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The Liberal Imagination of Frederick Douglass

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On a steamy morning in June 1881, a federal cutter slowly makes its way up the Chesapeake Bay into the Wye River. In the bow stands Frederick Douglass, his eyes scanning the shore for the landmarks he once knew so well—signs that he is approaching a place that, with lasting pain and bitter irony, yet also with love and fond remembrance, he stills calls home.

This home, for Douglass, is the Great House Farm where he had been born into slavery 63 years earlier. This home is the vast estate of Colonel Lloyd, the despotic master whom he had portrayed so unsparingly in his best-selling 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. This home, he tells us, was once a “dark domain . . . stamped with its own peculiar iron-like individuality,” where “crimes, high-handed and atrocious, could be committed with strange and shocking impunity!” Now, 43 years after his escape from slavery, with the Civil War over and the Emancipation Proclamation the law of the land, Douglass can see this old home all around him. How many times he had stood just there on the high banks of the river, gazing down at the ships sailing past and dreaming of the day when one of them might carry him to freedom, carry him away!

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