Frederick Douglass’s Compressed, Expanding World

fdIn February 1848, angry Parisians crowded their city’s streets to protest restrictive monarchial policies. The Prime Minister resigned, the king fled to England, and Americans, black and white, looked on, eager for the global spread of republicanism. Frederick Douglass, who had traveled and spoken across England, Scotland, and Ireland from 1845 to 1847, kept a close watch on events in France and offered reporting and commentary in his North Star. His, and presumably the public’s, thirst for knowledge seemed unquenchable. “The more we know, the more we want to know, and the more need we have of knowing.” But things were different in 1848. “Thanks to steam navigation and electric wires,” he wrote, people could interact more immediately than they had in the past, sharing a revolutionary struggle in new ways. “[W]e may almost hear the words uttered, and see the deeds done, as they transpire.” Douglass reveled in the transformative power of technology. He imagined that people might use the tools of an emerging information age to take part in broad, dynamic communities, and to improve, perhaps even perfect, their world.

As Douglass saw it, technological development enhanced political work. Steamships brought news from Europe in as few as fifteen days, which struck him as an immediate kind of knowledge that allowed a localized movement to exert a broad and seemingly instant influence. “A revolution now cannot be confined to the place or the people where it may commence, but flashes with lightning speed from heart to heart, from land to land, till it has traversed the globe.” News of France’s revolution moved “like a bolt of living thunder,” and cast “a ray of hope” into the dark corners of “American slave pens” inspiring the oppressed to join a struggle against tyranny in its diverse manifestations. Maritime technology, electric wiring, and print culture gave France’s revolution that broad power. Douglass’s own commentary made the revolution an Atlantic phenomenon, as he framed it as an attack on American slaveholders. “Thank God for the event! Slavery cannot always reign.”

We are living in the world Douglass invoked, defined by instantaneous communication, uncontainable ideas, and the complicated power of technology. Social media encouraged the circulation of ideas during the Arab Spring and helped people organize mass public protests. Black Lives Matter grew from a phrase in a Facebook message to a hashtag and to a national movement for black empowerment. These same tools can serve many ends. Black students at American University have recently publicized the persistent, racist messages that fellow students have posted through Yik Yak, an anonymous group chat app. And earlier this year, writer Lindy West confronted a man who harassed her through an online persona based on her deceased father.

In his 1848 editorial, Frederick Douglass didn’t speak to the problems that technology could create, but he must have recognized that they existed. Colonizationists and anti-abolitionists could, and did, use the press just as effectively he had. They could take shelter in anonymity, as did the author of an unsigned 1839 pamphlet who celebrated the burning of a Philadelphia meeting hall that he called a center for “black-hearted amalgamationists” and a “temple of niggerism.” People have never needed the Internet to troll, and hate does not require the protection of anonymity. But as technology broadens communities and expands access, it compresses space and time, as it did in Frederick Douglass’s nineteenth century. Technology allows people almost to reach out and touch audiences: to lift people up; to push them on in struggles for justice; and to commit acts of violence from a distance.

For Douglass, technology was simply catching up to human development. Black and white, French and American, free and enslaved, all were bound together in a “common brotherhood;” it made sense that people should be able to communicate with ease across those lines. He refined these ideas in his famous Fifth of July speech from 1852, noting that “space is comparatively annihilated.” Douglass praised what seemed to be a near spontaneous movement of ideas: “thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic, are distinctly heard on the other.” This was, to him, an enhancement of the human condition. Perhaps there was intent in Douglass’s emphasis on the liberatory potential of information technology. He encouraged readers to see only the good that could come from new forms of communication. And he gestured towards the truths that as people come closer together our fates are increasingly intertwined, and that ultimately the consequences of hatred and violence are no easier to contain than an editorial, a blog, or a tweet.

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Christopher Bonner

Christopher Bonner is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Maryland, College Park. He specializes in African American history, particularly black protest in the early United States. He is at work on a manuscript titled “The Price of Citizenship,” which examines black activists’ efforts to construct American citizenship before the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. Follow him on Twitter @63cjb.

Comments on “Frederick Douglass’s Compressed, Expanding World

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    My mother told me that “nowadays you can’t keep anything secret”, and that was why she thought politics had improved in her lifetime (of 100 years).

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