Frederick Douglass (1818–1895)

2012-06-14 12:39:59

Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, Frederick Douglass liberated himself from his Baltimore owner’s possession at the age of twenty. Beaten and exploited by a series of plantation owners, Douglass nonetheless taught himself to read and write. He found relative safety in New Bedford, Massachusetts, calling himself Douglass and securing work as a manual laborer. He subscribed to William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator, an abolitionist paper, and within a few months he became a full-time lecturer for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Traveling with Garrison and other Abolitionists, Douglass developed a reputation as a powerful, passionate speaker, and his greatest asset was his ability to speak firsthand of the horrors of slavery.

As Douglass spoke about his enslavement, he was forced to be vague about his circumstance. As an escaped slave, Douglass could be recaptured and sent back to his master. He was encouraged to write his story and, by the summer of 1845, had published The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. The book was an immediate success, but Douglass had included enough information to identify his former master, so friends implored him to go to Europe. Douglass spent most of the next two years touring the British Isles, returning to find that supporters had raised enough money to purchase his freedom.

Returning home committed to continuing his abolitionist activity, Douglass decided to create his own paper. Advised by his friend William Lloyd Garrison that an abolitionist paper written by a black man would not succeed financially, Douglass nonetheless pressed forward. An argument over the issue ended the friendship between the two men, and Douglass moved to Rochester, New York, and began publishing the North Star. Unwilling to take direction from Garrison or any other white abolitionist and believing that blacks should be more prominent in abolitionist activities, Douglass began to believe that emancipation could be achieved through political means. To that end, much of the North Star’s message was directed toward free blacks, calling for their selfimprovement and cooperation.

Openly supportive of other reform movements, such as temperance and women’s rights, Douglass also attracted attention from more militant reformers. John Brown tried to recruit him for his assault on Harper’s Ferry, but Douglass refused.

After President Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson offered the position of head of the Freedman’s Bureau, which Douglass declined. Douglass supported Ulysses S. Grant in his run for the 1868 presidency, then turned his attention to other political matters. He worked for the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed blacks the right to vote, then was appointed president of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company. Three years later Douglass received another political appointment, this time as the U.S. Marshal for Washington, D.C. He served in that and other political positions until his retirement.

Thousands of schoolchildren read Douglass’s autobiography in English and history classes. Few other examples tell as profound a story as Douglass’s writing. Born a slave, self-educated and self-liberated, Douglass had only just begun his real life’s work when he wrote his autobiography. The real success came years later: political activist and ideological crusader, Douglass embraced not only the cause of abolitionism, but also feminism and temperance.


References and Further Reading

  • Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. Boston: Bedford Books, 1993.
  • Quarles, Benjamin. Frederick Douglass. New York: Da Capo Press, 1948.