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, as when they fret over a supposed “black-white paradigm” as though this was a way of seeing race in U.S. society that was (and is) generated by both Black and white Americans alike working to play down the everyday realities of other Americans of color. But, as Douglass sagely makes clear here, the U.S. accent on white-on-black issues exists only because whites have made it so with four centuries of white-on-black oppression.

In evaluating the slave plantations he knew too well, Douglass offers in his Autobiography (Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom),  another pathbreaking insight rarely in the contemporary literature: On plantations the work of many Black people

“supports a single family in easy idleness and sin. . . . it is here that we shall find that the height of luxury which is the opposite of that depth of poverty and wretchedness [of those enslaved.]”

Douglass lists the many white luxuries and “immense wealth” of plantations with forced labor. Probably, he is the first analyst of slavery to hone the sociological ideas of unjust enrichment and unjust impoverishment. For him unjust enrichment for whites amounts to social “robbery,” extreme theft that justifies an enslaved person’s rebellion of most any kind.

In another probing insight, Douglass notes in his Autobiography that he is even uncertain about who his father was, although he was likely a white slaveholder. Indeed, whites created a slavery that often does away with fathers, as it does away with families.

. . . [The slaveholder] often is master and father to the same child. He can be father without being a husband, and may sell his child without incurring reproach (Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom).

Slavery obviously alienates those enslaved from enslavers, with the latter often raping Black women and rejecting their own children. Dehumanization of all was essential to the American form of slavery.

In another savvy discussion Douglass gives an example of a white wife of a Baltimore relative to whom his slavemaster loaned him when a child. At first, the white woman was loving and

“regarded me simply as a child, like any other child; she had not come to regard me as property.”

Then she changed:

“It took several years to change this natural sweetness of her temper into fretful bitterness.”

Her shift to an authoritarian slaveholder occurred after her husband reprimanded her for teaching Douglass to read:

“Nature has done almost nothing to prepare men and women to be either slaves or slaveholders. Nothing but rigid training, long persisted in, can perfect the character of the one or the other. One cannot easily forget to love freedom; and it is as hard to cease to respect that natural love in our fellow crea¬tures. . . . I was human, and she, dear lady, knew and felt me to be so. How could she, then, treat me as a brute, without a mighty struggle with all the noble powers of her own soul.” (My Bondage and My Freedom)

Amazingly, the enslaved Douglass sees not only the humanity of those enslaved but also of the slavers. With great sociological insight, he suggests penetrating ideas about slavery’s routine operation.

Most famously, and insightfully, in 1852 as a major abolitionist leader, Douglass made a Fourth of July speech in Rochester, New York:

“What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: A day that reveals to him, more than all other days of the year, the gross injustices and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham.”

The leading Renaissance-type intellectual of his era, Douglass spoke out for freedom and vigorously against the near-slavery of the legal segregation after the Civil War, as well as against the sexism faced by women of all racial backgrounds in the United States. By any measure, Douglass was one of the greatest leaders and intellectuals to have ever lived in the United States, indeed on the planet.

Note: For a more detailed analysis of Douglass and his ideas, see Systemic Racism (Routledge 2006), from which I draw some of this analysis.


  1. Seattle in Texas

    I would just like to add in agreement, also in light of the great posting above, that Douglass was also one of this nation’s greatest American Indians.

Leave a Reply