22 May 2007

Douglas Southall Freeman

In remembering Robert E. Lee's greatest biographer, I offer the following article to commemorate the great Virginian: Douglas Southall Freeman. His birthday was last week, 16 May and the anniversary of his death is coming up on 13 June:


“To my mind, there is no delight commensurate with that of a good long day’s work.” So Douglas Southall Freeman once wrote to his mother. Many of us today might voice similar sentiments in our callings, but most of us would be hard pressed to match Freeman’s “long day.”

Douglas Southall Freeman is best known as a military historian and winner of two Pulitzers, one for his monumental biography of Robert E. Lee (a massive, four-volume biography that took 18 years to complete), and a second (awarded posthumously) for his equally imposing seven-volume biography of George Washington.

Born on May 16, 1886 in Lynchburg, Virginia to Walker and Bettie Freeman, young Douglas had in his father an excellent role model for perseverance and Christian faith. After fighting for the Confederacy, Walker Freeman returned to the family farm in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Bedford County, Virginia. But there wasn’t much to return to; the war had left Virginia’s economy, along with the Freeman farm, in shambles. Nonetheless, after three years of hard work, Walker Freeman returned the farm to profitability, providing sufficient income to support the family. Freeman promptly turned his share over to his mother and family and began a mercantile business, going on to become a successful salesman and store owner. After surviving an almost disastrous downturn in his shoe business, Freeman changed careers and became a very successful insurance agent with the New York Life Insurance Company.

Sixty-five years later, Douglas Freeman would credit his own success to the example his father had provided in adversity: “Any man is apt to lose his way. The test of his manhood and of his intelligence is to find a new way” (David E. Johnson, Douglas Southall Freeman [Gretna, LA: Pelican, 2002], 35).

Douglas’ proclivity for success and hard work is truly inspiring. After earning his bachelor’s degree from Richmond College (now the University of Richmond), Freeman enrolled in Johns Hopkins University’s graduate program and in 1908 was awarded the Doctor of Philosophy in history, with subordinate applications in political science and political economy. Freeman was ready to tackle the world—almost.

He had once considered a calling to the ministry, but chose not to and entered a season of doubt about his faith. But while still a young man, he returned to the faith of his fathers through an invitation to speak in a dingy, “skid row” Richmond, Virginia mission. As the service began, the former drunks, thieves, and derelicts, their faces aglow with the glory of the new birth, stood up one by one and gave testimony to the life changing power of Christ’s forgiveness. “I saw men as sinful, perhaps, as I was who had been lifted out of themselves. If it works for them, it may work for me,” he wrote (81).

Freeman would always refer to that service as the time he committed himself to “try to lead the Christ life,” and he came to realize it was God’s will that he write: “Every man must have his work, and that is mine—to labour earnestly, to labour honestly, and bring out something that may be worth men’s while to read” (66). So he “went to work for the Kingdom . . . I saw what the name of Jesus was doing with men, how this power was transforming their lives” (144).

And go to work he did. Freeman compressed four full-time careers into his life of sixty-seven years. He was an educator (teaching journalism at Columbia University), an historian and biographer, broadcaster (with a daily commentary on Richmond radio stations for a number of years), and served as editor of The Richmond News Leader. He was also active in politics as an advisor to governors, senators, and several presidents.


Freeman first became editor of the News Leader at the age of twenty-nine. In just seven years under Freeman’s leadership, the paper’s circulation exploded from 22,000 to 47,000. His editorials and morning radio broadcasts became a necessary staple in the morning diet of thousands of Virginians. The newspaper continued to prosper under Freeman and on July 24, 1924, the News Leader moved into a new building in downtown Richmond. Freeman led the staff into the building and had them all bow in prayer to dedicate the paper’s new home.

How did he accomplish all of this? Discipline. For many years Freeman adhered to a time management system that has become legendary. According to biographer David Johnson, this was his typical day:

2:30 am . Awake.
2:31-2:44 Dress, shave, devotional.
2:45 Downstairs to kitchen.
2:45-3:08 Prepare and eat breakfast, walk to car.
3:08-3:25 Drive to Richmond News Leader office.
3:25-3:29 Park, walk into building, up to office.
3:30 At desk, Associated Press wires in hand.
3:31-7:58 Read wire dispatches and morning paper, write editorials, mark items for index.
7:58-8:00 Walk to WRNL radio
8:00-8:15 Broadcast.
8:15-8:17 Walk back to office.
8:17-8:32 Morning staff meeting.
8:32-11:58 Attend to duties of editor: answer mail, receive visitors, attend meetings, check first edition of paper, block and set editorials. In later years, Freeman sometimes took a brief nap at 11:00.)
11:58-12:00 Walk to WRNL radio.
12:00-12:15 Broadcast.
12:15-12:17 Walk back to office.
12:17-12:30 Complete last details of day and prepare for next day. Walk to car.
12:30-12:47 Drive home.
12:48-2:00 Lunch with Mrs. Freeman, work in the garden, walk the grounds. A less structured time.
2:00-2:30 Nap (sometimes the nap would last only fifteen minutes).
2:30-6:30 Work in study on historical projects.
6:30-8:45 Dinner; evening with family.
8:45 Retire for the evening.

Freeman once stated that scraps of time “may seem so trivial they are not worth saving but the wise use of them may make all the difference between drudgery and happiness, between existence and a career” (225). He was so conscious of the Apostle Paul’s admonition to “redeem the time” that he purchased a ready-knotted bow tie and boasted it saved him one thousand minutes a year!

His punctuality was legendary. Freeman’s nephew, Mallory, served as his radio show’s announcer and recounted that he would be looking at an empty microphone as he began every broadcast with the phrase, “and here is Dr. Freeman,” but by the time the last word left his lips, the dependable Dr. Freeman would be seated in his chair, ready to speak!

Freeman was dependable in his service and devotion to God. For many years, he was active in the Second Baptist Church in Richmond, where he was a member and a Sunday School teacher, just like his father before him. He had a small room in his home that included an altar. “There is no history behind this little altar,” he wrote, “except that one needs a place for prayer and meditation—a place apart” (217).

Douglas Southall Freeman, biographer, historian, educator, businessman, and Christian leader, rested from his labors on June 13, 1953 at 4:20 pm. Words he penned in 1948 serve as an appropriate epitaph for his life: “I expect to die with a pen in my hand, with thanks to God on my lips for the opportunity of having led a life where I was permitted to work on the glorious yesterdays adorned by the noble figures whom I had the privilege of knowing ” (351).

Today, Freeman rests from his work in historic Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. There, he is surrounded by many of "the noble figures whom he had the privilege of knowing."

(Taken from Christian Business Legends by Richard G. Williams, Jr. & Jared Crooks – The Business Reform Foundation © 2004.)

2 comments:

boulderbay said...

Douglas Freeman wrote: "Life, after all, contains only one great problem - that of so adjusting yourself to the inevitable that you can keep your peace of mind and your self-respect. The great victory of life is the conquest of worry. The greatest discovery aman can make is how to escape envy and hate. I can't find this quote in his writings? Help.

boulderbay said...

Douglas Freeman wrote: "Life, after all, contains only one great problem - that of so adjusting yourself to the inevitable that you can keep your peace of mind and your self-respect. The great victory of life is the conquest of worry. Ther greatest discovery a man can make is how to escape envy and hate. I can't find this in his writings. Help