Frederick Douglass: From Slavery to Freedom and Beyond
The great civil rights activist Frederick Douglass was born into slavery on a Maryland Eastern Shore plantation in February 1818. His given name, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, seemed to portend an unusual life for this son of a field hand and a white man, most likely Douglass's first master, Captain Aaron Anthony. Perhaps Harriet Bailey gave her son such a distinguished name in the hope that his life would be better than hers. She could scarcely imagine that her son's life would continue to be a source of interest and inspiration nearly 190 years after his birth. Indeed, it would be hard to find anyone who more closely embodies this year's Black History Month theme, "From Slavery to Freedom: Africans in the Americas." Like many in the nineteenth-century United States, Frederick Douglass escaped the horrors of slavery to enjoy a life of freedom, but his unique personal drive to achieve justice for his race led him to devote his life to the abolition of slavery and the movement for black civil rights. His fiery oratory and extraordinary achievements produced a legacy that stretches his influence across the centuries, making Frederick Douglass a role model for the twenty-first century.
One reason Douglass's story continues to resonate is that his life embodies the American dream of overcoming obstacles and reaching one's goals. Young Frederick Bailey spent his first twenty years in slavery, first on a Talbot County, Maryland plantation, then in the ship-building city of Baltimore. In the first of three autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, published in 1845, he recounts the adversity of his early life. He rarely saw his mother who worked as a field hand, had barely enough clothes to cover his body, and had to eat from a trough like a farmyard animal. As he grew old enough to work he passed through a series of masters, some kind and some cruel.
Despite his situation, Frederick managed to learn to read and write, sometimes by bribing white boys into teaching him in exchange for bits of bread. At the age of about twelve, he acquired a copy of the Columbian Orator, a book of famous speeches that formed the basis for his later skills as an outstanding public lecturer. After he gained basic literacy, Frederick began to reach out to others, assisting his fellow slaves to read and operating a forbidden Sunday school. As he gained more knowledge of the world at large, he could no longer passively submit to a life of slavery. In September 1838, he borrowed the identification papers of a free black sailor and boarded a train for the North. Locating in New Bedford, Massachusetts, he took the name Frederick Douglass, after a character in Sir Walter Scott's epic poem, The Lady in the Lake.
Although it was a momentous achievement, attaining freedom was merely a starting-point for Frederick Douglass. Within a few years he was a world-famous abolitionist, author, and orator. He published his narrative detailing his time as a slave, edited his own newspaper, and traveled throughout the United States and Britain lecturing on important civil rights and social justice topics. He was the single male delegate at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention on women's rights to support the call for woman's suffrage. When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Douglass was twice invited to the White House to advise President Abraham Lincoln, and then acted as a recruiter for African American troops. Following the war, hoping that equality would be achieved with the end of slavery, he moved his family to Washington, D.C., where he was appointed president of the Freedman's Savings Bank. In 1877 President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him federal marshal for the District of Columbia, and in that capacity he stood beside James Garfield as he took the presidential oath of office in 1881. By 1889 Frederick Douglass was the U.S. resident minister and consul general (ambassador) to Haiti. Ending his life at Cedar Hill, his twenty-one room District of Columbia home, in February 1895, Frederick Douglass had come about as far as humanly possible from his beginnings in a Maryland slave cabin.
The social distance Douglass traveled during his lifetime continues to inspire modern Americans to take a lesson from his life. If he could achieve so much after his most humble of beginnings, perhaps our own dreams and goals are within reach. Indeed, the words, images and heritage of Douglass abound in history and popular culture. Douglass once said, "If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning." Because he was willing to dedicate his life to struggle and agitate for the abolition of slavery, and then the cause of civil rights, Douglass remains at the forefront of the American consciousness.
His eloquence with words and prolific publications also make him accessible to modern Americans. Each of his three autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845); My Bondage and My Freedom (1855); and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, 1892), remain in print and are widely read by schoolchildren, college students, historians, and literary scholars. The remaining texts of his famous speeches make him one of the most quoted men of the nineteenth century. A scholar at a conference was once overheard to say, "When in doubt, quote Douglass." Indeed, President George W. Bush invoked Douglass's name when he spoke to an assembled group during his visit to Senegal in 2003. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has quoted Douglass in his rulings on several education cases.
Modern Americans are constantly reminded about the importance of Douglass's life and accomplishments. Many sites in the United States pay homage to the civil rights activist through adopting his name. At least twenty-four schools and academies are named for Douglass, and parks and buildings from New York to Louisiana bear his name. Places as diverse as Harlem, Detroit, and Oklahoma City have Frederick Douglass streets or avenues. His life has been dramatized in the fiction of such authors as Miriam Grace Monfredo and Jewell Parker Rhodes, and celebrated in the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Robert Hayden. He was memorialized on a U.S. postage stamp in 1985. The famous "history painter" Jacob Lawrence painted a series of thirty-two canvases dedicated to the life and memory of Douglass. To ensure that his words remain accessible, Yale University Press and a series of historical editors are producing modern editions of Douglass's autobiographies as well as his correspondence and speeches. The Library of Congress has digitized its entire collection of Douglass's papers and made them available at its American Memory website. Yale University's Gilder Lehrman Center awards an annual Frederick Douglass Prize for the best book on slavery or abolition. Monuments to Douglass stand in all of the cities and towns where he once lived, and Cedar Hill, his Anacostia, D.C., home is a National Park Service site visited by thousands each year.
The influence of Frederick Douglass reaches beyond his symbolic role as America's most famous former slave, although in his lifetime moving from slavery to freedom proved a tremendous accomplishment. He continues to be relevant to both history and modern American culture because he moved beyond enjoying freedom to dedicate his life to the principle that struggle is necessary to achieve progress. His desire to make his world a more just place led him to fight for the abolition of slavery and to support social justice and civil rights for African Americans and women. We would do well to follow his example, and to take inspiration from his famous words that "It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake."
L. Diane Barnes
Youngstown State University
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Frederick Douglass's writings reflected many American views that were influenced
by national division. Douglass was a very successful abolitionist who changed America's
views of slavery through his writings and actions. Frederick Douglass had many
achievements throughout his life. Douglass was born a slave in 1817, in Maryland. He
educated himself and became determined to escape the atrocities of slavery. Douglass
attempted to escape slavery once, but failed. He later made a successful escape in 1838.
His fleeing brought him to New Bedford, Massachusetts. Douglass's abolitionist career
began at an antislavery convention at Nantucket, Massachusetts. Here, he showed himself
to be a great speaker. Douglass became involved with many important abolitionist causes,
both through his literary works, and also through activities such as the Underground
Railroad, and also his role in organizing a regiment of former slaves to fight in the Civil
War for the Union army. Due to the Fugitive Slave Laws, Douglass became in danger of
being captured and returned to slavery. He left America, and stayed in the British Isles.
There he lectured on slavery, and gained the respect of many people, who raised money to
purchase his freedom. In 1847, Douglass relocated to Rochester, New York, and became
the person in charge of the Underground Railroad. Here he also began the abolitionist
newspaper North Star, which he edited until 1860.
In this time period, Douglass became friends with another well known American
abolitionist, John Brown. Brown was involved with the Underground Railroad, and later
wanted Douglass to join him on terroristic attacks on a United States government arsenal
at Harper's Ferry. Douglass declined to participate in such activities. He fled, once again,
to Europe, fearing that his association with John Brown might threaten him. He returned
after several months, and aided in Abraham Lincoln's campaign for president. Frederick
Douglass had many other achievements, mainly political, before dying in 1895, in
Washington, D. C.
Frederick Douglass's life as a slave had the greatest impact on his writings.
Through slavery, Douglass was able to develop the necessary emotion and experiences for
him to become a successful abolitionist writer. Douglass grew up as a slave, experiencing
all of the hardships that are included, such as whippings, inadequate meals, and other harsh
treatment. His thirst for freedom, and his burning hatred of slavery caused him to write
Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, and other similar biographies. In Narrative
Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, Douglass wrote the complete story of his miserable
life as a slave and his strife to obtain freedom. The main motivational force behind his
character (himself) was to make it through another day so that someday he might see
freedom. The well written books that he produced were all based on his life as was
Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass. These books all start with Douglass
coping with slavery. Frederick Douglass also had a reason to write these works. As a
die-hard abolitionist, Douglass wanted to show the world how bad slavery really was. He
did this very well, because he made many people understand the unknown, and made
abolitionists out of many people. This man had a cause, as well as a story to tell.
Douglass, as a former slave, single-handedly redefined American Civil War literature,
simply by redefining how antislavery writings were viewed. There were other narratives
written by former slaves, but none could live up to the educated, realistic accounts of
slavery by Frederick Douglass.
Frederick Douglass is well known for many of his literary achievements. He is best
known, now, as a writer. As a writer, Frederick Douglass shined. As a speaker, Frederick
Douglass was the best. There was no abolitionist, black or white, that was more respected
for his speaking skills.
So impressive were Frederick Douglass's oratorical and intellectual abilities
that opponents refused to believe that he had been a slave and alleged that he
was an impostor foistered on the public by the abolitionists. In reply,
Douglass wrote Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, An American
Slave (1845) , which he revised in later years; in final form, it appeared in
1882 under the title Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Quarles,
Benjamin, Microsoft Encarta).
One must not overlook Frederick Douglass's oratory skills when looking at his
literary career; however, it is Douglass's form which left the largest impact on Civil War
time period literature. Douglass's most significant autobiographical works include:
Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave; My Bondage And My
Freedom; and Life And Times Of Frederick Douglass. These three books are about the
same person, and share a similar message, but are written by Frederick Douglass at
different times of his life, looking at the past in different ways.
In Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, Douglass uses a simple, yet
educated approach to show how he felt as a slave growing up in Maryland. Douglass's
Narrative was known as being a brief, descriptive, and easy to read piece of literature. It
showed the hardships of slavery as seen by a real slave. Douglass became educated
through his own means. Knowledge was truly a blessing for Frederick Douglass. Without
knowledge, Douglass never would have achieved freedom. With knowledge, Douglass
realized the importance of freedom. This gave him his desire and a goal, but most of all,
hope. Without knowledge, Frederick Douglass would never have been the man he was
when he was free. He could express the problems and the solutions of slavery in a
convincing, educated manner. This made him more than a cheap source of labor in the
North. Knowledge also was a blessing in that it gave his mind a challenge that the burdens
of everyday slavery could not give. Learning to read and write was a challenge simply
because the resources were not there. He used wit and good natured cunning to trick
local school boys into teaching him the alphabet. If he had never sought knowledge, he
would never been able to write any of his autobiographies which live on even today as
important accounts of slavery. Also, without knowledge, Frederick Douglass would not
have become an American legend like he is today.
Christianity also played an important role in Frederick Douglass's life, as well as his
autobiography. Douglass had conflicting feelings about slavery and Christianity as seen in
Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Frederick Douglass
believed in God and was a Christian himself. He saw the Christianity of his white masters
to be a crude mockery of the real thing. At first, Douglass believed that a master who
found religion became more humane. When he actually witnessed his master after he
became religious, he found him very much more cruel than before. Douglass states, "after
his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty."
(pg.187) Frederick Douglass's Narrative is perhaps his best known, as well as, most
After writing Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave in
1845, Douglass wrote another biography, My Bondage And My Freedom in 1855. This
autobiography featured quite a bit more content than the concise Narrative Of The Life Of
Frederick Douglass. My Bondage And My Freedom is a look at slavery from Douglass,
both more mature as a person, and as a writer. Also, he reflects on his life as a slave in
more detail. My Bondage And My Freedom also gives readers an update to Narrative that
includes Douglass's life as a free man.
In 1881, Life And Times Of Frederick Douglass was published. This was
Douglass's final autobiography with the exception of a larger edition that was issued in
1892. It is the life and the times, as the title suggests, of Douglass's entire life. This book
was less popular with the public than the previous two. Many people found it to be the
same material as the other two, and less enjoyable to read. "Its time had passed-or so
thought the public, which did not buy it" (McFeely 311). This book included Frederick
Douglass's life as a slave, as well as a free man, well known speaker, and respected
diplomat. At the time period it was written, after emancipation, the public was in less
need for abolitionist propaganda.
But the book's real message---which few people received---was that the
story of slavery should not be purged from the nation's memory. White
America wanted to hear no more of the subject; emancipation had been
taken care of. Many black Americans, reacting to this weariness, had
become almost apologetic about their slave past (McFeely 311).
Frederick Douglass also had another abolitionist publication, North Star. Rather
than a book, North Star was an abolitionist newspaper. Douglass edited the antislavery
newspaper for sixteen years. North Star's name later was changed to Frederick Douglass'
Paper. The paper, after the abolition of slavery, became less important and eventually
ceased to be published.
Frederick Douglass played a major role in the redefinition of American literature in
the Civil War time period. Abolitionism was a very important thing in many people's lives,
and not only ex-slaves. But, with Douglass having been a slave, he had a very good
reason to fight for the abolitionist movement. In the South, abolitionists were as common
as snow, and did not affect the literature or lifestyles of those people very much. In the
North; however, abolitionism was more of a standard practice. After all, the north was
where slaves dreamed to escape to. Plantation style farming was not economically
important in the north. This made slavery in northern states obsolete. The southern
states, though needed inexpensive labor, therefore slavery was a way of life. These
differences caused for political strife (and eventually a war). Where there is political
conflict, there is also political propaganda, and other related literature. The antislavery
campaign was a popular subject for successful writers of this time period. Harriet Beecher
Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was perhaps the most popular book of the time period. Uncle
Tom's Cabin had a strong antislavery message, and it showed slavery as a very abusive
thing. It is also believed that Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin played a very important role in
triggering the Civil War. Frederick Douglass, being an abolitionist writer, had much in
common with Stowe. Both were important to American literature and its redefinition
during the Civil War time period as influenced by national division.
Frederick Douglass was possibly the best black speaker and writer ever. His
success came from his fight against slavery. Being a former slave, Douglass had much
reason to participate in the antislavery movement. Douglass wrote three significant
autobiographies that helped define the way literature developed during the Civil War time
period. These three autobiographies: Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, An
American Slave; My Bondage And My Freedom; and Life And Times Of Frederick
Douglass, are the works that are seen to express a nation's discontent for the treatment of
African slaves in the south. These works document the rise of a slave to a free man, to a
respected speaker, to a famous writer and politician. These works do not stand alone,
though. Frederick Douglass also was famous for his abolitionist speeches. Douglass also
successfully published an abolitionist newsletter, The North Star. All of Douglass's
achievements combined with his great literature combined to redefine the writing of the
time. After reading any of his works, one might realize just how important Frederick
Douglass was to the abolitionist movement. Douglass changed many people's lives, and
helped to earn the respect of African Americans today. Frederick Douglass's writings
reflected many American views that were influenced by national division.
Aptheker, Herbert. Abolitionism A Revolutionary Movement. Boston: Twayne
Bontemps, Arna. 100 Years Of Negro Freedom. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood
Press, Publishers, 1980.
McFeeley, William. Frederick Douglass. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.
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