Journalism in the History and Theory of Writing
2006 SAMLA Convention
Charlotte, NC
10-12 November

M. Clay Hooper
University at Buffalo (SUNY)


The Liberal Self in Print: Frederick Douglass as Editor and Autobiographer

Do not cite without permission of the author.



In 1855 Frederick Douglass published My Bondage and My Freedom , a volume that has achieved special status within the African American literary canon as the first black autobiography to transcend the narrow conventions of slave narrative form as structured through the priorities of the white abolitionist press. Considered as such, Douglass's autobiography has often been portrayed as a seminal text (if not the ur-text) of an “authentic” black literary tradition shaped around a collective imperative to bear witness via autobiographical discourse against the racism of American institutions and culture (Andrews, “Introduction: Twentieth-Century Autobiography”; Gates).

While this reading of My Bondage and My Freedom is deeply situated within a post-Civil Rights effort to critically (re)construct a distinct and coherent tradition of African American literature, it originates with Douglass's own attempt to define his autobiographical act as one of liberation, an escape from white abolitionist sponsors analogous to his earlier escape from white slave masters. Douglass achieves this analogy by defining his 1845 slave narrative as a propagandist effort motivated by a “slavish adoration” of his Garrisonian friends (291). Constructing a narrative of emancipation around this critical distinction between autobiography and propaganda, Douglass attributes his impulse to freedom to the deliberative processes inherent within the editorial duties he assumed in 1847 by launching the North Star , later Frederick Douglass's Paper , in Rochester:

But for the responsibility of conducting a public journal, and the necessity imposed upon me of meeting opposite views from the abolitionists in this state [political abolitionists who understood the electoral franchise as the best means of abolishing slavery], I should in all probability have remained as firm in my disunion views as any other disciple of William Lloyd Garrison. (292)

Douglass here situates his 1855 self within a democratic consensus generated through open discussion, a sharp contrast to his earlier position under the paternalistic guidance of radical abolitionists. In doing so, he references a classic portrait of American polity wherein the independent editor occupies a distinguished position as the medium for the democratic exchange of ideas. A central contention of this paper, however, is that Douglass's rhetoric of democratic deliberation masks his participation as both editor and autobiographer within a classic liberal hegemon devoted primarily to the alliance between capital and government. Though it lies beyond the scope of this paper to demonstrate, I would suggest that this liberal-nationalist strand within Douglass's later work has only recently come under the critical gaze of scholars like Priscilla Wald and Robert Fanuzzi because the post-Civil Rights imperatives that guided critical inquiry into African American literature for so long were ideologically dependent on liberal assumptions closely related to those that informed Douglass's literature and politics after 1850.

Douglass was, first and foremost, an integrationist who understood his role as a black leader in terms of representation: he sought to represent black civic potential by demonstrating that a black man could serve the American public as selflessly and effectively as a white man. This integrationist project would later translate into a long career as a diplomat and civil servant, but in the 1850s it meant Douglass's inevitable “migration” from the marginal counterpublic of Garrisonian abolition into the mainstream antebellum public sphere. Despite its decentralized character, this public sphere, largely through the mechanisms of print capitalism, cohered quite thoroughly around a discourse of benevolent sociability derived from Scottish Realism's liberal vision of republican commonwealth (i.e., its portrait of civil society wherein public good is achieved through the liberty of individuals who are inherently benevolent rather than maliciously self-interested). In order to access this mainstream antebellum public, Douglass performed in print a liberal selfhood structured through an aesthetic of restraint derived from the moral philosophy of Adam Smith and circulated widely within the antebellum literary press.


Class Divide in the Antebellum Press

. As Melissa J. Homestead's recent scholarship indicates, the copyright laws and print culture of mid-nineteenth century America created an incredibly effective framework for class-based exploitation within the press. Through the practices of reprinting and exchange publication, owner-editors filled their pages with news, commentary, and popular literature with minimal labor costs; even the most popular columnists were unable to shop their services for higher pay because other publications already enjoyed free access to their material. To cite one example, Sara Willis Eldredge Farrington, better known as Fanny Fern, perhaps the most popular literary persona of the 1850s, struggled in poverty while each week her sketches were reprinted in papers across country and avidly consumed by a nationwide audience. Only when she landed book deals that gave her some degree of copyright protection was Fern able to command a livable income.

In 1855, the same year that Douglass published My Bondage and My Freedom , Fern published Ruth Hall , a fictionalized account of her experience as a magazine writer. Stylistically, Fern's roman a clef is as “disconnected and fragmentary” as, by her own admission, her magazine sketches are (Fern vi). As Homestead points out, Fern's success as a columnist depended on a certain fluidity of the “Fanny” persona that enabled her to maneuver within the “unstable environment” of the literary marketplace; and the genius of Ruth Hall is its translation of this discontinuity into an aesthetic reflecting the vulnerability of the protagonist's position within the marketplace, literary or otherwise. The remarkable sales of the volume indicate that this aesthetic resonated with a large audience. Predictably, however, Ruth Hall was a lightning rod for negative criticism; it was almost universally denounced as a vulgar production, its fragmented style fit only for the “small intelligences” and short attention spans of Fern's popular audience (“ Ruth Hall ” 443).

By contrast, My Bondage and My Freedom seems to have blended quite comfortably into the literary mainstream. With sales figures similar to Ruth Hall 's, Douglass's 1855 autobiography was received politely and relatively quietly within the American literary establishment. Unlike his 1845 Narrative , it was not hailed as a groundbreaking text within the antislavery struggle or American race relations more generally; instead, it was greeted, quite simply, as good autobiography. While this critical reception is unremarkable in and of itself, when juxtaposed against the passionately negative reviews of Ruth Hall , which was invariably discussed as an autobiography, it becomes indicative of the ways in which critical evaluations of autobiography were delineated along class lines.

More often than not, however, this class-oriented criticism was carefully coded in moral terms through which the antebellum literary establishment distinguished between autobiographies that offered purely novelistic pleasures and those that answered a higher moral purpose reserved specifically for “good” autobiography. In 1855 the most popular autobiography in the United States was The Life of P. T. Barnum, Written by Himself (1854), which was praised for its picaresque exploration of American provincialism even as readers were warned that it was penned by “an unscrupulous wag . . . devoid of any moral sense” ( Albion , vol. 14). By the time Douglass's autobiography appeared, “Barnum” was being used as a generic term for autobiographers like actress Anna Cora Mowatt and poultry baron George P. Burnham whose memoirs were appreciated as entertaining and even educational but ultimately relegated to popular vulgarism insofar as they depicted morally dubious lifestyles.

On the opposite end of the critical spectrum was My Schools and Schoolmasters (1854), the autobiography of Hugh Miller, a celebrated Scottish geologist and periodical editor who began as a lowly stonemason. American reviewers almost unanimously praised Miller's account of his remarkable “ascent” for its “simple, unadorned style” or its “chaste and elegant composition” ( Albion , vol. 13; The Massachusetts Teacher ). The status of Miller's volume as a standard of autobiographical style is evident in the introduction to My Bondage and My Freedom wherein James McCune Smith, a prominent black physicist and political abolitionist, uses it as a benchmark for measuring Douglass's own ascent. More recently removed from even humbler origins than Miller's, Douglass exhibits a literary voice that “equals if it do not surpass the style of Hugh Miller” (22). While this may seem a relatively superficial analogy to a currently popular work, the fact that it was immediately repeated in prominent literary magazines like Putnam's indicates that Smith's comparison struck a live ideological chord within the antebellum literary establishment.


Sentimental Philosophy and the Aesthetic of Restraint

The above-mentioned descriptors of Miller's style—“simple,” “unadorned,” “chaste”—as well as others like “easy” and “quiet” articulate an aesthetic of restraint that a reviewer from The Universalist Quarterly encapsulates thusly: “Miller never writes mere words, and he gets as much substance into the book as some authors would have done with an hundred pages more.” This theme of stylistic restraint was central to the antebellum project of distinguishing between the novelistic pleasures offered by the various “Barnums” and the higher moral function of “good” autobiography; for instance, a critic from The Methodist Quarterly remarks of the autobiography of minister John Scarlett, “There is little of the skill of practiced authorcraft in the work; but it has the higher merits of simplicity and directness of style, and truthfulness of matter” (emphasis added). The aforementioned Universalist critic gives a further indication of exactly what such “higher merits” tend towards; connecting Miller's stylistic restraint to his “high moral tone,” he remarks, “It is a grand book for young men. They will find it a safe counselor, and if they give attention to its pages, will be made better by coming into communion with the spirit that gave [the pages] life” (419). In essence, stylistic restraint creates the possibility for sympathetic identification between the autobiographer and his reader.

This sentimental vision of the moral function of autobiography was not limited to religious publications. In the pages of the Democratic Review , for instance, John L. O'Sullivan takes the opportunity provided by Hans Christian Andersen's 1847 memoir to comment on the possibility for sympathetic response when an autobiographer exhibits “due modesty and simplicity”:

Men are rather prone to exaggerate their sufferings than their enjoyments; hence one half of the world is continually complaining to the other, without ever seeming to think that each one already has sorrows enough of his own . . . . When, on the other hand, one comes, and with due modesty and simplicity, tells the story of his life, at some moments of which he has felt a gratitude so strong that he wished to “press God to his heart,” we are at once inclined to give him our hand and embrace him as a real benefactor. (525)

It is no coincidence that O'Sullivan was also a vocal champion of laissez-faire economics. In fact, his inaugural editorial for the Democratic Review describes the free market as an extension of mankind's sentimental nature, his innate drive to participate in relations of sympathetic harmony. For O'Sullivan, it seems, both autobiography and the free market are expressions man's fundamentally benevolent (because divinely authored) nature.

This description of benevolent sociability and the aesthetic of restraint that perpetuated it within the antebellum press were derived quite directly from the moral philosophy of Adam Smith, famous as the principle theorist of market economy but also the first to argue with any degree of philosophical rigor that sympathy is the primary impetus to social organization. Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments opens with the observation that the most basic motivation of human behavior is the natural pleasure we derive from sympathetic identification: “nothing pleases us more than to observe in other men a fellow-feeling with all the emotions of our own breast” (10). Our observations within society, however, reveal that our emotions rarely match our neighbors' in intensity because of our necessarily variant experiences within the situations that generate emotional responses. To remedy this impediment to sympathetic harmony, we must constantly moderate our outward display of emotion by considering situations through the lens of an impartial observer. Through this social process of rational moderation we create collective habits of behavior that are consonant with “the commands and laws of the Deity” and crystallize into a “great system of government” that includes the market economy as a constitutive element (232, 266). This “great system,” derived as it is from the original freedom of individuals to engage in voluntary bonds of sympathy with others, is for Smith the ultimate expression of individual self-government realized collectively.

Part of the broad appeal of Scottish Realism was, as David Brion Davis points out, the elegant compromise that it articulated between religion and science, and Smith was by far the most rigorous and influential philosopher within this school. While Frances Hutcheson and his followers were primarily concerned with debunking empirical philosophy, Smith provided a remarkably comprehensive and evenhanded portrait of how social harmony results from the complementary work of divinely ordered sentiment and experientially situated reason. It was, in fact, the appeal of this compromise within the antebellum mainstream that prompted James McCune Smith's comparison of Douglass to Hugh Miller. Miller, who had become famous for his cogent opposition to the various pre-Darwinian theories of evolution (or “transmutation of species” in the language of the time), seemed to embody for the antebellum reading public the Smithian compromise between religious sentiment and scientific reason (Miller's his “scientific” writings were devoted to reconciling the geological record with the biblical account of creation through an elaborate reading of Genesis as chronological allegory). As one commentator remarks, Miller demonstrates the proper humility of scientific inquiry while others make overly bold (and erroneous) claims in the attempt “to revolutionize the practical moral convictions of mankind, and to annihilate the benignant sympathies and actuating motives of mankind” (“The Human Family” 118).


“Democracy” and the Class Divide

As indicated above, the Smithian ideal of self-government was encapsulated within an aesthetic of restraint that was central to the antebellum critical reception of autobiographical literature. When Douglass launched The North Star and entered the world of print capitalism, he found himself obligated not so much by ideology as by necessity to circulate this aesthetic. In his own autobiography Douglass indicates the tremendous struggle of producing a “large sheet” on a weekly basis (291). In order to fill pages and meet the expectations of his readers, he engaged in the practice of reprinting as avidly as any other editor. Consequently, between 1847 and 1855 Douglass reprinted countless reviews of autobiographies from major literary papers, and his own literary notices and commentaries were largely gleaned from these same sources. As John W. Blassingame notes, Douglass's position as an editor gave him tremendous access to critical statements on autobiography, and he used that access to write an autobiography that would do well within the literary mainstream. This involved abandoning the tone of righteous indignation that pervades his 1845 Narrative in favor of a humbler, more measured voice. As William L. Andrews explains, “The young jeremiad-writer had painted his past in stark and striking outline; the older autobiographer wanted to shade in deeper dimensions to add proportion and perspective to the total portrait” (218) . Consequently, the later text indulges in a provocative ambiguity in discussing slavery, freedom, and the vast gray areas between.

That the Smithian ideal of self-government was a deliberate component of Douglass's new antislavery voice is evident in his inscription of My Bondage and My Freedom to Gerrit Smith, a leading political abolitionist and the chief benefactor of Douglass's Rochester paper. Douglass praises Smith not only for his sympathetic benevolence but for the “genius” that has led him to champion the United States Constitution as the most powerful tool for slavery's abolition. Like Miller's science, Smith's antislavery activism is responsive to both sentiment and reason.

In advocating political solutions to slavery, however, Smith and Douglass cast in their lots with a voting franchise that was limited by property ownership. Indeed, the limited franchise seems to have been a central assumption behind the widespread adoption of the Smithian ideal of self-government. In the previously quoted O'Sullivan editorial, for instance, the avid defender of popular sovereignty cites democracy as the only means of protecting private property against the intrusions of government. Clearly he is working from the assumption that American democracy means government by property owners for property owners. Knowingly or not, this was precisely the type of “democratic” citizenship that Douglass performs through his editorial circulation and autobiographical construction of liberal selfhood.

In Abolition's Public Sphere , Robert Fanuzzi suggests that the original purpose of The North Star was to develop a coherent and therefore powerful black reading public; but, he notes, “As the newspaper became beholden to Gerrit Smith, answerable to the Liberty Party, and disconnected from the black subscriber base already claimed by The Liberator , [Douglass] could no longer claim or pretend that the attributes of the colored newspaper belonged to black people at all” (113). More than just disconnected, though, Douglass's paper, by circulating the ideological content of mainstream antebellum liberalism, became the voice of an institutional framework that effectively divided freemen along class lines. In its performance of the Smithian ideal of self-government, My Bondage and My Freedom demonstrates the author's incorporation into that framework and, through the sympathetic program of antebellum autobiography, attempts to draw the reader into that framework as well. Nevertheless, the 1855 autobiography maintains a certain critical edge that should not be overlooked, and Douglass's important role in transforming Lincoln 's politics during his presidency stands as a caveat to any one-sided critique of Douglass's integrationist strategy. Unfortunately, however, this critical edge and transformative potential would virtually disappear from Douglass's final “life,” published in 1881 and expanded in 1892, which chronicles his diplomatic and civil appointments under presidents Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, and Harrison. Faced with the monumental problems presented by the Jim Crow South and an industrialized and apathetic North, the author seems isolated within a bureaucratic prison of his own making, and the possibility for effective black cooperation across class and regional lines seems intensely remote.



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