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Frederick Douglass

One day the accustomed decorum of the Boston Radical Club was interrupted by cries of "Speech!" "Oh, yes!" "Just a few words!" "Speech!" to which, at intervals, a round, musical voice answered "No, no!" and at last laughingly said: "Well, if all you want is to see me, look!" and up stood a tall man, probably the tallest man present; a figure with broad, erect shoulders; graceful port, and a slightly silvered head, at that moment flung backward in mirthful defiance; dark, steady eyes, and a face like an old bronze. Holding a great cloak around him, the man stood for a moment amid applause, and then seated himself, obstinately dumb. he had nothing to say, and would not speak. This rare personage was Frederick Douglass, ex-slave, abolitionist, orator, and editor; the man to whom England gave the money to purchase his freedom; the friend of John Brown; the man who had been invaluable in recruiting negro regiments; the man whose life in spite of its multifarious outward shows was one long work of self-education and study. He wrote his own "Life and Times" in 1882 and wrote it well; he wrote two other autobiographies earlier in his life, and he appears in all the biographies and reminiscences of the Abolitionists whom he richly repaid for their goodness to him. there was no lack of material before Mr. Charles W. Chesnutt, who adds his life to the Beacon Biographies.

For many reasons his task was difficult. The most active and brilliant parts of Douglass's career were enveloped in an atmosphere of enthusiasm of which the younger generation can have little conception. Toleration there was none. The Abolitionists knew the slaveholders' present deserts and future destiny and announced them as often as might be, and the slaveholder rejoined with the terrors of the statutes and the Constitution. The Abolitionists making daily secrifices for an idea consoled themselves with their likeness to the chosen people among the Canaanites, and were happy in persecution, and their persecutor was as self-righteous as they. The fever heat registered in Harriet Martineau's "Martyr Age," burned as hotly in the veins of Maria Chapman as in those of her cousin, Wendell Phillips. Now gentleness reigns, and when any erring brother tries to arouse the old feelings in behalf of a Filipino nobody wastes eggs on him, and somebody makes a cartoon of him. It is probable that Douglass, earnest worker though he was, never actually shared the feelings of his white friends, for he was making no sacrifices, and was working to liberate his own. Occasionally he encountered mobs, but he never suffered seriously; as a rule he earned enough to carry out his plans, and if he had it not it came to him from some friend or group of friends. He was always in a state of tutelage to some one, but the yoke was light. He was so busy that the bare record of his work occupies nearly all the books, and Mr. Chesnutt has deviated little from it, adorning it with the briefest touches of anecdote or epithet, and probably has come nearer to the real man than any one who has described him.

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Review of Frederick Douglass. In: New York Times Book Review, (January 13, 1900): 20.