Frederick Douglass was unquestionably the foremost black 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
many biographies over the years. This, however, is the first
full-scale study of the origins, contours, development, and
significance of Douglass's thought.
Brilliant and to a large degree self-taught, Douglass personified
intellectual activism; he possessed a sincere concern for the uses
and consequences of ideas. Both his people's struggle for
liberation and his individual experiences, which he envisioned as
symbolizing that struggle, provided the basis and structure for his
intellectual maturation. As a representative American, he
internalized and, thus, reflected major currents in the
contemporary American mind. As a representative Afro-American, he
revealed in his thinking the deep-seated influence of race on
Euro-American, Afro-American, or, broadly conceived, American
consciousness. He sought to resolve in his thinking the dynamic
tension between his identities as a black and as an American.
Martin assesses not only how Douglass dealt with this enduring
conflict, but also the extent of his success. An inveterate belief
in a universal and egalitarian humanism unified Douglass's thought.
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
Although nineteenth-century Afro-American intellectual history
derived its central premises and outlook from concurrent American
intellectual history, it offered a searching critique of the latter
and its ramifications. How to square America's rhetoric of freedom,
equality, and justice with the reality of slavery and racial
prejudice was the difficulty that confronted such Afro-American
thinkers as Douglass.