Slave and Citizen: The Life of Frederick Douglass, Nathan Irvin Huggins & Oscar Handlin

Frederick Douglass is my hero.  Him and Julian of Norwich – an unlikely pair, and I am not really sure what they would make of each other, but there you go.  I have been saying for ages that we should put Frederick Douglass on our money.  And bump Jackson.  Jackson is the obvious choice to get bumped, but I also think we could get rid of Grant, in a pinch – it’s not that I hate him or anything, it’s just that, you know, he wasn’t that amazing a president, and we are already representin’ for the Civil War with our good buddy Lincoln.  Get rid of Jackson and Grant and substitute Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.  I think we can all agree that Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman are way more legendary than Jackson.

Anyway, I really like Frederick Douglass, and reading this biography of him made me feel all full of snuggly love.  I started reading another biography of Frederick Douglass earlier this month in which the author asserted that Frederick Douglass really loved Thomas Auld (Auld was one of his “owners”) and had many complicated feelings about him, as evident (said the book) from the fact that Frederick Douglass never said a nice thing about Auld.  Um, sure.

Slave and Citizen is a political biography of Frederick Douglass – specifically, a biography of Frederick Douglass’s political life relating to antislavery and the rights of African-Americans.  For the first two-thirds of the book, this is fantastic.  Even when Lincoln is dragging his feet and failing to follow through on his promises, there’s a sense of movement forward.  We know where this goes; the Civil War ends and the slaves are free.

After that, everything gets really sad.  Frederick Douglass and the women’s movement both sort of act like jerks and stop being friends (for a while! not forever!).  He waits and waits for the government to treat him with the respect he totally utterly deserves, but they don’t really want a black man in a responsible government position.  There are tragic passages like this:

In his last years, whatever sense of personal accomplishment Douglass may have felt was overwhelmed by the knowledge that his great crusade had failed.  The American people had succumbed to self-indulging prejudice and had missed their chance to create a national community based on law and justice.

People can be so shabby.  Andrew Johnson, for one, is dead to me – he met with Frederick Douglass and afterward said a number of things about him that I am far too much of a lady to repeat.

If I were going to complain about one thing in this book, it would be that there are not enough excerpts from Douglass’s speeches, editorials, and letters.  For a book about Frederick Douglass’s voice in American politics, there wasn’t a whole lot of Frederick Douglass’s voice.  In the epilogue, the author makes note of Philip Foner’s multivolume The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, which I now covet, but can only read in short, controlled bursts at the university library.

Slave and Citizen left me wanting to know much, much more about Frederick Douglass and especially about his involvement with the women’s movement.  From this book, it appears that the women wanted their right to vote included on the Fifteenth Amendment; the Fifteenth Amendment folks knew that there was a limited amount of political capital stored up for getting black men the vote, and were afraid that putting women in there too would kill it dead, and NOBODY would get the vote EVER.  The women said why should ignorant black men get to vote and not educated us?; Frederick Douglass said white women already have a voice in the government through their brothers & fathers & husbands.  Sounds like a festival of ungenerosity to me; I yearn to know more!

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6 thoughts on “Slave and Citizen: The Life of Frederick Douglass, Nathan Irvin Huggins & Oscar Handlin

  1. I would be interested in learning more about Mr Douglas. I did read a bio years ago on Susan B and remember some of the ‘festival of ungenerosity’ you speak of.

    • There is a big book full of his speeches & writings about women’s rights, but my library hasn’t got it, and neither has my bookstore. I am so curious to see what everybody said about everybody else!

    • Oo, that sounds like something I need to read. Slave & Citizen talked at some length about Douglass and how he felt about Lincoln, but I’d really enjoy a whole book about it.

  2. I recommend you read his own biography. Written with his own hand. It is so excellent! What a master he was of the written word. And he worked so hard to learn to read. He makes me ashamed! I take my education for granted.

    I think we likewise take our freedom and liberty too lightly!

    Mr. Douglass hated working and handing his money to a man who took care of him. Who provided food, shelter, clothing and ‘everything he needed’. He felt demeaned by having a master decide where he could go and what he could do. No matter how well he was taken care of by his kind mistress or masters, he would much rather be free and have the liberty to make his own choices, and keep the money he worked so hard to earn.

    We should heed his lessons!

    I would like to recommend reading about Pierre Toussaint. Also, I always recommend everyone read about the amazing JENNIE DEAN: “Undaunted Faith: The Story of Jennie Dean” by Dr. Stephan Lewis.

    I hope everyone knows about Paul Cuffee and the short blessed life of Samuel Morris. Our nation is full of wonderful hard working, strong role models.

    • I’ve read the two earlier versions of his autobiography, though not the final one he wrote. I find it so moving how he taught himself to read – I get teary every time I read the part where he gets hold of those pamphlets about freedom, where the slave and his master have a dialogue and the slave convinces the master to free him.

      Thank you for the other recommendations too! I will try to check those out!

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