Bondage and Freedom

Frederick Douglass

David W. Blight

 

Late in 1854, and especially during the first half of 1855, Frederick Douglass spent many weeks at his desk writing his ultimate declaration of independence, My Bondage and My Freedom, his second, more thorough and revealing autobiography. In long form, it was the masterpiece of his writing life, a work that modern scholars have given a prominent place in the literary American renaissance. Bondage and Freedom is not a mere updating of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass of 1845; rather, it is an extensive revision of that one great tale Douglass believed he must tell–the story of himself.

            A quite different person–a much more mature, politicized writer–crafted Bondage and Freedom, as opposed to the twenty-seven-year-old orator of 1845 who needed to establish his identity through literacy. The 1855 book of 464 pages (four times longer than the Narrative) came from, as Douglass reminded readers in the first three chapter titles, an “Author” already free and ready to use literacy to engage in an epic argument with his country. The British abolitionist Julia Griffiths still resided in Rochester, New York, and served as Douglass’s coeditor of his abolitionist newspaper Frederick Douglass’ Paper right up until her departure back to England in midsummer 1855. Her labors in the printing office in order to free his time to write certainly testify to her support, if not also her editorial hand in helping make the book possible. Douglass published it in August with Miller, Orton and Mulligan of Auburn, New York, at the price of $1.25. The sales were spectacular–five thousand copies in the first two days and fifteen thousand within three months. Douglass helped market the book by serializing parts of it in his paper, and in the next few years he sometimes took one or more of his sons out on the road with him to sell the book for $1 apiece at his public lectures. Only two years after publication, the same printing house issued a new edition with a banner, “Eighteen Thousand,” inscribed on the title page, indicating the number then in print.

            Bondage and Freedom achieved what Douglass most wanted: readers and public impact. He could feel buttressed in his belief that words could shape and correct history. But he wrote the book for many reasons. In a prefatory letter to his editor, Douglass claimed, with awkward falseness, that he had always possessed a “repugnance” to writing or speaking about himself, and to the “imputation of seeking personal notoriety for its own sake.” This odd disclaimer was a convention of the literary apologetics of that era, although ironic in a book that ended with a brilliant argument that human dignity depended directly upon public recognition. But what is most interesting about Douglass’s preface is that he turns the disavowal of “vanity and egotism” into a larger purpose. He must write this book, he says, because he is “exceptional” in a world that denies black equality. Douglass portrays himself as the reluctant prophet who must tell his story with a principle at stake for the “whole human family.” Slavery was “at the bar of public opinion” now as never before. The “whole civilized world” had to render “judgment,” especially because of the growing power of proslavery forces. Moreover, Douglass argued, he wrote for the same reason he founded his own newspaper. The humanity of his people must be demonstrated before a racist world. Such a claim for the public duty of writing a second autobiography reflects just how much this new literary self-creation was a political act.

            Douglass further felt compelled to write Bondage and Freedom because he had so much to say about the transformations, losses, and gains of his life since the summer he boarded a ship for England. He had many tales to tell about his flowering in the British Isles and about the independence he had sought since returning to America. He was now a more reflective and analytical thinker, and the new autobiography demonstrated this in his embrace of reading and “study,” his advocacy of the natural-rights tradition, and his conceptions of violence. Douglass was now truly a black leader, a widely acknowledged proponent of the self-reliance and elevation of blacks and their communities. In 1855, Douglass fully emerged as the black Jeremiah.

            Over the years dozens of literary critics and historians have interpreted Douglass’s autobiographies. Perhaps none has done so more incisively than the first, James McCune Smith, Douglass’s good friend, ideological soul mate, and the man he asked to introduce Bondage and Freedom. Smith was born a slave in New York City in 1813 and freed by the Emancipation Act of the State of New York in 1827. His mother was a self-emancipated black woman, and like Douglass’s, his father was presumed white, although Smith seems to have never known his identity. A star student at the African Free School no. 2 in New York, Smith became an intellectual prodigy. He studied Latin and Greek and applied to the medical schools at Columbia College and in Geneva, New York, but was denied admission. With financial help from New York City black friends, Smith journeyed to Glasgow, Scotland, at age nineteen, where between 1832 and 1837 he achieved the B.A., M.A., and M.D. degrees.

            Upon his return to New York, Smith opened a medical practice and a pharmacy in lower Manhattan in the year Douglass escaped through the city as a fugitive. In his spare time, Smith launched his remarkable career as an abolitionist, a polymath writer, and an intellectual. He wrote on all manner of subjects, from abolitionist strategies to moral philosophy, from natural sciences to ethnology and chess, from American and world history to literature. After he met Douglass in the late 1840s, they struck up an extraordinary friendship, perhaps as each other’s alter ego. Douglass could learn so much from Smith, who became a kind of older brother for the former field hand and caulker. And Smith too learned much from Douglass’s genius with language and from his force of will. Steeped in the classics and the Romantics, Smith found in the younger former runaway a special kind of hero. The two shared a worldview and abolitionist strategies. Smith too had become an ardent anti-Garrisonian and shared Douglass’s fierce opposition to black emigration schemes emerging from Martin Delany and others. When the Garrisonian National Anti-Slavery Standard tried to trump up a “feud” between them in 1855, Smith wrote in Douglass’s paper that no “gnashing of teeth” among their rivals could sever this “open and avowed friendship between two black men.” Perhaps they also talked about their separate times in Glasgow. They had combined their mutual prestige in trying to persuade the black convention movement to adopt a plan for an industrial school for young blacks and a National Council of leadership in 1853. Lack of funding and the perennial internecine ideological warfare among black leaders doomed most of their educational and institutional endeavors. Nevertheless, Douglass and Smith became frequent collaborators.

            In addition to his masterful essays, Smith became an experimental writer, with works often appearing under the pseudonym Communipaw, a name he took intriguingly from a legendary colonial Indian settlement in what became Jersey City, New Jersey, a place where an interracial community of blacks, Indians, and Dutch settlers had resisted the English crown. Smith also penned satires and vignettes under the series title “Heads of the Colored People” in Douglass’s newspaper from 1852 to 1854. These pieces were depictions of working-class black New Yorkers, giving dignity to the bootblack, washerwoman, whitewasher, steward, sexton, schoolmaster, and others. In the term “Heads,” Smith brilliantly parodied reigning racial theories of the time, such as phrenology, which argued that the alleged racial superiority of whites stemmed from larger craniums. Douglass admired Smith’s wit and wordplay and was delighted to publish such forms of literary resistance to the daily racism blacks endured in cities such as New York. But Douglass confessed to a different taste and criticized some of his friend’s experimentation, preferring instead to portray their race as respectable seekers of the middle class rather than poor, noble laborers. Douglass considered some of Smith’s “Heads” essays too close to “faithful pictures of contented degradation.” The editor warned his friend to watch out for “a rap or two over his head with a broom-stick,” or for the washerwoman throwing “a few drops of moderately hot suds upon his neatly attired person.” In a response to Smith’s series in 1853, written after his own recent visit to New York, Douglass maintained that blacks were better observed not in the streets but “at their homes.” He preferred images of indoor respectability to ironic outdoor subversion, stressing black involvement in churches, literary societies, and especially noting the “watches, clocks, gold pens, pencils, and all sorts of jewelry” he saw in black homes. Douglass seemed to keep his shirts more starched than the good doctor, but such disagreements about class and race only enriched, rather than harmed, the relationship between these two intellectuals.

            Smith and Douglass constantly sought out each other about writing and shared a mutual respect for a life of the mind for black men. They shared a brotherhood of experiences of racism, outside and inside the antislavery movement. Douglass judged Smith “without rivals” among black leaders for his “talents and learning” and for his “known devotion to the cause of the oppressed people.” Smith’s views of Douglass could wax even more effusive. Back in 1848, when Douglass’s first newspaper, the North Star, appeared, McCune Smith wrote to the social reformer and abolitionist Gerrit Smith with special praise: “I love Frederick Douglass for his whole souled outness, that is the secret of his noble thoughts and far-reaching sympathies. You will be surprised to hear me say that only since his Editorial career has he begun to become a colored man! I have read his paper very carefully and find phrase after phrase develop itself as regularly as in one newly born among us.”

            In the introduction to Bondage and Freedom, McCune Smith imposed a great burden on Douglass, declaring the former slave the embodiment of the cause of human equality, leader among the “living exemplars of the practicability of the most radical abolitionism.” When Smith described Douglass’s “sacred thirst for liberty and learning,” Smith was writing about himself as well. The introduction is not only an intellectual’s tribute to another intellectual, but the most formally educated black man of the nineteenth century telling the world what it means that a Frederick Douglass exists at all in slaveholding America.

            Smith took special care to show readers that this autobiography was in the end literature. Douglass’s techniques, according to Smith, were manifold, “Memory, logic, wit, sarcasm, invective, pathos, and bold imagery of rare structural beauty,” he argued, “well up as from a copious fountain, yet each in its proper place, and contributing to form a whole, grand in itself, yet complete in the minutest proportions.” Douglass’s ability with language, Smith maintained, was not in fashioning “mere words of eloquence,” but “work-able, do-able words” that might forge a “revolution” in the world. Douglass wrote persuasive prose. In this public use of his personal story as a “Representative American man,” Smith believed Douglass had written an “American book, for Americans in the fullest sense of the idea.” In other words, what could be more American at this juncture in history than a brilliantly rendered, lyrical, and terrible story of a man’s journey through hell from slavery to freedom? Surely Douglass was moved by his friend’s political description of the purpose and power of words doing the work of “revolution.”

            Nothing seems to have impressed McCune Smith quite like Douglass’s uncanny personal memory fashioned seamlessly into an abolitionist polemic. As an intellectual and a scientist, Smith was stunned at the extensive probing Douglass gave to his own childhood, of how the autobiography provided a model for just “when positive and persistent memory begins in the human being.” Long before neuroscience, Smith pointed to universal psychological and moral insights as well as to features distinctive to an American slave experience. Smith admired his friend’s “rare alliance between passion and intellect” as a biographer, his “energy of character” and sheer will, whether working to be “king among caulkers” or craving after language as reader and orator. The scientist was deeply intrigued by Douglass’s capacity for recollection. According to Smith, it was Douglass’s “wonderful memory” that made his autobiographical writing so powerful. Smith felt moved not by Douglass’s mere recall of facts, but by the literary act “when the memory of them [facts] went seething through his brain, breeding a fiery indignation at his injured selfhood,” then bursting out in story and characters.

            The physician’s introduction is one of the early meditations on the art of memory, with a former slave as the subject. Smith knew Douglass well enough to understand how much his younger comrade’s persona was not entwined in his identity as a writer. Hence Smith acknowledged Douglass’s “descriptive and declamatory powers” and his “logical force.” But above all the author of Bondage and Freedom, as well as of so many great orations, possessed “style.”

            Smith took an excursion on the “intellectual puzzle” of Douglass’s literary style, wondering whether it stemmed from his white ancestry or from his “negro blood.” Here he followed Douglass down the romantic but blind lane of his mother’s literacy as the source of the writer’s skill. But for Douglass’s style, Smith should have looked no further than the rhetoric itself, its cadences, diction, word choices, and indeed its storytelling. The rhythms of Douglass’s language were oratorical, and they were deeply indebted, consciously or not, to his life of reading and using the King James Bible. As the literary scholar Robert Alter writes, it was the Old Testament prophets who spoke so compellingly to the “American situation” of the nineteenth century and gave the essence of “style” to its best writers. Style, says Alter, is not “merely a constellation of aesthetic properties,” but the “vehicle of a particular vision of reality.” Style is not the mere drapery hung on the more important ideology and politics driving the best writing; it is the very lifeblood of any prose that persuades about its politics. The Bible gave texture to American prose, and the “King James translation,” according to Alter, became the “wellspring of eloquence” and the “national book of the American people.” That is where any “puzzle” about Douglass’s source of style should be solved.

            That style is on display all over Bondage and Freedom. In his brilliant depiction of slaveholders’ psychic unease about the evil system they practiced on the Wye plantation, we can feel Douglass’s cadences even as he names his text. “This immense wealth,” he wrote, “this gilded splendor; this profusion of luxury; this exemption from toil; this life of ease; this sea of plenty; aye, what of it all?” Douglass loved repetition. Then he begins to throw down his warnings of future reckoning. “Lurking beneath all their dishes are invisible spirits of evil, ready to feed the self-deluded gormandizers with aches, pains, fierce temper … lombargo and gout.” Their souls cannot rest. “To the pampered love of ease,” Douglass intones with his trademark contrasts, “there is no resting place. What is pleasant today, is repulsive tomorrow; what is soft now, is hard at another time; what is sweet in the morning, is bitter in the evening.” Then he simply gives Isaiah and Jeremiah the last word in this oracle about the woe in history’s plan for slaveholders. “Neither to the wicked, nor to the idler, is there any solid peace: ‘Troubled like the restless sea.’” Thus for Douglass style and argument flowed together in the same torrent of words.

            All great autobiography is about loss, about the hopeless but necessary quest to retrieve and control a past that forever slips away. Memory is both inspiration and burden, method and subject, the thing that one cannot live with or without. Smith grasped just how true this was for a former slave who seized literacy. Douglass’s past was a dangerous place to go, but as he returned to it over and over, he made memory into art, brilliantly and mischievously employing its authority, its elusiveness, its truths, and its charms. Douglass’s memory was fraught with conflicted images; sometimes he flattened them out to control his tale of self-made ascension, but other times he just described the brutal contrasts and reached for truth. He often hid as much as he revealed, especially about his family and personal life. But what he did reveal in Bondage and Freedom is one man’s deeply personal indictment of the past and present of his country, and a risky, bold vision of a different future. Smith understood the power of such a symbol. He stressed Douglass’s essentially “American … mixed race” identity. Here, Americans could see their future, Smith contended. Douglass was one of the “Romuluses and Remuses who are to inaugurate the new birth of our republic.” Neither man yet knew the prescience of that claim.

            Hence, in part via Smith’s guidance, we can see the political character of Douglass’s second autobiography. If a “stranger” landed in the United States, Smith maintained, and sought out America’s most prominent men from the sheer volume of attention in newspapers and on the telegraphs, he would discover Douglass. “During the past winter–1854–55–very frequent mention of Frederick Douglass was made,” said Smith. Douglass had emerged as one of those people to whom others say, “‘Tell me your thought!’ And somehow or other, revolution seemed to follow in his wake.” Indeed, in 1854 the orator’s name started to appear frequently in the press in comparison to the other Douglas–Stephen, senator from Illinois. The New York Tribune published a poem the former slave must have enjoyed: “Let slavery now stop her mouth, / And quiet be henceforth: / We’ve got Fred Douglass from the South–/ She’s got Steve from the North!” The two men nearly encountered each other in Illinois in October that same year. Douglass dogged Douglas as the latter barnstormed, selling the Kansas-Nebraska Act; once they even rode the same railcar, but the senator feigned illness to avoid a confrontation. On the floor of Congress in 1856 a Democrat and a Republican squared off over the principles of their respective parties. The Republican said his adversaries “blindly follow and worship Mr. Douglas.” But the Illinois Democrat retorted that while “we worship Stephen A. Douglas,” the Republicans “worship Fred Douglass.” Smith grasped Douglass’s desperate ambition as well as his genuine fame.

            Douglass divided Bondage and Freedom into two sections, “Life as a Slave” and “Life as a Freeman.” Especially in the second section, but even in the first, in some of his enhanced portrayals of his Maryland origins, he wrote as the political abolitionist. In Bondage and Freedom, Douglass revised many moments in his story to show himself as a young leader among his fellow slaves, even as the potentially violent black rebel. When his master Thomas Auld and his fellow Methodists broke up Douglass’s first effort at a Sabbath school in St. Michaels, using clubs, one of “the pious crew,” recalled Douglass, “told me that as for my part [as leader] I wanted to be another Nat Turner; and if I did not look out, I should get as many balls into me as Nat did into him.” In 1845, Douglass wrote that his master Auld found him merely “unsuitable” due to his urban Baltimore experiences. But by 1855, this had changed to the tale of a much more aggressive, rebellious slave invoking the bloodcurdling image of slave rebellion.

            In the Narrative Douglass gave approximately eleven pages to the story of his travail with the man he was hired out to, Edward Covey, while in 1855 he devoted approximately thirty-two pages to this pivotal experience in the grip of the “tyrant’s vise.” In 1845 Douglass did not seem to hold back in showing how Covey beat him mercilessly when he had fallen to the ground weak with sunstroke; his “blood ran freely.” But in Bondage and Freedom this episode, which precipitates his delirious flight through the woods to St. Michaels to seek Auld’s protection, gets much bloodier still. A half dozen uses of the words blood or bleeding turn in the revision to fifteen expressions of the same words in two pages. The language becomes biblical, Douglass’s sufferings all but a slow crucifixion. His body is mangled by “briers and thorns,” his hair “clotted with dust and blood,” his feet and legs “scarred” with “blood marks.” In the end Auld does not protect him; this would-be Jesus must face near death before he can find redemption. Auld forsakes his wounded slave, saying he “deserved the flogging” because of laziness. He rejects Douglass’s appeal for help with the cowardly and revealing statement that, as Douglass is hired out to Covey, he (Auld as owner) could not lose his slave’s “wages for the entire year.” By 1855 Douglass knew just which biblical story in which to place this moment. He threw the charge of laziness right back at Auld. Slaveholders, he wrote, using Matthew 23:4, “bind heavy burdens, grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they, themselves, will not move them with one of their fingers.” The passage comes just before Jesus demands, “Woe unto you scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites!”

            The much deeper texture of the 1855 work reveals a writer who would now “sound the profounder depths of slave life,” to set up his ultimate “disenthrallment.” Douglass became “a fish in a net, allowed to play for a time,” but was “soon drawn rapidly to the shore.” He was now rendered “a wild young working animal,” not merely learning to drive the oxen, but becoming the oxen. “I now saw … several points of similarity with that of the oxen. They were property, so was I; they were to be broken, so was I. Covey was to break me, I was to break them; break and be broken–such is life.” All these metaphors set up the necessity that it is Covey who must be broken in violent resistance. The psychological and physical tyranny portrayed on Covey’s farm in Bondage and Freedom is the kind that can only result in not merely individual but collective revolution. As Douglass got the best of Covey in their barnyard rumble, the desperate slave owner called out to his slave named Caroline (a “powerful woman”) to come to his aid. But Caroline, who does not appear in the 1845 version of the scene, steadfastly refuses to answer her master’s command, leading the autobiographer to wryly conclude, “We were all in open rebellion that morning.”

            Thus “goaded almost to madness,” and savagely brutalized, Douglass created a vision in which only violence could result, a condition in which he soon argued the entire nation would find itself. In Bondage and Freedom, Douglass still claimed that he fought Covey only from a defensive posture. But this time he attacked with a “fighting madness” and left no doubt that Covey deserved to be bloodied or even killed. This violence was for the good of the slave’s own soul, not merely a matter of natural right. “I was a changed being after that fight,” said Douglass the completely recovered Garrisonian. “I was nothing before; I was a MAN NOW. It recalled to life my crushed self-respect … A man without force is without the essential dignity of humanity.” Similarly, his defense of the escape plot among his fellow slaves on the Freeland farm no longer stood merely as an act of natural right. In Bondage and Freedom it stemmed from the right of revolutionary violence. “The slaveholder, kind or cruel … is … every hour silently whetting the knife of vengeance for his own throat,” wrote the autobiographer who was now also the rescuer of the Christiana-riot fugitives. A slaveholder “never lisps a syllable in commendation of the fathers of this republic … without … asserting the rights of rebellion for his own slaves.” A leitmotif in Bondage and Freedom is an expectation of violence.

            Examples abound in Bondage and Freedom of Douglass’s more assertive, political brand of autobiography. He captures his burgeoning independence from the Garrisonians in a voice that needed new terrain, new horizons. Walt Whitman could have had a former slave like Douglass in mind in “Poets to Come”:

Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!

Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for,

But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater

than before known,

Arouse! for you must justify me.

We do not know if Whitman ever read Douglass. Whitman would have found a new prose poet remembering his “reading and thinking,” the orator who “was growing and needed room,” now looking steadfastly to “speak just the word that seemed to me the word to be spoken by me.” “I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,” said Whitman, “but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness.” Douglass wrote in 1855 in depth about his past of darkness so as to chart a much wider future. The reason we remember Douglass is because he found “the word.”

            Douglass portrayed his sojourn in the British Isles as in part an education in self-realization and political action. The ways that racial prejudice aboard the Cambria helped him as a “stranger to get fairly before the British public” read as a primer for his later role as independent editor and activist. The ways Douglass learned to court public scorn, to relish being “unpopular” and “notorious,” his defense against the accusation that his speeches attacking America in Britain and upon his return to his native country had been “harsh in spirit,” read like the preparation of the Jeremiah of 1852. Like the Old Testament prophet, Douglass knew that he had to lay down the story of grievance and suffering as well as national betrayal before imagining historical renewal. Bondage and Freedom contained many elements of the prophetic tradition–warnings, destruction, and reinvention. His splendid apostasy against the Garrisonians led him to a “radical change” in his opinions, and a new platform of political action.

            When describing his last years struggling as a moral suasionist, Douglass said he had performed with “pen and tongue.” But on the last page of Bondage and Freedom he announced his new “disposition.” His book added his story to a long “blood-written history,” and clouds full of “wrathful thunder and lightning” hovered over the land. But Douglass gave a full-throated statement that “progress is still possible.” Then in the final sentence of the book he promised that while “Heaven” lent him “ability,” he would strive to “use my voice, my pen, or my vote.” Whether the temple could be destroyed by votes remained to be seen.


image: title page of My Bondage and My Freedom by Frederick Douglass