David W. Blight undertakes the first systematic analysis of the impact of the Civil War on Ferderick Douglass’s life and thought, and in doing so raises a number of new questions about the meaning of the war in American history, in the Afro-American experience, and in the mind of the nineteenth century’s most important black leader.
Frederick Douglass’ Civil War follows Douglass’ intellectual growth from the 1850s—considering the sources of hope Douglass struggled to remain a Republican party functionary and to preserve an abolitionist’s memory of the conflict.
Blight probes and clarifies several apparent inconsistencies in Douglass’ thought, pointing out the tensions in Douglass’ own mind between his private views and the demands of his many public roles as abolitionist, black spokesman, newspaper editor, and traveling orator. He states that Douglass was “forever balancing the duty of principle with the duty of hope.”
Throughout the study, Blight emphasizes the strong spiritual element in Douglass’ perception of the war. For Douglass, as well as for many others, the Civil War carried a powerful millennialist and apocalyptic meaning; it became a hold war for black freedom and for national regeneration. Douglass saw the war and Reconstruction as the crucible in which a truly new nation was born, one in which blacks would be full participants by birthright and experience. Through this vision, Douglass made a significant contribution to the literary and intellectual traditions of apocalypticism, the jeremiad, civil religion, black sermonic discourse, and the providential view of history. Douglass is missing from virtually all works on the intellectual history of the Civil War era; this book gives him his rightful place in that tradition.
This sensitive intellectual biography of Frederick Douglass offers fresh insights into the man and the dramatic events of his day. General readers will find themselves challenged and moved by Blight’s analysis of the life and thought of this principal figure in Afro-American history and in the creation of our national character. Historians of the Civil War period will appreciate the insights into the era that Douglass provided and that Blight brings to light in his assessment of the era’s greatest black thinker.
David W. Blight is a leading expert on the life and writings of Frederick Douglass and on the Civil War in historical memory. Blight has appeared in several PBS films about African American history and works extensively with museums and other public history projects. He currently teaches at Yale University. Visit http://www.davidwblight.com for more information.
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