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  • "We Are Men!"Frederick Douglass and the Fault Lines of Gendered Citizenship
  • A. Kristen Foster (bio)

Some might argue that Frederick Douglass suffers from historical overexposure. He has been the subject of numerous biographies. His life has unfolded in documentaries, in children's books, and on Hollywood's silver screen. Any bibliographical search will turn up studies of Douglass the quintessential American, Douglass the radical, the millennialist, the pragmatist, the assimilationist, the activist, even the foil of angry emigrationists. What more can Frederick Douglass tell us? If, in fact, we consider his work in the context of older questions about race and newer questions about gender and violence, we might find that he had some important things to say about American citizenship. While he consistently claimed that he supported the concept of universal rights, he was never able to shed the belief that male and female citizenship were qualitatively different in the United States. Working from an antebellum context in which citizenship remained a diffuse cultural concept and debates formed more readily around common law definitions of rights, Douglass slowly developed his own theory of citizenship based on his experiences in the abolition movement, the women's rights movement, and the Civil War.

Arguing initially that the American Revolution had bequeathed a series of universal rights to all Americans, Frederick Douglass's experiences during the sectional crisis led him to believe that mere appeals to the American credo would end neither slavery nor racial injustice. By the 1850s, he argued that only certain kinds of violence would end slavery and resurrect the manhood of black men. Yet Douglass's thinking was no more linear than his contemporaries'. Like most people, he lived and breathed in a swirl of contradictory ideas that sometimes cross-fertilized and other times created both personal and public controversies. As he began articulating the connections that he saw among masculinity, violence, and American rights; he found himself captivated by a new women's rights movement that articulated a vision of American citizenship which required no gendered litmus test. The call for universal rights from women [End Page 143] like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony captivated Douglass, who quickly saw the potential for combining the women's and black rights movements. He spent the better part of two decades earnestly sorting through the movements' sometimes competing and other times complementary ideas in hopes of giving fuller expression to the concept of universal rights.

Yet Douglass's experiences within both the abolition and women's rights movements suggest the limits that gender imposed on even the most forward thinking of men. While he spoke eloquently about the natural rights of all men and women, his realization that black (male) citizenship would ultimately be won through the legal and extra-legal use of physical force (coupled with cultural assumptions about male and female roles and responsibilities) shaped his understanding of the differences between men and women and thus the distinct methods required to secure the rights of each. By arguing that black men must use physical force to secure their rights and their manhood while women in general should work patiently through a legal system that supported their dependent status, Douglass shed new light on the fault lines of gendered citizenship—lines that had been drawn at the young country's founding. For all the ink he spent writing about equality and for all the energy he expended speaking on rights and American injustice, the American Civil War forced the tides of his varied ideas into the maelstrom of war. Ultimately, the Civil War gave muscular expression to the logic of the age-old notion of gendered citizenship.

Even before historians turned their attention to subjects other than founding fathers, presidents, and war heroes, Frederick Douglass has excited scholarly attention. Beginning with the first biographies, historians tried to understand him initially in the "great man" tradition and then in a variety of nuanced frameworks often reflecting new historical methodologies.1 Beginning with the assessments of his nineteenth-century contemporaries, in many ways the debate about Douglass's historical significance has been stuck at the question of whether he was a conformist or a visionary. Did he remain...


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