“Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice,” President Trump said during a Black History Month event in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Feb. 1, 2017.
David Blight, a Yale University history professor and author of “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” which hits bookstores on Tuesday, was taken aback. “I immediately thought about the dangers of presidential ignorance,” Blight told me in the latest episode of “Cape Up.” “No one’s ever asked him or found out, I guess, does he actually not know who [Douglass] was. But you could only interpret it that way, otherwise you simply wouldn’t have said something so silly.”
Douglass is “the most famous American slave who becomes a very public abolitionist and probably the greatest orator of the 19th century,” Blight argued. And in present-day America, “Douglass has become almost a Lincoln in the sense that everyone wants to appropriate him now, left and right, to their causes,” Blight said. “You can get Douglass on your side.”
Blight believes a series of “lucky breaks” early in Douglass’s life as a slave set him up for greatness. “If Douglass hadn’t been sent to Baltimore for close to 10 years and two occasions in his slave youth, we probably wouldn’t know about him,” he said. It was during Douglass’s first stint in Baltimore between the ages of 7 and 13 or 14 that he learned to read.
“He learns his alphabet and the power of reading from his mistress, a woman named Sophia Auld,” Blight recounted. But Douglass also learned from the immigrant white boys he befriend in the port city. “He first started trading Ms. Sophia, that was his mistress, he first started trading her warm loaves of bread for spelling lessons and reading lessons from the white kids.” Perhaps the most consequential thing Douglass learns from them is the existence of “The Columbian Orator“, a reader for children that Blight said “was primarily orations and writings from both classical orators and the enlightenment.”
“He gets his ‘Columbian Orator’ when he’s about 10 or 11. He found out about it from his white playmates in the streets of Baltimore,” Blight shared. “In the book, there are many, many passages that are very openly anti-slavery.” Blight said that Douglass “bought his own copy basically by bartering for it.” He so treasured the book that when he escaped slavery from Baltimore at age 20, Blight told me, “he was disguised in a sailor’s outfit with a big brimmed hat, black cravat sash, in one pocket he had a little bit of money that [his future wife] had given him, in the other pocket was ‘The Columbian Orator.’ ” Douglass never parted with the book.
“At Cedar Hill today, the National Park [Service] site of Douglass’s house in Anacostia in Washington, they have his original copy, which I got to hold once with white gloves on,” Blight said. “It’s one of the most important things I’ve ever held in my hands.”
Douglass lived long enough to see the anti-slavery work succeed and then be crushed by the counterrevolution that followed. Blight likened the experience of today’s surviving heroes of the civil rights movement to that of Douglass, whom he described as “a radical reformer who actually lives to see his cause triumph in his 40s, middle of his life, but then he lives another 30 years to see that those very triumphs, by and large, betrayed and all but destroyed, all in one lifetime.”
Listen to the podcast to hear Blight talk about how Douglass was discovered by the abolitionist movement and how he got involved in the women’s suffrage movement. You’ll find out how a Scottish poem inspired Douglass’s last name and why it has an extra “s.” You’ll also hear Blight talk about what he thinks Douglass would do if he were alive in the age of Trump.
“I’d love to see Douglass choose to take on Trump’s manner, his language, his ignorance, in a kind of satire, savage satire, that Douglass was brilliant at,” Blight noted.
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