Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, The

by Frederick Douglass (1881)


An important work for any U.S. citizen to be familiar with. The first half of the book — up through the Civil War — has a greater sense of urgency and significance, and probably the most memorable segments of all are his memories of slavery and escape. But even if the second half of the book is anti-climactic, he’s still a man who should be mentioned in the same breath as MLK, and refreshing your memory with this book every now and then is a good way to make that happen.

Besides Douglass’s harrowing personal experience as a young man, the most surprising part of his memoir is how timely it feels at the end of 2016. Yes Douglass was talking about slavery, but then again we have just finished enshrining a neo-Nazi sympathizer into the White House. The Republicans today are not all that different — in stridence or hatefulness — from the slavery-supporting Democrats of the late 19th century.

What Douglass says about those Democrats, and about the Republicans who kept trying to compromise with them (remind you of anyone?), is so instructive as to seem prophetic. He speaks at length of this misguided approach at two different points, both of which feel applicable today: in the run-up to the Civil War and at the end of the Reconstruction period. Douglass elegantly and vehemently explains how any attempt to reconcile with hatred is bound to fail, and that the correct response — both morally and practically — is courageous intransigence. What Douglass says about the Reconstruction-era Republicans is especially painful for anyone who has modern day Democrats in mind:

. . . Political parties, like individual men, are only strong while they are consistent and honest, and . . . treachery and deception are only the sand on which political fools vainly endeavor to build. When the Republican party ceased to care for and protect its southern allies, and sought the smiles of the southern Negro murderers, it shocked, disgusted, and drove away its best friends.

Clinging in hope to the Republican party, thinking it would cease its backsliding and resume its old character as the party of progress, justice, and freedom, I regretted its defeat. . . 393

I can’t read the end of that first paragraph and not think back to Hillary courting Henry Kissinger and other moderate Republicans this past summer. There’s someone who probably should have re-read this book some time during the campaign. . .

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