Frederick Douglass (1817?-1895), the most prominent African American orator, journalist, and antislavery leader of the 19th century. Douglass, an escaped slave, campaigned for the end of slavery and published three versions of his autobiography. In these works he described his experiences as a slave in the South and as a fugitive in the North. He also depicted life as a free black before the American Civil War (1861-1865) and his rise to national prominence during and after the war. In later life he continued to work for full civil rights for blacks and held several government positions.
Douglass, whose original name was Frederick Augustus Bailey, was born in 1817 in Talbot County, Maryland. The child of a slave, Harriet Bailey, and an unknown white man, Frederick also became a slave because by law children followed the status of their mothers. He was separated from his mother at a very early age and never knew her well. He initially lived with his grandparents and then was placed under the care of a woman called Aunt Katy, who raised slave children on the plantation of Colonel Edward Lloyd.
At the age of seven or eight, Frederick was sent to Baltimore to the home of Hugh and Sophia Auld, who were relatives of his master, Thomas Auld. Sophia Auld began to teach Frederick to read from the Bible until her husband forbade such instruction. Frederick had already learned basic literacy skills and secretly used books belonging to Sophia Auld's son to teach himself. When he was about 13, he bought his first book, The Columbian Orator. By studying this work, Frederick became convinced of the injustice of slavery and the right of all people to be free. From the book he also learned public speaking techniques that would later make him one of the greatest orators of his age.
The Aulds found Frederick too independent, so they sent him back to Thomas Auld. His master tried to force him to submit more readily to slavery. When Frederick was about 17, Auld sent him to work for Edward Covey, a 'slave breaker' who specialized in shattering the spirit of rebellious slaves. Covey had Frederick beaten daily for the slightest violation of impossibly strict rules. After nearly six months Frederick resisted Covey, wrestling him to a draw in a fight. After that Covey never attempted to beat him again. Frederick later described his conflict with Covey as “the turning point of my 'life as a slave.'” Before the battle Frederick believed he was 'nothing,' but after it, he emphatically wrote: 'I was a man now.'
Covey returned Frederick to Auld, who then sent him back to Baltimore as an apprentice in a shipyard. He not only learned the caulker’s trade, which involved making ships watertight, but he also learned to write by tracing letters on the prows of these ships. In September 1838 Frederick obtained papers supplied by a free black seaman and, dressed as a sailor just back from sea duty, took a train from Baltimore to New York.
Once in New York, Frederick made his way to the home of David Ruggles, one of the leading black abolitionists in the nation. Ruggles helped him decide on a new name—Frederick Johnson—and also helped him contact his fiancée, Anna Murray, a free black from Baltimore. She arrived a few days later and married Frederick. The couple went to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Frederick hoped to find work as ship's caulker. However, because of racial discrimination, he was forced to work as common laborer. Frederick struggled to provide for his wife, and nine months later, his first child. The couple eventually had five children, including two sons who served in the United States Army during the Civil War. While in New Bedford, Frederick also decided that his surname, Johnson, was too common. He changed it to Douglass, the name of a character in the poem The Lady of the Lake (1810) by Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott.
Douglass began to read the antislavery weekly The Liberator, published by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and soon joined Garrison’s followers in New Bedford. In 1841 he attended the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society convention in Nantucket, where he was asked to speak. Douglass related his experiences as a slave, and his passionate address made such a profound impression that the society hired him as a full-time agent. In this position, and later as an agent for the larger American Anti-Slavery Society, he traveled throughout much of the North, speaking at antislavery meetings, giving public lectures, and helping to recruit members for the societies. He campaigned against slavery, but also for the civil rights of free blacks. He spoke at several meetings that were broken up by white mobs, but he continued to lecture as a strong antislavery advocate.
Douglass soon became the leading black abolitionist and one of the most famous orators of the time. His eloquent words about his treatment as a slave were a powerful weapon against slavery. But as his oratory grew more polished, audiences began to question whether he had ever been a slave. To dispel these doubts, he published his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845). In this work he named his former owners and described every aspect of his life under slavery. Douglass, however, omitted details about his method of escape so as not to jeopardize similar attempts by other slaves. His Narrative was one of the most effective accounts written by a fugitive slave, and it became a major source of information about slavery and a classic of American literature. Douglass later wrote two more autobiographies: My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, revised 1892).
When Douglass published the details of his life as a slave, he was in danger of recapture under the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Laws, which allowed masters to seize runaway slaves and return them to bondage. Because of his growing prominence, Douglass feared the Aulds would send agents to capture him and return him to Maryland. Thus, in 1845 Douglass went abroad, and for two years he toured England and Ireland, speaking against slavery. His oratory made as great an impression in Great Britain as it had at home. In 1847, after British friends purchased his freedom, Douglass returned to the United States.
|IV||EDITOR AND JOURNALIST|
In October 1847 Douglass decided to start a newspaper managed and edited solely by blacks to disprove the proslavery argument that blacks were 'naturally inferior.' William Lloyd Garrison objected, arguing that Douglass's talent as an orator would be wasted. Nevertheless, Douglass moved to Rochester, New York, and began publishing a weekly called The North Star. This publication later became Frederick Douglass’ Weekly and was followed by Douglass’ Monthly, which originated as a supplement to the Weekly. Douglass published his newspapers almost continuously from December 1847 through May 1863, and he quickly gained fame as a journalist as well as an orator.
In his papers Douglass championed the rights of free blacks and slaves and supported a number of other causes, most notably women's rights. In 1848 Douglass participated in the first women's rights convention, held at Seneca Falls, New York, and throughout his career he advocated women's equality.
Until he returned from Britain in 1847, Douglass had supported the views of Garrison, who favored ending slavery through 'moral suasion,' or the force of moral opinion. Garrison also opposed any political action that indicated acceptance of the Constitution of the United States, which he and his followers considered an immoral, proslavery document. In Britain and later in Rochester, however, Douglass met political abolitionists, who believed that it was possible to use the political system to fight slavery. They organized the antislavery Liberty Party, and called for the election of abolitionists to public office. Garrison believed the North should secede, if necessary, to free itself from the moral stain of slavery. In contrast, Douglass became convinced that this course of action would only abandon slaves to their masters. Garrison denounced Douglass as a traitor to the cause, and the two men, once firm friends, drifted apart.
From 1848 through the 1850s, Douglass worked closely with the Liberty Party. This group of abolitionists had broken off from the American Anti-Slavery Society and demanded the total destruction of slavery. But on occasion, Douglass also backed the larger Free-Soil and Republican parties, which pledged only to prevent the extension of slavery to new territories and states.
Douglass also rejected Garrison's philosophy that slaves must not actively resist their oppression. Douglass believed in the right of slaves to rebel and the right of fugitives to resist reenslavement. His house in Rochester was a station on the Underground Railroad, a network of antislavery activists who helped smuggle slaves from the South. He joined other abolitionists in helping many of these runaway slaves to reach safety in Canada.
Douglass became a friend of American abolitionist John Brown, who supported the use of armed force to help slaves escape. Douglass, however, refused to join Brown in an attack planned on the federal arsenal and armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), in 1859. He warned Brown that seizing the armory would be considered an attack on the U.S. government and could prove disastrous. After Brown was captured in the raid, Douglass faced charges that he was an accomplice and fled the country to avoid possible arrest for treason. He came back to the United States about six months later, after furor over the incident had died down.
On his return, Douglass campaigned for Abraham Lincoln during the presidential election of 1860. After the outbreak of the Civil War, he urged Lincoln to expand his war aims beyond the stated goal of preserving the Union. Douglass argued that slavery was the true cause of the conflict and that the Union should make the abolition of slavery its primary focus. Douglass also called for the Union Army to recruit slaves and free blacks, and he helped to raise two regiments of black soldiers, the Massachusetts 54th and 55th. His own sons, Frederick and Lewis, were among the first volunteers for these all-black regiments. By the end of the war slightly over 200,000 blacks had served in the U.S. Army and Navy. See also African American History.
During Reconstruction (traditionally 1865-1877) when the United States tried to rebuild after the Civil War, Douglass campaigned for suffrage and full civil rights for all blacks. He became a leading spokesperson for improving the situation of former slaves. He also worked for the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, which banned slavery, made all people born in the United States citizens, and prohibited racial discrimination in voting (see Constitution of the United States). Most feminists opposed the 14th and 15th Amendments because they did not provide voting rights for women. Douglass passionately argued that while women ought to have the right to vote, black men needed the vote immediately to protect them and their families from the political power of Southern whites. Douglass continued his tireless effort to secure black rights, but he also actively supported equal rights for women. In 1872 he was the vice-presidential candidate on the Equal Rights Party slate headed by the feminist Victoria Claflin Woodhull, the first woman ever to run for the presidency.
In 1872 Douglass moved to Washington, D.C., and increasingly became recognized as a leader of America's blacks. Douglass remained loyal to the Republican Party, despite its declining commitment to black causes after Reconstruction, but his own dedication to reform never wavered. Douglass held several government posts, serving as U.S. marshal for the District of Columbia (see Marshals Service) from 1877 to 1881 and as recorder of deeds for the District until 1886. He continued his active role in public service from 1889 to 1891 as U.S. minister to Haiti.
Controversy arose during the later years of Douglass’s life. In 1882 his wife of 44 years died, and in January 1884 Douglass married his white secretary, Helen Pitts. Some blacks, and many whites, criticized him for marrying outside his race, but Douglass categorically rejected the notion that his actions should be constrained by his skin color. For him the marriage symbolized one more victory in his lifelong crusade against racial discrimination.
At his death in 1895, Douglass had already established his reputation as the foremost African American spokesperson of the 19th century as well as one of the nation’s most effective orators and activists. Recognition of the scope of his achievements has grown since that time. His three autobiographies are considered literary classics and provide compelling testimony about slavery’s impact on those held in bondage. The story of his struggle to obtain an education and to win his freedom illustrates his remarkable personal strength and perseverance. These same characteristics also contributed to his emergence as a prominent civil rights advocate and a leading figure in other national reform movements of the era.