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The Mind of Frederick Douglass

By Waldo E. Martin Jr. | Go to book overview

Preface

His is an intellectual biography of Frederick Douglass, unquestionably the foremost Negro American of the nineteenth century. The extraordinary life of this former slave turned abolitionist orator, newspaper editor, social reformer, race leader, and Republican party advocate has inspired numerous biographies over the years. Douglass himself wrote three autobiographies. This, however, is the first full-scale study of the origins, contours, development, and significance of his thought. Brilliant and to a large degree selftaught, Douglass personified intellectual activism: a sincere concern for the uses and consequences of ideas. Both his people's liberation struggle and his individual experiences, which he envisioned as symbolizing that struggle, provided the basis and structure for his intellectual maturation.

Douglass's life and thought represent a significant feature of nineteenthcentury American and Afro-American social and intellectual history. As a representative American, he internalized and, thus, reflected major currents in the contemporary American mind. As a representative Afro-American, his thought revealed the deep-seated influence of race on Euro-American, AfroAmerican, or, broadly conceived, American consciousness. His importance as a thinker, in fact, derives in part from his insight into and embodiment of both the intrinsic interrelationship between the Afro-American and Euro-American minds and the pervasive impact of race on American life and thought. The central thrust of his thinking, consequently, was to resolve the dynamic tension between his identities as a Negro and as an American. The primary problem of this study, then, is to assess not only how he endeavored to resolve this enduring conflict, but the extent of his success.

The guiding assumption unifying Douglass's thought was an inveterate belief in a universal and egalitarian brand of humanism. His seemingly innate commitment to the inviolability of freedom and the human spirit best exemplified this overarching assumption. This grand organizing principle reflected his intellectual roots in the three major traditions of mid-nineteenth-century American thought: Protestant Christianity, the Enlightenment, and romanticism. Together, these influences buttressed his characteristic optimism and his beliefs in a moral, meaningful, and comprehensible universe and metiorism. The postwar materialist and Social Darwinian trends impinged upon his thinking without altering his basic assumptions. More important, largely from Protestant Christianity, he gained a religious rationale for his deep-rooted moral sensibility. As a child of the Enlightenment, he inherited critical ideo

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