In marking the beginning of Black History Month the other day, President Donald Trump commended Frederick Douglass as “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.”
Quibbles over the President’s use of the present tense aside, most would agree that Douglass did in fact accomplish something amazing in escaping slavery to become a leading abolitionist and visionary social reformer/statesman during a turbulent time in our nation’s history, and whose powerful, soul-stirring eloquence still speaks to us today.
Because I live in Talbot County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where Douglass was born into slavery almost 200 years ago (and where a statue now honors him in front of the courthouse), I am probably a little more familiar with the life of this iconic figure than a lot of people. While the mountainous volumes written about Douglass (beginning with his three autobiographies) may seem daunting to anyone interested in learning more about his inspiring life, a quick insight into the man’s character can be found in the friendship he shared with Mark Twain.
Sean Kirst, in his article on using this friendship to place the racial complexities in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in context, succinctly summarized Douglass’ deep ties with Twain:
Twain’s eventual father-in-law, Jervis Langdon of Elmira, was a passionate abolitionist who played a major role in Douglass’ escape. Twain, raised in slaveholding Missouri, grew up immersed in the virulent racism of the world around him. Yet he was a thinking man, and…his attitudes changed as he traveled the nation. By 1869, as editor of a Buffalo newspaper, he was writing editorials that attacked a lynching in Tennessee.
At about the same time, Twain had his first chance to meet Douglass, a handshake that soon evolved into a friendship.
Despite their different backgrounds, the two men shared impressive literary and oratorical talents, and a mutual respect for the challenges of their craft. According to Kirst’s article, Douglass, a prolific author in in his own right, attended a reading of Huckleberry Finn in Washington, D.C.. Both were popular speakers who frequented the same circles on the lecture circuit, as this blurb from the Washington Post in 1879 indicates:
Mark Twain, Fred Douglass, and Mizzer Chandler are all on the bills for speeches in New York, and negotiations are pending with Carl Schurz to complete the quartette. There is nothing in Mark Twain’s humor more ludicrous than this combination. When these four innocents go abroad together, Mr. Evarts solemnly following in their wake, John Sherman bringing up the rear, and all supported by the moral power of the administration, it will be a spectacle not easily duplicated.
Twain thought quite highly of “Fred Douglass”, as demonstrated in the unsolicited letter he wrote to President-elect Garfield in 1881 asking that he reappoint Douglass to the office of Marshal of the District of Columbia:
A simple citizen may express a desire, with all propriety, in the matter of recommendation to office, and so I beg permission to hope that you will retain Mr. Douglass in his present office of Marshal of the District of Columbia, if such course will not class with your own preferences or with the expediencies and interests of your Administration. I offer this petition with peculiar pleasure and strong desire, because I so honor this man’s high and blemishless character, and so admire his brave, long crusade for the liberties and elevation of his race.
He is a personal friend of mine, but that is nothing to the point; his history would move me to say these things without that, and I feel them, too.
Albert Bigelow Paine includes Douglass’ appreciative response in his Biography:
I think if a man is mean enough to want an office he ought to be noble enough to ask for it, and use all honorable means of getting it. I mean to ask, and I will use your letter as a part of my petition. It will put the President-elect in a good humor, in any case, and that is very important.
With great respect,
Although Garfield ended up appointing one of his friends to the post, he did make Douglass the recorder of deeds for D.C., a high-paying position at the time. Given his accomplishments and towering reputation, Douglass probably would have been nominated for the position without Twain’s recommendation. But the letter Twain wrote in support of his friend remains a fitting testament to why Douglass’ “high and blemishless character” so richly deserves to be recognized more and more as time goes by.