Fugitive Orator

Fugitive Orator

Fugitive Orator

This is the fourth of a series of blogs reviewing the book, Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, by John Stauffer. It’s been over a year since the previous blog post in this series. If you want to refresh your memory, here are the first three blog posts: Book Review of “Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln”Privileged Slave, and Poor White Trash.

In chapter two, Douglass arrives in New York City as a penniless fugitive slave, but eventually becomes a gifted, famous, world traveling orator and a legally free man.

Douglass traveled with John Collins, a white lecturer. When Collins wasn’t with him, Douglass faced logistical problems because of racial discrimination. In Grafton, Massachusetts, Douglass had to get creative to secure a venue and promote his lecture. Stauffer writes,

So he went into a hotel, borrowed a dinner bell, and walked through the main streets, ringing the bell and crying out, “Notice! Frederick Douglass, recently a slave, will lecture on American Slavery on Grafton Common this evening at 7:00.” The strategy worked: a large audience came to hear him and the next day a church opened its doors to him.

Even when Collins was with him, there was no guarantee for smooth sailing. They paid for seats in an Eastern Railroad car, but a conductor tried to make Douglass go to the freight car used for blacks. Douglass and Collins wouldn’t budge. Stauffer writes,

…he and Collins clung to their bench. The conductor rounded up half a dozen toughs to “snake out the damn nigger.” They finally ejected them, but in the process ripped out the floor bolts and destroyed the seat.

Not all white abolitionists were as loyal to Douglass as Collins:

He received about half the pay of white lecturers even though he was the most effective speaker in the organization. After criticizing John Collins, he was reprimanded “for insubordination to my superiors.” […] He hated the way coms of his white colleagues patronized him: just “give us the facts,” John Collins told him; “we will take care of the philosophy.”

Thankfully, Douglass did not listen, and in 1845 the American Anti-Slavery Society published Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. Soon after, Douglass had to go into hiding, because when the slaveowner who still had legal rights to Douglass read the book, he was outraged and vowed to put Douglass back in the cotton fields.

Douglass spent two years in the British Isles, and wanted to stay permanently, but what he wanted even more than his own personal comfort was to end slavery and racism. His British friends raised enough money to purchase Douglass’s freedom. The abolitionists in Boston, believe it or not, were opposed to the transaction:

…because it recognized the right “to traffic in human beings” and thus compromised abolitionist principles.

They were also opposed to Douglass starting his own newspaper. Regarding such opposition, Stauffer makes a very important observation:

[Douglass] had already learned that as he continued to remake himself, he left friends and allies behind. […] While he constantly changed, they remained much the same or evolved in divergent paths. In a protean sea, love and friendship rarely survived.

As readers already know from the scarcity of blog posts lately, I’ve been busy following and promoting the Bernie Sanders campaign. I can’t help but notice a parallel between Douglass/white abolitionists and Sanders/Democratic National Committee.

The white abolitionists did not want an intellectual, analytical, and rhetorical giant, they wanted a simple-minded ex-slave. They welcomed him among themselves, as if they had already overcome racism. Granted, they were morally light-years ahead of slaveholders, but in the movement to end slavery, they still saw themselves as superior and resented his greater potential to effect change than them. In Douglass, they saw the potential of their movement to bring more change than they were ready to handle — a nation where a black man might hold a higher position of power or influence than a white man.

Similarly, the DNC welcomes the energy, the potential new general election voters, and the dividends for down-ticket Democrats that Sanders brings to their party. They even give lip service to Sanders being good for Democrats because he is helping bring progressive reform. But they’ve made it abundantly clear in a plethora of ways that they absolutely do not want Sanders to be the Democratic nominee. In Sanders, they see the potential of the party to bring more change than they are willing to allow — a nation where voters might hold a higher position of power or influence over politicians than lobbyists and corporations.


  • Mary Vanderplas June 27, 2016 at 5:40 am

    Yes, Sanders has been scorned by the party’s elite (and neglected by the major media). And yes, I think it’s accurate to say that the party elite objects to Sanders at least partly on the grounds that his proposed reforms likely would substantially change the playing field such that ordinary citizens have a role in determining public policy outcomes. However, I don’t find compelling the analogy you draw between Sanders and the party elite and Frederick Douglass and the white abolitionists. Douglass was hindered and oppressed in ways that Sanders is not. And in the case of Sanders, it’s Sanders who has been criticized for being less than sensitive to the way in which racial prejudice affects the lives of black Americans. (It is a fact of the Sanders campaign that he has largely failed to attract African American voters, especially older ones.) Of course, in the case of Douglass, Douglass was a victim of racial prejudice – even from those who ostensibly supported him and his cause of freedom and racial equality.

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