Happy Birthday, Walt Whitman!

Walt Whitman, age 35, from Leaves of Grass, Fulton St., Brooklyn, N.Y., engraving by Samuel Hollyer from daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison, public domain via Wikimedia Commons‘Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, Disorderly fleshy and sensual . . . . eating drinking and breeding, No sentimentalist . . . . no stander above men and women or apart from them . . . . no more modest than immodest.’ Thus Walt Whitman introduces himself to us for the first time in his first self-published 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. Not on the cover or on the title page, mind you, but deep within the body of the untitled poem later called Song of Myself. If this is a dialing-back attempt to inject a little respectable humility or yet another self-aggrandizing affectation on the part of this unapologetic egoist, it’s hard to say definitely, though I strongly suspect it’s the latter. It certainly is so-very-American.

He was confident, earthy, crude, and vibrant, a self-styled natural man whose personas were nonetheless carefully crafted. He did his own thing and ‘lived the free life of a rover’ (an Eric Bogle phrase from his great anti-war ballad And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda), working odd jobs as a printer, journalist, teacher, and clerk, among other things. Moved by horror and compassion at the magnitude of death and suffering he observed, he worked some years as a nurse to the Civil War wounded, and spent much of his somewhat meager earnings on supplies for their comfort and care. He remained single but had many lovers, probably mostly homosexual, though he praises the physical beauty and power of women as lavishly in his poems as he does those of men. All the while, starting at just over age 30, he began to write his highly idiosyncratic, free verse poetry celebrating the authentic and the crafted self, the human body, democracy, equality, work, nature, and companionship. He spent the rest of his somewhat long life revising and republishing several editions of Leaves of Grass, up to several months before his death at age 72 in 1892.

To read more work by, about, and inspired by the great Walt Whitman, here are some links and articles:

Walt Whitman“. in Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

Walt Whitman, 1819–1892‘. The Poetry Foundation (website)

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass (1855). Source: Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library

Whitman, Walt. Assorted poems at Poets.org

The Walt Whitman Archive, Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price, Ed., published by the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln

and just because I love it:

The Body Electric, song and music video by Hooray for the Riff Raff. The song title is inspired by one of Whitman’s most enduring and controversial poems, and is a critique of the tradition of the murder ballad

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Happy Birthday, Julia Ward Howe!

Julia Ward Howe, ca. 1855

Julia Ward Howe, poet and activist, was born on May 27, 1819, and lived a long life ever dedicated to social reform.

She’s best known as the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the stirring Civil War anthem still sung at military events and in churches today; I remember singing it at Mass growing up. Filled with Biblical imagery, it reminds me of the Old Testament-inspired Second Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln. In it, he addresses the terrible costs of the war in lives and property, surmising that God’s justice may demand that ‘all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk., and …every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword’ in recompense for the terrible sin of slavery.

Howe wrote her Hymn in 1861, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural was delivered in 1865. Lincoln is known to have heard the Battle Hymn and reported to have wept when he did. Lincoln was well versed in Scripture and references it liberally in his writings and speeches; nevertheless, he may also have had Howe’s Hymn in mind when he wrote his Address. In any case, both remain prominent in American historical memory, continuing to resonate and inspire today in our Protestantism-derived culture. John Steinbeck uses her Book of Revelation-derived phrase The Grapes of Wrath as the title of his great novel about the suffering of Dust Bowl refugees fleeing to California. The great Leonard Cohen references her Hymn in ‘Steer Your Way’ from You Want It Darker, his final album released shortly before his death last fall. Howe’s lyric ‘As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free’ becomes ‘…let us die to make things cheap.’ Cohen redirects her line to critique today’s great sin of destroying our environment likewise out of greed, complacency, indifference to the fate we’re creating for our descendants, and slavish adherence to the ‘way it’s always been done.’

Julia Ward Howe postcard dated August 28th, 1903, from the Hutchinson Family Scrapbook in the collection of the Lynn Historical Society in Massachusetts. I was here in spring 2016 following the life and ideas of Frederick Douglass. The Hutchinson family dedicated their musical skills to the abolition movement and other reform causes and were friends with many prominent activists of their day. The scrapbook doesn’t note which member of the Hutchinson family Howe wrote this card to.

Read more about this great abolitionist, feminist, and author:

Julia Ward Howe, 1819–1910: BiographyPoetry Foundation

Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) – by Debra Michals for the National Women’s History Museum

‘The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe,’ by Elaine Showalter – by Jill Lepore for The New York Times

Julia Ward Howe, 1819-1910, Volume 1 – by Laura Elizabeth Howe Richards, Maud Howe Elliott, and Florence Howe Hall, 1915

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Booker T. Washington!

Booker T. Washington sculpture in the Mission Inn gardens, Riverside, CA, photo by Amy Cools 2017

‘My earliest recollection is of a small one-room log hut on a large slave plantation in Virginia. After the close of the war, while working in the coal-mines of West Virginia for the support of my mother, I heard in some accidental way of the Hampton Institute. When I learned that it was an institution where a black boy could study, could have a chance to work for his board, and at the same time be taught how to work and to realize the dignity of labor, I resolved to go there. Bidding my mother good-by, I started out one morning to find my way to Hampton, though I was almost penniless and had no definite idea where Hampton was. By walking, begging rides, and paying for a portion of the journey on the steam-cars, I finally succeeded in reaching the city of Richmond, Virginia. I was without money or friends. I slept under a sidewalk, and by working on a vessel next day I earned money to continue my way to the institute, where I arrived with a surplus of fifty cents. At Hampton I found the opportunity — in the way of buildings, teachers, and industries provided by the generous — to get training in the class-room and by practical touch with industrial life, to learn thrift, economy, and push. I was surrounded by an atmosphere of business, Christian influence, and a spirit of self-help that seemed to have awakened every faculty in me, and caused me for the first time to realize what it meant to be a man instead of a piece of property.’ ~ Booker T. Washington, ‘The Awakening of the Negro‘, Atlantic Monthly, Sept. 1896

Booker T. Washington was born on April 5, 1856, and went on to become one of America’s leading educators and social reformers. He was born a slave in a simple cabin and never knew his father; he and his family were freed by the end of the Civil War when he was nine years old. Washington lived the life he would go on to advocate for his fellow black citizens: one of self-determination, self-sufficiency, hard work, thriftiness, and compromise. He believed firmly in gaining the respect of others, including those predisposed to dismiss him because of his race, solely through his own character and accomplishments. Was Washington wrong to emphasize the importance of demonstrating one’s own worth by pulling one’s self up by the bootstraps over demanding equal legal rights as citizens? Perhaps the struggle for equality had always needed multiple lines of attack to crumble the whole structure of institutionalized legal, social, and subtly inculcated racism that has plagued and undermined this nation for so long. Perhaps he was simply misguided, even naive, though the latter is hard to accept given his intellectual prowess.

Be that as it may, Washington’s ideas drove him to work harder to create educational and economic opportunities for his fellow black citizens than just about anyone else we could name. And given his hard work, his integrity in staying true to his vision despite attacks from all sides, and his premature death by stress and overwork, the charge of ‘coward’ often leveled at him is, in my few, manifestly false and undeserved.

Learn more about the great yet controversial Booker T. Washington here, in fact, in praise, and in blame:

The Awakening of the Negro – by Booker T. Washington for the Atlantic Monthly, Sept. 1896

Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) – by Lawson Bush for Blackpast.org

Booker T. Washington and the White Fear of Black Charisma – by Jeremy C. Young for the African American Intellectual History Society Blog

Booker T. Washington: American EducatorEncyclopædia Britannica

Pride and Compromise – Shelby Steele’s review of Up From History: The Life of Booker T. Washington by Robert J. Norrell

Speech to the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia – September 18, 1895 – Booker T. Washington radio broadcast at American Radio Works

*I had the honor of interviewing Kenneth Morris last year; he’s an activist against modern slavery (wage slavery, sex trafficking, and other forms of coercive exploitation) and a direct descendant of both Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass, each a preeminent figure in American civil rights history and each with a radically different approach to achieving equal civil status for their fellow black citizens. However, they had three things in common: an essential pragmatism combined with as much idealism, a deep love of their people, and an abiding trust that the universal human instinct for justice would win in the end.

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Happy Birthday, Abraham Lincoln!

Me with Abraham Lincoln's sculpture near David Wills house where he stayed in Gettysburg, PA, the night before giving his great Address.

Me with Abraham Lincoln’s sculpture near David Wills’ house where he stayed in Gettysburg, PA, the night before giving his great Address.

Let’s remember and salute the great Abraham Lincoln, father of our nation reborn in liberty, on his birthday.

Born on February 12th, 1809, this child of a poor Kentucky farm family was largely self-educated yet rose to become our most revered President since George Washington. He was a hard-working man, from farm laborer and rail splitter to flatboat operator on the Mississippi River, then shop owner, militia captain, postmaster, lawyer, politician, then President of the United States. A popular man revered for his storytelling, conversation, intelligence, and general reputation for high integrity, Lincoln won his second campaign for political office and entered the House of Representatives in 1834. He was a successful and innovative lawyer and revered for his speechmaking. His series of debates with Democratic senator Stephen Douglas in 1858 thrust him into the national spotlight, and while he lost the race to replace Douglas in the Congress that year, his reputation continued to grow, and he defeated Douglas in the presidential race two years later. He won the Presidency as head of the newly formed anti-slavery Republican party.

Lincoln’s antipathy to slavery originated with his flatboat trip to New Orleans, where he witnessed its horrors first hand. Over the years, his political antislavery position fluctuated though it always disgusted him personally. For most of his political career, he advocated the moderate policy of stopping slavery’s spread to the new territories, leaving it in place where it already existed in the expectation that economic factors would naturally lead to its demise. But the intransigence of the slave states and the contingencies of the Civil War, combined with his own moral hatred of slavery, caused him to change his mind. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 freed all slaves in those states in rebellion, and nearly 200,000 freed black men fought for the Union Army, helping to ensure its eventual success.

Abraham Lincoln by Alexander Gardner, Feb 5, 1865, National Portrait Gallery in D.C., 2016 Amy Cools

Abraham Lincoln by Alexander Gardner, Feb 5, 1865, National Portrait Gallery in D.C., photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Even more than his childhood poverty and lackof education, I find Lincoln’s success even more remarkable in light of the recurrent and severe depression he suffered throughout his life. While it can be crippling, it can also make sufferers that much more attuned to the suffering of fellow human beings, while deepening the understanding of human nature and increasing the capacity for sympathy. Lincoln was one of these, and his suffering refined his sensitivities and strengthened him, helping to make him the great man he became.

Having led the nation through the trauma and horror of the Civil War, Lincoln was assassinated only a month after his re-inauguration to the Presidency in 1964, shot in the head on April 14th by pro-slavery actor John Wilkes Booth while attending a play at Ford’s Theater.

Here are a few links and images of writings and works of art by, about, featuring, and inspired by Abraham Lincoln, including some of my own work.

Audiobooks of speeches and other writings of Abraham Lincoln at Librivox

Speeches, letters, and other writings by Abraham Lincoln digitized by the Northern Illinois University Libraries

Abraham Lincoln – in Wikipedia

April the 14th, Part I – by Gillian Welch

The Gettysburg Address – by Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln’s Great Depression – by Joshua Wolf Shenk for The Atlantic: Abraham Lincoln fought clinical depression all his life, and if he were alive today, his condition would be treated as a “character issue”—that is, as a political liability. His condition was indeed a character issue: it gave him the tools to save the nation

Abraham Lincoln also featured prominently in Frederick Douglass’s life and ideas which I wrote about in a history of ideas travel series I wrote last year. Here are the pieces which feature Lincoln:

Frederick Douglass Lynn Sites, Part 2: Historical Society & Hutchinson Scrapbook
Frederick Douglass, Rochester NY Sites Day 2
Frederick Douglass Seneca Falls, Canandaigua, Honeoye, and Mt Hope Cemetery Sites
Frederick Douglass Chambersburg and Gettysburg PA Sites
Frederick Douglass Washington DC Sites, Day 1, Part 1
Frederick Douglass Washington DC Sites, Day 1, Part 2
Frederick Douglass Washington DC Sites, Last Day

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address Memorial at Soldier's National Cemetery

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address Memorial at Soldier’s National Cemetery, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Hume's and Abraham Lincoln Scottish soldier monuments,

Hume’s grave and Abraham Lincoln sculpture on a monument to Scottish American soldiers, Calton Hill Cemetery, Edinburgh, Scotland, photo 2014 by Amy Cools

Sculpture of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, photo 2015 by Amy Cools

Sculpture of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, photo 2015 by Amy Cools

Abraham Lincoln with his son and 2 views of his tomb, from Hutchinson scrapbook at Lynn Museum

Abraham Lincoln with his son and two views of his tomb, from the Hutchinson scrapbook at Lynn Museum, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Statue of Abraham Lincoln outside of San Francisco's City Hall, photo 2017 by Amy Cools

Statue of Abraham Lincoln outside of San Francisco’s City Hall, photo 2017 by Amy Cools

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: Frederick Douglass Washington DC Sites, Day 1, Part 1

Statue and quote at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site

Statue and quote at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Thirteenth Day, Friday April 1st

I begin at Cedar Hill in Anacostia, Frederick Douglass’ handsome, gabled house on a hill overlooking Washington DC. He moved here with Anna and the kids in September of 1878, having lived in the capital city of Washington for a little over six years. In a sense, the Douglasses didn’t really move out of Washington when they moved into their new suburban home east of the Anacostia River. Anacostia, called Uniontown in the mid-1800’s then switched back again, was part of the District of Columbia, which in turn was larger than Washington and encompassed it. When the boundaries of Washington and the District of Columbia became one and the same in 1878, the Douglasses’ Anacostia home became a Washington city home then too.

It’s another lovely day, again the sky is partly cloudy, the air soft and warm and a little breezy, freshly washed by the morning’s rain. The cold weather I had shivered in for much of the first half of my trip is nearly forgotten.

The National Park Service now owns and runs the house, the grounds, and the visitor center and museum, collectively called The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. I take a brief look at the outside of the house, then stop at the visitor center and sign up for the guided tour which will start shortly. I take another brief look around while I wait, and note the displays and artifacts I want to examine more closely when I return to the visitor center museum…. Read the full account here:

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Frederick Douglass Washington DC Sites, Day 1, Part 1

Detail of Frederick Douglass autobiography exhibit, FD Home Visitor Center

Detail of autobiography exhibit, Frederick Douglass Home Visitor Center

Thirteenth Day, Friday April 1st

I begin at Cedar Hill in Anacostia, Frederick Douglass’ handsome, gabled house on a hill overlooking Washington DC. He moved here with Anna and the kids in September of 1878, having lived in the capital city of Washington for a little over six years. In a sense, the Douglasses didn’t really move out of Washington when they moved into their new suburban home east of the Anacostia River. Anacostia, called Uniontown in the mid-1800’s then switched back again, was part of the District of Columbia, which in turn was larger than Washington and encompassed it. When the boundaries of Washington and the District of Columbia became one and the same in 1878, the Douglasses’ Anacostia home became a Washington city home then too.

It’s another lovely day, again the sky is partly cloudy, the air soft and warm and a little breezy, freshly washed by the morning’s rain. The cold weather I had shivered in for much of the first half of my trip is nearly forgotten.

The National Park Service now owns and runs the house, the grounds, and the visitor center and museum, collectively called The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. I take a brief look at the outside of the house, then stop at the visitor center and sign up for the guided tour which will start shortly. I take another brief look around while I wait, and note the displays and artifacts I want to examine more closely when I return to the visitor center museum.

Cedar Hill, Frederick Douglass' home on the hill in Anacostia, Washington DC

Cedar Hill, Frederick Douglass’ home on the hill in Anacostia, Washington DC

Helen Pitts Douglass Portrait, Cedar Hill, Anacostia, Washington DC

Portrait of Helen Pitts Douglass in the entrance hall at Cedar Hill, Anacostia, Washington DC

Then I join the tour group on the steps leading up the hill to the house. Let me express my gratitude and give credit at the outset to the very knowledgeable and helpful Nate Johnson who leads the tour. Much of the information I share with you here about the house and the Douglass family’s life together he provides in whole, or he confirms and fleshes out the stories.

In the entrance hall, I spot a miniature portrait of Helen Pitts Douglass, who Frederick married about 17 months after Anna’s death. Frederick and Helen met as neighbors soon after the Douglasses moved to Cedar Hill, and Helen came to work in Douglass’ office on Capitol Hill alongside his daughter Rosetta. Helen was a suffragist and abolitionist, like her father and Douglass’ long time acquaintance Gideon Pitts, and she and Douglass bonded over their shared social and political beliefs. As you may remember from the Boston and Honeoye accounts, their marriage was very controversial: many black people thought that Douglass was betraying Anna and his race by marrying a white woman, and many white people objected for obvious (purely racist!) reasons, even their fellow abolitionists. While Douglass brushed it off by saying that when he married Anna, he married a woman the color of his mother, and when he married Helen, he married a woman the color of his father, he had more explaining to do when it came to his family. Not because of the racial difference so much: though his children were sensitive on that issue on behalf of their mother, they knew his views on the color line and that it should be erased. It seems the trouble was mostly that he didn’t tell them that he was going to get married. We’ll return to that family drama soon…

Douglass family sitting room at Cedar Hill, Anacostia

Douglass family sitting room at Cedar Hill, Anacostia

Frederick and Joseph Douglass, from the Library of Congress archives, via the Lion of Anacostia blog

Frederick and Joseph Douglass from the Library of Congress archives via the Lion of Anacostia blog. There are many portraits of Frederick and Joseph together; evidently, they were proud of one another

The door on the right from the entrance hall leads to the West Parlor, or sitting room, where the family would gather to play music, sing, and generally just hang out after dinner. As discussed in my account of my first day in Rochester, the Douglasses were a musical family, His daughter Rosetta and his second wife Helen played the piano, he and his son Charles played the violin, and possibly Anna did as well. Douglass was a very talented player, would play often, and sometimes dance. His grandson Joseph, son of Lewis, also adopted the violin and played with such great skill that it became his profession. Joseph’s first major performance was at the Columbia Exposition, which his grandfather helped organize, on August 25th, 1893, at age 22. He was the first violinist to be recorded, taught at Howard University and various schools, and toured the world as a concert violinist. (I subsequently had the pleasure of interviewing one of Frederick and Joseph’s descendants for my podcast!)

Sitting room piano with Joseph Douglass' violin on top

Sitting room piano with Joseph Douglass’ violin on top

Anna Douglass circa 1860, image from the Library of Congress collection

Anna Douglass circa 1860, image from the Library of Congress collection

The grandkids, frequent visitors and sometimes residents of the big house, would join in the fun of the sitting room family gatherings. Some would sing along with the music, and other times were devoted to games and general romping, here and throughout the house, wherever they could get away with it. In public, Douglass presented himself in a very serious and dignified way, but at home he was very playful, romping with the grandkids and joking a lot. He’d allow his granddaughters to braid his flowing hair and tie ribbons in it, only to have to rush off sometimes and put it back in order for the sake of the frequent guests who visited the house.

Anna’s portrait presides over the formal East Parlor, dedicated to greeting and entertaining guests. Her picture, directly across from the big bookshelf, occupies the central place of honor between the two tall windows at the front of the house. Unfortunately, the way the light is streaming brightly in the windows just after midday makes the portrait, easy to see in person, impossible for my camera to pick up amid the strong backlight. In fact, the way the sun is creating such high contrasts in the room, most of my photos of this room don’t end up turning out.

Frederick Douglass' library at Cedar Hill (2), Anacostia, Washington DC, 2016 by Amy Cools

Frederick Douglass’ library and study at Cedar Hill

Anna lived here at Cedar Hill for just under four years, presiding over this stately but lively home bustling with children, grandchildren, extended family, and frequent and numerous houseguests. While she had some health troubles, she remained pretty active until she suffered a stroke on July 9th, 1884, and lingered almost a month. After she died, at about age 69, Douglass fell into a deep and at times almost debilitating depression for well over a year. He thought about selling his house and traveling, perhaps moving to Europe for awhile. But his family needed him here, and besides, his neighbor and clerk Helen Pitts had become a close friend and ally.

Then we stop at the library, south of the East Parlor, accessible through a connecting door. Many of the things in this room actually belonged to Douglass, such as the top hat to the right of the desk. According to the National Park service, ‘Douglass’s extensive library contained more than 1000 volumes that included books on history, science, government, law, religion and literature. ‘ I don’t, unfortunately, get the opportunity to take a close look at the contents of that nice big bookshelf.

Cedar Hill dining room, where Frederick Douglass died, Anacostia Washington DC

Cedar Hill dining room, where Frederick Douglass died. His big chair is to the left.

Another view of the Cedar Hill dining room, looking north into the sitting room

Another view of the Cedar Hill dining room, looking north into the sitting room

We stop next at the dining room at the end of the entrance hall and to the right, with a big door leading onto the hallway, through which we look at the room, but also connected to the sitting room through another connecting door. On February 20th, 1895, Douglass and Helen were at this table discussing the women’s rights convention he had just attended that day. His old friend (or perhaps more accurately expressed in modern slang as ‘frenemy’) Susan B. Anthony had escorted him to the front of the room to speak. Always a talented mimic, he was repeating another’s speech he had heard there at the convention, probably sitting, then rising, from his big dining room chair. All of a sudden, he sank to his knees, suffering a massive heart attack. He could not be revived.

I linger here behind the tour group for a few moments.

Then I rejoin the group and we go around to the kitchen, which is beyond the dining room, through the pantry. Anna was an excellent cook, and she would make Maryland beaten biscuits for Douglass. They were made from dough that was beaten to trap air in the dough, an alternate to leavening. The resulting biscuits are small, round, and rather hard but Douglass loved them, having grown up on them in the Chesapeake.

Anna Douglass's bedroom, Cedar Hill

Anna Douglass’s bedroom, Cedar Hill

Helen Pitts Douglass' bedroom, Cedar Hill

Helen Pitts Douglass’ bedroom, Cedar Hill

Then we go upstairs. Anna’s and Helen’s bedrooms are across Douglass’, which is on your right if you’ve just come up the stairs. Looking across the hall from Douglass’ room, Anna’s is on the left with the ruffled pillowcases and golden flower pattern wallpaper, Helen’s on the right with the dress form and green striped wallpaper. After Anna’s death, Douglass sealed her room off and no one stayed in there again.

Douglass had the big bedroom, with a desk where he may have worked sometimes. Note the weights on the floor by the big leather armchair: he was a large, powerfully built man, over six feet tall and two hundred thirty pounds, with a strong voice. He would often work out with free weights out on the lawn, and would also often walk the five miles to work each way between Capitol Hill and Cedar Hill. He wrote that he felt stronger at this time in his life than he had in years. You can see Capitol Hill and the Washington Monument looking out of the bay window above the front door off to the left, and the view from the lawn in front of the house is fantastic, with the city laid out before you in a panorama across the Anacostia River.

Frederick Douglass' bedroom

Frederick Douglass’ bedroom. Note the dumbbells on the floor by the big leather chair: Douglass exercised regularly, including lifting weights out on the lawn and walking ten miles roundtrip to work on Capitol Hill. He remained active and vigorous right up to the time of his death at age 77

During the years Douglass lived at Cedar Hill, he was once again a well-to-do man after the debacle of the failed Freedman’s Bank, a subject I mentioned in an earlier account and to which I’ll return soon. To rebuild his finances, he went out on tour again, and he had been able to command very large speaking fees throughout the North and earned a good salary as Recorder of Deeds in Washington D.C., and with the help of a loan from a well-to-do friend, he was once again able to afford a grand house.

The view from Cedar Hill's front lawn, of Washington DC and Capitol Hill

The view from Cedar Hill’s front lawn, of Washington DC and Capitol Hill

By the time Douglass moved to Cedar Hill, he had moved into the role of a senior statesman and had a lot of social and political influence. Yet while Douglass retains his reputation to this day as a fiery champion of black rights, he was perceived by many in those later years to have lost sight of the true plight of most black Americans, especially in the South. He still supported the Republican Party even as it was abandoning Reconstruction, leaving the southern states free to flout the 14th and 15th Amendments. By the time Douglass moved to Anacostia and his grand home on Cedar Hill, his days as a slave, a laborer, and a working abolitionist suffering the everyday oppressions and indignities of Jim Crow were far behind him. His biographers Philip Foner and William McFeely both describe and critique his seeming lack of full awareness and concern for how bad it really was at this time for ordinary black working Americans. To many, it was clear that Douglass’ pragmatism had overshadowed his fiery spirit as a champion of human rights.

In 1876, Douglass was so eager that Rutherford B. Hayes become President, in a heavily contested, extremely close election, that he failed to criticize the Republican Party’s policies in any serious way. To be fair to Douglass, it was still the only major party that at least nominally supported black rights, and if Hayes lost to Tilden, even the appearance of national concern over the rights of black Americans would be lost. But really, his critics said, he should have advocated the complete abandonment of the Republican Party since it had in practice largely abandoned the cause of actual emancipation. After all, the existence of the 14th and 15th Amendments meant nothing to the lives of black Americans if their politicians and fellow citizens routinely blocked access to the polls, to good jobs, to elected office, and to all the other rights and privileges of citizens of a free nation.

Statue and quote at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site

Statue and quote at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site

The Republican Party had a powerful contingent who had come to prioritize economic progress over human rights reform, and thought that keeping federal troops stationed in the South to protect black rights only served to delay national reconciliation and economic recovery. So Republicans routinely struck deals with southern leaders eager to return to old social practices and had often come to be no better than Democrats at protecting black rights. President Hayes, for so long an ardent supporter of strong federal enforcement of civil rights laws, shifted his focus to economic recovery and civil service reform. To be fair to Hayes, ‘Republican Party’ had become almost synonymous with ‘political corruption’, and the new president, famed for his integrity throughout his political career, was determined to fix that. And Hayes was far from the only one who thought that economic recovery would bring about gradual black rights reform through the value of their work in a revitalized economy.

So the Democrats had their way, and black citizens lost many of the political gains they had made. They lost their hard-won representation in government and had even become even worse off in many parts of the South than they had been under slavery, with endemic Klu Klux Klan and White League terrorism, lynching, black codes, debt peonage, convict leasing, and sharecropping, which systematically cheated black people out of the earnings from their labor. And as history reveals, the Douglass of 1857 who had said in Canandaigua ‘If there is no struggle, there is no progress’, was right, and Hayes and the gradualist reformers were wrong. The South continued its oppression of black people nearly unchecked for another hundred years, and their rights were only reclaimed through their protest and struggle, assisted by the intervention of the federal government.

View from Cedar Hill, looking east toward the site of Hiram and niece Helen Pitts' house

View from Cedar Hill, looking east toward the site of Hiram and niece Helen Pitts’ house

But by the 1888 election, Douglass was no longer so ready to remain silent in the face of Republican Party’s failures to protect human rights. It was no longer good enough that the Republican Party had been the party of Lincoln and of the Union. His rhetoric took on a more fiery tone once again, and he said that if the Republican Party wouldn’t live up to their promises to protect black rights, he now looked forward to their defeat. And defeated they were: Democrat Grover Cleveland had already taken the White House in 1884. Douglass attributed this to the Republican Party’s abandonment of the human rights platform, which had made it the champion of goodhearted people, in favor of a profit-first agenda.

As we leave the house, in response to my inquiry, Johnson points me in the direction of the site of Helen Pitts’ uncle Hiram’s house, right beside Cedar Hill where the tall red building stands directly to the right if you’re looking toward D.C. from the front porch (or to your left if you’re looking at the front of the house). Helen lived here with her uncle for a time, and the Pittses and Douglasses were friends, neighbors, and colleagues.  Hiram, like his brother and Helen’s father Gideon in Honeoye, refused to speak to the couple or allow them the house after Helen married Douglass. There was a path that led from Hiram’s house up to Cedar Hill, but after the marriage presumably, sadly, it saw much less use.

The hymnal Frederick Douglass had with him when he escaped from slavery in 1838

The hymnal Frederick Douglass had with him when he escaped from slavery in 1838

A copy of the Columbian Orator, the first book Frederick Douglass purchased

A copy (but not the copy) of the Columbian Orator, the first book Frederick Douglass ever purchased

I return to the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site museum, tucked into the east foot of the hill, and the treasures therein. Among them, there’s the hymnal which Douglass had with him when he escaped from slavery. It seems quite incredible that it survived, especially given the fire at his Rochester home. I wonder if the family took special pains to make sure that this one book, at least, escaped the flames. There’s also a copy (but not his copy) of the Columbian Orator, the first book Douglass ever bought, which, as you may remember, he purchased from Knight’s shop on Thames St in Fell’s Point, Baltimore, when he was only about 12 years old. It was among the most influential books of his life.

Douglass’ death mask, cast in plaster, is also here. His strong brow is relaxed, the deep furrow over the nose smoothed out a bit. His wide-set eyes look peacefully closed but the lips, usually set straight in a dignified manner in portraits, are here drawn tightly together, even pursed, but I’m guessing this is due to the castmaker’s efforts to keep plaster out of the mouth. His characteristically leonine hair is plastered (no pun intended) to his well-formed head. In death, as in life, he’s strikingly handsome.

Here, too, I find Abraham Lincoln’s walking stick, gifted to Douglass by Mary Todd Lincoln in thanks for his service recruiting for the Civil War.

Frederick Douglass' death mask and cast of his hand, at his National Historic Site in Washington DC

Frederick Douglass’ death mask and cast of his hand, at his National Historic Site in Washington DC

 Abraham Lincoln's walking stick, Mary Todd Lincoln's gift to Frederick Douglass

Abraham Lincoln’s walking stick, Mary Todd Lincoln’s gift to Frederick Douglass, on the left, and copies of his passes for recruiting for the Union Army

After a rather lengthy visit closely examining all the displays and chatting with the docent, I cross the Anacostia again as I head north to 913 E St NE, where according to Douglass’ biographer McFeely, Helen Pitts was living when Douglass came to pick her up on January 24th, 1884, on their way to be married.

Houses off Maryland and E St NE where they converge, south side, Washington DC, 2016 Amy Cools

Houses off Maryland Ave and E St NE where they converge, on the south side of the street where the odd numbers run for both E and Maryland. The tan house in the center is marked 913 Maryland Ave, but I can’t tell from Google Maps or the 1909 Baist atlas if it’s also 913 E St, though that would also be consistent with the numbering.

When I arrive, I find it’s a little hard to be sure that the 913 I find is an E Street address, a Maryland Ave, or both: these streets intersect at an odd angle here just east of 9th St. Google Maps seems to say it’s 913 E, but the door plaque says it’s 913 Maryland Ave. I find Baist’s city atlas from the turn of the century on the Library of Congress website, the earliest I can find online, and it shows that the numbers here have apparently not changed, since 1909 at least. In 1884, Helen lived here or near here, again, if the 1909 atlas is right. She had moved here from her uncle Hiram’s house to be closer to Capitol Hill, where she worked as Douglass’ clerk, though that meant she and Douglass were no longer neighbors. Perhaps they wanted to keep their deepening relationship less evident to the public eye. Again, more on their marriage soon to come.

I decide to break up the account up here of this day’s adventures into two accounts since it’s such a full day and I learn so much. To be continued!

*Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and Inspiration:

About Us: Living History‘. Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives website (family tree, photos).

Baist’s Real Estate Atlas of Surveys of Washington, District of Columbia: Volume 2, Plate 21. By Baist, George William, William Edward, and Harry Valentine Baist, 1909. Via Library of Congress website

Benjamin Harrison: Campaigns and Elections,’ from Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia website

Blight, David W. ‘“Your Late Lamented Husband”: A Letter from Frederick Douglass to Mary Todd Lincoln‘. In The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History website

Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Re-published 1993, Avenal, New York: Gramercy Books, Library of Freedom series.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom: 1855 Edition with a new introduction. Re-published 1969, New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Foner, Philip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 1-4. New York: International Publishers, 1950.

Fought, Leigh. ‘On Trusting Secondary Sources‘. From Frederick Douglass’s Women: In Progress blog

Holt, Michael F. ‘The Contentious Election of 1876‘, in History Now: The Journal of the Gilder Lehrman Institute

Joseph Douglass‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

McFeely, William. Frederick Douglass. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.

Maryland Beaten Biscuits‘, in Guest Recipe Book. Diana’s Desserts website

Muller, John. Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia. Charleston: The History Press, 2012.

Rutherford B. Hayes: Life in Brief‘, from Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia website.

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. W. W. Norton & Company, 1997

Happy Birthday, Walt Whitman!

Walt Whitman, age 35, from Leaves of Grass, Fulton St., Brooklyn, N.Y., engraving by Samuel Hollyer from daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison, public domain via Wikimedia Commons‘Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, Disorderly fleshy and sensual . . . . eating drinking and breeding, No sentimentalist . . . . no stander above men and women or apart from them . . . . no more modest than immodest.’ Thus Walt Whitman introduces himself to us for the first time in his first self-published 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. Not on the cover or on the title page, mind you, but deep within the body of the untitled poem later called Song of Myself. If this is a dialing-back attempt to inject a little respectable humility or yet another self-aggrandizing affectation on the part of this unapologetic egoist, it’s hard to say definitely, though I strongly suspect it’s the latter. It certainly is so-very-American.

He was confident, earthy, crude, and vibrant, a self-styled natural man whose personas were nonetheless carefully crafted. He did his own thing and ‘lived the free life of a rover’ (an Eric Bogle phrase from his great anti-war ballad And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda), working odd jobs as a printer, journalist, teacher, and clerk, among other things. Moved by horror and compassion at the magnitude of death and suffering he observed, he worked some years as a nurse to the Civil War wounded, and spent much of his somewhat meager earnings on supplies for their comfort and care. He remained single but had many lovers, probably mostly homosexual, though he praises the physical beauty and power of women as lavishly in his poems as he does those of men. All the while, starting at just over age 30, he began to write his highly idiosyncratic, free verse poetry celebrating the authentic and the crafted self, the human body, democracy, equality, work, nature, and companionship. He spent the rest of his somewhat long life revising and republishing several editions of Leaves of Grass, up to several months before his death at age 72 in 1892.

To read more work by, about, and inspired by the great Walt Whitman, here are some links and articles:

Walt Whitman“. in Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

Walt Whitman, 1819–1892‘. The Poetry Foundation (website)

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass (1855). Source: Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library

Whitman, Walt. Assorted poems at Poets.org

The Walt Whitman Archive, Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price, Ed., published by the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln

and just because I love it:

The Body Electric, song and music video by Hooray for the Riff Raff. The song title is inspired by one of Whitman’s most enduring and controversial poems, and is a critique of the tradition of the murder ballad

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!