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The Militant, 7 February 1949

George Lavan

A New Book on the Life of Frederick Douglass

From The Militant, Vol. 13 No. 6, 7 February 1949, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Frederick Douglass
by Benjamin Quarles
The Associated Publishers, Inc., 1948, vi + 378 pp., $4.

A new biography of Frederick Douglass has long been overdue. The accounts of the fascinating life of this runaway slave who became one of the greatest orators, thinkers and leaders of the Abolitionist movement have till now been available to the reader only in the old biographies or in novelized reworkings of the same material.

This is the first serious full-length biographical study of Frederick Douglass in almost half a century. Previous biographies of this great fighter for freedom were written either during his lifetime or within a dozen years of his death by men who had felt the living impact of his personality. And today these books are difficult to find.

Thus Quarles’ book is the first view of Douglass through the eyes of modern historical scholarship. It is obvious that the writer is a painstaking scholar who studied all known source material on Douglass and brought to light a good deal hitherto unknown. Any student of Douglass or the Abolitionist movement will have to put this volume on his “must” list.

Uncertain Attitude

It should be stated, however, that this is by far not the definitive biography of the greatest Negro leader in United States history. This is pot because of any lack of material about Douglass but rather because of the author’s uncertainty about Douglass’ historical position and character and about the dynamics of the Abolitionist movement.

While the reader closes the volume with much knowledge about Douglass and his multifarious activities, he does not finish the last page with a clear picture of the kind of man Douglass was or where Douglass stands historically in relation to the other giants of Abolitionism – Garrison and Phillips. The author describes Douglass’ turn to political action and his break with Garrison’s sectarian anti-political position in terms of possible opportunist motives. No attempt is made to evaluate the correctness or incorrectness of Douglass’ step in advancing the destruction of slavery.

The closest the author comes to a political evaluation of this central strategical problem in the Abolitionist crusade is the statement that “Douglass’ position, in contradistinction to that of Garrison, was one of reform, rather than of revolution.” This thesis, first propounded by Booker T. Washington, is suspect in motive and unwarranted by history.

The book’s failure to present Douglass as an integrated and understandable personality flows from the author’s contradictory attitudes toward his subject. Too often Quarles leans over backwards to avoid any of the elements of hero-worship which may be charged against the early biographers of the great Negro fighter. There is no objection to historical debunking, even though one might argue the need is not to debunk Douglass today but to make him known to high school and college students of history who have yet to hear his. name. But the debunker should justify his destruction of previously held views and substantiate his owir position. In this volume the debunking is often by implication rather than proof.

False Approach

For instance, in the chapter dealing with the outbreak of hostilities between the North and the South, the author describes Douglass’ reaction as follows: "If hostilities continued indefinitely, the Negro problem, in its various guises, would assume increasing proportions, and as the nation’s most articulate colored man, he [Douglass] would shine in reflected importance. The prospect of position and preferment put him in high spirits ...” This kind of posthumous mind reading, for which the author is able to furnish no evidence, opens Douglass to charges of rankest careerism. One wonders if the author realized the inferences that the reader cannot help but draw.

Despite the faults which mar this book it has the merit of presenting new information. The chapters describing Douglass’ first and second (to a white woman) marriages are excellent. These had been “decorously” passed over by the early biographers. Also the author examines Douglass’ failure to make an alliance with the post-Civil War labor and agrarian movements. All this and the wealth of collateral information and observations on the Abolitionist and Woman’s Rights movements make this book worth a critical reading by students of Negro history and by class conscious workers.

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