Frederick Douglass Editorial Illustration by Ken Peters
This piece was created as a self-promotion to be presented to news publications marketing our editorial illustration capabilities. It was inspired by an exhaustive biography I’d recently read about Frederick Douglass, America’s leading orator of the 19th century, and one of the most widely traveled and recognizable Americans of his time. He was a gifted communicator, and one of the nation's most ardent abolitionists.
He was both brilliant and flawed, and like Jefferson before him, an enigmatic dichotomy. Whereas Jefferson championed freedom, liberty and equality, but was also a slaveholder, Douglass demanded the natural rights – and American birthright – in the promise of Jefferson's founding principals while also peddling in derogatory cultural stereotypes and racism himself.
Douglass' writings and speeches often featured caricatures of slovenly, drunken Irishmen (a favorite target), as well as common anti-Semitic tropes. He was also a virulent anti-Catholic, and believed native Americans were irredeemable savages that could never be educated enough to be fully civilized. And, while he was for women’s suffrage, he advocated that it was secondary to black suffrage.
These things, though, don't diminish his good works and brilliance anymore than Jefferson's slaveholding diminish his. Rather, they serve to remind us that even "great men" are mere men, flawed and incomplete in their brilliance.
He was an astonishing man of letters, and I wanted words and letters to form the crux of this piece. Douglass was the most photographed man of the 19th century, and the most common images are of the older "Lion" with his iconic mane of white hair. But, it was the stern gaze of this image, combined with his youth –from a time in his life when emancipation was unfolding and abolition appearing as a real possibility on the horizon – that to me speaks most to the the theme.