From the outbreak of the Civil War until his death,
Frederick Douglass (1818 to 1895) was
generally recognized as the premier Black American leader and
spokesman for his people. Douglass writing was devoted primarily to
the creation of a heroic image of himself that would inspire in
African Americans the belief that one's color need not be a
permanent bar to their achievement of the American dream, while
reminding whites of their obligation as Americans to support free
and equal access to that dream for Americans of all races.
The man who became internationally famous as Frederick Douglass was
born on Maryland's Eastern Shore in February 1818, the son of
Harriet Bailey, a slave, and an unknown white man. Although he
recalls witnessing, as a child, the bloody whipping of his Aunt
Hester by his master, Douglass says in his autobiographies that his
early experience of slavery was characterized less by overt cruelty
than by deprivations of food, clothing, and emotional contact with
his mother and grandmother.
Sent to Baltimore in 1826 by his
master's son-in-law, Thomas Auld, Frederick spent five years as a
servant in the home of Thomas Auld's brother, Hugh. At first, Hugh's
wife Sophia treated the slave boy with unusual kindness, giving
reading lessons to Frederick until her husband forbade them. Rather
than accept Hugh Auld's dictates, Frederick took his first
rebellious steps toward freedom by teaching himself to read and
In 1833, a quarrel between the Auld brothers brought Frederick back
to his home in Saint Michaels, Maryland. Tensions between the
recalcitrant black youth and his owner convinced Thomas Auld to hire
Frederick out as a farm worker under the supervision of Edward
Covey, a local slave breaker.
After six months of unstinting labor, merciless whippings, and
repeated humiliations, the desperate sixteen-year old slave fought
back, resisting one of Covey's attempted beatings and intimidating
his tormentor sufficiently to prevent future attacks. Douglass
dramatic account of his struggle with Covey would become the heroic
turning point of his future autobiographies and one of the most
celebrated scenes in all of antebellum Black American literature.
In the spring of 1836, after a failed attempt to escape from
slavery, Frederick was sent back to Baltimore to learn the caulking
trade. With the aid of his future spouse, Anna Murray, and
masquerading as a free black merchant sailor, he boarded a
northbound train out of Baltimore on 3 September 1838 and arrived in
New York City the next day. Before a month had passed Frederick and
Anna were reunited, married, and living in New Bedford,
Massachusetts, as Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Douglass, the new last name
recommended by a friend in New Bedford's thriving Black American
community. Less than three years later, Douglass joined the radical
Garrisonian wing of the abolitionist movement as a full-time
After years of honing his rhetorical skills on the antislavery
platform, Douglass put his life's story into print in 1845. The
result, Narrative of the “Life of Frederick Douglass, an American
Slave,” written by himself, sold more than thirty thousand copies in
the first five years of its existence. After a triumphal 21 month
lecture tour in England, Ireland, and Scotland, Douglass returned to
the United States in the spring of 1847, resolved, against the
advice of many of his Garrisonian associates, to launch his own
newspaper, the North Star. Authoring most of the articles and
editorials himself, Douglass kept the North Star and its successors,
Frederick Douglass's Paper and Frederick Douglass's Monthly, in
print from 1847 to 1863.
One of the literary highlights of the newspaper was a novella, “The
Heroic Slave,” which Douglass wrote in March 1853. Based on an
actual slave mutiny, it is regarded as the first work of long
fiction in African American literature.
A rupture of the close relationship between Douglass and Garrison
occasioned a period of reflection and reassessment that culminated
in Douglass's second autobiography, “My Bondage and My Freedom”
(1855). Although he had befriended and advised John Brown in
the late 1850s, Douglass declined Brown's invitation
to participate in the Harpers Ferry raid but was
forced to flee his Rochester, New York, home for
Canada in October 1859 after he was publicly linked
Applauding the election of Abraham Lincoln and welcoming
the Civil War as a final means of ending slavery, Douglass lobbied
the new president in favor of African American recruitment for the
Union Army. When the war ended, Douglass pleaded with President
Andrew Johnson for a national voting rights act that would give
Black Americans the franchise in all the states.
to the Republican Party, whose candidates he supported throughout
his later years, won him appointment to the highest political
offices that any Black American from the North had ever won: federal
marshal and recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia,
president of the Freedman's Bureau Bank, consul to Haiti, and charge d'affaires for the Dominican Republic.
The income Douglass earned from these positions, coupled with the
fees he received for his popular lectures, most notably one entitled
“Self-Made Men,” and his investments in real estate, allowed
Douglass and his family to live in comfort in Uniontown, just
outside Washington, D.C. during the last two decades of his life.
His final memoir, “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass,” first
published in 1881 and expanded in 1892, did not excite the
admiration of reviewers or sell widely, as had his first two
autobiographies. But the Life and Times maintained Douglass's
conviction that his had been a “life of victory, if not complete, at
least assured.” Life and Times shows Douglass dedicated to the ideal
of building a racially integrated America, in which skin color would
cease to determine an individual's social value and economic
In the last months of his life, Douglass decried the increasing
incidence of lynching in the South and disputed the notion that by
disenfranchising the Black American man a more peaceful social
climate would prevail throughout the nation. Yet, Douglass never
forsook his long-standing belief that the U.S. Constitution, if
strictly and equally enforced, remained the best safeguard for Black
American civil and human rights.
In the history of Black American literature, Douglass's importance
and influence are immeasurable.
Frederick Douglass Embodied Three Keys for Success in Life:
Believe in yourself.
Take advantage of every opportunity.
Use the power of spoken and written language to effect positive
change for yourself and society.
Douglass said, "What is possible for me is possible for you." By
taking these keys and making them his own, Frederick Douglass
created a life of honor; respect and success that he could never
have dreamed of when still a boy on Colonel Lloyd's plantation on
the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
Information provided by
The Frederick Douglass Foundation
Elizabeth A. Anderson
Author and Editor of the rewritten "My Bondage and My Freedom" (originally written by Frederick Douglass)
It can easily be said that Frederick Douglass, an escaped
uneducated slave is one of the most important men in our
history. It is because of his intelligence and thirst for
knowledge that he taught himself to read and he "carried his
diploma on his back" from the lashings he took whenever he was
caught with a book. It is also because of his learning to read
that he became an eloquent speaker, much in demand by the
Northern Abolitionist for his descriptions of his life as a
slave, thus countering Southern slave owners who claimed that
they kept their slaves, "for their own good" because they
weren't capable of taking care of themselves.
His intelligence, persona, and eloquence brought him in repeated
contact with President Abraham Lincoln, and with one sentence he
convinced President Lincoln to allow Blacks to fight for the
North in our Civil War and thus changed our history...
the dignity to fight for our own freedom"
All records indicate that General Robert E. Lee and the
Confederate States would have won or Civil War and seceded from
the Union had it not been for the BLACK SOLDIERS who were
allowed to pick up weapons and fight for the North. Two of
Douglass' own sons each raised an entire Regiment of Blacks to
fight in the War and it is because President Lincoln dropped the
"color bar", thus allowing Blacks to pick up weapons and fight
for the Union, that we are still a UNITED States today!
David G. Bancroft, founder of USA Patriotism!
Frederick Douglass was a remarkable American who overcame so much
to achieve so much . . . His visionary insight and belief in the
U.S. Constitution as the foundation of all Americans' freedoms
remains true today. Frederick Douglass was a
blessing to our beloved country . .
. and will always exemplify one's love and pride of the USA.
He is so very deserving to be called a Great American Patriot!
Frederick Douglass is a Great American Patriot. He had the personal courage to fight tyranny one on one, hand to hand, as he freed himself from abject slavery, but he was no hot head. His wise mind understood that in the vast collective scheme of things, we need civil order. Therefore, he distanced himself from vigilante movements and supported the U.S. Constitution as key to long-term freedom for all. In the end, his view has been vindicated. His example shows that a combination of personal courage and deep respect for the U.S. Constitution can help America continue to be a great and worthy nation.
(from his 2008 essay, as a 9th grader)
Frederick Douglass is truly and American hero. He was a light in a time of
darkness. He spoke out when many couldn't. I think he is some one that can
resemble the Christian faith. As Christians it's our job to be a light in times
of darkness, and speak when others can't or should. So I hope that next time you
feel like giving up or being silenced, remember the great American hero,
Frederick Douglass. See
the entire essay