedom is his Columbiad—his New World epic. He is the real expositor of the American Revolution, the prophet of the New America. And as the instrument of The Columbian Orator, a primer in composition, would imply, his means of self-emancipation is literacy: he arrives at “self-possession” through mastery of the word—a fact intimated even in the nuanced style of the book itself.

In this connection, we should consider the figure of Sandy Jenkins, a slave to whom Douglass devotes a great deal of attention in My Bondage and My Freedom. Sandy finds Douglass in the woods, where he has retreated to hide from Edward Covey, a “Negro breaker” who had, the day before, beaten him into insensibility when he fell ill and could no longer work. Douglass introduces Sandy to us as “a genuine African” who had “inherited some of the so-called magical powers, said to be possessed by African and eastern nations” (Autobiography, p. 280). Sandy, a man locally renowned for his “good nature,” takes Douglass in, feeds him, nurses his wounds, and then unfolds the secrets of a special “root”: “he told me further, that if I would take that root and wear it on my right side, it would be impossible for Covey to strike me a blow; that with this root about my person, no white man could whip me” (p. 280). For proof, Sandy cites his own case: he had, he assures Douglass, “never received a blow since he carried it.” Douglass takes the root, but remains skeptical.

The portrait of Sandy is complex. Sandy appears first as a savior of sorts, as “the good Samaritan.” Doubtless we take as praise the affirmations of his “good nature” and “kind heart.” The business of the root may be presented to us as “superstition”—as “very absurd and ridiculous if not positively sinful.” But that alone is no real disgrace. No, our suspicion of Sandy is first aroused when we read this: “I had,” Douglass says,

a positive aversion to all pretenders to “divination.” It was beneath one of my intelligence to countenance such dealings with the devil, as this power implied. But, with all my learning—it was really precious little—Sandy was more than a match for me. “My book learning,” he said, “had not kept Covey off me,” (a powerful argument just then,) and he entreated me, with flashing eyes, to try this [root].

(p. 281)

This sets Sandy's “genuine Africanism,” his conjuring, over against Douglass's New World “book learning”—the instruction he had imbibed from the pages of The Columbian Orator as he taught himself to read. The contrast is the more telling in light of certain facts of which we have already been apprised. Douglass tells us that he, “the only slave now in that region who could read and write” (p. 280), is feared by whites and respected by slaves. Literacy is power; the only other slave who could read and write in those parts had just been sold South as a menace. So, when Sandy disparages “book learning,” he reveals a great weakness. His African “superstitions,” insofar as they discourage a slave to look toward “book learning” as a source of power, and encourage him to put his faith in his “roots,” is an instrument quite useful to the slaveholder—which is precisely why slaveholders, as presented in My Bondage and My Freedom, indulge such customs as these, seeing in them no threat whatever.

Douglass quietly allows us to conclude that Sandy's celebrated “good nature” is not what it appears to be. It is, in fact, at least in certain of its aspects, perfectly unrespectable, a thing unbecoming a man: his meekness is what protects him from floggings, not his roots. Sandy, we later learn, is not free of what Douglass, speaking an anti-Catholic sort of language, calls the “priestcraft of slavery.” He remains essentially feudal in outlook. Like too many Americans—to borrow a phrase from Joel Barlow's epic, The Columbiad (1807)—Sandy Jenkins “nurse[s] feudal feelings” on “the tented shore” of the New World. And this weakness, this distrust of “book learning,” this effort to turn Douglass away from his Columbian Orator, all of this ultimately leads him to betray Douglass and the rest of the slaves once they determine to make their escape. This “genuine African” is an Old World survival, sadly complicit in his own oppression. In fact, through his actions Sandy had, Douglass intimates, “branded” himself a slave. “I did not forget to appeal to the pride of my comrades,” Douglass tells us in the section recounting the conspiracy to run away.

If after having solemnly promised to go, as they had done, they now failed to make the attempt, they would, in effect, brand themselves with cowardice, and might as well sit down, fold their arms, and acknowledge themselves as fit only to be slaves. This detestable character, all were unwilling to assume. Every man except Sandy (he, much to our regret, withdrew) stood firm.

(p. 315)

Sandy Jenkins, it would appear, prefers to rely on his roots.

The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass

Douglass's third and final autobiography incorporates the entirety of My Bondage and My Freedom and includes new chapters that take his story down from 1855 to 1881. Here, for the first time, Douglass narrates in detail his escape from bondage. (He had omitted an account of it from his 1845 and 1855 volumes for fear of alerting slaveholders to his methods.) Here the reader also finds accounts of Douglass's complex relationship to John Brown, of his several meetings with Lincoln, and of his work in the Republican Party during the Reconstruction years and after. Of particular interest, in connection with the latter, are two chapters appended to a second edition of the Life and Times published in 1892. These concern Douglass's tenure as consul general to Haiti in a period of great controversy, during which the United States sought a naval coaling station on the Caribbean island, and they reveal much about the American scene in the 1890s.

At the time of Douglass's appointment as consul general, Florvil Hyppolite was bringing his year-long rebellion against Haitian president François Légitime to a successful conclusion. With American backing, Hyppolite took power in August 1889, only weeks after Douglass had been named to his new position. Unbeknownst to Douglass when he was dispatched to Port-au-Prince by President Benjamin Harrison, the U.S. government expected Hyppolite, in return for military assistance rendered during the revolution, to grant it a lease at Môle St. Nicolas for a naval station. It, in turn, would be used to shore up U.S. military and commercial interests in the Caribbean. To effect acquisition of the station, Washington sent Admiral Bancroft Gherardi, together with a squadron of gunboats manned by two thousand sailors, into the harbor at Port-au-Prince. Douglass, angered that his authority had thus been undermined, nonetheless dutifully cooperated with Gherardi in the negotiations. Hyppolite ultimately refused to grant the lease. The restrictions it placed on Haitian sovereignty, he maintained, were unduly harsh. (The terms barred Haiti from leasing properties to any other foreign power.) At the time, Hyppolite was still consolidating his position. Guerrillas stood ready to exploit any hint of weakness on his part—indeed, a coup was attempted during Douglass's term in Port-au-Prince—and the new government could not afford to be seen as “repaying” the Americans for having brought it into power.

The New York City press blamed Douglass for the failure of the negotiations. His sympathies, they intimated, lay too much with the black republic: a white consul general would have succeeded where a black one did not. The charge was as unfounded as it was malicious, and Douglass responded, after his term as consul ended, in a pair of articles published in the prestigious North American Review and reprinted in the expanded 1892 edition of his Life and Times. There, he cites not only Admiral Gherardi's arrogant gunboat diplomacy as the cause for the failure, but also the illicit actions of an unnamed agent of a large steamship firm based in New York City, William P. Clyde and Company. Early in his narration of the Haitian episode, Douglass notes without comment that important diplomatic papers had been dispatched from Washington to Port-au-Prince aboard a Clyde steamer. At the time, the Clyde company was attempting to persuade Hippolyte to invest $500,000 of his cash-poor national treasury in a new line of ships that would run between New York City and Port-au-Prince. Quite improperly, Clyde's agent sought to secure a promise from Douglass that the consul general's office would not merely lobby on behalf of the scheme, but in the future would refuse outright to negotiate on behalf of any competing shipping companies—a policy that would, if carried out, grant the Clyde company a government-backed monopoly. The proposition disgusted Douglass and he refused to be a party to the business. For this he was castigated in the New York City papers, which pretty clearly spoke for Clyde and its financial backers.

The Clyde affair, coming as it did in the midst of the Môle St. Nicolas negotiations, impaired Douglass and Gherardi's efforts to secure a naval station. And when Douglass lets us know, in a telling aside, that the agent working covertly for Clyde was a proud South Carolinian who made little effort to conceal his contempt for the very Haitians “whose good will it was his duty to seek,” the implications are clear. The agent, we are told, accused Douglass of being “more a Haitian than an American,” and in the richly evocative symbolism of American racial discourse, his meaning was unmistakable: Douglass was a “militant” black, not a docile and pliable one. After all, Haiti had, since it achieved its independence and overthrew slavery, always symbolized to South Carolinians, and to southerners generally, the terror of black autonomy. Douglass—or so the implication seemed to be—was what many in the South in the 1890s were already petulantly calling the New Negro: defiant, politically assertive, and determined to exercise his rights as a citizen. What the agent wanted was a deferential tool, and in Douglass he found instead “an unprofitable servant.” The South Carolina agent epitomizes, in his actions, the ethic of the new regime in post-Reconstruction America: northern capital was to work with southern whites to effect the profitable exploitation of black labor—whether in the South or in Haiti—without regard for the dignity and independence of the laborers. The episode, as Douglass narrates it, is a sad but fitting allegory of the 1890s.

The American Ordeal of “Autobiography”

We do not often speak of the plot of an autobiography. Lives (we tell ourselves) simply unfold, or happen; they are not thrown into shape by design. But there is something about peculiarly American lives that should give us pause, that should lead us to reconsider the relation between storytelling and living, and between the imagined and the real. For ours is a nation of “confidence men,” of self-made men, of Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Howard Hughes, Norman Mailer, and Jay Gatsby—of men who are also characters. Ours is a nation, for good and for ill, where autobiography actually can come first, and the life itself second; or perhaps more aptly, where a life can be “written out” even as it is lived.

As has been intimated, the book learning that Sandy Jenkins so easily dismisses ultimately secures Douglass his freedom. He writes in a chapter of My Bondage and My Freedom devoted to The Runaway Plot:

To [my friends], therefore, with a suitable degree of caution, I began to disclose my sentiments and plans; sounding them, the while, on the subject of running away, provided a good chance should offer.…That (to me) gem of a book, the Columbian Orator, with its eloquent orations and spicy dialogues, denouncing oppression and slavery—telling of what had been dared, done and suffered by men, to obtain the inestimable boon of liberty—was still fresh in my memory, and whirled into the ranks of my speech with the aptitude of well trained soldiers, going through the drill.

(Autobiography, pp. 305–306)

That last metaphor neatly equates literacy with militancy, the pen with the sword (or, to be strict about it, words with well-trained soldiers). This equation is what Sandy the root man failed to understand, and that failure naturally issues in his treason. It is necessary, really, that Sandy Jenkins should betray the conspiracy, and for two reasons. First, Douglass has to force a choice upon the reader—a choice between New World “rationality” and Old World “folk” belief. (The two cannot coexist; the New World must be purged). Second, the manifest complicity of that folk culture with slavery must be demonstrated, even in the very arc of the plot. If Sandy Jenkins had not existed, Douglass would have had to invent him, at least if he were to make his argument genuinely narrative.

Of course, Douglass did not invent Sandy Jenkins, even if he did refashion him as a character. Douglass is not making these things up, no matter how well the details lend themselves to his narrative and thematic purposes. Nonetheless, the story he tells is peculiarly overdetermined, strikingly well-ordered, and in such a way as to suggest that he was writing it up, so to speak, even as he acted it out—back then, in the 1830s, as he wove his own actions into the text of The Columbian Orator. It is quite as if the “word” sets us free precisely because it organizes our lives in prospect, not merely in retrospect, when we pen an autobiography. It is impossible, Douglass intimates, to live outside of the stories we tell about ourselves; the living is the telling. That is why Sandy Jenkins died in bondage; really, the Old World story he was telling about his roots could end no other way. And the Enlightenment-republican story that Douglass learned how to tell so well, the story that organized his life toward freedom, the story of The Columbian Orator—this is the story he wants the nation never to stop telling itself. And that is why we have to read Frederick Douglass's great autobiographies. To be American is to fold stories like these into the accidents of your life; it is to live “as if” these stories were real, or might be made real. After all, that is precisely what Douglass did.

Selected Works

  • Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1845)
  • My Bondage and My Freedom (1855)
  • The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, written by Himself (1881)
  • The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass (1950)
  • Autobiographies (1994)

Further Reading

  • Frederickson, George M. The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817–1914. 2d ed. Middletown, Conn., 1987. Essential reading for any student of Douglass, or of American literature and culture generally.
  • McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass. New York, 1991. The standard biography.
  • Preston, Dickson J. Young Frederick Douglass: The Maryland Years. Baltimore, 1980. Documents Douglass's early years.
  • Sundquist, Eric J. Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays. New York, 1990.
  • Sundquist, Eric J. To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. Cambridge, Mass., 1993. A book of great breadth that includes extensive discussion of My Bondage and My Freedom.