Frederick Douglass: Lion of Anacostia

Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Library

Frederick Douglass: Lion of Anacostia

Statue of Frederick Douglass Statuary HallFrederick Douglass, whose new statue has recently been unveiled in the Statuary Hall of the Capitol building is being remembered yet again with a new book edited by DC Public Library staff member John Muller. This collection of historical essays was selected by the Library as the book featured in the DC Reads program.

This recently published book, Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia traces Douglass's oft-overlooked later career as a political leader in the federal city. This book shows how Douglass was motivated by one central life task: to eliminate the system of slavery and work to overcome the educational, political and social disabilities that remained for African Americans who were recently emancipated. During the course of his career, Frederick Douglass was an Abolitionist speaker, federal marshal, and political adviser to President Lincoln.

But as this book points out, he was also a leader of the local and national Republican Party, dealing in the inner counsels of the party, and editor of two journals of opinion that influenced political life in the federal city. The authors also discuss the achievements of Frederick Douglass as philanthropist and organizer of community projects such as Howard University in Washington D.C. On reflection, what is being celebrated in this book is the political genius of Frederick Douglass, who could handle with skill every detail of political maneuvering of city government and keep the ship of local government on an even keel. The collection shows how Douglass performed his duties effectively in the political posts he was given for many years after the Civil War and yet kept his main political goal of advance for African Americans in sight.

My first encounter with Frederick Douglass as an intellectual leader and writer was in an undergraduate course on the Civil War, where I was fortunate to read an excerpt of his famouscover of book on the life of Frederick Douglass in Washington, DCNarrative about his life under bondage and as a witness to the sufferings of those living under the rule of slavery. Then through happenstance, I wandered into a small independent bookstore located near the Syracuse University campus. There I discovered the five or six volumes of the collective writings of Frederick Douglass.

The beauty of that bright snowy day may have intensified my experience, but through browsing through the collection, I became aware of Douglass’s brilliance in analyzing the key issues of his time. His thought ranged through the many aspects of the conditions African Americans were living under at that time. He put them under the microscope to understand their implications for the further progress of African Americans.

Even from my cursory reading of the content of the volumes, I could see that Douglass had a thorough knowledge of politics and philosophy and he addressed almost every major issue of mid-nineteenth century America in his writings: from political reform to temperance, as well as discussing many aspects of the central issue of slavery. He also showed the special talent of an intellectual and political leader: an ability to connect with an audience, inspire, and move others to his cause.

After he escaped slavery, Douglass toured the United States telling his story of suffering under the slave system and obtained a very enthusiastic hearing. However, he also had the genius to go one step further and use his experience and activism to formulate a philosophy of freedom that influenced the just-forming ideology of the Republican Party. His profound understanding of politics, human nature and movements came forth rough-hewn from his own thoughts and experience, much like the intellectual and moral growth of another gifted leader of that time, Abraham Lincoln. He also wrote essays as a political leader, working to convince other African American and Republican leaders of the wisdom of the policies he advocated, such as the inclusion of African Americans into the ranks of the Federal Army.

Frederick Douglass was a man of many parts. Yet he was an almost an entirely self-made man in relation to his intellectual life. He taught himself to read by bribing young, poor Caucasian kids he met on the streets of Baltimore to teach him the elements of literacy. His appetite for knowledge of all forms, historical, philosophical and literary was remarkable for his time and he applied his knowledge to the great cause of his life.

book on the political thought of Frederick DouglassBecause Douglass was an intellectually self-formed and self-made man, he may have formed many insights denied to others. It was in the gradual development of his thought that he was able to realize his role as great intellectual leader and that qualifies him to be what Ralph Waldo Emerson calls a “representative man.” The “representative man” is defined by Emerson as one who in some special way embodied the life of their time in expressing an essential idea. From consideration of his later political career, one could see Frederick Douglass was a “representative man” because of his passion for freedom in all its forms. Douglass represented the principle of freedom for American political thought, and for the politics of the American Republic when viewed as a developing democracy.

In a new study of the political ideas of Frederick Douglass entitled The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass: in pursuit of American Liberty, Nicholas Buccola outlines how this new understanding of the dimensions of freedom became the central idea manifested in Douglass’ life and political activity. Buccola tries to demonstrate how Douglass formulated a new understanding of the universal meaning of freedom taken from his experience of bondage, and discovered new parameters for that notion.

According to Buccola, it was this special experience of life under slavery that allowed him to attain a deeper understanding of the meaning and implications of freedom and how it could be applied to the practice of political democracy. He was said to have married the idea of Freedom to Political Democracy in a way many Abolitionists did not, especially those who were anti-political such as William Lloyd Garrison. He may have developed a deeper comprehension of that idea of freedom because of his experience of the opposite: the experience of bondage that he analyzed in great detail to understand the essence of freedom and oppression. Certainly, he did so more than most political leaders of his time.

This book fleshes out the full dimensions of the thinking of Frederick Douglass on the concept of freedom as it relates to human destiny and the political life of the growing American Republic. His insight into the importance of freedom is dealt with in all its aspects: political, social, and freedom of the inner domain, freedom of conscience. Buccola’s book is a perfect match for the collection of historical essays edited by John Muller on the local Washington life of Frederick Douglass chosen for the DC Reads program. This deeper understanding of freedom is still with us today as part of the political culture of the United States and is the heritage of all Americans.
 
-- Paul Sweeney