Frederick Douglass: The Greatest American of the 19th Century?

Abraham Lincoln is often considered the greatest American (male) of the 19th century, but I think the evidence for that designation better fits another person, the brilliant Frederick Douglass.   In this first week of Black History Month, it is time for us to recognize just how brilliant, courageous, and far-seeing Frederick Douglass was.  Self-taught, learned, and extraordinarily eloquent Douglass became, once he had fled his violent enslavement at the hands of border state whites, a formidable opponent of racial slavery and later segregation. A leading abolitionist (and advocate for women’s suffrage), over his life Douglass made 2,000 speeches and wrote thousands of editorials, articles, and letters, mostly analyzing systemic racism he experienced. One of the greatest U.S. orators and intellectuals ever, outspoken critic of Lincoln’s war policies, Douglass played a major role in bringing down centuries-old U.S. slavery, including leading the effort to get many thousands of Black men accepted in the U.S. army, soldiers who made a critical difference in Union victories in the South’s “war of rebellion.”

In his speeches and writings Douglass offers deep insights that have yet to make their way into mainstream social science and popular media analyses, even today. He was ahead of his and our time. In one probing speech Douglass noted the great white obsession:

“Go where you will, you will meet with him [the black American]. He is alike present in the study of the [white] learned and thoughtful, and in the play house of the gay and thoughtless. We see him pictured at our street corners, and hear him in the songs of our market places. The low and the vulgar curse him, the snob and the flunky affect to despise him, the mean and the cowardly assault him, because they know . . . that they can abuse him with impunity. . . . To the statesman and philosopher he is an object of intense curiosity. . . . Of the books, pamphlets, and speeches concerning him, there is literally, no end. He is the one inexhaustible topic of conversation at our firesides and in our public halls. ” From: Frederick Douglass, “The United States Cannot Remain Half-Slave and Half-Free,” in (Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, edited by P. S. Foner and Y. Taylor Chicago: Lawrence Hall Books, 1999).

In our time this white obsession persists, and most scholars today miss his point, Continue reading…