Thursday, July 9, 2015

Life and Times of Frederick Douglass

Title:  Life and Times of Frederick Douglass
Author:  Frederick Douglass
Published:  1881
Challenges:  The Well-Educated Mind (biographies)

Life and Times of Frederick Douglass is the third autobiography written by Frederick Douglass, an ex-slave.  His first is Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and his second is My Bondage and My Freedom.  I read his first book many years ago and was grateful that I had the opportunity to read his story.  When I learned that his autobiography was on The Well-Educated Mind reading list, I was excited.  However, on further review, it was not the Narrative I was to read; it was the longer, more detailed version of his life and the events surrounding it.  I took a picture so you could see the difference between the two books.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (top)
and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (bottom)

The Life and Times is 300 pages, and the font is like size 5.  I thought I would never get through it.  But, I did, in fact, finish it in the back of my van (where I slept) on a camping trip, using a little flashlight to guide me.  (Yeah, I don't like tent camping.)

Frederick Douglass was born and raised in slavery (where he learned to read and write), escaped slavery as a young man, became an abolitionist writer and speaker - fighting for the end of slavery and oppression wherever - and was a world traveler, a fixture in American politics long after the Civil War, and a voice for Blacks to gain U.S. citizenship and the right to vote, under protection of the U.S. Constitution.  Though Blacks did not always heed his advice, it was always his desire to "urge upon them self-reliance, self-respect, industry, perseverance, and economy - to make the best of both worlds - but to make the best of this world first because it comes first, and that he who does not improve himself by the motives and opportunities afforded by this world gives the best evidence that he would not improve in any other world."

Frederick Douglass, a courageous American

Douglass says he wrote this third autobiography 
as part of the history of a profoundly interesting period in American life and progress.  I have meant it to be a small individual contribution to the sum of knowledge of this special period, to be handed down to after-coming generations which may want to know what things were allowed and what prohibited: what moral, social, and political relations subsisted between the different varieties of the American people down to the last quarter of the nineteenth century; and by what means they were modified and changed.  My part has been to tell the story of the slave.
What I appreciate about his story is his argument for liberty, as if one must make a case for freedom.  Like Harriet Jacobs (Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl), Douglass also references Patrick Henry's speech for freedom: "Give me liberty or give me death!" The colonists fought for their freedom, too; why is it any different for the black slave?  Douglass compared his preparations for escaping to: "the meetings of the revolutionary conspirators in their primary condition."  Slaves were not looking to overthrow the government or harm their enemies, only to escape them.  Liberty was the end goal.

Found at BuzzFeed Books

The lowest point for Douglass came when his master sent him to be "broken-in" for one year, by a man named Covey.  Douglass was over-worked, under-fed, sleep-deprived, and beat and whipped every week for six-months.  When his master refused to protect him "as his property," Douglass resolved to stand up for himself; he physically fought back.  For the remaining six months, Covey never beat Douglass in anger again. He says,
this battle with Mr. Covey, undignified as it was, and as I fear my narration of it is, was the turning-point in my "life as a slave."  It rekindled in my breast the smoldering embers of liberty; it brought up my Baltimore dreams, and revived a sense of my own manhood.  I was a changed being after that fight.  I was nothing before; I was a man now.
This was his turning point, to escape slavery forever.  

After his escape, he worked tirelessly to influence politics, to sway the North to rise up against slavery, and to encourage slaves to escape to the North.  And after the conclusion of the Civil War, he was just as dedicated to help his people and lift them up; because
Though slavery was abolished, the wrongs of my people were not ended. Though they were not slaves they were not yet quite free.  No man can be truly free whose liberty is dependent upon the thought, feeling, and action of others; and who has himself no means in his own hands for guarding, protecting, defending, and maintaining that liberty.  
He went on to work for the support of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments under the Constitution that made the newly freed slaves citizens of the United States, and the right to vote.  It was right for the American government to assure all men this protection.  (Later, Douglass would go on to work for the women's suffrage movement, as well.)

I could continue in greater detail about the essential ideas and historical particulars that come from this book, but I will say this: if you are interested in the history of the American Civil War, pre and post, this is a great resource.  Frederick Douglass has a first hand account from numerous angles beginning with his life as a slave, the wickedness of the slaveholder, the racism in the North, ignorance and selfishness of the South, the mistakes of the Republican politicians and Union generals, and the hatred of the Democrats.  He discusses great detail about John Brown and Harper's Ferry, the Emancipation Proclamation, and working with President James Garfield.  This man, Frederick Douglass, played a major role in American history.  

Did you know that Douglass maintained a deep relationship with John Brown, the man who hated slavery so, he challenged the government and encouraged an insurrection of escaped slaves?  Douglass decided (out of lack of courage) not to join Brown on his raid at Harper's Ferry, while Brown was captured and hung for his act of treason. Douglass talked about this moment, when Brown, on the day of his hanging, supposedly leaned over and kissed a black baby in the arms of its mother.  I got to see this painting at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.  Now I know the story. 
Last Moments of John Brown by Thomas Hovenden, 1884, de Young, San Francisco

Today I have an even greater respect and regard for Mr. Douglass.  He is an example of a man full of courage, perseverance, and determination.  He was a lover of freedom, a respectable statesman, and a bold leader.  Imagine!  He stood where no black man had gone before in American government, politics, and society.  And he did it for awhile as "runaway chattel."

Now, here is where I get political.  If you are politically sensitive or apathetic, you may want to skip.

If you are like me and have some interest in politics, you would appreciate the history of the political parties.  Many people do not know the history, nor do they care, but I find it is fascinating.  Here is a video on the history of the Democrat party in America. 

Years ago, I read Back to the Basics for the Republican Party, by Michael Zak, about the Radical Republicans and why Republicans need to get back to their pro-liberty roots; hence, I was familiar with many of the events and facts Douglass presented, as well as what Whittle mentioned in the above video.  

Back to Basics for the Republican Party
by Michael Zak

It does make me mad that Black America (though that has spread to other groups) would look to government to provide for their every need, although today it is called entitlement: housing, food, utilities, jobs, education, healthcare.  Slavery still exists in America; only the Masters have changed.  And now both political parties cater to certain classes of people, mostly blacks, but they'll take poor whites, immigrants, any large voting block, and anyone else willing to be dependent on government, in exchange for a vote, or to avoid being branded a racist. Too many Republicans have traded their long, lost principles of self-reliance, independence, and liberty for the power and popularity of an over-reaching government.  

THIS IS NOT THE HARD WORK AND SACRIFICE OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS!  He would be livid to know his Republican party gave up the fight for liberty for his people and that his people have willing returned to their old chains, in exchange for a little (false) security, Many live in poverty and ignorance, kept down, unwilling to be their own master, just like when they were in slavery. 

However, many have escaped the chains, too, and have done the hard work to improve their lot, like Justice Clarence Thomas (read his amazing story!) and pro-life advocate Star Parker; but then those are ironically branded an "Uncle Tom."   And why?  When it was Uncle Tom who chose to remain in chains, loyal to his master.  

Thomas' autobiography

Star Parker (also referred to as an Uncle Tom by Jesse Jackson)
 explains the welfare state, which she herself escaped.


Hamlette (Rachel) said...

Very interesting commentary on how the government has become like a slave master in many ways!

Ruth said...

I think the end result is the same when government convinces people (for generations) that they cannot work, live, eat, or survive w/o government intervention. It eliminates their self-sufficiency, independence, and liberty in exchange for their loyalty (vote).

Cleo said...

Great review! I must say that I'm having a really hard time reviewing these books. Perhaps it's because I'm not used to reviewing non-fiction and need to read more slowly and carefully to order everything in my head.

Kudos to you for reading the long version! I just couldn't do it. While I've found the last two WEM books interesting, they haven't really gripped me. We'll see if Mr. Washington can give me a better experience coming up. :-)