Toward a Synchronic Reading of Frederick Douglass

*This post is part of the online forum on The Futures of Frederick Douglass. The contributions in this forum each highlight innovative approaches to the study of Douglass’s life and works.

Portrait of Frederick Douglass seated at desk holding newspaper from Harper’s Weekly (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture).

Much of the work that we do in Douglass studies is diachronic: we follow Douglass over chronological time as the great man in history, in part because that’s what Douglass did in his three major autobiographies. But a problem with the diachronic, even for those of us who aren’t biographers, is that when we work on Douglass we generally feel the need to move forward in time, reluctant to think about separate episodes as separate episodes (they seem to get their meaning by fitting into the larger patterns established by Douglass’s autobiographies and Douglass biographies). As a result, we miss out on the contextual richness that would come with more synchronic approaches—those that engage his life at one point in time—including those that can be ironically skeptical.

In terms of temporality, synchrony is just one possible way of moving in new directions in Douglass studies. Lloyd Pratt, for instance, has shown that another fruitful way of working against diachronic approaches is to challenge linear or national temporalities.1 But I’m going to keep my focus on the value of synchrony, especially in light of the recent publication of David Blight’s excellent biography, which gives a finely grained big-picture account of Douglass’s life, but moves quickly from episode to episode, guided by the overarching thesis that Douglass was nineteenth-century America’s “Prophet of Freedom.” There are inevitable problems with thesis-driven biographies, as we see in the biography that Blight’s will surely displace: William McFeely’s Frederick Douglass. For McFeely, Douglass’s key relations were with his white family, the Aulds, and various white leaders. He had almost nothing to say about Douglass’s interactions with other Black activists and freedom fighters like Martin Delany and Henry Highland Garnet. Many episodes that we read about in the biography are inflected through the Aulds or through an implicit informing argument (drawn from the work of Peter F. Walker) on Douglass’s supposed desire to be white.2 Blight’s biography is more open-ended and capacious, but Douglass remains at the exceptionalist center of a work that, because of its implicit teleological dimension, somewhat predictably moves diachronically through time to consider Douglass as a cultural prophet.

Working with archives in fresh ways, and even locating the appropriate archives, is absolutely crucial to a synchronic approach. McFeely no doubt found it easier to consult archives of the white families in Maryland’s Eastern Shore than those that would help to illuminate the lives of Black families. Synchronic approaches might also require a bit more intuition in the way that Douglass suggests in the prefatory section of his novella, “The Heroic Slave” (1853), when he remarks that his story of the historical slave-rebel Madison Washington draws on “marks, traces, possibles, and probabilities.”3 Still, many of the archives and resources that we need for a more synchronic approach to Douglass are readily available. By looking at convention proceedings and Black newspapers, for instance, I found an abundance of fresh material for my simultaneously synchronic and diachronic study of Douglass and Delany.4 There was perhaps more of an emphasis on creative (and responsible) intuition in the contributions to Frederick Douglass and Herman Melville: Essays in Relation, most of which studied Douglass and Melville together at particular historical moments, with no pressure to look backward and forward and (actually) no pressure to provide firm evidence that Douglass and Melville even knew of one another. To trope on the title of the Douglass-Melville book, crucial to the kind of synchronic study I am advocating is not just imaginative freedom but also the notion of “in relation.” Douglass’s interactive relationships, especially when he learns from or collaborates with others, are not one of big topics of his autobiographies or the standard biographies.

I want to give two examples of synchrony in ongoing Douglass scholarship focusing on the post-1865 years. John R. McKivigan, the editor of the Frederick Douglass Papers, has begun a project titled “The First Sixties.” The goal is to look at Douglass in relation to Victoria Woodhull, Henry Ward Beecher, and James Redpath, along with some less well known spiritualists, labor radicals, and bohemians such as Anna Dickinson and Ben Butler. One of the goals of the book is to slow down the relentless forward movement of time typical of Douglass biographical studies, focus on just a few years, tease out relationships, think about Douglass multiply as a leader, as a collaborator, and as someone who is learning from others. From what I’ve seen so far, McKivigan’s “First Sixties” book barely looks backward. It’s about the here and now of the 1860s and 1870s as a discrete time period or episode with its own agendas, pressures, and complications.

My second example comes from my ongoing research on Douglass and the impeachment of Andrew Johnson.5 In the book in progress on this topic, I work at times in a relatively diachronic mode, focusing on developments over time as a somewhat heroic Douglass engaged Johnson at the White House early in 1866 and then over the next few years worked up critiques of the president that eventually expanded to a larger critique of the Constitution, all the while keeping the pressure on Johnson until he felt comfortable enough to skip the impeachment hearings. Douglass’s interactions with Johnson, I claim, helped to shape his post-Civil War career as well. This is the heroic, onward-moving Douglass of the autobiographies, and in fact at various points in the manuscript I uncritically reproduce Douglass’s retrospective perspective on Johnson by quoting from his 1881 Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.

But in the more synchronic approach to Douglass and Johnson that I am also developing in the manuscript, I say much more about Douglass’s work with other Black critics of Johnson. For instance, when Douglass challenged Johnson in the White House early in 1866, he was accompanied by a small delegation of African Americans, at least one of whom, George T. Downing, had more of a leadership role than Douglass. The delegation itself was put together at a Black convention in Washington, DC. I am in the process of learning more about the participants, and in the book itself, I plan on looking closely at the various Black perspectives on Johnson and Reconstruction that were expressed at that convention. In my account of the White House visit by the Black delegation, I study Douglass in relation not only to Downing, but also to the other Black leaders—like William Whipper and John Jones—who were part of the group. To take another example of synchronic relationality: Douglass counted Senator Charles Sumner as a friend. Though I and others celebrate Douglass’s constitutional critique of Johnson’s “one man power” in his February 1867 speech, “Sources of Danger to the Republic,” I also discuss the speech Sumner delivered at Boston’s Music Hall four months earlier titled “The One Man Power vs. Congress!,” which was subsequently printed as a pamphlet. Douglass remarked on his indebtedness to the speech in a letter he sent Sumner four months before he gave his own lecture on the “one man power.”6

In the book, I will also be exploring what other prominent African Americans were saying about Johnson and impeachment in sermons, speeches, and articles. Douglass has conventionally been regarded as the one Black person who majestically and bravely spoke out against Johnson, but just a week before Douglass gave his lecture on “Sources of Danger to the Republic,” the African American poet, essayist, and fiction writer Frances Ellen Watkins Harper spoke on Johnson at the Social, Civil, and Statistical Association of the Colored People of Philadelphia. In some respects Harper’s lecture is bolder than Douglass’s, and given that the speech was published in the Philadelphia Evening Inquirer, it may well have been picked up by a newspaper clipping service and made available to Douglass. In an especially sharp (and witty) moment in the speech, Harper compares President Johnson to a mustard plaster, and then asks her auditors: “But when you have done with the mustard-plaster, what do you do with it?” She responds:

[W]hen you have done with it, you throw it aside. Now, my friends, why do you not do the same with Andrew Johnson, and impeach him . . . and bring him before the bar of the nation, and prove to the world that this American nation is strong, and so powerful, and so wise, that the humblest servant beneath its care, or the strongest, is not to behave without its restraint.

When he subsequently lectured on “Sources of Danger to the Republic,” Douglass no doubt thought of himself as one of a number of Black people speaking out against Johnson.

Finally, in a synchronic study of Douglass and Johnson, it is important to emphasize the uncertainty of outcomes. When Johnson became president in 1865, Douglass didn’t know what would happen that year or the next; he was responding almost daily to unfolding events with the hope he could have an impact on the practice of Reconstruction. It is only in 1881, when he looked back on the Johnson presidency in Life and Times, that he gave the story its teleological meaning by inserting it into the larger pattern of his role as Black leader (or Blight might say Black prophet). Contingency, uncertainty, and pragmatism need to be a crucial part of a synchronic account of Douglass and the impeachment of Andrew Johnson.

In short, synchrony in Douglass studies would encourage a greater appreciation of Douglass as a collaborator and actor in a culture and career that remained in process and in relation.

  1. Lloyd Pratt, The Strangers Book: The Human of African American Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), chap. 2; and Lloyd Pratt, Archives of American Time: Literature and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).
  2.  Peter F. Walker, Moral Choices: Memory, Desire, and Imagination in Nineteenth-Century American Abolition (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978), chap. 4.
  3. Frederick Douglass, The Heroic Slave: A Cultural and Critical Edition, ed. Robert S. Levine, John Stauffer, and John R. McKivigan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 5.
  4. Robert S. Levine, Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, and the Politics of Representative Identity (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).
  5. My book in progress, “Frederick Douglass and the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson,” is under contract with W. W. Norton and should appear in late 2020.
  6. Frederick Douglass to Charles Sumner, October 19, 1866, in The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, vol. 4, Reconstruction and After, ed. Philip S. Foner (New York: International Publishers, 1955), 197.
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Robert Levine

Robert Levine is a Distinguished University Professor of English at the University of Maryland. He has been an influential force in American and African American literature for over thirty years, and more recently has contributed important work to the burgeoning field of hemispheric and transnational American literary studies. His prominent publications cover an array of themes critical to an understanding of 19th-century American literature. His most recent book is 'The Lives of Frederick Douglass' (Harvard University Press, 2016).