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Frederick Douglass


Samuel J. Miller, Frederick Douglass, 1847–1852, daguerreotype, 4 3/4 × 3 1/2 in. (12.1 × 8.8 cm). Art Institute of Chicago, Major Acquisitions Centennial Endowment

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Abolitionist, author, and orator, Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) lobbied forcefully for the inclusion of black soldiers in the Union army. His own two sons, Lewis and Charles, enlisted in the celebrated 54th Massachusetts Regiment shortly after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. In addition to declaring immediate freedom for slaves held in secessionist states, the edict officially opened military service to black troops. Earlier in the war Douglass had urged Lincoln to recruit black soldiers; he recognized that military service and the rights of full citizenship were intertwined: “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.”

Despite the small size of Samuel J. Miller’s prewar daguerreotype of the young Douglass, the stern portrait conveys a sense of his explosive intellectual force and moral conviction. The play of light and shade across Douglass’ face heightens the intensity of his expression, making it among the most iconic surviving images of this pioneer for civil rights. Douglass was well aware of photography’s capacity to convey character and immortalize a sitter. He was undoubtedly quite deliberate about how he presented himself to the eye of the camera and, by extension, the viewership of a larger public.

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