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“Simply A Man”

July 2024
6min read

In August of 1863 Frederick Douglass called upon the Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, to explain why the recruiting of black troops for the Union had been slower than some had expected. Blacks wanted equal pay, he explained, and a chance for promotion. And they wanted some assurance that the Union would retaliate if the Confederate Congress made good on its pledge to treat captive black soldiers as rebellious slaves rather than prisoners of war.

Stanton was “cold and business like … but earnest,” Douglass remembered. His visitor was earnest too. “I told him,” Douglass recalled, “that the negro was the victim of two extreme opinions. One claimed for him too much and the other too little … that it was a mistake to regard him either as an angel or a devil. He is simply a man, and should be dealt with purely as such.”

That fact, so apparently self-evident, so rarely acknowledged either in Douglass’s time or in our own, was the tirelessly reiterated lesson of his extraordinary life, and it provides the key to William S. McFeely’s distinguished new biography Frederick Douglass (W. W. Norton, $24.95). McFeely’s Douglass is undeniably great—and undeniably human as well.

Abraham Lincoln has traditionally been our model self-made statesman, but his rise to prominence seems almost effortless compared with the climb Frederick Douglass had to make. He was born Frederick Bailey in 1818 on a Maryland plantation (even the name by which he later became famous was his own creation, adapted from a poem by Sir Walter Scott to confuse slave catchers after he fled north), the son of a white man whose identity he could never quite pin down and of a slave woman who, perhaps because she harbored bitter memories of his fathering, seems to have shown little interest in him. His grandmother raised him until the age of six, somehow managing to instill in him a sense that he was destined for great things, then handed him on to the big house to be trained as a servant.


Douglass experienced both slavery’s brutality and its paternalism during his first twenty years, and it is hard to tell from the three vivid but increasingly romanticized accounts of his youth that he published during his lifetime which angered him the most. But he taught himself to read and write and at twelve secretly bought a book, Caleb Bingham’s Columbian Orator . “Seldom,” McFeely writes, “has a single book more profoundly shaped the life of a writer and orator.” Words could be weapons, Douglass learned; oratory was power.

His oratory helped make Douglass black America’s best-known champion, but he was far more than a magnificent voice and a majestic presence. He was his own man, cunning about tactics but uncompromising in his convictions and unwilling ever to follow anyone else’s script, including that drafted by the white sympathizers who thought him their creation. No man did more to undermine slavery before the Civil War, and none was more prescient about the subtler, more stubborn evil of racism that survived intact to permeate the postwar world.

These were great achievements, but as McFeely makes clearer than ever before, like the achievements of other great men of every color, Douglass’s were purchased at fearful cost to those around him.

His family suffered most. He had married at twenty, long before he had been introduced to the wider world. His wife was Anna Murray, about whom very little is known except that she was the daughter of former slaves and unable to read or write. During the forty-four years of their marriage, she bore five children and ran the house, McFeely writes, while staying mostly in the kitchen and “emerging only to serve her husband as if he, like his friends, were a guest in her house.”

It is impossible to reconstruct Douglass’s feelings for his wife once he had become a public figure—it remains one of the enduring mysteries of his life that he never taught her to read and write—but his response to one of his daughters, who had surprised him with news of her own wedding plans, may suggest his own unhappiness. “I should rejoice to see you married tomorrow, if I felt you were marrying someone worthy of you,” he wrote. “It would spread a dark cloud over my soul to see you marry some ignorant and unlearned person. … You are altogether too refined and intelligent a person for any such marriage. In any case, Douglass turned for the companionship he craved to a succession of educated white women, whose constant presence in his life embittered his wife, bewildered his children, and threatened to destroy his career.

The first was Julia Griffiths, an Englishwoman who traveled with her sister all the way to Rochester, New York, in 1849 to help Douglass raise funds and run his newspaper. She stayed for six years, living much of that time in his home. When an old friend warned him that rumors about his relationship with an unmarried white woman were threatening to undermine his effectiveness, Douglass professed not to care. “Individuals have rights not less than society,” he wrote. He was “a husband and a father—and withal a citizen”; only he would be the judge of his own domestic arrangements. But the whispers continued, his wife’s resentment intensified, and Griffiths finally felt obliged first to move to lodgings of her own and then to sail for home, where she eventually married a clergyman but never stopped corresponding with the man she continued to love.

Her successor, Ottilia Assing, arrived in 1856. A high-strung German intellectual initially drawn to Douglass by his autobiography (which she translated into German) and to his cause by her liberal upbringing, she too was soon in love with him. McFeely concludes that their partnership was physical as well as emotional, but prudence dictated that they live apart; she took rooms in a Hoboken, New Jersey, boarding house and lived for his infrequent visits and for the long summer afternoons when she was allowed to come to his garden in Rochester and read to him from Dickens and Goethe.

After a quarter of a century, the strain of continuing this passionate but doomed relationship evidently began to tell, and in 1881, suffering from what a physician had warned Douglass were dangerous “self-slaughterous” tendencies, she returned to Europe, from where she soon wrote to an American friend to ask that he send her a box of Douglass’s favorite cigars so that their aroma could remind her of him.

The following year Anna Douglass suffered a fatal stroke. In the spring of 1884 Douglass quietly got married again, to his secretary, Helen Pitts, an Ohio abolitionist’s daughter, twentyone years younger than he—and white. Her father announced he would not have his new son-in-law in his home. Douglass’s children, who refused to attend the wedding, never called their stepmother anything other than Mrs. Douglass. Even the black Weekly News was appalled: “Fred Douglass has married a red-head white girl. … Goodbye, black blood in that family. We have no further use for him. His picture hangs in our parlor. We will hang it in the stables.”

Douglass experienced both slavery’s brutality and its paternalism during his first twenty years, and it’s hard to tell which angered him most.

Again Douglass was unmoved. “What business has the world with the color of my wife?” he asked a friend. “Helen and I are making life go very happily.”

Julia Griffiths wrote to congratulate him on his remarriage. There seems to be no record of how Ottilia Assing took the news, but a few weeks later she left her Paris hotel, wandered into the Bois de Boulogne, and swallowed poison. In her will she asked that all her letters be destroyed and left a thirteen-thousand-dollar trust fund, its annual income earmarked for Douglass and the cause for which they had labored together so long.

His reaction to her death is unknown, but his new marriage did brighten his last years, which were otherwise mostly dark. He never stopped agitating, first successfully for black voting rights and then in vain against the betrayal of Reconstruction and the steady growth of Jim Crow, but he did so always from within the Republican party, for which he worked, as he himself once admitted, as a “fieldhand.” In return for his dogged fealty, he received a succession of largely empty honors, being named president of the already moribund Freedman’s Bank, marshal of Washington, recorder of deeds, minister to Haiti (where, according to McFeely, his enthusiasm at living in a black republic blinded him to the bloody-mindedness of its president, Florvil Hyppolite). The favored treatment he received at white Republican hands served to point up the hardships endured by other blacks; he once found himself playing croquet at the home of the Washington hostess Kate Chase Sprague, who was employing in her stable his own son-in-law.

But from time to time, even during his sad final years, Douglass displayed something of his old fire. He was asked to speak at “Colored People’s Day” at the Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893. The white press treated the occasion as a joke, and as Douglass, now a weary, stooped old man, began to read his speech, he was drowned out by jeering whites. He seemed genuinely shaken at first. His voice faltered. He removed his glasses and set down his manuscript. Then, the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar remembered, he ran his fingers once through his white hair, straightened his back, and began to speak in the huge, echoing voice of his youth, “compelling attention, drowning out the catcalls as an organ would a penny whistle.”

“Men talk of the Negro problem. There is no Negro problem,” Douglass said. “The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own Constitution. … We Negroes love our country. We fought for it. We ask only that we be treated as well as those who fought against it.”

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