Two years before his death in 1895, Frederick Douglass argued that white Americans gave no value to Black lives, and that the lynching campaign then raging in the former slave states was determined to, among other aims, resuscitate white supremacy and disenfranchise Black voters. In the twilight of his long life, Douglass, one of the greatest orators ever to rise from American soil, a man who understood the fragility of social progress, urged every audience he stood before to remember why the Civil War was fought and to find the moral courage to defend the hard-won gains of Reconstruction against the forces of tyranny, greed, pride, and racial fear. “We only ask,” said Douglass, “to be treated as well as you treat the late enemies of your national life.”
Any reader of Yale historian David W. Blight’s Pulitzer Prize–winning biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, will recognize the similarities and hear the echoes of the past in the present. Writing to a friend in 1874 Douglass described the moral atmosphere in Washington, D.C., as “rotten, full of avarice, duplicity, corruption, fawning and trickery of all kinds.” Blight’s work sharpens our understanding of Douglass’s life and influence on the nation, not only as a fiery abolitionist, but as a staunch defender of Reconstruction. Douglass’s fierce intelligence and moral courage were only one side of the man; for nearly half a century he shouldered burdens as the representative man of his race, and as the patriarch of a large extended family that was a source of joy, consternation, and heartbreak.
As a biographer and scholar, Blight is equal to the complexity and stature of his subject. The extraordinary life Frederick Douglass lived, from its origin in bondage to its culmination as one of the most recognizable Americans of his era, was rooted in the soil of a progressive humanity, sustained by the ideals of freedom, dignity, and the rule of law.
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