Last week’s Tuesday Tome article considered Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, and showcased the ways in which Franklin’s carefully crafted self-presentation acts as an extension of Franklin’s moralizing vanity. In contrast to Franklin’s project, I would like to put forward the perceptive thinker and stirring writer Frederick Douglass as a better candidate for the role of quintessential American.
The autobiography of Frederick Douglass, unlike that of Benjamin Franklin (which focuses entirely on self-improvement), seems to put forth the pressing concern of bringing about political and societal betterment. Douglass spends nearly all of his time decrying the atrocities and duplicities inherent to the system of slavery.
The nature of this article is such that it requires spoiling basic plot details of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, so you should only continue reading after this paragraph if you either do not mind spoilers or have already read the book.
Frederick Douglass operates outside the society of his audience, involving himself with an account that proceeds from the cause of natural racial equality. His presentation of himself stresses his commonality and resemblance—as much as possible—with the positions of both the slave community and his free audience. In this way, relative to Franklin, Douglass accomplishes nearly the opposite effect in regard to his situation of himself with respect to his reader.
In Frederick Douglass’ work, there is throughout established a dual identity of Douglass’ person as both slave and intellectual, effectively broadening his relevance by subsuming as much of society into himself as possible. Far afield from Franklin’s subtle self-importance, Douglass does not profess pretensions of modesty, nor does he appeal to vanity in its absence.
This can be seen, for instance, when Douglass writes of the chance nature of his acquisition of freedom: “It is possible, and even quite probable, that but for the mere circumstance of being removed from that plantation to Baltimore, I should have to-day [. . .] been confined in the galling chains of slavery” (Douglass 40).
This is the first step of the convolutions by which Douglass obtains literacy, and it contains neither a self-aggrandizing nor a self-effacing note. Douglass is more concerned with the facts and the state of affairs than with any valuation of the self (other than being equal to all selves), and this realistic evocation of probability lends a modesty to the writing of Douglass which, in a lengthy diatribe on modesty itself, Franklin fails to attain.
Rather than being one perfect person, Douglass sets out to be two realistic people, namely the free northerner and the enslaved southerner. This duality of his past and his present is readily apparent in his perceptive consideration of slave songs:
I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within that circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear. They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension [. . .] Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. (Douglass 27)
Douglass has a clear memory of his own past incomprehension, as well as a present understanding of that past state. On the one hand, this points to Douglass’ figure as a slave, as having spent time in the dire circumstance manifest in the dolorous melodies while so far subjugated as to fail to understand even what the slaves themselves instinctively express.
On the other hand, this points to Douglass’ figure as a free intellectual, practicing a hermeneutic discussion of the slave song and appealing to the plight of a group whose happiest melodies are belied by a deep sadness. It is in this way that Douglass presents himself as a representational figure, at once a free man and a slave.
For Frederick Douglass, the reader will have intended difficulty separating the two, or, indeed, finding reason to depict Douglass as in any way intellectually other or intellectually inferior to whites.
At last, Douglass employs this double-self to point to a basic flaw in the reasoning of slavery, as evidenced in his discussion of slave holidays: “[Slave owners’] object seems to be, to disgust their slaves with freedom, by plunging them into the lowest depths of dissipation” (Douglass 75). This passage comes in response to a number of objections of which Douglass was sure to be conscious.
First, that slaves have a native docility which makes them fit for slavery alone is here rebutted by the notion that slave’s are deceived into thinking there is no superior alternative, and so no reason to desire freedom.
Second, that slaves are incapable of intellectual pursuits, and implicitly that Frederick Douglass himself is an anomalous case, is here rebutted by the observation that slaveowners must go to considerable trouble not only to conceal knowledge from the slaves (as discussed often elsewhere in the text), but even to remove from them the possibility of expressing any desire to use leisure time for such pursuits.
As with the consideration of the slave songs, Douglass’ analysis leaves little room for the implication that slaves are any less human than the reader. As Franklin moves himself farther and farther away from his reader, in the hopes that the reader will strive toward his position, Douglass more firmly entrenches himself, and by extension slaves, in the realistic intellectual space of free individuals.
Frederick Douglass seeks to represent an actual fellow citizen at the same time as a slave, and this dual purpose matches well with the stoic, unpretentious writing style that makes Douglass’ autobiography a treat to read. Douglass’ preface from Garrison also stresses the importance of never forgetting how accurate, common, and perhaps even mild such an account of slavery is. So, finally, one may see in the equality, reality, and empathy of the figure of Frederick Douglass from his narrative a role model more admirable and more beneficent than Franklin.
Acclaim Freely Given: