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The Great(er) Emancipator — Frederick Douglass

If Hollywood is ever ready to demystify the Civil War, it should give Frederick Douglass the star treatment.

How can you make a film about Abraham Lincoln and the abolition of slavery and leave out Frederick Douglass? Steven Spielberg found a way, apparently, in his recent film Lincoln.

The film’s screenwriter, Tony Kushner, reportedly said that he had to leave out ‘dramatic scenes with Frederick Douglass’ as a ‘trade-off’ for focusing the plot on Lincoln’s 1865 effort to round up enough lame-duck Democrats in the House of Representatives to pass the Thirteenth Amendment (abolishing slavery). Kushner recalled that when Spielberg suggested limiting the film to this topic, both laughed at what seemed ‘an insane idea’ because the ‘whole movie was just going to be a bunch of guys talking.’

The insane part, though, is not the bunch of guys talking—a refreshing change from the bloody bore of the war itself—but the relative insignificance of an abolition debate at the very moment Sherman and Grant’s armies were uprooting slavery in fact. Spielberg chooses the denouement, after Gettysburg and Lincoln’s landslide re-election, and just a few months before General Lee’s surrender.

Spielberg and Kushner, by most accounts, have made the best of their material, but their ‘trade-off’ sounds like a bum deal. Why not keep Frederick Douglass and choose a more dramatic episode? Any number of points during the Lincoln administration could shed a sharper light on his politics and the debate over slavery, and the presence of Douglass in each case would heighten understanding. 

Setting the film even a few months earlier, to look at Lincoln’s re-election campaign, would have raised the dramatic tension: the stakes then were still high. Douglass feared that an election victory for the ‘revived’ Democratic Party, led by Gen. George B McClellan, would prevent a ‘final settlement’ to the conflict, leaving it ‘to tear and rend the country again at no distant future’—and he campaigned vigorously for Lincoln.

Even more interesting is the 1860 Presidential campaign, whose outcome sparked the war. Douglass campaigned for Lincoln in that election, too, but with many reservations. ‘With the single exception of the question of slavery extension’, he wrote at the time, ‘Mr. Lincoln proposes no measure which can bring him into antagonistic collision with the traffickers in human flesh,’ and offered the prediction that, ‘The Union will, therefore, be saved simply because there is no cause in the election of Mr. Lincoln for its dissolution.’ This illustrates the wide gap between Lincoln and the abolitionists at the time. Douglass’s prediction was wrong, of course, but only because, ‘the South was mad, and would listen to no concessions.’

And then there are the eventful months leading up to the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. A film set then could examine how the war’s necessities, more than high-blown principles, led the Lincoln administration to (finally!) take the first cautious steps toward abolition. Douglass welcomed the Proclamation, but found it ‘extremely defective’ and ‘not a true proclamation of liberty but one marked by discriminations and reservations.’ Including his views would help brush a few cobwebs off Lincoln’s much-praised but half-hearted executive order.

Any one of these settings seems more promising than Spielberg’s odd choice, but there is probably method to his madness. Narrowing his film down to the Republicans’ debate with the demoralized Democrats at war’s end, rather than with principled abolitionists at its outset, would seem to spare the director the ordeal of grappling with Lincoln’s evolving policy. Instead, he can present viewers with the more familiar sight of political arm-twisting and horse-trading over an issue that is, by that point, a near formality. That level of politics may be more ‘relevant’ to our own, but really that is an argument against choosing it, dramatically speaking.

Better Fred than Abe

An even better idea (Steven, if you’re listening): Why not cut out Abe Lincoln altogether and make Frederick Douglass the star?

His life, stretching from 1817 to 1895, is full of gripping, conflict-ridden tales, intertwined with the drama of slavery’s demise and the rise of industrial capitalism. For dramatic plot lines and entertaining dialogue, the screenwriter need look no further than Douglass’s brilliant, overlapping accounts of his own life: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and The Life & Times of Frederick Douglass (1881).

The story of his life begins in eastern Maryland, where he was born in a ‘dull, flat, and unthrifty district . . . surrounded by a white population of the lowest order, indolent and drunken to a proverb, and among slaves, who seemed to ask, Oh! What’s the use? every time they lifted a hoe.’ His grandparents raised him several miles from the plantation where his mother and other slaves toiled, and where he was sent around age seven or eight to begin working himself. Douglass had the good fortunate to be removed from the plantation—‘before the rigors of slavery had fastened upon me’—and sent to the home of his master’s relative in Baltimore, where a somewhat freer atmosphere prevailed. Except for a harrowing period back on the plantation, where he worked in the fields and plotted a (failed) attempt to escape to the North, he remained in Baltimore. And in 1838, disguised as a sailor, Douglass escaped by train from the city to New York.

He settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, working on the shipbuilding docks as he had done in Baltimore. Within a few months of gaining his freedom he was a subscriber to The Liberator, the abolitionist newspaper of William Lloyd Garrison, whom Douglass met in 1841 at an anti-slavery convention in Nantucket. The impromptu speech Douglass delivered there created a sensation and launched his career as an abolitionist agitator, beginning with his work as an ‘agent’ and lecturer for Garrison’s Anti-Slavery Society.

Douglass, to the consternation of some, soon outgrew his role as ‘escaped slave,’ which his ever-growing eloquence as a writer and speaker made ‘unconvincing’ to many audiences. He also outgrew, or grew apart from, his mentor, Garrison, rejecting his general aloofness to politics and his insistence that the Constitution was a pro-slavery document. After returning from a tour of England, Douglass moved to Rochester, New York, away from the sphere of the ‘Garrisonians,’ and in 1847 began issuing his own newspaper, The North Star. He would continue to publish a weekly or monthly newspaper over the next fifteen or so years, under a number of different titles.

There is something thrilling, especially to socialists, about the abolitionist movement around the time Douglass entered it. Unlike typical reformists, with their laundry list of incremental improvements, the abolitionists aimed to uproot an entire (semi) mode of production, and would settle for nothing less! And they set about the task with passion and patience, using the written and spoken word as their weapons.

As the 1850s progressed, the abolitionists found that the tide of history was finally beginning to flow in a direction more favourable to their cause. The great national crisis was coming to a head. These are cinematic years of constant political and social upheaval: the disintegration of the Whig Party, the rapid rise and fall of the Free Soil and Know Nothing movements, and the birth of the Republican Party, while the nation staggered from one patched-together compromise and crisis to the next until the election of Lincoln. The Civil War itself is far less gripping than the decade that preceded it, and no one trained a keener eye on the political currents than Frederick Douglass.

Of course, the story of Douglass during the Civil War is also immensely instructive. His writings at the time and his later reflections reveal how reluctant Lincoln was to do more than merely preserve the Union. From the outset, Douglass urged the President to wage an ‘abolition war’ and was deeply frustrated by how long it was taking the ‘slow coach in Washington’ to get moving in that direction. He berated the Republicans because they ‘fought with the soft white hand, while they kept the black iron hand chained and helpless behind them; that they fought the effect, while they protected the cause.’ But Douglass believed the necessities of the war would turn Republicans into abolitionists, wisely appealing to their pragmatic interests rather than their sense of morality. His analysis proved correct in the end but the war also turned Douglass the abolitionist into a stalwart Republican, which he would remain until his death.

After the war, as Garrison was disbanding his Anti-Slavery Society, Douglass felt that there was still work to be done; that the aim had been ‘not merely to emancipate, but to elevate the enslaved class,’ and that the former slave was now ‘free from the old plantation’ but with ‘nothing but the dusty road under his feet’ and a ‘slave to society.’ But his efforts to aid black workers were hampered by his loyalty to the Republican Party. This blind support for the party of industrial capital painted black workers into a corner, and allowed the Republicans to take their votes for granted. The contradictory position Douglass found himself in, as black leader and diehard Republican, sets the tone for his last three decades—a period of history that revealed how the Civil War freed capital from its chains, too. 

An inspiration to wage slaves

Knowing Hollywood, and its hankering for hagiography and historical melodrama, it’s just as well, perhaps, that Douglass hasn’t been given the star treatment; I would hate to see him reduced to a saint or superhero. The curious are better off going straight to the source by reading his autobiographies.

All three books bring the history of nineteenth-century America alive. But what makes them even more powerful is that while slavery may officially be dead and buried, exploitation and class rule are very much alive. You may pick up one of his autobiographies with the intention of learning about the past, only to encounter passages that remind you of your own lack of freedom as a worker—a wage slave.

It would be ridiculous, of course, to ignore the differences between a wage worker and chattel slave—starting with the auction-block tragedies that broke up slave families—but Douglass himself noted the similarities: ‘The white slave had taken from him by indirection what the black slave had taken from him directly and without ceremony. Both were plundered, and by the same plunderers.’ We need to think of ourselves as wage slaves, not to belittle the past horrors of slavery, but to keep in mind our real position under capitalism today.

The great ‘advantage’ the slave has over the wage worker, although rooted in a bleaker situation, is in having no illusions about being free. Ever since Douglass, as a little boy, learned about a ‘mysterious personage’ named ‘Old Master’ who owned his grandmother and ‘all the little children around her’ (including himself), his state of bondage was a transparent fact, and gaining his freedom an obsession. This early revelation left young Frederick with ‘something to brood over after the play and in moments of repose.’

His restless, probing mind went straight to the heart of the matter, asking himself: ‘Why am I a slave. Why are some people slaves and others masters?’ The stock answer he was given—much like today’s ‘That’s just the way it is’—was that ‘God, up in the sky’ made everybody and ‘made white people to be masters and mistresses, and black people to be slaves.’ This struck Frederick as an odd thing for a benevolent God to do, and the source of the knowledge was unclear (‘Did they go up in the skies and learn it?’). Also, he knew of many whites who were not masters, and blacks who were not slaves.

But he wasn’t long in making his first great discovery that there were slaves brought directly from Guinea and those whose fathers or mothers were stolen from Africa. ‘It was a kind of knowledge,’ he recalled, ‘that filled me with a burning hatred of slavery, increased my suffering, and left me without the means of breaking away from my bondage. Yet it was knowledge quite worth possessing.’ From this he knew, ‘what man can make, man can unmake.’

How many workers today are asking themselves: Why am I a wage slave? How many would even accept that self-description? We can learn from the attitude of the young Douglass who already was scrutinizing his social world and taking the first steps toward emancipation.

Another great lesson Douglass learned at a tender age—dispelling the ‘painful mystery’ of the ‘white man’s power to perpetuate the enslavement of the black man’—was that slavery had to enforce ignorance. The lesson was driven home by his master in Baltimore who forbade his wife to continue teaching Frederick how to read, saying in front of him: ‘Learning will spoil the best nigger in the world.’ Douglass drew the appropriate conclusion from his master’s ‘exposition of the true philosophy of slavery,’ knowing from that moment knowledge is ‘the true pathway from slavery to freedom.’

Along with his hard-fought struggle to develop his mind as a tool for confronting slavery, Douglass throughout his life had to fight to protect his dignity—even as a ‘freeman’ in the North, where he confronted segregation on trains and in restaurants and hotels. Douglass ignored such ‘rules’ and if necessary physically resisted attempts to enforce them, believing that the ‘way to break down an unreasonable custom, is to contradict it in practice.’

His ‘take-no-crap’ attitude dates back to his earliest experiences as a slave, from which he learned, ‘He is whipped oftenest, who is whipped easiest.’ The great turning point in his own life, wonderfully narrated in his autobiographies, came the day he physically resisted the ‘Negro-breaker’ Edward Covey’s attempt to beat him into submission. Douglass fought back, giving his attacker (who never laid a hand on him again) the worst of it. ‘I was a changed being after that fight,’ he recalled. ‘I was nothing before; I was A MAN NOW. It recalled to life my crushed self-respect and my self-confidence, and inspired me with a renewed determination to be A FREEMAN.’

That fight (and the example of Douglass’s entire life) recalls lines from Byron that Douglass loved to quote, and which speaks to the working class today:

Hereditary bondsmen! know ye not

Who would be free, must strike the first blow?