From the Editor

By Carol Berkin

2018 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of an extraordinary American: Frederick Douglass. Orator and activist, champion of abolition and tireless worker for racial equality, Douglass stands, with Abraham Lincoln, as the conscience of his generation and a role model for all those who embrace the ideals of our country. Yet too many Americans, even within our political leadership, do not know of Douglass’s deeds or the power of his words. History Now is pleased to devote this issue to a collection of original essays on Douglass and his life by distinguished scholars in several fields of study.

Adele Alexander starts our issue with “Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute, 1892: A Little-known Encounter.” Alexander points out the critical differences in attitude and approach taken by these two leaders, both born into slavery. Douglass stood for resistance; Washington for accommodation. When they met, what ensued? Using historical evidence and imagination, Alexander recreates the meeting of these two African American leaders.

Robert S. Levine’s “Douglass the Autobiographer” examines Douglass’s portrayal of himself in three separate autobiographies published between 1845 and 1892. Although his heroic characterization of himself remained constant, Douglass did revise his life history for what Levine notes were political and rhetorical purposes. The most famous of the three autobiographies was the first, written when Douglass was twenty-seven, and published with a foreword by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Douglass’s second autobiography reflects his break with Garrison and his concern that white men dominated the abolitionist movement. This shift is conveyed in Douglass’s telling and retelling of his resistance to a slave-breaker named Covey. The final autobiography, though criticized as too self-regarding, is, Levine notes, perhaps the most fascinating of all.

In “Douglass, Lincoln, and the Civil War,” Chandra Manning traces how the evolving relationship between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass helped dismantle slavery in the Civil War. For Douglass, a prominent abolitionist and former slave, abolition was the paramount goal, whereas for President Lincoln, the goals of saving the United States and ending slavery were linked. War made allies of Lincoln and Douglass, but it did not make them perfect or the same. Neither could single-handedly overcome intransigent American racism, but working within and through their differences allowed Douglass and Lincoln to do more together to destroy slavery than either could achieve on his own.

Sarah Meer helps us understand Frederick Douglass’s remarkable mastery of the spoken word in her essay, “Frederick Douglass, Orator.” Although there were numerous African American orators in the mid-nineteenth century, Douglass stood out for his charisma and skills. As one contemporary put it, “He, in very deed, sways a magic wand.” Polished and articulate, Douglass drew on his experience in church preaching and his study of classical debate; he could effortlessly shift from plain imagery to, as Meer puts it, “apocalyptic thunder.” Douglass did not limit his oratory to the service of abolition; he spoke out in the cause of women’s rights, Irish liberty, and temperance. He also challenged an emerging pseudo-scientific argument that racial differences denoted a moral and intellectual hierarchy. As Meer notes, Douglass’s oratory preceded his written work and the powerful intellect that comes through in his autobiographies and in his newspaper editorials, was honed first on the lecture circuit.

In “The Lion of All Occasions: The Great Black Abolitionist Frederick Douglass,” Manisha Sinha persuasively argues that Douglass’s career illustrates the leading role self-emancipated slaves played in the abolition movement. Born a slave in the border state of Maryland, with a black mother and a white father, Douglass managed to escape in 1838 and make his way to Massachusetts. Here, a fiery leader of the abolition movement, William Lloyd Garrison, became Douglass’s mentor and supporter. Douglass’s lectures on his experiences in slavery quickly made him a central figure on the abolition circuit and his fame spread with the publication of his best-selling slave narrative in 1845. As Sinha notes, this genre—a former slave’s indictment of the slavery he or she had experienced—became the “most effective weapon in the abolitionist arsenal.” An eighteen-month speaking tour of Ireland and Britain gave Douglass an international reputation. Garrison praised him as “the lion of all occasions.” Yet by 1851, Douglass had broken with Garrison on ideological and strategic grounds; he rejected Garrison’s argument that the Constitution was a pact with the devil and cast his lot with those abolitionists who preferred to wage their war against slavery in the political arena.

This issue includes a remarkable number of other rich materials, valuable for the classroom. These are “Activist for Equality: Frederick Douglass at 200,” an online exhibition of treasures from the Institute’s collection; videos, including lectures by distinguished historians David W. Blight and Matthew Pinsker; a selection of previously published essays by noted scholars such as Edward Ayers, David Blight, Steven Mintz, James Oakes, and Manisha Sinha; a lesson plan; and finally, links to primary sources written by Douglass himself.

We hope you find this tribute to Frederick Douglass as informative and exciting as we did as we put it together for you.

Look forward to equally valuable issues in the coming months.

Carol Berkin

Special Feature

“Activist for Equality: Frederick Douglass at 200”


“The Importance of Frederick Douglass,” a presentation by David W. Blight, Class of 1954 Professor of American History, Yale University

“Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln,” a presentation by David W. Blight, Class of 1954 Professor of American History, Yale University

“Frederick Douglass on Lincoln and Reconstruction,” a presentation by Matthew Pinsker, Pohanka Chair in American Civil War History, Dickinson College

From the Archives


“Admiration and Ambivalence: Frederick Douglass and John Brown” by David W. Blight

“‘Your Late Lamented Husband’: A Letter from Frederick Douglass to Mary Todd Lincoln” by David W. Blight

“‘The Merits of This Fearful Conflict’: Douglass on the Causes of the Civil War” by David W. Blight

“African Americans and Emancipation” by Manisha Sinha

“Douglass and Lincoln: A Convergence” by James Oakes

“‘Hidden Practices’: Frederick Douglass on Segregation and Black Achievement, 1887” by Edward L. Ayers

“Frederick Douglass: From Slavery to Freedom” by Steven Mintz

From the Teacher's Desk (Lesson Plans)

“Frederick Douglass: What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July” by Tim Bailey (Grades 7–10)

Spotlight on Primary Sources

Buying Frederick Douglass’s Freedom, 1846

“I love you but hate slavery”: Frederick Douglass to his former owner, Hugh Auld, ca. 1860

African American soldiers at the Battle of Fort Wagner, 1863

“Men of Color, To Arms! To Arms,” 1863

Sergeant Francis Fletcher of the 54th Massachusetts on equal pay for black soldiers, 1864

The Fifteenth Amendment, 1870

Racism in the North: Frederick Douglass on “a vulgar and senseless prejudice,” 1870

Frederick Douglass’s tribute to Abraham Lincoln, 1880

Frederick Douglass on Jim Crow, 1887

Frederick Douglass on the disfranchisement of black voters, 1888