David Blight takes to the pages of the NYT to say we should look to Frederick Douglass in this moment of crisisHistorians in the News
tags: Frederick Douglass, David Blight
In the introduction to Frederick Douglass’s second autobiography, “My Bondage and My Freedom,”published in 1855, his friend James McCune Smith wrote that if a stranger landed in the United States and sought out its most prominent men by using newspapers and telegraph messages, he would discover Douglass. Born a slave in Maryland, Douglass had escaped to the North to become a renowned abolitionist orator and writer. He was, Smith said, the sort of person people would ask, “‘Tell me your thought!’ And somehow or other, revolution seemed to follow in his wake.”
When he started his career, Douglass eschewed politics in favor of changing hearts and minds through moral suasion. But in the decade before the Civil War, he had become a thoroughgoing political abolitionist, a believer that slavery could be destroyed only through power politics.
At the end of the memoir, Douglass admitted that he had, until recently, fought only with “pen and tongue.” But now, in the roiling crises over slavery in the 1850s — fugitive slave rescues, violent clashes in Kansas over slavery’s expansion and a nation enthralled by the antislavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” — the author announced his new “disposition.” He had discovered the force of politics in a republic dominated by slavery. He wished to add his own story to the nation’s “blood-written history” as clouds of “wrathful thunder and lightning” hovered over the land. Then he gave voice to his life’s work. He would, as long as “heaven” gave him the ability to speak and to write, fight for abolition and the beginning of black equality with “my voice, my pen, or my vote.”...
Douglass left a timeless maxim for republics in times of crisis: “Our government may at some time be in the hands of a bad man. When in the hands of a good man it is all well enough.” But “we ought to have our government so shaped that even when in the hands of a bad man we shall be safe.” Politics, he insisted, mattered as much as the air he breathed.
Douglass’s words echo on today. Are our institutions adequate to the challenges presented by a president animated by a combination of authoritarianism and ignorance? Is the right to vote really safe and free? Are our political parties disintegrating? Is our free press robust enough to withstand the attacks upon it and the technology revolutionizing the dissemination of information?
At this moment in our history we too are tested by the same question Douglass posed about bad men and government. And the only weapons most of us have in this historical moment are those Douglass named: our voice, our pen and our vote.