The Visionary Genius of Frederick Douglass

Richard Bell – University of Maryland

Frederick Douglass was a visionary—a prophet who could see a better future that lay just beyond reach. He was, alongside Lincoln, the greatest American of the 19th century and put his extraordinary gifts to use in the service of freedom, driving American slavery into the grave. After the carnage of the Civil War, he played a central role in the re-founding of American Republic as well, and spent decades afterwards defending and perfecting it.

Douglass, though, is so much more than another great man on a pedestal. He was the slave who dreamed of being a senator. He was the unlettered child with no formal schooling who wrote three autobiographies, becoming one of our greatest literary figures. His life bursts with contradiction and with change. He was the dignified, brilliant, and courageous freedom fighter who could sometimes be insecure, vain, and arrogant. He was the outspoken feminist who treated his own long-suffering wife like his servant. He was the fire-breathing insurgent who would eventually become an out-of-touch elder statesman. To understand how the boy born into bondage in 1818 became the Frederick Douglass that we hold in such esteem today, we must understand this man’s visionary genius not as innate, God-given, and infallible, but instead as the imperfectly beautiful product of growth, of change, of self-doubt, and of struggle.