On February 1, 2017, President Donald J. Trump made some brief remarks on Black History Month. “Frederick Douglass,” he said, “is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job, that is being recognized more and more, I notice.” That afternoon in one of the discussion sections of my lecture course at Yale on “The Civil War and Reconstruction Era,” my teaching fellow, Michael Hattem, reports that he read that quotation to the class. Students had just been assigned to read Douglass’s classic first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Michael says the class let out an audible collective groan, and one student declared: “My God, he doesn’t know who he was!”
Whatever the current state of President Trump’s historical knowledge, or that of his staff, historians might offer some help for the next time the White House wades into the past for other than nostalgic purposes. Douglass was once called an “illustrious exile” for his triumphant antislavery lecture tours in Ireland, Scotland and England between 1845 and 1847 (while still a fugitive). But even more importantly, he was perhaps America’s most illustrious internal exile. Indeed, until the Civil War all African Americans, slave or free, lived as exiles of a kind in their own land. They were either owned as property, or if free, their civil and political rights were severely restricted.
Until his British friends purchased his freedom from his Maryland owner in 1847, Douglass was for nine years a fugitive slave everywhere he trod. Neither fame nor any security guards protected him from potential recapture and return to slavery. By law he was considered stolen property, a social danger, an alien and illegal black person in white America. Fugitive slaves in the North were viewed by many as a threat to white jobs, a menace to the social and racial order, and a legal challenge to slavery itself. Especially those who could make witness with the compelling oratorical skills of Douglass.
One place to begin to understand our long history with the controversies over immigration is with Douglass. “No man can tell the intense agony,” wrote the memoirist in 1855 while remembering his flight, “which is felt by the slave, when wavering on the point of making his escape. All that he has is at stake; and even that which he has not, is at stake also. The life which he has may be lost, and the liberty which he seeks, may not be gained.”
Throughout modern history, the millions forced to flee as refugees and beg for asylum have felt Douglass’s agony, and thought his thoughts. So many nameless and faceless Syrians or Libyans, Iraqis or Sudanese, Iranians or Serbians have felt the same terrors in deserts, and in the billows of the Mediterranean. And now in airports and immigration offices, on college campuses and in the kitchens of most American restaurants. This is an ancient story; America came to it late, but with historical eyes open this nation knows it well.