In his comments about Black history month, President Trump raised many eyebrows when he spoke about Frederick Douglass. Trump said:
“Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.”
It is not clear whether Trump knew that Douglass had died over 120 years ago.
Contrary to President Trump’s statement that Frederick Douglass is being recognized more and more, the truth is that Douglass was far more famous in the 19th century than he is today. He is someone who has faded from historical memory. I would be surprised if many Americans know about Douglass’s contributions to American life.
Because he is arguably one of the greatest Americans ever, more needs to be said about who Douglass was and what he accomplished in his life.
Douglass was born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland in 1817. His father was a white man but Douglass never learned his identity. His mother worked as a slave on a plantation twelve miles away. As happened to Douglass, the slaveholders forcibly separated children from their mothers at a very young age. Douglass only saw his mother four or five times in his life. In his first autobiography, he wrote:
“She made her journeys to see me in the night, travelling the whole distance on foot, after the performance of her day’s work. She was a field hand, and a whipping is the penalty of not being in the field at sunrise…I do not recollect of ever seeing my mother by the light of day. She was with me in the night. She would lie down with me, and get me to sleep, but long before I waked, she was gone.”
Douglass’s mother died when he was seven years old. He was not allowed to be present during her illness, her death or her burial.
In his writing, Douglass presents a vivid picture of slavery.
“I was seldom whipped by my old master, and suffered little from anything else than hunger and cold. I suffered much from hunger, but much more from cold. In hottest summer and coldest winter, I was kept almost naked – no shoes, no stockings, no jacket, no trousers, nothing on but a coarse tow linen shirt reaching only to my knees. I had no bed. I must have perished with cold, but that, the coldest nights, I used to steal a bag which was used for carrying corn to the mill. I would crawl into this bag, and there sleep on the cold, damp, clay floor, with my head in and my feet out. My feet have been so cracked with the frost, that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes.”
While still very young, Douglass’s owner moved him to a new master who lived in Baltimore. The new mistress of the household had never had a slave under her control before. She taught Douglass the beginnings of how to read. When her husband found out, he forbade learning. It was unlawful, and considered unsafe, to teach a slave to read.
It was that love of learning which inspired Douglass.
“Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master. Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read.”
Douglass’s greatness was not just that he overcame slavery personally; it was that even after his own misfortune he dedicated himself to the liberation of all oppressed people. His literacy and his developing eloquence were foundational. Douglass became a journalist, an author, and a renowned, powerful orator. He composed the narrative of his life in his autobiographies and he exposed slavery as a nightmarish crime. He often said: “Knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom.”
At age 20, after two failed attempts, Douglass escaped to freedom with the help of his future wife, Anna Murray, a free Black woman. Prior to that, Douglass had been turned over to a man named Edward Corey, a professional “Negro-breaker”. Forced to work in the worst weather conditions, whipped regularly, starved almost to death, Douglass reached the breaking point. Physically attacked again by Corey, Douglass fought back and scared the master so much he never flogged Douglass after that.
Douglass escaped slavery by dressing in a sailor’s uniform and by travelling under an assumed identity. He boarded a train in Baltimore, later took a steamboat, and made his way to a safe house in New York City. He later moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts where he went to work as a free man.
Shortly after arriving in New Bedford, Douglass connected with the abolitionist movement. He subscribed to the Liberator, the anti-slavery paper edited by William Lloyd Garrison, and he started attending abolitionist meetings. After he was asked to speak, Douglass quickly overcame his nervousness. His speeches recounting his experiences as a slave electrified audiences. In little time Douglass became a full-time lecturer for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society.
Although many at that time considered it an impossibility, Douglass set out to destroy slavery and free the African American people. Working cooperatively with white abolitionists, he stressed common humanity and an egalitarian outlook. He was an early supporter of women’s rights. Douglass saw himself as building on the revolutionary legacy of the Founding Fathers.
His anti-slavery speeches were dangerous events. As he travelled around the northern states, he was frequently accosted by slavery supporters and on several occasions he narrowly escaped death. At a lecture in Indiana an angry mob chased and beat him. Douglass suffered a broken hand. A local Quaker family rescued him.
Becoming more well known and still fearful of recapture, in 1845 Douglass went to England, Scotland, and Ireland on a lecture tour. He ended up spending two years there, giving many lectures in churches and chapels. He was a huge draw. It was at that point Douglass’s fame exploded. Douglass’s British admirers raised funds to buy his freedom from his American owner.
When Douglass returned to the United States in 1847 he created and published his own abolitionist newspaper, the North Star. In the paper, he argued the case for women’s rights. In 1848, Douglass was the only African American attendee at the Seneca Falls Convention, the first women’s rights convention held in the United States. He spoke in support of a resolution for women’s suffrage.
In 1855, Douglass, along with John Brown, helped to found the Radical Abolition Party. The party platform included: immediate and universal emancipation; full suffrage for all Americans, regardless of sex or race; redistribution of land so that no one would be rich and no one poor; and violent intervention against slavery.
While he could be pragmatic, Douglass remained a radical for the rest of his life. After the start of the Civil War, Douglass campaigned against President Lincoln’s ultra-cautious approach to the slavery question. Before the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass argued passionately for the freedom of slaves and for the inclusion of Black soldiers in the Union forces.
After the Civil War, Douglass was in the forefront of the fight to allow Black people to vote. He helped passage of the Republican-sponsored 15th Amendment to the Constitution which certified the right of Black men to vote. While he remained a Republican, Douglass worked to shift the Republican Party in a more pro-Black and progressive direction.
Later in his life, with racism resurgent in America, Douglass spoke out against the appalling rise in the number of lynchings of Black men. Douglass railed against the failure of Reconstruction. He had envisioned a vastly more open America that belonged to all and transcended race, religion, gender, class, and national origin divisions.
It is truly ironic that Donald Trump would try and use Frederick Douglass to highlight Black History. No two figures could be more different. Douglass suffered enormously, deeply valued reading and learning and wanted an inclusive, more democratic America. He consistently favored more voting rights, workers’ rights, and immigrants’ rights. Trump grew up in the lap of luxury, is not a reader, and has a vision of exclusion. If Douglass was alive now, I can only imagine what he would say about President Trump.
In his inaugural address, President Donald Trump made a big point of describing his foreign policy approach as “America First”.
“We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power, from this day forward, a new vision will govern our land, from this day forward, it’s going to be only America first. America first.”
The problem I have with the phrase is that Trump and his supporters are tone-deaf to its history. “America First” was the slogan used by Nazi-friendly Americans in the 1930’s. In the period immediately before World War II, the America First Committee opposed fighting Nazism.
America First has a sordid history. Before Pearl Harbor, the movement resisted America’s entry into World War II. It advocated neutrality toward the Germans, arguing that they were unlikely to invade the United States. Harshly critical of President Franklin Roosevelt, America First was blatantly anti-semitic and promoted appeasing Hitler.
When asked about his use of the phrase by the New York Times’ David Sanger, Trump brushed off any historical parallel. He said,
” To me, America First is a brand-new modern term. I never related it to the past.”
It remains unclear how much Trump knows about the history of the phrase although he told the New York Times he was familiar with it.
The Anti-Defamation League has asked Trump to refrain from using the slogan.
I do believe that if Americans were more aware of the history around America First, they would urge Trump to reject it. Superficially this slogan sounds good but the history is toxic. That is true not just for Jewish Americans but for all Americans who are opposed to fascism, racism and authoritarianism.
America First blamed Jews for conspiring to pressure the government to join World War II against the interests of America. Knowing what we know now about the Holocaust, the actions of America First can be seen as what they were: appalling collaboration with the German fascists.
The history deserves review. Starting in the early 1930’s, media kingpin William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of his day, began using the slogan “America First”. Hearst hated President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Hearst saw the New Deal as “un-American to the core”. He hailed the Nazis as winning great victories for “liberty-loving people” everywhere.
In America, before World War II, there was a surprising amount of support and good will toward the Nazis. In part, that reflected popular acceptance of anti-semitism in American life.
At its peak, the American First Committee had 800,000 members across the country, including a number of very famous people. Future President Gerald Ford, future Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and industrialist Henry Ford were all part of the America First Committee.
Probably the most famous member was the aviator Charles Lindbergh. He became the committee’s principal spokesman. In 1938, Lindbergh received the Grand Service Cross of the Supreme Order of the German Eagle, Germany’s highest honor, from Herman Goering. The award was given “in the name of the Fuehrer”. The only other American to receive the award was Henry Ford.
The American First Committee was dogged by charges of anti-semitism. Henry Ford and Avery Brundage sat on its executive committee. The auto magnate was a vicious anti-semite. Ford financially supported the publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an infamous anti-semitic tract. In the early 1920’s he wrote a four volume set of pamphlets titled The International Jew. Every week for 91 issues he exposed what he saw as some Jewish-inspired evil. He later wrote a regular newspaper column obsessively focused on attacking Jews that was called The International Jew: The World’s Problem. Ford is the only American mentioned, and mentioned positively, in Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
Brundage, former chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee, opposed a boycott of Germany in 1936 because he believed there was a Jewish-Communist conspiracy to keep the United States out of the Berlin Games. When the Games were held, Brundage prevented the only two Jews on the Olympic team from competing in the 400-meter relay. He did not want to offend the Nazis.
While other leaders of America First denied they were anti-semitic, Lindbergh laid his cards on the table. In a speech he gave in Des Moines, Iowa, on September 11, 1941, he warned that Jews were a dangerous enemy. He pointed to Jews’ “large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government”.
Nazi supporters like Lindbergh argued that Jews in the United States spread falsehoods about Germany to push America into a war of revenge from which they would benefit financially.
America First only folded after the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s engagement against the Axis powers.
If he had an awareness of history, Trump would understand that use of the slogan “America First” is offensive. America First has a history laced with anti-semitism.
For someone who always reminds us what a great mind he has, Trump has not demonstrated an appreciation of history. Many made fun of his lack of awareness that Frederick Douglass is no longer with us but the deeper tragedy is that he is profoundly ignorant of American history. People can argue about it but Frederick Douglass is one of the most outstanding Americans ever. It is beyond sad that we have a president who is clueless about such an important figure in our own history.
I do not see the fact that Trump has a Jewish son-in-law as inoculation against anti-semitism and bigotry. Considering his own racism and his support from white supremacists, Trump’s insensitivity to anti-semitism is not surprising. Still, he should not be using the slogan “America First”. The historical echo is very bad karma.