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.