Why Is This Happening? Remembering America's prophet of freedom with David Blight: podcast and transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with professor and historian David Blight about the life of the freed slave, orator, and writer Frederick Douglass.
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By Why Is This Happening?

Who should we be building monuments to in America? Few figures have pushed for a truly fair and equal society in this country like Frederick Douglass. A man who saw the full promise of American democracy even years before the start of the Civil War.

This week Chris sits down with professor and historian David Bligt to talk about his Pulitzer winning book "Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom." The two discuss the life of the freed slave, orator, and writer whose words would go on to push America toward the multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-ethnic democracy that we still are striving for today.

Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.

DAVID BLIGHT:

Multiculturalism, we use it so loosely that we don't even know what it means anymore. Well, Douglass knew what it meant. It meant the dream put into reality that people of every kind of creed, every kind of race background, ethnicity difference, even though they're going to fight it out, they're going to fight like hell over the sources, and meaning, and religion, and interpretation. They're going to fight like hell, but it's possible to create a democracy in which all of them can actually live. Chris Hayes:

CHRIS HAYES:

Hello and welcome to "Why Is This Happening" with me, your host, Chris Hayes. Once again, we are here in the quarantine closet, however many weeks we are into the COVID-19 quarantine. And there's been a lot of discussion about reckoning with our past, reckoning with our history. We've seen these protesters in city to city tearing down Confederate monuments. Many of which, if not most of which are actually not erected in the period of the Confederacy or after the civil war. I mean, it would be a weird thing to do right after you lost. They tend to be erected in the late 19th century into the 1920s and thirties, even sometimes in the wake of Brown v. Board of Ed. as essentially contemporaneous statements of white supremacy and domination over free black citizens. And so what we seen in these battles is that these sort of totems and the statues and symbols have real political power and they are often erected as moments of political expression.

And there's also been this kind of debate that they have occasioned about which figures should be on which side of the line. It seems very clear to me that every Confederate monument in the country should be torn down. But then there's a question of Christopher Columbus, question of Teddy Roosevelt or Washington and Jefferson who of course are founding fathers and also owned slaves and partook in this irredeemable and unforgivable evil system. And all of that has sort of had me thinking about, well, who should we be building more statues to, right? Like all this has been kind of a weirdly negative conversation about the statues and monuments we have. And often because those statues and monuments reflect who's in power and who's in power often is a lot of people who have not great records on many of the things that we care deeply about.

But one of the great lies that we are told and tell ourselves as Americans is a kind of like, they didn't know better lie. It's the way that we cast back into history and say, "Well, you can't really criticize Christopher Columbus. You know, he didn't really realize the indigenous people were human beings who shouldn't have their hands chopped off and shouldn't have 14 year old girls requisitioned in sexual slavery." But the fact of the matter is they're actual contemporary critics of Christopher Columbus is to say that what he's doing on the Island of Hispaniola is an abomination against God. They knew then. Same thing with Andrew Jackson's Trail of Tears. It wasn't like Andrew Jackson didn't know he was committing ethnic cleansing. In fact, the debate on the floor of the house during the Trail of Tears was about the human rights, they didn't use that term, abomination that Andrew Jackson wanted ordered. And so was it with slavery. And so was it with the central conceit of genuine multiracial democracy.

I mean, we think here in 2020, we're working towards genuine multiracial democracy and we want a full and equal shared democratic polity across lines of gender, across lines of race and religion and also sexual identity. And that that's kind of a new idea. Well, it's not a new idea. In fact, arguably the greatest American ever, top three, saw very clearly that this must be, that it was the only just at appropriate destiny for the nation to be a true multiracial democracy. And he saw it clearly 25 years before the civil war. And he is one of the greatest American heroes we have. There should be statutes to him everywhere. It's not that he's unknown. His name is Frederick Douglass. You have, of course, heard of him. He's getting recognized more and more. But he is a figure of, I think, of singular towering influence and importance in the America we want to be.

If you could think about a founding father for the nation, that was a founding father who truly captured intellectually and in their life, the vision for a full and equitable just American democracy, Frederick Douglass probably comes closest. If you were to choose one, if you were to choose one to start a new Mount Rushmore. A Mount Rushmore towards multi-racial multi-ethnic gender equitable, and there's a complicated story there, American democracy, you would put Frederick Douglass on that Mount Rushmore. You would erect statues to him. And all of this is very fresh in my mind because I had the great pleasure of reading this incredibly masterful biography.

You've probably heard of this book because it got a tremendous amount of attention and I believe it won the Pulitzer Prize. It won a bunch of awards. So you can't keep track of them. It's called Frederick Douglass, Profit of Freedom. It's a long study of the man's life. And it was written by DAVID BLIGHT, who's a Sterling Professor of American History, Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the study of slavery resistance and abolition at Yale University. And ever since I read the book, I've been wanting to talk to him about it. So it's my great pleasure to welcome DAVID BLIGHT. David, thanks for coming on.

DAVID BLIGHT:

Thank you, Chris. It's great honor.

CHRIS HAYES:

Let's talk about your way into this man who, he's one of these figures where... I think this is sort of the case a little bit with Hamilton and Chernow's biography and then the musical, which is that, sure, it's not like Alexander Hamilton is not famous. He's famous. We know Hamilton's a founding father, but the depth of complexity of the guy's life, it's like you read it. And you're like, "Whoa, wow." And Frederick Douglass is in a somewhat similar category in so far as like, yes, we know Fredrick Douglass. When we see his picture, we recognize him. But the sheer volume of his thought, his writing, his speaking, his political influence, his life experience. I had no idea the life this man lived.

DAVID BLIGHT:

Well, to go right back to your central point in your introduction. He did have a vision of a multiethnic, multiracial, multireligious America in a more robust way than almost anybody of his own time. Long before an idea like multiculturalism was any form of consensus in this country. He was the prose poet, if you like, of American democracy in the 19th century. He was a creature of words. We can come back to that if you want of just how a former slave, a kid who grows up a slave spends 20 years as a slave, become such a genius with language. But he managed to find in language, written prose, autobiographical prose, political editorials, thousands of speeches, even one work of fiction. He found ways to penetrate and explain, describe and explain the experience of slavery as both physical and mental. The experiences of racism, they didn't use that term in the 19th century. They called it racial prejudice, et cetera. And, and he found ways to explain what was happening to the American nation, the country itself, because of this issue of slavery and its aftermath, like nobody else.

Whether he belongs on a Mount Rushmore. I don't know, on that issue, it's worth talking about as we go through these monument wars, whether we've almost been too obsessed with people on monuments, and maybe we need to think more and more about memorialization, about ideas and concepts and events and processes, and so on. This obsession with heroes sometimes just gets us in trouble because everybody's got flaws. That's why George Washington is now in trouble, right, on the monuments.

CHRIS HAYES:

Right. Well, and it's also, I mean, after my encomium Frederick Douglass, he was, of course, not unflawed either.

DAVID BLIGHT:

No, he's deeply human and not perfect.

CHRIS HAYES:

Deeply human, and when we'll get to the... I want to get to the fight over the 14th amendment, which to me is in some ways the most interesting, one of the most interesting moments in all of American history. But first, I guess, for people that have not read the biography, which is probably the large majority of the listeners right now, just tell me a little bit about how does Frederick Douglass become Frederick Douglass? What is the story of a child born into slavery who becomes the great writer and orator?

DAVID BLIGHT:

Well, he's born out in an isolated corner of the Eastern shore of Maryland. 1818. If he hadn't moved to Baltimore, when he was seven, eight years old and spent nine of his 10 years as a slave back and forth in Baltimore, we probably wouldn't ever know about him. There he lived in an urban setting, a great ocean port, where he could see the world coming in and out. He worked in maritime trades. He learned his literacy and he explored his literacy. He also lived in close proximity in Baltimore. In fact, he lived within, in many ways, a free black community. Baltimore in the year, he escaped at 1838 had about 3000 slaves, but it had about 17,000 free blacks. It was a very robust community, lots of churches, fraternal orders, debating societies, even got involved in the debating society. It's where he meets his first wife, Anna Murray. He got engaged with certain ministers and preachers who helped him find his voice. But what Frederick Bailey, which was his original name was, what Frederick Bailey locked on to as a kid were words and language. Now we don't know entirely why that happened, except like every kid it's clear to me from all the sources we have, including his autobiographies, that he found the one thing he was really good at, which is what most kids want to find. He found he was good with words and language, especially oratorical language. And he was already preaching informally while he was still a slave by the age of 17 and 18, sometimes just outdoors and brush arbors with his so-called, what he called his band of brothers on Sunday afternoons. So how does this guy become Frederick Douglass? Well, by the time he escapes at age 20 through New York city and then to New Bedford, Massachusetts, one of the first things he did in New Bedford was to go down to the local AME church, little black church, AME Zion church. And within the first year he was there, they had him up front preaching. They found out this kid could preach. And that's where he began to hone his homiletics. He learned how to preach to the text in the Protestant tradition. And within another year, he was discovered preaching there by some adherence of William Lloyd Garrison, the great abolitionist from Boston. They invited him out to Nantucket, famously he gives his first speech to white people. He's only 23 years old. And all of a sudden he was hired to go out on the abolition circuit.

So words from the very beginning and actually throughout his life became Douglass' coin. And they became the only real weapon you ever had. The only real power he ever had. He never had elective office. He never sought elective office. He got a little bit of power after the war to some degree as an advisor to presidents as the kind of Republican party insider. But the only power this man ever really had was this power of language. And that's in some ways his greatest legacy, if we're looking for somebody who basically led prophetically with language, he's the prototype for anyone to follow.

CHRIS HAYES:

Well, it also hits home. I mean, this is an obvious point, but the point kept coming back to me, as I read the biography, is the fear of literacy, the fear of language by the slaver class. The fact that it was illegal to teach slaves to read in many places, the fact that it had to be undertaken in underground. The incredible thirst and yearning among slaves for literacy. I mean, we see that in the wake of the fall of the Confederacy when the Freedmen's Bureau is set up, just every school is just oversubscribed and people of all ages huddling towards the schoolhouse to learn how to read. Douglass' story, I mean, one of the things you cannot help, but wonder is that Douglass is obviously a genius and singular, but how many Frederick Douglass' there were, it is sort of this kismet accident.

DAVID BLIGHT:

Or could have been.

CHRIS HAYES:

It could have been, right, because of the wife of the one's owner who was kind of sympathetic and taught him how to read. And then he, you know, the situation, he ends up with a power of language that's denied to millions. And he's just the one that we know.

DAVID BLIGHT:

Yes, and it is an age of language, let's remember. It's an age of oratory. It's an age of the spoken, written and published word. I mean, to Douglass, like other abolitionists, the other technology in his life that was so important was the rotary press, the printing press. And of course, one of the first things he does when he comes back from England in 1847, is he tries to create his own newspaper, which he will run for 16 years. That newspaper, today with so many kinds of technologies, which you and your business masters, but that printing press and that newspaper was his voice. And back to words again, when he sat down in the winter of 1844-45 after three and a half years out on the circuit as this itinerant abolitionist orator, basically telling the stories of his youth mostly and also aiming directly at American secular and religious hypocrisy as nobody else was, he publishes that first narrative, that first autobiography. It's only 115-20 pages, and that he could take that book out now as he did, he went off to England, Ireland, Scotland, Britain. He couldn't even keep it in print, it was so popular. He could hold that book in his hand and he could say, "Look. I was a slave and I'm black, and the world believes that black people don't have a history, are not literate people. But look at me. Here's my life. I wrote this. I am an equal human because I write. I am because I write." I've said this many times to public audiences when they asked me what would Douglass believe was his most important this or that, and I usually end up saying one way or another, he would probably pull a pen out of his pocket and he would say, "I am a writer." And one thing people need to know if they know about Douglass the orator, and they may have read a speech here or there like the 4th of July speech, every major Douglass speech, and there are lots of them, exist in text. He wrote them down. He wasn't just the preacher who could walk into a hall and blow out the lights, although he could do that, too, if you wanted him to. But he wrote these things down in 25 page texts, then he would take it out on the road. Of course, he'd riff on and off it. But he was a writer, and that took time. He came out of slavery an orator. Writing is harder. It took him time to master writing, and he had some help with that.

CHRIS HAYES:

One thing that you can't help but think about when you read the book is the technologies of communication persuasion at the time. You've just sort of named two of them and I think we can talk about them, but one is the abolition circuit. So to go back to think about a social movement that is advancing this cause. It's a just cause, but in some ways radical, certainly. It's not like it's one of these, "Oh, sure. Everyone was an abolition..." No, not really. It was-

DAVID BLIGHT:

A small percentage, even of upstate New York.

CHRIS HAYES:

Very, right. You've got this basically small radical fringe movement attempting to seize the consciousness of the nation, and of course there's no broadcast, there's no TV, there's no internet, all that things. The speaking circuit's a huge part of how you do that at the time. Describe what that is. I mean, this is how Douglass first enters public life as a person who goes around to say, "Listen to me tell you about the depredations of slavery."

DAVID BLIGHT:

Well, in his early years, 1840s, the way the abolitionist circuit worked is they would send out troops, groups of speakers. There would easily be three, four or five of them at a time. They would hold anti-slavery meetings, and sometimes outdoors, sometimes in churches, sometimes in city halls, wherever they could get a venue, and they weren't always welcome. But then they would have resolutions to speak to, this resolution or that resolution, and the speakers would speak to or against it and so on. But one of their purposes, especially these Garrisonians, the followers of William Lloyd Garrison, was to stimulate a response in their audience, to anger their audience, to rile up their audience. And indeed, if the audience ended up throwing a few things at them, that was a success.

DAVID BLIGHT:

But what happened early on those first three years he's out on the circuit, Douglass was so adept at mimicry and so adept at making the case, especially against religious hypocrisy, and these are all well-churched people, well-churched towns, they're often speaking in Protestant pulpits. He gave this speech over and over and over again that became known as the Slaveholder's Sermon. What it was, Douglass would sometimes go into a performance. He was a performer, to say the least, and he's only in his 20s, let's remember. He was this dashing handsome tall kid right out of slavery, so it seemed, until, he started to talk, but he would go and he would mimic a pro-slavery preacher. "Slaves be loyal to your masters," and he'd quote that stuff out of the Bible. And he'd entertain people and they'd laugh and they'd cry. And there were times, and I have a couple examples of this in the book, where the abolitionist speakers will be speaking to this resolution or that resolution and somebody in the audience would shut up, "Hey, Fred. Do the sermon," and he'd break into the sermon. So he learned early on the performance of nature of this kind of oratory.

And then later, he does the same thing with all kinds of political issues, all kinds of the politics of slavery, whether that was about the Fugitive Slave Act of the Kansas-Nebraska Act or fugitive slave rescues, bleeding Kansas and on down the line. He understood as any major orator at that time had to, that this was about public persuasion. It was about performance and he had learned early on that you had to reach the moral heart of your audience and then hope that you could reach their political behavior, and he happened to be very good at it.

In fact, he was so good at it that by the 1850s, it became, again, I say this in the book, it became a kind of, and even after the war even more so, it became a kind of an American thing to see Douglass, to go hear Douglass. And I have many examples that I didn't even use in the book, especially later in his life, of people reflecting in newspapers about the first time they heard Douglass, the first time they saw Douglass. It was like seeing Niagara Falls. I saw Douglass.

CHRIS HAYES:

Yeah. It's funny because it reminded me when I took a Russian literature class, Tolstoy, who I did not realize until I took this class was, was a legend, was a famous sort of celebrity in his time that people talked about.

DAVID BLIGHT:

And a great storyteller. A great storyteller.

CHRIS HAYES:

That's right, and a great storyteller, and people talked about and they wanted ... and so I didn't quite realize the level of it. Or Dickens is the same thing. I mean, people go see. It's Dickens. People knew who Dickens was. The degree to which he was a legend in his time and his fame and the word of mouth about what it meant to watch this man perform. And so he does this oratory and then he writes the book and he goes. Talk about the European tour because it's fascinating to me, his reception there, and that is a kind of turning point in his life.

DAVID BLIGHT:

Well, it is. He's 27. He's just published the narrative. It's the summer of 1845. He plans this visit to the British Isles under the sponsorship of Garrison's operation in Boston. It isn't clear how long he had intended to stay, but he ends up staying about 19 months, one month in Ireland, several months in Scotland, and then most of the rest of it between Britain and Scotland. They fell in love with him, especially the reform world of Ireland, Scotland, and Britain. By then, of course, Britain had freed it slaves throughout its empire with mixed results and so on, and nevertheless, Britain saw itself as an anti-slavery nation.

And here was this young African American brilliant speaker. He took the place by storm. They loved him in Ireland. In fact, to this day, you'd think he was a born patron saint of Ireland or something. He only spent one month in Ireland and there are at least two monuments of him, at least two or three murals. Scotland was perfect because he arrived in the midst of a classic Scottish ecumenical war. They were having this huge battle over money that had been raised among American slaveholders. And there was this crusade going on called Send Back The Money. Well, this is Douglass's favorite subject, religious hypocrisy. He hit the ground running. They loved him. They wrote songs about him and they wrote poems about him. He would walk into a small town in upper and there'd be a little children's choir singing a song about him. I mean, and Douglass is 27. He's 28. He's overwhelmed by it.

CHRIS HAYES:

It makes an enormous ... I mean, he is blown away, too.

DAVID BLIGHT:

He'd never experienced a place that, well, he experienced some racism in the British Isles, but nothing like in the US. He was warmly accepted. He was admired. It almost overwhelmed him. And then in Britain, he meets all the famous reformers, politicians, and he makes a lot of lifetime British friends, a group of whom raise the money to purchase his freedom from the Auld brothers back in Maryland. And he returns to the US, but not until he had those free papers in his hand. He was formally and legally free once he returned to America.

CHRIS HAYES:

Right, and we should, of course, recall for people that don't remember their history, this is amidst the great battles over the domain of slavery in the nation in the run up to the Civil War. The Fugitive Slave Act, of course, the sort of most famous legislative blow to essentially allow for the federal government to essentially bless the operations of slave catchers, of kidnappers in the free states. This is one of, you said Kansas-Nebraska Act and Bleeding Kansas, it's one of a sort of series of pitched conflicts and battles that lead up to the Civil War. So this is a man who was a freed slave in the North at a time when that didn't mean a lot.

DAVID BLIGHT:

Yeah, and he returns in 1847 in the midst of the Mexican War. There's this war of westward expansion and slavery expansion that has just exploded. And by the way, you've read the books and you know this, but when he returned there in '47, he was a very angry young black man, because he had just been treated mostly like a conquering hero for the last 19 months and he knows he's returning to the hot house of American racism, pro-slavery America, and he is so angry.

He comes back, and a primary line in all of his speeches the first months he's back is, "My country hates me and I hate it back. I have no country. I have no patriotism," and on and on he would go just brutally chastising the country. And one time Wendell Phillips, famous abolitionist, took him aside and he says, Fred, tone it down, man. I mean, you can lose the audience here. But he didn't turn it down.

And it was a Douglass now who was feeling much more independent with his voice, with his life. The trouble was how do you make a living at this? As I've always said to my students, being an abolitionist was not a good career move. It just, it's not. There's nothing upwardly mobile about it.

CHRIS HAYES:

Right, right.

DAVID BLIGHT:

He goes out to Rochester, creates a newspaper, has five children by 1849, and is trying to make ends meet, and the only way he could make a dime now was with his pen and his voice. And for the next 30 some years until 1877, when Rutherford Hayes appointed him to his first federal appointment, he never made any money except with his voice and his pen. There are people today making a living with their voice and their pen, but that's never been easy.

CHRIS HAYES:

Let's talk a little bit when you talk about his anger there, that's obviously an emotional characterization of a state of mind, but it relates to the evolving political, I think it's fair to say kind of political theology, of Frederick Douglass who comes up through a very churched universe. He encounters a certain world through, through homiletics-

DAVID BLIGHT:

Very biblical worldview, yeah.

CHRIS HAYES:

Yes. And for the people that know the sort of famous speeches of his, what to the slave is Fourth of July and the one that he gives at the Friedman's monument in Washington, what's so fascinating is he begins to develop a political theory that is at once kind of radical and liberal. It is in a fascinating space in that it is full of appropriately righteous fury-

DAVID BLIGHT:

Oh, yeah.

CHRIS HAYES:

... at the nation and its utter evil and hypocrisy, but finds something to redeem in it ultimately as a project.

DAVID BLIGHT:

He does, and you hit it right on the head. He is at times a genuine radical who flirts with, by the 1850s, uses of violence. He is up willing to use almost any strategy available. He can speak revolution with almost anyone. However, he's also an evolving political liberal, and that he wants to believe, and he actually does believe and wants to believe even in the bleakest of moments, that solutions can be found through politics, through the vote if black folk could ever get the vote. He much prefers somehow changing the country through law, through politics, if it's possible. But of course the 1850s is a decade, an extremely important decade in American history, when that kind of faith is put to the ultimate test. How do you keep faith in ultimate future freedom for black people after the Kansas-Nebraska Act, after especially the Dred Scott decision and the day after the Dred Scott decision, which said black people had no rights, which white people or the nation would ever need to adhere to all black people lived in the land of the Dred Scott case and not in the land of anything else, but what Douglass had faith in, and you can't underestimate this, is the natural rights tradition. And by that, I mean basically the creeds, the first principles of Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. To Douglass, the Declaration of Independence wasn't Jefferson. He give Jefferson credit for writing it, but the principles of the Declaration of Independence, to Douglass, as he once put it were like precious ore. They came from the earth or they came from God or they came from nature, they were nature's laws. You're born with certain inalienable liberties that no one can take away from you. Now, he had both that secular faith that would sustained him usually, but he also drew upon this apocalyptic millennialist biblical view of history. Whatever we think of it today, it was a different thing in the 19th century. It was this belief that somehow God had his hands in history, God was going to choose moments to enter history.

In the 19th century, they always called it Divine Providence, would somehow find moments and some of those moments would be horrific. Whole societies might get overturned as in the Old Testament and Douglass drew especially from his deep reading of the Hebrew prophets. His favorite prophet was Isaiah, but so was Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos and he also drew off Genesis many times. The Old Testament and the Hebrew prophets were the source of Douglass' storytelling when he needed in a crisis, in a terrible catastrophic moment. Whether that was Fugitive Slave Act, Dred Scott case, secession, the terrible civil rights case of 1883 which obliterates the 14th amendment, he would fall back on this ancient wisdom, this ancient faith. Now, that wasn't always easy to do and a lot of his followers sometimes said, "Come on, Fred, you've been preaching that line for decades. What do we have faith in now?"

And then, when the lynching crisis comes in the 1890s, "Where do we find faith now?" And he even found at the end of his famous speech on lynching, he found another way to put his hope in natural rights. Now, without these two deep old traditions, there's no way he could have sustained faith in America. He probably would have had to emigrate, like some other people chose to. He also had one other thing that sustained him, and it brings us back to where we were before. He could write. He could vent all of this, he could express it with his voice and his pen. And you understand that. How many times in your own work, you're struggling, you're angry, you're frustrated, but you sit down-

CHRIS HAYES:

You have the outlet.

DAVID BLIGHT:

You have the outlet, you process it in words, you put it into a paragraph. And this I learned about Douglass over and over and over, in a crisis, whatever it was, he would go to his desk, sit down, write it up and figure out what he thought about it. And that almost always became a speech. And he'd took it out on the road. If he didn't have that power, who knows? Where does he turn?

CHRIS HAYES:

Yeah. How do you sustain it? And I think that we should say that the Old Testament ideas of Divine Providence and millennial expectations of cataclysm are not crazy in the years between, say 1852 and 1865, because the country, it's literally coming apart before everyone's eyes. Everyone sees that happening.

DAVID BLIGHT:

Both sides in that war basically interpreted it from that same position. It's always a struggle figuring out the difference between what he actually believes religiously. That's never as easily discerned, and how he's using biblical rhetoric and biblical storytelling and worldviews. Those are not always the same thing.

CHRIS HAYES:

Yeah, and that comes from the book. It's just clearly that it's the vocabulary he speaks, it's the universe of references that his audience has. And so, it's the lingua franca of the time is that, and the degree to which-

DAVID BLIGHT:

It is. Lincoln used it. Lincoln used it all the time.

CHRIS HAYES:

All the time, and the entire abolition movement, the abolitionist movement is a movement born of that. There's no way of conceiving of it independent of its spiritual dimension. Again, it's hard to express, I think, how for someone like Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists, white and black but obviously more black abolitionists whose bodies are on the line in a way that no white person's ever is, the lead up to the Civil War is a succession of setbacks.

DAVID BLIGHT:

Oh, yeah.

CHRIS HAYES:

They keep losing in the run up. Kansas, Nebraska and Dred Scott. It's not like... They're not winning the case of full liberty, abolition and free and equal representation.

DAVID BLIGHT:

No, in fact you could argue that the most despairing little period in this whole epic is the three years between Dred Scott and the secession crisis. There were movements then led by blacks to emigrate from the country. Martin Delaney led one of them, Henry Highland Garnet led another one. Douglass always argued against that, but he actually came close. He actually, on the brink of the war, had booked tickets for he and his daughter, his oldest child was Rosetta who was by then I think 22. They were going to go visit Haiti and see what it looked like. There was a Haitian immigration scheme going on, and he had booked the ticket about eight days or so after Fort Sumpter. And Fort Sumpter happened, and then there's this little column in his newspaper that says trip to Haiti canceled because the events were happening.

Now, this is another thing about Douglass, he really learned, as any rhetorician has to. If your only weapon is your voice and your pen, you got to learn to exploit crises. You got to learn to use the moment when you have one, like we're living in now. How many times have you heard this or even said it? "We're having a reckoning. We've got to make the best of it. We got to exploit it," and so on. That is exactly what he did was secession is exactly what he did with the outbreak of the war. But it was the result, as you just suggested, of years of pent up agony, pent up despair. And what he became overnight, and I have a whole chapter in this, when the war broke out is a virulent war propagandist. He created some of the nastiest, violent war propaganda in language you'll ever want to read. He created slaveholders into the horrible Hun and they must be destroyed. And I think that reflected in Douglass, and I say this at length, an old rage in him that goes back to 20 years as a slave and the hundreds of years of slavery for the rest of his people. Now, there was a sanctioned war against that system and he wasn't going to let this opportunity pass by if he could help it.

CHRIS HAYES:

So I want to ask you about one of the most interesting relationships in all of American history. The relationship between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Right after this.

It is through this period, this is the time when the Republican Party is founded, obviously, right around with Lincoln's election and then the secession crisis, soon thereafter is assumption. And then, talk about the beginnings of the relationship, to the extent there is one, between Douglass and Lincoln, because that's one of the most fascinating relationships in American history.

DAVID BLIGHT:

It is, it becomes one. Douglass first is aware of Lincoln only in about 1858. He became aware of Lincoln because of the Lincoln-Douglas, Stephen Douglas debates out of Illinois for the US Senate. In fact, Douglass was actually in Illinois during at least a couple of those debates. I couldn't determine whether he actually attended one, wouldn't that be cool, but he was there. He followed it in the press. He was entirely aware of the substance of those great debates and that these two guys were debating the future of slavery. Then, in the 1860 election, Douglass still didn't know quite what to do with Lincoln. He viewed Lincoln as essentially what Lincoln was at that point, certainly on the surface, which was this old Henry Clay Whig who had become a moderate Republican, but who was antislavery. In fact, he admired, he said in 1860, Lincoln's antislavery tendencies. Well, to a radical abolitionist, tendencies still wasn't enough.

So, he wasn't sure. He actually... I'm not even sure that he voted for Lincoln in 1860, because there was still this thing, this tiny little far out party in New York called the Radical Abolition Party. And I think he may have thrown his vote away in that election. I know he did in 1858, but at any rate, once the war was on, Douglass tried to shoulder up to Lincoln and the Republicans. But of course, in the first year and a half of the war, the Lincoln administration is not making this war a battle against slavery. They're trying to contain it, trying to keep it a limited war. Fugitive slaves are being returned, or so they tried, and Douglass for that first year of the war became a ferocious critic of Lincoln.

CHRIS HAYES:

The North is also getting it's ass kicked a bunch. The war's not going well.

DAVID BLIGHT:

Oh, yeah. There's no clear outcome of any kind yet, much less an anti-slavery outcome. His tune on Lincoln will change finally with the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September of 1862. And then, decidedly changes with the final proclamation in January 1863, but that's an absolute torturous process of finding out what to believe in and how.

CHRIS HAYES:

And also, what can be trusted here. If you go back to the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and Lincoln spends a ton of time assuring his white audience that just because he doesn't believe in slavery, he doesn't like black people. He doesn't think they're equal. There's tremendous pains being taken at every step along the way to assure moderate white pro-unionists or people who... That, "Don't worry. We don't believe in equality. We're not one of those crazy people." And of course Douglass and the rest of free black society and enslaved blacks who hear this, they hear this, they know what...

DAVID BLIGHT:

Well, and it's classic wedge politics. Steven Douglas portrays Lincoln as this inward loving radical Jacobin, who, if you elect him, he'll have blacks and whites all intermarrying each other. In fact, in the Lincoln Douglas debates, Stephen Douglas used Frederick Douglass' name. He made up this crazy story that Abraham Lincoln had been seen riding in a cage with Fred Douglass. And of course, that wasn't true, but that's how famous Douglass already was, that he would be used. It was like they used to do with Nancy Pelosi and Ted Kennedy-

CHRIS HAYES:

Yes, exactly. Right, yeah.

DAVID BLIGHT:

"Oh, it's just another Ted Kennedy."

CHRIS HAYES:

Yeah.

DAVID BLIGHT:

Or worse, but it is about who you can trust. And the other key thing here is, say in the middle of the succession crisis for example, and then right on through up into 1863, Dallas is not an insider in the Republican Party. He does not know them yet. He's going to know them later, but he doesn't know these people. He's not inside the circles of this. He doesn't know some of the machinations going on in 1862, but he doesn't know that Lincoln's been over at the war department crafting this proclamation. Nobody knew, frankly, but Douglass is not an insider. So, he's sitting there in Rochester, New York, reading every newspaper he can get and then weighing in himself in his monthly newspaper and trying, and then going out on the road constantly to speak and trying to have a voice in this terrible crisis that is existential. Existential for the country, for his family, for his people, for everything that he knows. And then, after Emancipation Proclamation, it's existential especially for his sons because he recruits two of them into the army.

CHRIS HAYES:

That's right. And that is a good point to emphasize something that I just want to make sure that we emphasize in this conversation, which is that Frederick Douglass, obviously as we said in the beginning, he's a genius, he's a one in a million talent. But the story of black resistance to slavery, the story of black abolition as a story of self-determination, as opposed to the Garrisonian tradition of noblest oblige or spiritual emancipation for these other people that you take pity on, is a story that I think has been obscured for very long but has moved in the scholarship towards a more central place. Which is to say, black Americans, Frederick Douglass perhaps most famously among them, but by the tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands take their sovereign rights into their own hands in the way they act in the war, in enlisting, in their agitation, in their meetings and their AME church. Douglass is part of a broader movement of black liberation and self-determination.

DAVID BLIGHT:

He surely was, although it is true that the American abolition movement was biracial. Douglass actually learned a great deal from Garrison and the Garrisonians, both in technique and strategy and a lot of other things. And he had tremendous respect for many of his fellow white abolitionists. He also had terrible rivalries and breakups with some of them too. There's no fight like an internal fight.

CHRIS HAYES:

Oh God, the factional fights are insane.

DAVID BLIGHT:

It's like the old argument, there's no fight like a fight between two Marxists. Well, there's no fight like a fight between two radical reformers, they're always going to disagree. And then after the war, he has terrible rivalries with the next generation of black leaders, and that's sometimes it's really just personal, they want to knock him off. Anyway, but yeah, it's... But abolition is the prototypical American reform movement, radical reform movement. Everything that's happened since, in women's rights, you name it, right down, down the line, the labor movement, on and on and on, have always been modeling this antebellum movement against a system and an institution that frankly almost nobody thought they'd ever live to see ended. The great fact in the middle of all that, of course, is that it took this massive war and 700,000 lives to actually end it. And Douglass had so much to say about that too, brilliantly, about what it meant that slavery had only ended in this country through tremendous violence.

CHRIS HAYES:

What is his reaction to Lincoln's death?

DAVID BLIGHT:

Well, it's amazing. Actually, it's fascinating. By that time, by the spring of '65, he had come to know Lincoln from meeting him three times, twice at the White House in the Oval Office, two really fascinating pivotal meetings, especially the second one in August of 1864, where Lincoln actually invited Douglass to the White House, elicited his advice, his help, and so on. When Lincoln believed he was not going to be reelected that fall. The last one being right after the second inaugural in the East Room of the White House. So by then Lincoln and Douglass, although they started out at very different places, had actually come almost to speak from the same script. If you read the second inaugural, maybe the greatest speech by an American president, certainly one of the shortest, but you read the second inaugural, it's essentially the use of that same apocalyptic language. And it promises that every drop of blood shed by the lash shall be paid by bloodshed by the sword. Now I'm convinced, and Douglass was in the audience that day, he was right down to Lincoln's left, about 11 or 12 rows out. He was right there and he heard him. And I'm convinced, I can't prove it, but I'm convinced that Douglass had wished he could have written that speech for Lincoln. However, that Lincoln wrote it made it all the more important.

So when Lincoln is killed, especially given the moment, the war has just ended, the surrender has just happened in Appomattox four days before, the death of Lincoln and the portents now of possible continued fighting and division was terrifying. And Douglass was on the road giving a speech as always, he head back to Rochester, and there was a huge gathering of people as there were in towns all over the country, when they got the news of Lincoln's death, and Douglass was in the audience, they called on him, they yelled out, "Douglass, come speak." And he went up, and it's not clear he had any notes for this, but we do have a text written down later, he got up and made this deeply moving short speech to his neighbors really, his fellow Rochesterites, saying that he had never felt such a "kinship" with his countrymen as he did that night.

Kinship, that's an interesting word, that somehow in Lincoln's death at the end of this war, and the prospects now for black freedom, made him feel like kin folk with his countrymen, what he does with Lincoln, the rest of his life, for the next 30 years is fascinating because he basically invented about three different kinds of Lincolns depending on the audience, which is what everybody does with Lincoln. You want Lincoln to be this, you create that Lincoln. You want Lincoln to support that, you create that Lincoln, and Douglass was extremely adept at doing that depending on what the audience was.

CHRIS HAYES:

The death of Lincoln leads to Johnson's disastrous rain, his impeachment, and then a horrible white supremacist terrorism and violence in the South under presidential reconstruction, which is then supplanted by congressional reconstruction in the form of the Vanguard of radical Republicans, Grant's presidency and military occupation of the South, and an attempt at, the real first attempt, and which in some ways has never been rivaled since, of genuine, full and equal multiracial democracy. And talk a little bit about Douglass’ role in the Republican Party increasingly, and in reconstruction as a project and his theorizing of what this new version of American Democracy looks like.

DAVID BLIGHT:

Well, great question. A huge story, but a great question. And will go right to the core of his most hopeful moment. In many ways, his most sanguine moment it's 1868 and '69. He wrote a speech called The Composite Nation. And the text we have of that comes from 1869. He gave it a number of times. But this speech, this amazing speech is Douglass at the high point, this is the moment when reconstruction has succeeded. 13th Amendment, 14th Amendment's been passed and ratified, the 15th amendment has just been passed, it's not quite ratified, but soon to be. The radical Republican regimes are all being put in place in the South. And even by 69 Grant administration is about to move against the KU Klux Klan, all those terrible terror and violence practiced in '68.

But at this point, Douglass becomes such a proponent of this new America. The new America invented out of the civil war and the second constitution, the second Republic, it's almost like he feels himself the founder of the second Republic, and in this speech Composite Nation, he does many things, but one of the arguments he makes is that the United States ought to now export its ideology. He becomes a soft imperialist. He says we should be exporting this new equality to the Caribbean, to Latin America, to other places in the world, overnight, and he wasn't alone in that. A lot of other abolitionists began to think that too. America now has a chance, he says in that speech, to do something, no people have ever done. To create a nation that is multiethnic, multiracial, multireligious all living with a quality before law.

And then in the middle of the speech, he makes this robust case for Chinese immigration, which is just then becoming a big issue out in the West. The first Chinese Exclusion Act doesn't come till 1874, but it's already brewing. The huge Chinese Exclusion Act will come later in 1882, I think, but in the middle of the speech, he makes this amazing case for this multicultural America, this level of pluralism no people have ever attempted. And he says, "Look Americans, get ready. They're coming. And Chinese civilization is 3,000 years old. Yes, they speak a strange language. Yes, they have strange religions, but they will assimilate."

He has a model. His theory is classic assimilationism. He says, "Look like all these other peoples who've come here, including black people, they will assimilate to our creeds. They will bring their genius, they will bring their knowledge of science, they will bring all of it." And if you read that speech today, I swear, it sounds like either a multiculturalism manifesto of the 1990s, or it sounds like a diversity statement of universities today, and better that speech could be given now to some entering freshmen class at a university, and what sounded like it had just been written. So at that moment he has this tremendous hope, but Chris here's the thing, after 1870, I can't find any example of him giving it anywhere, because of what happens to reconstruction. He puts it away.

CHRIS HAYES:

And obviously by the time he's in the end of his life, he's watching the end of this project, essentially lynching Klan terrorism, and the reinstitution of white supremacy and apartheid in the South, the totalitarian system of racial oppression. But the vision he has, I want to end here because that note of the reason people should read the book, or spend some time even reading Douglass’ writing is because he is, to me, the most potent prophetic theorist of true American pluralism in a timeless fashion. That is still an articulation of the project that we're all working towards so fitfully and haltingly, and with such great difficulty in the year 2020, and with Donald Trump as president, but it's there, the ingredients are there, the vision are there, the vision for what it would mean for all of us to actually be full and equal citizens, no matter what color of our skin, no matter who we worship, no matter who we are in our identity in many other ways, even ways that he couldn't have conceived of at the time. The theoretical structure for that vision of America is there in Douglass back then.

DAVID BLIGHT:

It is, and it goes through, obviously, its great ups and its great downs. It came from in him in experience that made him at times both love and hate his country. He loved the creeds, said it a thousand times, equality, the popular sovereignty, Republican form of government, the right of revolution, et cetera. Some have argued he made even too much of a case for the power of the vote at the expense of economic rights, and there's some truth to that. Douglass was a much better political thinker than he was an economic thinker. But it comes from a place of great defeat at times, but also great victory at other times. And we often use this term, pluralism, don't we? Just loosely, or multiculturalism, we use it so loosely that we don't even know what it means anymore. Well, Douglass knew what it meant.

It meant the dream put into reality that people of every kind of creed, every kind of race background, ethnicity difference, even though they're going to fight it out, they're going to fight like hell over resources, and meaning, and religion, and interpretation. They're going to fight like hell, but it's possible to create a democracy in which all of them can actually live. And he never completely gave up on that, even in the face of lynching, that last great speech of his life called Lessons Of The Hour. It's amazing. He's an old man of 75 with trembling hands, but he goes out on the road dozens of times, in 1894, 76 by then, giving the speech, which is really an analysis, a really analytical treatment of why lynching was happening, and yet still at the end of that, he says you can kill us, you can Lynch people, but you cannot kill these elements of natural law. They will be sustained. They will live through it.

Now I'm not just saying that because you go to Douglass for some hope, because that's not what you'll always find, but he is an example of a prophetic voice who never gave up on this idea. And think about the monument stuff now, just to end on that, where you began, good Lord, how are we going to replace this Memorial landscape. I have a piece actually coming out tomorrow in the New York times with some recommendations about this. If the Confederate landscape is coming down, and it appears most of it is, and Christopher Columbus and so on and so on, we don't know how far this is going to go, but how do we harness this energy now, what new Memorial landscape might this country imagine out of our pluralism? It's an amazing opportunity, if you think about it, for artists, and curators, and historians, and creative people. And I think the Biden campaign should get behind it instead of leading from the back. I think they should take hold of this and try to help Americans imagine how to create a new Memorial landscape, not just about heroes, but maybe about ideas.

CHRIS HAYES:

David Blight is a professor of American History and director of the Gilder Lehrman Center of the study of slavery resistance and abolition in Yale University. The book we were just discussing "Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom." It's an incredible piece of work, and I really, really recommend you pick it up. And David, that was wonderful, thank you so much.

DAVID BLIGHT:

You bet. Thank you, Chris.

CHRIS HAYES:

Once again, my thanks to David Blight. You really should pick up that book. And if you don’t pick it up, just Google some Frederick Douglass speeches. Literally put that search term in. It’s worth it. They’re remarkable texts. We love to hear from you. Tweet us at the #WITHpod. Email WITHpod@gmail.com.

"Why Is This Happening?" is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the "All In" team and Kate Shaw, and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links the things we mentioned here by going to NBCNews.com/WhyIsThisHappening.