The definitive, dramatic biography of the most important African American of the nineteenth century: Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became the greatest orator of his day and one of the leading abolitionists and writers of the era.
As a young man Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) escaped from slavery in Baltimore, Maryland. He was fortunate to have been taught to read by his slave owner mistress, and he would go on to become one of the major literary figures of his time. He wrote three versions of his autobiography over the course of his lifetime and published his own newspaper. His very existence gave the lie to slave owners: with dignity and great intelligence he bore witness to the brutality of slavery.
Initially mentored by William Lloyd Garrison, Douglass spoke widely, often to large crowds, using his own story to condemn slavery. He broke with Garrison to become a political abolitionist, a Republican, and eventually a Lincoln supporter. By the Civil War and during Reconstruction, Douglass became the most famed and widely travelled orator in the nation. He denounced the premature end of Reconstruction and the emerging Jim Crow era. In his unique and eloquent voice, written and spoken, Douglass was a fierce critic of the United States as well as a radical patriot. He sometimes argued politically with younger African-Americans, but he never forsook either the Republican party or the cause of black civil and political rights.
In this remarkable biography, David Blight has drawn on new information held in a private collection that few other historian have consulted, as well as recently discovered issues of Douglass’s newspapers. Blight tells the fascinating story of Douglass’s two marriages and his complex extended family. Douglass was not only an astonishing man of words, but a thinker steeped in Biblical story and theology. There has not been a major biography of Douglass in a quarter century. David Blight’s Frederick Douglass affords this important American the distinguished biography he deserves.
About the Author
David W. Blight is Class of 1954 Professor of American History and Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University. He is the author or editor of a dozen books, including American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era; and Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory; and annotated editions of Douglass’s first two autobiographies. He has worked on Douglass much of his professional life, and been awarded the Bancroft Prize, the Abraham Lincoln Prize, and the Frederick Douglass Prize, among others.
“Cinematic and deeply engaging. . . . a tour de force of storytelling.” — Brent Staples
"Absorbing and even moving . . . Mr. Blight displays his lifelong interest in Douglass on almost every page, and his own voice is active and eloquent throughout the narrative. It is a book that speaks to our own time as well as Douglass’s. . . . A brilliant book.” — John Stauffer
“The first major biography of Douglass in nearly three decades. . . . Blight isn’t looking to overturn our understanding of Douglass, whose courage and achievements were unequivocal, but to complicate it — a measure by which this ambitious and empathetic biography resoundingly succeeds.” — Jennifer Szalai
“Extraordinary. . . . Blight has certainly written, in the book’s texture and density and narrative flow—one violent and provocative incident arriving right after another—a great American biography." — Adam Gopnik
“A consistently engrossing book that is likely to remain the definitive account of Douglass’s life for many years to come.” — Eric Foner
“A stunning achievement. Blight captures an icon in full humanity. From riveting drama in slavery and Civil War, his Douglass rises into clairvoyant genius on the blinkered centrality of race in our struggle for freedom.” — Taylor Branch, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of America in the King Years
“David Blight has written the definitive biography of Frederick Douglass. With extraordinary detail he illuminates the complexities of Douglass’s life and career and paints a powerful portrait of one of the most important American voices of the 19th century. . . . The resulting chronicle enriches our understanding of Douglass and the challenges he faced and offers a lesson for our own troubled times. . . . Magisterial.” — Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.
“David Blight’s incandescent Frederick Douglass is a monumental achievement of biographical empathy, historical context, and grim comprehensiveness, a much-awaited masterpiece of a life that emblematized slavery as the problem of the 19th century, as was race that of Du Bois’s 20th, the legacy of both the problem of our 21st century.” — David Levering Lewis, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of W.E.B. Du Bois: The Biography of a Race, 1868-1919
“Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom is a triumph—elegantly written, with much new material about one of the most famous and important men in modern history. David Blight has created a vibrant and convincing portrait of a towering figure who was also, Blight says, ‘thoroughly and beautifully human.’ A great American gets the stellar biography he deserves from one our country’s greatest historians.” — Annette Gordon-Reed, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family
“This much-anticipated biography of the foremost black leader and one of the greatest Americans of the nineteenth century fully lives up to and even exceeds high expectations. It is a work not only of stunning scholarship but also of literary artistry. David Blight’s—and Frederick Douglass’s—achievements have immeasurably enriched our understanding of slavery, abolitionism, the Civil War, and Reconstruction.” — James M. McPherson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era
“Brilliant and compassionate. . . . Blight’s Douglass is an unapologetic prophet and radical, and the eloquent voice of this ‘sacred extremist’ has never been more relevant. A must-read.”
“Superbly written. . . . Blight viscerally captures the vitality, strength, and determination of his subject. . . . [He] delivers what is sure to be considered the standard-bearer for years to come. A masterful, comprehensive biography.”
“A masterful, comprehensive biography such as Mr. Blight’s is particularly welcome in times such as these, when politicians such as the president are gleefully stoking the same racial divisions that Mr. Douglass spent his life trying to extinguish.”
— Greg Barnhisel
"David W. Blight brilliantly captures this legendary figure and his times in the magnificent Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, one of the best biographies of recent years. Blight’s portrait of Douglass is engrossing, moving, nuanced, frightening—and certainly thought-provoking."
“David Blight brilliantly illustrates both the perils and possibilities of our national history through a rich and humane portrait of a man and his times. This is a remarkable book about a remarkable American and his enduring impact.” — Drew Gilpin Faust, former president, Harvard University, and author of This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War
"No American of his generation did more than Douglass, both in word and deed, to propel his people, and the nation, toward a reckoning with its original sin. Now he is brought vividly and delightfully to life once more in the flesh and bones of this masterful biography by one of our greatest historians. Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom is a monumental achievement, a must-read for anyone charting the history of a democracy when it is most severely under attack.” — Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University
“Meticulously detailed. . . . . The Douglass who emerges from this massive work is not always heroic, or even likable, but Blight illuminates his personal struggles and achievements to emphasize what an extraordinary person he was."
"A monumental book, a definitive biography, rich with the biblical cadences that filled Douglass’ life and imagination.” — John S. Gardner
“Blight's opus manages to be both a celebration of a remarkable life and a sober reminder of the many ways in which our terrible times are shaped by those Douglass lived through. In so many ways, the central questions then are the central questions now.” — Terence Samuel
“This magnum opus surpasses previous singular biographies . . . an essential text for students and educators seeking to understand Douglass's complex and expansive narrative.”