Frederick Douglass. born in February 1818 and passed onFebruary 20, 1895, was an American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. After escaping from slavery in Maryland, he became a national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York, becoming famous for his oratory and incisive antislavery writings. Accordingly, he was described by abolitionists in his time as a living counter-example to slaveholders’ arguments that slaves lacked the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens. Likewise, Northerners at the time found it hard to believe that such a great orator had once been a slave.
As an infant, Douglass was separated from his mother and went to live with his maternal grandmother, Betty Bailey. However, at the age of six, he was moved away from her to live and work on the Wye House plantation in Maryland.
From there, Douglass was “given” to Lucretia Auld, whose husband, Thomas, sent him to work with his brother Hugh in Baltimore. Douglass credits Hugh’s wife Sophia with first teaching him the alphabet.
From there, he taught himself to read and write. By the time he was hired out to work under William Freeland, he was teaching other enslaved people to read using the Bible.
As word spread of his efforts to educate fellow enslaved people, Thomas Auld took him back and transferred him to Edward Covey, a farmer who was known for his brutal treatment of the enslaved people in his charge. Roughly 16 at this time, Douglass was regularly whipped by Covey.
Escape from Slavery
After several failed attempts at escape, Douglass finally left Covey’s farm in 1838, first boarding a train to Havre de Grace, Maryland. From there he traveled through Delaware, another slave state, before arriving in New York and the safe house of abolitionist David Ruggles. Once settled in New York, he sent for Anna Murray, a free Black woman from Baltimore he met while in captivity with the Aulds. She joined him, and the two were married in September 1838. They would have five children together.
From Slave to Abolitionist Leader
After their marriage, the young couple moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where they met Nathan and Mary Johnson, a married couple who were born “free persons of color.” It was the Johnsons who inspired the couple to take the surname Douglass, after the character in the Sir Walter Scott poem, “The Lady of the Lake.”
In New Bedford, Douglass began attending meetings of the abolitionist movement. During these meetings, he was exposed to the writings of abolitionist and journalist William Lloyd Garrison. The two men eventually met when both were asked to speak at an abolitionist meeting, during which Douglass shared his story of slavery and escape. It was Garrison who encouraged Douglass to become a speaker and leader in the abolitionist movement.
By 1843, Douglass had become part of the American Anti-Slavery Society’s “Hundred Conventions” project, a six-month tour through the United States. Douglass was physically assaulted several times during the tour by those opposed to the abolitionist movement. In one particularly brutal attack, in Pendleton, Indiana, Douglass’ hand was broken. The injuries never fully healed, and he never regained full use of his hand.
In 1858, radical abolitionist John Brown stayed with Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York, as he planned his raid on the U.S. military arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, part of his attempt to establish a stronghold of formerly enslaved people in the mountains of Maryland and Virginia. Brown was caught and hanged for masterminding the attack, offering the following prophetic words as his final statement: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Two years later, Douglass published the first and most famous of his autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. (He also authored My Bondage and My Freedom and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass).
In it Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he wrote: “From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace; and in the darkest hours of my career in slavery, this living word of faith and spirit of hope departed not from me, but remained like ministering angels to cheer me through the gloom.”
He also noted, “Thus is slavery the enemy of both the slave and the slaveholder.”
Frederick Douglass in Ireland and Great Britain
Later that same year, Douglass would travel to Ireland and Great Britain. At the time, the former country was just entering the early stages of the Irish Potato Famine, or the Great Hunger.
While overseas, he was impressed by the relative freedom he had as a man of color, compared to what he had experienced in the United States. During his time in Ireland, he would meet the Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell, who would become an inspiration for his later work.
In England, Douglass also delivered what would later be viewed as one of his most famous speeches, the so-called “London Reception Speech.”
In the speech, he said, “What is to be thought of a nation boasting of its liberty, boasting of its humanity, boasting of its Christianity, boasting of its love of justice and purity, and yet having within its own borders three millions of persons denied by law the right of marriage?… I need not lift up the veil by giving you any experience of my own. Every one that can put two ideas together, must see the most fearful results from such a state of things…”
Frederick Douglass’ Paper
When he returned to the United States in 1847, Douglass began publishing his own abolitionist newsletter, the North Star. He also became involved in the movement for women’s rights.
He was the only African American to attend the Seneca Falls Convention, a gathering of women’s rights activists in New York, in 1848.
He spoke forcefully during the meeting and said, “In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world.”
He would later include coverage of women’s rights issues in the pages of the North Star. The newsletter’s name was changed to Frederick Douglass’ Paper in 1851, and was published until 1860, just before the start of the Civil War.
Frederick Douglass Quotes
In 1852, he delivered another of his more famous speeches, one that later came to be called “What to a slave is the 4th of July?”
In one section of the speech, Douglass noted, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”
For the 24th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, in 1886, Douglass delivered a rousing address in Washington, D.C., during which he said, “where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”
Frederick Douglass During the Civil War
During the brutal conflict that divided the still-young United States, Douglass continued to speak and worked tirelessly for the end of slavery and the right of newly freed Black Americans to vote.
Although he supported President Abraham Lincoln in the early years of the Civil War, Douglass would fall into disagreement with the politician after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which effectively ended the practice of slavery. Douglass was disappointed that Lincoln didn’t use the proclamation to grant formerly enslaved people the right to vote, particularly after they had fought bravely alongside soldiers for the Union army.
It is said, though, that Douglass and Lincoln later reconciled and, following the latter’s assassination in 1865, and the passage of the 13th amendment, 14th amendment, and 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution (which, respectively, outlawed slavery, granted formerly enslaved people citizenship and equal protection under the law, and protected all citizens from racial discrimination in voting), Douglass was asked to speak at the dedication of the Emancipation Memorial in Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Park in 1876.
Historians, in fact, suggest that Lincoln’s widow, Mary Todd Lincoln, bequeathed the late-president’s favorite walking stick to Douglass after that speech.
In the post-war Reconstruction era, Douglass served in many official positions in government, including as an ambassador to the Dominican Republic, thereby becoming the first Black man to hold high office. He also continued speaking and advocating for African American and women’s rights.
In the 1868 presidential election, he supported the candidacy of former Union general Ulysses S. Grant, who promised to take a hard line against white supremacist-led insurgencies in the post-war South. Grant notably also oversaw passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which was designed to suppress the growing Ku Klux Klan movement.
Frederick Douglass: Later Life and Death
In 1877, Douglass met with Thomas Auld, the man who once “owned” him, and the two reportedly reconciled.
Douglass’ wife Anna died in 1882, and he married white activist Helen Pitts in 1884.
In 1888, he became the first African American to receive a vote for President of the United States, during the Republican National Convention. Ultimately, though, Benjamin Harrison received the party nomination.
Douglass remained an active speaker, writer and activist until his death in 1895. He died after suffering a heart attack on his way home from a meeting of the National Council of Women, a women’s rights group still in its infancy at the time, in Washington, D.C.
His life’s work still serves as an inspiration to those who seek equality and a more just society.
His works include:
The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass by Fredrick Douglass
Born around 1817 in Maryland, Frederick Douglass was a former plantation slave who went on to become a brilliant writer and eloquent orator. In this amazing first-hand narrative, published in 1881, he vividly recounts his early years, which were filled with physical abuse, deprivation, and tragedy; his dramatic escapes to the North, recapture, and eventual freedom; his work for the Anti-Slavery Society and influential role in speaking for other African-Americans; his abolitionist campaigns, and crusade for full civil rights for former slaves.
The Portable Frederick Douglass by Fredrick Douglass
This compact volume offers a full course on the remarkable, diverse career of Frederick Douglass, letting us hear once more a necessary historical figure whose guiding voice is needed now as urgently as ever. Edited by renowned scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Pulitzer Prize–nominated historian John Stauffer, The Portable Frederick Douglass includes the full range of Douglass’s works: the complete Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, as well as extracts from My Bondage and My Freedom and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass; The Heroic Slave, one of the first works of African American fiction; the brilliant speeches that launched his political career and that constitute the greatest oratory of the Civil War era; and his journalism, which ranges from cultural and political critique (including his early support for women’s equality) to law, history, philosophy, literature, art, and international affairs, including a never-before-published essay on Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Fredrick Douglass
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is an 1845 memoir and treatise on abolition written by famous orator and former slave Frederick Douglass. It is generally held to be the most famous of a number of narratives written by former slaves during the same period. In factual detail, the text describes the events of his life and is considered to be one of the most influential pieces of literature to fuel the abolitionist movement of the early 19th century in the United States.Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass encompasses eleven chapters that recount Douglass’ life as a slave and his ambition to become a free man.
The Speeches of Frederick Douglass: A Critical Edition by Fredrick Douglass
This volume brings together twenty of Frederick Douglass’s most historically significant speeches on a range of issues, including slavery, abolitionism, civil rights, sectionalism, temperance, women’s rights, economic development, and immigration. Douglass’s oratory is accompanied by speeches that influenced him, his reflections on successful rhetorical strategies, contemporary commentary on his performances, and modern-day assessments of his rhetorical legacy.