Frederick Douglass

From Academic Kids

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass (born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, c. 1818February 20, 1895) was an American abolitionist, editor, orator, author, statesman and reformer. Called "The Sage of Anacostia" and "The Lion of Anacostia," Douglass was the most prominent African-American of his time, and one of the most influential lecturers and authors in American history.

Life as a slave

Frederick Douglass was born a slave in Talbot County, Maryland near Tuckahoe Creek. As a boy, Douglass lived twelve miles from his mother and never learned the identity of his father. His mother, who often walked the twenty-four-mile round trip to visit him, died when he was nine years old. Douglass never knew anything about the identity of his father other than he was a white man, although some believe it was his master, Captain Aaron Anthony. When Anthony died, Douglass was taken into the possession of Mrs. Lucretia Auld, the wife of Captain Thomas Auld; the young man was sent to Baltimore to live with the Captain's brother, Hugh Auld.

Early education

When Douglass was twelve, Hugh Auld's wife, Sophia, broke the law by teaching him to read. Mr. Auld disapproved, saying that if a slave learns to read, he would become dissatisfied with his condition and desire freedom; Douglass later referred to this as the first abolitionist speech he had ever heard. Another turning point was when he purchased a copy of the book The Columbian Orator: Containing a Variety of Original and Selected Pieces Together With Rules, Which Are Calculated to Improve Youth and Others, in the Ornamental and useful art of eloquence by Caleb Bingham, A. M. (ISBN 0814713238). It was the first book he ever owned. Douglass studied and memorized classic speeches by the Roman orator Cicero in order to find his own voice.

During this period, Douglass became attached to a deeply religious man named Uncle Lawson, who became a spiritual father to Douglass; the young man took every opportunity to be with him. Lawson told Douglass that it was possible for him to be delivered from bondage and he prayed to God that it would be so.

The fight with Edward Covey

In 1834, Hugh Auld rented Douglass out to a farmer named Edward Covey, a "slave breaker" of extraordinary cruelty. The 15-year-old Douglass was nearly broken psychologically but finally rebelled against the beatings and fought back. Covey lost out and never tried to beat Douglass again. This incident was kept quiet as Covey was ashamed of his defeat.

In 1836, Hugh and Sophia Auld hired Douglass out to work as a caulker in a Baltimore, Maryland shipyard and allowed him to keep a portion of his wages. Though Douglass became a master caulker, whites refused to work alongside him.

Escape to freedom

In 1837, Douglass joined the East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society, a debating club of free blacks. Through the society, he met a free African-American housekeeper, Anna Murray. Anna Murray sold a poster bed to buy sailor's papers needed for Frederick Douglass's escape. On September 3, 1838 he boarded a train in Maryland on his way to freedom from slavery, dressed in a sailor's uniform and carrying identification papers provided by a free black seaman. Though he did not match the physical description in the papers, the conductor gave them only a casual glance. From Baltimore, Douglass made his way to Wilmington, Delaware to Philadelphia to New York and finally to New Bedford, Massachusetts. This was by no means one of the most creative escapes of a slave; Henry Box Brown mailed himself from Virginia to Philadelphia in a journey taking 26 hours.

Garrison and speaking career

Douglass continued reading. He joined various organizations in New Bedford, including a black church. He subscribed to William Lloyd Garrison's weekly journal, the Liberator. He attended Abolitionist meetings. In 1841, he saw Garrison speak at the Bristol Anti-Slavery Society's annual meeting. Douglass was inspired by Garrison, later stating, "no face and form ever impressed me with such sentiments [the hatred of slavery] as did those of William Lloyd Garrison." Garrison, likewise, was impressed with Douglass, and mentioned him in the Liberator. Several days later Douglass gave his first speech at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society's annual convention in Nantucket Island. 23 years old at the time, Douglass later said that his legs were shaking. He conquered his nervousness and gave an eloquent speech about his life as a slave.

In 1843, Douglass participated in the American Anti-Slavery Society's Hundred Conventions project; a six month tour of meeting halls throughout the east and middle west. He participated in the Seneca Falls Convention, which was the birthplace of the American feminist movement, and was a signatory of its Declaration of Sentiments.

Douglass later became the publisher of a series of newspapers: "The North Star", "Frederick Douglass Weekly", "Frederick Douglass' Paper", "Douglass' Monthly" and the "New National Era". The motto of "The North Star" was "Right is of no sex--Truth is of no color--God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethen".

His work spanned the years prior to and during the Civil War. He knew the radical abolitionist Captain John Brown but did not approve of Brown's plan to start an armed slave revolt. Douglass believed that the Harper's Ferry attack on federal property would enrage the American public.

Douglass conferred with President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 on the treatment of black soldiers, and with President Andrew Johnson on the subject of black suffrage. His early collaborators were the white abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips. In the early 1850's, however, Douglass split with the Garrisonians over the issue of the United States Constitution.

Douglass' most well-known work is his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which was published in 1845. Critics frequently attacked the book as inauthentic, not believing that a black man could possibly have written so eloquent a work. It was an immediate bestseller and received overwhelmingly positive critical reviews. Within three years of publication, it had been reprinted nine times with 11,000 copies circulating in the United States and translated into French and Dutch.

The book's success had an unfortunate side effect when his friends and mentors became afraid that the publicity would draw the attention of his ex-owner, Hugh Auld, who could try to get his "property" back. They encouraged him to go on a tour in Ireland, as many other ex-slaves had done in the past. He set sail on the Cambria for Liverpool on August 16, 1845, and arrived in Ireland when the Irish famine was just starting.

Travels to Europe

Douglass spent two years in the British Isles and gave several lectures, mainly in Protestant churches. He remarked that he was treated not "as a color, but as a man."

He met and befriended Irish nationalist Daniel O'Connell. When Douglass visited Scotland, the members of Free Church of Scotland, whom he had criticized for accepting money from US slave-owners, demonstrated against him with placards that read "Send back the nigger."

Douglass was able safely to return to the U.S. only when two Englishwomen, Ellen and Anna Richardson, purchased his freedom from Hugh Auld, for $710.96 or £150. On December 5, 1846, at age 28, Douglass was legally a free man.

Douglass had five children; two of them, Charles and Rossetta, helped produce his newspapers.

The Civil War

In 1851, Douglass merged North Star with Gerrit Smith's Liberty Party Paper to form Frederick Douglass' Paper, which was published until 1860. Douglass came to agree with Smith and Lysander Spooner that the United States Constitution is an antislavery document, reversing his earlier belief that it was proslavery, a view he had shared with William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison had publicly demonstrated his opinion of the Constitution by burning copies of it. Douglass' change of position on the Constitution was one of the most notable incidents of a division that emerged in the abolitionist movement after the publication of Spooner's book The Unconstitutionality of Slavery in 1846. This shift in opinion, as well as some political differences, create a rift between Douglass and Garrison. Douglass further angered Garrison by saying that the Constitution should be used to fight slavery. With this, Douglass began to assert his independence in the Garrisonians. Garrison saw the North Star as competition with the National Anti-Slavery Standard and Marius Robinson's Anti-slavery Bugle.

In March 1860, Annie, his youngest daughter, died in Rochester, New York while Douglass was still in England. Douglass returned from England the following month, taking the route through Canada to avoid detection.

By the time of the Civil War, Douglass was the most famous black man in the country, known for his oratories on the condition of the black race, and other issues such as women's rights.

The Reconstruction era

After the Civil War, Douglass held a number of important political positions. He served as President of the failed Reconstruction-era Freedman's Savings Bank, marshal of the District of Columbia, minister-resident and consul-general to the Republic of Haiti, and chargé d'affaires for Santo Domingo. After two years he resigned his ambassadorship due to disagreements with U.S. government policy. In 1872, he moved to Washington, D.C., after his house on South Avenue in Rochester, New York burned down — arson was suspected. Also lost was a complete issue of The North Star.

In 1868, Douglass supported the presidential campaign of Ulysses S. Grant. The Klan Act and Enforcement Act were signed into law by President Grant. Grant used their provisions vigorously, suspending habeas corpus in South Carolina and sending troops there and into other states; under his leadership over 5,000 arrests were made and the Ku Klux Klan was dealt a serious blow.

Grant's vigor in disrupting the Klan made him unpopular among many whites, but Frederick Douglass praised him. An associate of Douglass wrote of Grant that African-Americans "will ever cherish a grateful remembrance of his name, fame and great services." The conflict was not limited to the KKK. Racist groups like the Knights of the White Camellia and the White League also played a part.

Later life

In 1877, Frederick Douglass purchased his final home in Washington D.C. on the banks of the Anacostia River. He named it Cedar Hill (also spelled CedarHill). He expanded the house from 14 to 21 rooms including a china closet. One year later, Douglass expanded his property to 15 acres (61,000 m²) with the purchase of adjoining lots. The home is now the location of the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.

After the disappointments of Reconstruction many African Americans called Exodusters moved to Kansas to form all-black towns. Douglass spoke out against the movement, urging blacks to stick it out. He was condemned and booed by black audiences.

In 1881 Douglass was appointed Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia. Douglass's wife (Anna Murray Douglas) died in 1882, leaving him in a state of depression. His association with activist Ida B. Wells brought meaning back into his life. In 1884, he married Helen Pitts, a white feminist from Honeoye, New York. Pitts was a graduate of Mount Holyoke Seminary, and daughter of Gideon Pitts, Jr., an abolitionist colleague and friend of Douglass. While living in Washington, D.C. before her marriage, she had worked on a radical feminist publication called the Alpha while living in Washington, D.C.

Frederick and Helen Pitts Douglass faced a storm of controversy as a result of their marriage. She was a white woman who was nearly 20 years younger than him. Both families recoiled; hers stopped speaking to her; his was bruised, as they felt his marriage was a repudiation of their mother. But individualist feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton congratulated the two.

The new couple traveled to England, France, Italy, Egypt and Greece from 1886 to 1887.

In later life, Douglass determined to find his birthday. He was born in February of 1817 by his own calculations, but historians have found a record indicating his birth in February of 1818.

In 1892 the Haitian government appointed Douglass as its commissioner to the Chicago World Columbian Exposition. He spoke for Irish Home Rule and efforts of Charles Stewart Parnell and briefly revisited Ireland in 1886.

On February 20, 1895, he attended a meeting of the National Council of Women in Washington, D.C. During that meeting, he was brought to the platform and given a standing ovation by the audience. Shortly after he returned home, Frederick Douglass died of a massive heart attack or stroke in his adopted hometown of Washington D.C..

See also


  • Parts of this article are drawn from Houston A. Baker, Jr. introduction to the Penguin 1986 edition of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.
  • Frederick Douglass [videorecording] / produced by Greystone Communications, Inc. for A&E Network ; executive producers, Craig Haffner and Donna E. Lusitana.; 1997
  • Frederick Douglass: when the lion wrote history [videorecording] / a co-production of ROJA Productions and WETA-TV ; produced and directed by Orlando Bagwell ; narration written by Steve Fayer.; c1994
  • Frederick Douglass, abolitionist editor [videorecording] / a production of Schlessinger Video Productions, a division of Library Video Company ; produced and directed by Rhonda Fabian, Jerry Baber ; script, Amy A. Tiehel
  • Race to freedom [videorecording] : the story of the underground railroad / an Atlantis Films Limited production in association with United Image Entertainment; produced in association with the Family Channel (US), Black Entertainment Television and CTV Television Network, Ltd. ; produced with the participation of Telefilm Canada, Ontario Film Development Corporation and with the assistance of Rogers Telefund ; distributed by Xenon Pictures ; executive producers, Seaton McLean, Tim Reid ; co-executive producers, Peter Sussman, Anne Marie La Traverse ; supervising producer, Mary Kahn ; producers, Daphne Ballon, Brian Parker ; directed by Don McBrearty ; teleplay by Diana Braithwaite, Nancy Trites Botkin, Peter Mohan. Publisher Santa Monica, CA : Xenon Pictures, Inc., 2001. Tim Reid as Frederick Douglass.

Books by Douglass

Books on Douglass

External links



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