RTF Book of the Month: The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass

This is the first book recommendation by Rising Tide which will occur from now on a monthly basis. In these monthly book recommendations we will include a short explanation of why we think this book is very important to include as a part of your reading list and an excerpt of the book itself.

For this month, we have decided on the Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, who was a slave who escaped to the North, lived during the Civil War and not only found himself directly advising President Abraham Lincoln, later becoming Ambassador to Haiti, but also became a great public figure advocating for equality and justice through his journal “The North Star” using a printing press which he founded and managed, and was instrumental in the success of the Underground Railroad.

Although these are all great achievements for any man, and thus warrants our attention to know more about such a person, this book is incredibly powerful not because of its list of achievements but rather because of the candour and precision in which Douglass takes us through every moment that carried weight in his life, down to every interaction he can remember, and remembers in such detail. Douglass shares the valuable lessons he took from these encounters and challenges, that are universal lessons for all people.

The autobiography is composed in three parts, each one being added as he grew older. The first part, and in many ways the most moving one, is Douglass’ description of himself growing up as a child into a young adult in bondage. What is striking about this account, is that despite the overwhelming sadness and injustice of the situation, Douglass never allowed himself to despair. Even as a child, Douglass is aware that he has the right to learn how to read, and manages to teach himself. When he is older he finds himself starting a secret Sunday school to teach the other slaves how to read, namely, the Bible, which they were willing to work on despite a six day work week of hard labour, 16 hours or more per day. By the time Douglass is a young adult, he accomplishes what is the worst fear of his slave master, and displays without a doubt that he is a superior man to his “master”. Despite being told his whole life that he was just a beast, Douglass knew and thus chose to act like a man, revealing his “master” to be the true beast in his desire to subvert this innate truth. Douglass thus exemplifies the idea that we all have access to a divine nature within us, and that no matter the state and condition into which we are born and raised, nothing can take that away from us.

Another reason why this book is very important is Frederick Douglass’ incredible account of his interaction with Lincoln. It was a truly chaotic time where it was not even known whether the U.S. would be successful in staying whole. Part of this crisis was economical, in that the South wanted to protect their right to own human beings (which was the foundation of their economy). However, no matter what angle you look at it, the Civil War, as Douglass also describes, was always at its core about the emancipation from slavery and the freedom and sovereignty of the individual to live the best life they could choose for themselves. Economy had a large part to play in this, since the North had at that point a very large and capable machine tool industry. Douglass remarks himself that one machine did a better and quicker job of a task than forty men. There was therefore no justification for the use of slavery from an economic basis. The threat to the future existence of the United States depended on how they would ultimately choose to answer the question, “Are all men born equal?”, Douglass understood this, and furthermore, identified that Lincoln also understood this to be the most important aspect of the Civil War that would ensure a future for the United States.

From the first, I for one, saw in this war the end of slavery, and truth requires me to say that my interest in the success of the North was largely due to this belief. True it is that this faith was many times shaken by passing events, but never destroyed. When…slaves were being returned from our lines to their masters -when Union soldiers were stationed about the farmhouses of Virginia to guard and protect the master in holding his slaves – when Union soldiers made themselves more active in kicking colored men out of their camps than in shooting rebels -when even Mr. Lincoln could tell the poor Negro that “he was the cause of the war,” I still believed, and spoke as I believed, all over the North , that the mission of the war was the liberation of the slave, as well as the salvation of the Union; and hence from the first I reproached the North that they fought the rebels with one hand, when they might strike effectually with two -that they fought with their soft white hand, while they kept back their black iron hand chained and helpless behind them -that they fought the effect, while they protected the cause, and that the Union cause would never prosper till the war assumed an antislavery attitude, and the Negro was enlisted on the loyal side. In every way possible -in the columns of my paper and on the platform, by letters to friends, at home and abroad, I did all that I could to impress this conviction upon the country. But nations seldom listen to advice from individuals, however reasonable. They are taught less by theories than by facts and events. There was much that could be said against making the war an abolition war -much that seemed wise and patriotic. “Make the war an abolition war,” we were told, “and you drive the border states into the rebellion, and thus add power to the enemy and increase the number you will have to meet on the battlefield. You will exasperate and intensify southern feeling, making it more desperate, and put far away the day of peace between two sections.” “Employ the arm of the Negro, and the loyal men of the North will throw down their arms and go home.” “This is the white man’s country and the white man’s war.” “It would inflict an intolerable wound upon the pride and spirit of white soldiers of the Union to see the Negro in the United States uniform. Besides, if you make the Negro a soldier; you cannot depend on his courage; a crack of his old master’s whip will send him scampering in terror from the field.” And so it was that custom, pride, prejudice, and the old-time respect for southern feeling, held back the government from an antislavery policy and from arming the Negro.

I shall never forget my first interview with this great man. I was accompanied to the executive mansion and introduced to President Lincoln by Senator Pomperoy…I entered the room with a moderate estimate of my own consequence, and yet there I was to talk with, and even to advise, the head man of a great nation. Happily for me, there was no vain pomp and ceremony about him. I was never more quickly or more completely put at ease in the presence of a great man than in that of Abraham Lincoln. He was seated, when I entered, in a low armchair with his feet extended on the floor, surrounded by a large number of documents and several busy secretaries. The room bore the marks of business, and the persons in it, the President included, appeared to be much overworked and tired. Long lines of care were already deeply written on Mr. Lincoln’s brow, and his strong face, full of earnestness, lighted up as soon as my name was mentioned. As I approached and was introduced to him he arose and extended his hand, and bade me welcome. I at once felt myself in the presence of an honest man -one whom I could love, honor, and trust without reserve or doubt. Proceeding to tell him who I was and what I was doing, he promptly, but kindly, stopped me saying: “I know who you are, Mr. Douglass; Mr. Seward has told me all about you. Sit down. I am glad to see you.” I then told him the object of my visit -that I was assisting to raise colored troops -that several months before I had been very successful in getting men to enlist, but that now it was not easy to induce the colored men to enter the service, because there was a feeling among them that the government did not, in several respects, deal fairly with them. Mr. Lincoln asked me to state particulars. I replied that there were three particulars which I wished to bring to his attention. First, that colored soldiers ought to receive the same wages as those paid to white soldiers. Second, that colored soldiers ought to receive the same protection when taken prisoners, and be exchanged as readily and on the same terms as any other prisoners, and if Jefferson Davis should shoot or hang colored soldiers in cold blood the United States government, should, without delay, retaliate in kind and degree upon Confederate prisoners in its hands. Third, when colored soldiers, seeking “the bubble reputation at the cannon’s mouth,” performed great and uncommon service on the battlefield, they should be rewarded by distinction and promotion precisely as white soldiers are rewarded for like services.

Mr. Lincoln listened with patience and silence to all I had to say. He was serious and even troubled by what I had said and by what he himself had evidently before thought upon the same points. He, by his silent listening not less than by his earnest reply to my words, impressed me with the solid gravity of his character.

He began by saying that the employment of colored troops at all was a great gain to the colored people -that the measure could not have been successfully adopted at the beginning of the war -that the wisdom of making colored men soldiers was still doubted -that their enlistment was a serious offense to popular prejudice -that they ought to be willing to enter the service upon any condition -that the fact that they were not to receive the same pay as white soldiers seemed a necessary concession to smooth the way to their employment at all as soldiers, but that ultimately they would receive the same. On the second point, in respect to equal protection, he said the case was more difficult. Retaliation was a terrible remedy, and one which it was very difficult to apply -that, if once begun, there was no telling where it would end – that if he could get hold of the Confederate soldiers who had been guilty of treating colored soldiers as felons he could easily retaliate, but the thought of hanging men for a crime perpetrated by others was revolting to his feelings. He thought that the rebels themselves would stop such barbarous warfare -that less evil would be done if retaliation were not resorted to and that he had already received information that colored soldiers were being treated as prisoners of war. In all this I saw the tender heart of the man rather than the stern warrior and commander-in-chief of the American army and navy, and, while I could not agree with him, I could but respect his humane spirit.

On the third point he appeared to have less difficulty, though he did not absolutely commit himself. He simply said that he would sign any commission to colored soldiers whom his Secretary of War should commend to him. Though I was not entirely satisfied with his views, I was so well satisfied with the man and with the educating tendency of the conflict that I determined to go on with the recruiting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s