WE ARE BOUND to admire Frederick Douglass. The escaped slave who becomes a leading orator and the conscience of his age, who locks horns with a bruising array of hatreds and emerges the stronger, who wrings honors, offices and wealth out of an unpromising destiny is a hero even to our anti-heroic age. But we slip so easily into admiration of Douglass' life that we miss its essential meaning. Nathan Huggins' brief, elegant study of the great abolitionist stops us in the middle of our lazy genuflection. We encounter a life whose central drama is not an escape from slavery but patronage, whose heroism comes from struggle not only with oppression but success.

When Douglass first presented himself to an abolitionist audience convened on Nantucket Island in 1841, three years after his escape from the South, he seemed to that band of moral propagandists too good to be true. Eloquent, handsome, impassioned, he was an object lesson in the cruelty and irrationality of slavery. A fugitive in perpetual danger of capture, Douglass went on the road as a professional victim for four years, increasingly aware that the proprietary interest taken in him by William Lloyd Garrison and his comapny mocked his freedom. When, on a trip to England, he heard that the Garrisonians, who feared his growing independence, had asked British allies to keep an eye on him, Douglass answered, writes Huggins, with an image "calculated to shake an abolitionist's self-righteousness": "If you wish to drive me from the Anti-Slavery Society, put me under overseership and the work is done."

The Garrisonians never perceived Douglass' independence as anything but ingratitude. When, in 1847, he set up his own newspaper, the North Star, edited and published in Rochester, New York, for the next 16 years, the break was complete. Douglass realized that the "oratorical philanthropy" of the New England crusaders sought mercy for his race, not justice, not equality, not power. It seemed to them indecent for a man of Douglass' quality to suffer enslavement, but dangerous for him to set up shop as a spokesman for principle and political action. This, of course, he did -- to wondrous effect. Abolitionism was only one of his causes. He was among the small group to attend the 1848 meeting at Seneca Falls, New York, which launched the movement for women's rights. One is hard put to think of another figure of his time who comprehended more fully the parameters of freedom.

Douglass became master of his own conscience, but he never achieved the true citizenship he craved. Hugging shrewdly plots the iron of Douglass' slow, painful realizatin that he was less free after the Civil War, the 13th and 14th Amendments, and series of honors culminating in his appointment as minister-resident and consul-general to Haiti. Abandoning the critical freedom of the enraged outsider for the sake of participation in the processes of government, he became a victim of national hypocrisy -- decorated with the trappings of distinguished citizenship but deprived of real power. Jolted out of his complacency and the officiousness which had crept into his manner, Douglass was again, at the end of his life, tragically without a country but in command again of his spirit.

The bitter sequence of disappointments and idignities which litter Douglass' life story dismay us more than they did him. He was adept at swallowing bitter pills -- the venom of the Garrisonians, the sordid treatment of the black Union troops, the broken promises of the Republicans, the reversals of Reconstruction. At the height of his influence he had to endure a demeaning encounter with President Andrew Johnson, who could say to his private secretary after the meeting: "I know that damned Douglass; he's just like any nigger, and he would sooner cut a white man's throat as not." As many of his fellow activitists, like Martin Delany, the first black to receive an army commission, collapsed into cynical opportunism or the escapism of African colonization schemes, Douglass persevered. Why?

Huggins' answer, given the scope of this book, is necessarily incomplete. He convinces us of Douglass' grounding in the American ideals, the historical optimism of his time. Frederick Douglass believed in the perfectibility of man, and the inevitable triumph of virtue in history. He was at one with the New England moralists in their commitment to the principle of self-reliance. But he was not at one with them in his life's experience. His steadfast commitment to American optimism seems more a puzzle than an explanation.

At heart this is a riddle of character, and Huggins' book is not constructed to answer it. We meet the public man rather than the private personality. Until John Blassingame completes his editing of the Douglass papers that is all we can honestly hope for. Nathan Huggins has written a first-rate history of Frederick Douglass' public life; one day we will get his full biography.