By Edward C. Smith
Frederick Douglass was born a slave on Maryland’s famed Eastern Shore in February 1818. He was eight years old when Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Interestingly, President John Adams died later on the same day, but unaware of Jefferson’s earlier demise, Adams left us with his famous last words: “Only Thomas survives me now.” Of course this was not an accurate statement because James Madison, the last member of the Revolutionary generation, did not die until June 1836.
Douglass’s mother, Harriett Bailey, was an African-American slave, and his father was most likely her white slave master, whose true identity he never knew for certain. Around the age of seven, he was sent to Baltimore to serve Hugh Auld, whose wife, Sophia, introduced him to the wonderful world of books while teaching her own son to read and write.
Mrs. Auld quite innocently thought that young Douglass should be included in this enterprise. One day her husband discovered what was happening, was outraged, and said to her in Douglass’s presence, “If you continue teaching that boy how to read you will surely destroy him.” Douglass recounted that particular incident later in his three-volume autobiography, noting that it was the first major turning point in his life.
As he grew into adulthood, his love of learning knew no bounds. He read deeply from the Old and New Testaments and further enriched himself through his love of the classical writings of Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, Tacitus, Livy, Suetonius, and other authors of that era.
He was also greatly enamored by Shakespeare’s plays, and the writers of The Enlightenment such as Montaigne, Voltaire, Gibbon, Hume, Rousseau, and Locke, to name a few. And he was thoroughly familiar with the literary works of his famous contemporaries: Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Dickens, and Melville. Suffice it to say, the self-taught Douglass became one of the nation’s foremost authors and orators of the 19th century.
Douglass ran away from slavery, married Anna Murray, a free African-American, in 1838. They began a family and raised two daughters and three sons. They were married 44 years, until her death in 1882.
For reasons never entirely explained, she chose to remain a lifelong illiterate, which sowed seeds of confusion among their children, who sought to emulate their distinguished father while not wishing to alienate their mother.
Two years after Anna’s death, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a well-educated white woman whose abolitionist family disowned her for marrying him. The marriage was unacceptable to many blacks as well, including his oldest daughter.
Before the Civil War, in the 1840s and 1850s, Douglass evolved into a militant, uncompromising abolitionist. He totally rejected the idea of blacks returning to Africa, which was the goal of the American Colonization Society, founded in 1817 and subsequently creator of the colony of Liberia in 1822, which eventually became Africa’s first republic in 1847.
Douglass always saw himself and other blacks, regardless of their enslavement (and there were many who were already free through private manumission), as simply Americans of African descent. He emphatically argued that “home” was here and nowhere else.
Neither Frederick Douglass nor Thomas Jefferson was a typical slave nor a typical slave master. The former was bound by the presumption of being a sub-human, mindless “beast of burden,” while the latter was able to enjoy the fruits of “free” labor (and all of the available amenities associated with that status), solely predicated on the notion of white supremacy. But both men thought deeply about the exploitive cultural and economic arrangement that left such an indelible impression on their lives, and they made those thoughts public.
In 1852, the same year as the publication of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Douglass delivered a speech in Rochester, N.Y., in which he vehemently assaulted the celebration of Independence Day by asking his mostly white audience, “What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”
“Your sermons and thanksgivings,” he continued, “with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy, a thin veil to cover up crimes which would have disgraced a nation of savages.”
Clearly, without mentioning his name, this was an attack on Jefferson himself, since it was his authorship of the Declaration of Independence — then and now — that is mostly celebrated on the Fourth of July.
Lest we forget, the Revolutionary War had already begun more than a year earlier in 1775, with the fighting at Concord and Lexington, Mass. And, the war would not end until 1781, at Yorktown. At the time of his speech, Douglass saw Jefferson as the ultimate hypocrite. How could the same person (especially one possessed of his pedigree), compose the Declaration and simultaneously oppose freedom for the slaves?
During the years leading to the advent of the Civil War, Douglass learned of Jefferson’s book, “Notes on the State of Virginia,” published in 1785 (in Paris while he was serving as U.S. ambassador to France), in which there is an essay on the subject of “Manners,” which is a personal meditation on the consequences of ill-conduct directed toward those with whom we have daily contact.
Jefferson said, “There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us.” He continued, “The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this and learn to imitate it.”
Perhaps his most powerful observation is to ponder if “the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.”
By reading “Manners,” Douglass saw Jefferson’s humility instead of his hubris, and it made a lasting impression upon him, so much so that one Sunday, while attending church services at the Metropolitan AME Zion Church, only a few blocks from the White House (where it still functions as a thriving spiritual community today), he mused, “How can I claim to love Jesus Christ and still reserve for myself the right to continue to hate Thomas Jefferson?”
Douglass knew that he could no longer do both. He understood, more so than most, that the essence of Christianity is to “forgive those who trespass against us.”
For Douglass, with his new insight, Jefferson had been transformed into a wayward soul seeking redemption and atonement for his, and his country’s “crimes against humanity” and should not be denied forgiveness.
Thus, Douglass, as President Lincoln — who always opposed slavery — had done earlier in his career, came to embrace Jefferson as a “father-figure” who could inspire them to “right the wrongs” of our country’s beginning when it chose to subvert its lofty ideal of “equality for all” by providing protection for the expansion of the “peculiar institution” of American slavery.
Frederick Douglass died 30 years after the conclusion of the Civil War, in 1895. During Reconstruction, he saw the nation remade with the passing of the 13th (1865), 14th (1868), and 15th (1870) amendments to the Constitution, which brought about a modicum of social equity and upward mobility to millions of former slaves.
The country had grown to understand, through the agony of civil war, that slavery, at its worst, was the sheer waste of human talent and tenacity and could not be defended on any grounds — and that no one suffered more from that violation than the nation itself.
Sadly, the year after Douglass’s death, in 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in an 8-1 decision in the Plessy v. Ferguson case, that the Jim Crow laws that sustained so-called separate but equal customs practiced throughout the South, long after the defeat of the Confederacy, were indeed protected by the Constitution.
Indeed, the highest court in the land had chosen to ally itself with the most virulent of segregationists. That ruling would not be reversed for 58 years, until the Supreme Court overturned and corrected itself with the 9-0 decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Interestingly, one of the nine justices was Hugo Black of Alabama, who had been a former member of the Ku Klux Klan. Such are the vagaries of victory.