Article abstract: Douglass’ lifelong concerns were with freedom and human rights for all people. He articulated these concerns most specifically for black Americans and women.
Frederick Douglass was born a slave in Tuckahoe, Talbot County, Maryland, and originally was named Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. He was of mixed African, white, and Indian ancestry, but other than that, he knew little of his family background or even his exact date of birth. Douglass believed that he was born in February, 1817, yet subsequent research indicates that he may have been born a year later in February, 1818. Douglass never knew his father or anything about him except that he was a white man, possibly his master. Douglass’ mother was Harriet Bailey, the daughter of Betsey and Isaac Bailey. Frederick, his mother, and his grandparents were the property of a Captain Aaron Anthony.
In his early years, Frederick experienced many aspects of the institution of slavery. Anthony engaged in the practice of hiring out slaves, and Douglass’ mother and her four sisters were among the slaves Anthony hired out to work off the plantation. Consequently, Douglass seldom saw his mother and never really knew her. The first seven years of his life were spent with his grandmother, Betsey Bailey, not because she was his grandmother but because as an elderly woman too old for field work she had been assigned the duty of caring for young children on the plantation.
The boy loved his grandmother very much, and it was extremely painful for him when, at the age of seven, he was forced by his master to move to his main residence, a twelve-mile separation from Betsey. It was there, at Anthony’s main residence, that Douglass received his initiation into the realities of slavery. The years with his grandmother had been relatively carefree and filled with love. Soon, he began to witness and to experience personally the brutalities of slavery. In 1825, however, Douglass’ personal situation temporarily improved when Anthony sent him to Baltimore as a companion for young Tommy Auld, a family friend. Douglass spent seven years with the Aulds as a houseboy and later as a laborer in the Baltimore shipyards. The death of Anthony caused Douglass to be transferred to the country as a field hand and to the ownership of Anthony’s son-in-law. Early in 1834, his new owner hired him out to Edward Covey, a farmer who also acted as a professional slave-breaker. This began the most brutal period of Douglass’ life as a slave.
After months of being whipped weekly, Douglass fought a two-hour battle with Covey that ended in a standoff, and the beatings stopped. Douglass’ owner next hired him out to a milder planter, but Douglass’ victory over Covey had sealed his determination to be free. In 1836, Douglass and five other slaves planned an escape but were detected. Douglass was jailed and expected to be sold out of state, but the Aulds reprieved him and brought him back to Baltimore, where he first served as an apprentice and then worked as a ship caulker. However improved Douglass’situation might be in Baltimore, it was still slavery, and he was determined to be a free man. On September 3, 1838, Douglass borrowed the legal papers and a suit of clothes of a free black sailor and boarded a train for New York.
In New York, he was joined by Anna Murray, a free black woman with whom he had fallen in love in Baltimore. Douglass and Anna were married in New York on September 15, 1838, and almost immediately moved further north to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where there were fewer slave catchers hunting fugitives such as Douglass. It was also to elude slave catchers that Douglass changed his last name. He had long abandoned his middle names of Augustus Washington; he now dropped the surname Bailey and became Frederick Douglass. The move and the name change proved to be far more than symbolic; unknown to Douglass, he was about to launch on his life’s work in a direction he had never anticipated.
New Bedford was a shipping town, and Douglass had expected to work as a ship caulker; however, race prejudice prevented his working in the shipyards and he had to earn a living doing any manual labor available: sawing wood, shoveling coal, sweeping chimneys, and so on. Anna worked as a domestic when she was not caring for their growing family. Anna bore Douglass five children: Rosetta, Lewis, Charles, Frederick, Jr., and Annie. Unexpectedly, the abolition movement of the 1830’s, 1840’s, and 1850’s changed both Douglass’ immediate situation and his whole future.
Within a few months of his escape to the North, Douglass chanced on a copy of William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. The Liberator so moved Douglass that, in spite of his poverty, he became a subscriber. Then, on August 9, 1841, less than three years after his escape, Douglass and Garrison met. This and subsequent meetings led to Garrison offering Douglass an annual salary of $450 to lecture for the abolitionist movement. Douglass was so convinced that he would not succeed as a lecturer that he accepted only a three-month appointment. In fact, he had begun his life’s work.
Scholars have debated whether Douglass’ greatest accomplishments were as an orator or a writer; both his speaking and his writing stemmed from his involvement with the abolition movement, and both were to be his primary activities for the remainder of his life.
From the beginning, Douglass was a powerful, effective orator. He had a deep, powerful voice which could hold his audiences transfixed. Moreover, Douglass was an impressive figure of a man. He had a handsome face, bronze skin, a leonine head, a muscular body, and was more than six feet in height. He stood with dignity and spoke eloquently and distinctly. Indeed, his bearing and speech caused critics to charge that Douglass had never been a slave; he did not conform to the stereotypic view of a slave’s demeanor and address. Even Douglass’ allies in the abolition movement urged him to act more as the public expected. Douglass refused; instead, he wrote his autobiography to prove his identity and thus began his career as a writer. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (1845) remains his most famous and widely read book. It was an instant success. Yet in the narrative, Douglass had revealed his identity as Frederick Bailey, as well as the identity of his owners, making himself more vulnerable than ever to slave catchers. Anna was legally free, and because of her their children were free also, but Douglass was legally still a slave. To avoid capture, he went to England, where he remained for two years.
In England, Douglass was immensely successful as a lecturer and returned to the United States, in 1847, with enough money to purchase his freedom. By end of the year, he was legally a free man. Also in 1847, Douglass moved to Rochester, New York, and began publication of his own newspaper, North Star. While editing North Star, Douglass continued to lecture and to write. In 1855, he published an expanded autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom; he also published numerous lectures, articles, and even a short story, “The Heroic Slave” in 1853. Much later in life, he published his third, and most complete, autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881).
In all of his writings and speeches, Douglass’ major concerns were civil rights and human freedom. As a person born in slavery, and as a black man living in a racially prejudiced society, Douglass’ most immediate and direct concerns were to end slavery, racial prejudice, and discrimination. Yet he always insisted that there was little difference between one form of oppression and another. He proved the depth of his convictions in his championing of the women’s rights movement at the same time he was immersed in his abolitionist activities. In fact, Douglass was the only man to participate actively in the Seneca Falls Convention which launched the women’s rights movement in the United States in 1848. Moreover, his commitment was lasting; on the day of his death, in 1895, Douglass had returned only a few hours earlier from addressing a women’s rights meeting in Washington, D.C.
By the 1850’s, Douglass was active in politics. He also knew and counseled with John Brown and was sufficiently implicated in Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid to leave the country temporarily after Brown’s capture and arrest. From the beginning of the Civil War, Douglass urged President Abraham Lincoln not only to save the Union but also to use the war as the means to end slavery. Douglass also urged black men to volunteer and the president to accept them as soldiers in the Union armies. By the end of the Civil War, Douglass was the most prominent spokesman for black Americans in the country. With the end of the war and the advent of Reconstruction, Douglass’ work seemed to have reached fruition. By 1875, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of that year, not only had slavery been ended and the Constitution amended but also the laws of the land had guaranteed black Americans their freedom, their citizenship, and the same rights as all other citizens. Yet the victories were short-lived. The racism, both of North and of South, that had dominated the antebellum era triumphed again in the 1880’s and 1890’s. According to the Constitution, black Americans remained equal, but it was a paper equality. In fact, prejudice and discrimination became the order of the day across the whole United States.
For Douglass personally, the years following the Civil War contained a number of successes. He was financially solvent. He served in a number of governmental capacities: secretary of the Santo Domingo Commission, marshal and recorder of deeds in the District of Columbia, and United States minister to Haiti. For twenty-five years, he was a trustee on the board of Howard University. Nevertheless, these personal successes could not alleviate Douglass’ bitter disappointment over the turn of public events, and he never ceased to fight. He continued to write, to lecture, and even began another newspaper, New National Era.
Frederick Douglass’ career and his personal life were all the more remarkable when one considers the times in which he lived. His life was an example of the human will triumphing over adversity. Born into slavery, by law a piece of chattel, surrounded by poverty and illiteracy, he became one of America’s greatest orators, an accomplished writer and editor, and for more than fifty years he was the most persistent and articulate voice in America speaking for civil rights, freedom, and human dignity regardless of race or sex. Douglass, more than any other individual, insisted that the ideals of the Declaration of Independence must be extended to all Americans.
Douglass’ personal life reflected the principles for which he fought publicly. He always insisted that race should be irrelevant: Humanity was what mattered, not race, and not sex. In 1882, Anna Murray Douglass died after more than forty years of marriage to Frederick, and in 1884, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white woman who had been his secretary. The marriage caused a storm of controversy and criticism from blacks, whites, and Douglass’ own family. Yet for Douglass there was no issue: It was the irrelevance of race again. His own comment on the criticism was that he had married from his mother’s people the first time and his father’s, the second.
Douglass is most frequently thought of as a spokesman for black Americans and sometimes remembered as a champion of women’s rights as well. Up to a point, this is accurate enough; Douglass was indeed a spokesman for black Americans and a champion of women’s rights, because in his own lifetime these were among the most oppressed of America’s people. Douglass’ concern, however, was for all humanity, and his message, for all time.
Douglass, Frederick. Frederick Douglass: The Narrative and Selected Writings. Edited by Michael Meyer. New York: Vintage Books, 1984. In addition to being a readily accessible, complete edition of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, this book includes excerpts from Douglass’ two later autobiographies and twenty selected writings by Douglass on various topics which are not easily obtainable.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845. Reprint. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1963. Originally published in 1845, the work covers Douglass’ life up to that time; it was his first book and remains the most widely read of his three autobiographies.
Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. New York: Miller, Orton and Mulligan, 1855. Reprint. New York: Dover Publications, 1969. Originally published in 1855, this is the least read of Douglass’ autobiographies.
Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Hartford, Conn.: Park Publishing Co., 1881. Reprint. New York: Citadel Press, 1984. First published in 1881 and reissued in 1892. The 1892 edition is the most commonly reproduced and the most complete of the three autobiographies.
Foner, Philip. Frederick Douglass. New York: Citadel Press, 1969. A thorough biography, unfortunately out of print, but available in libraries.
Factor, Robert L. The Black Response to America: Men, Ideals, and Organization from Frederick Douglass to the NAACP. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1970. Factor offers an interesting theoretical interpretation of Douglass as a black spokesman and informative comparison of Douglass with other black spokesmen and leaders.
Huggins, Nathan Irvin. Slave and Citizen: The Life of Frederick Douglass. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1980. Brief and readable, this is among the later publications on Douglass.
Meier, August. Negro Thought in America: 1880-1915. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1963. Meier offers a good account of the varieties of thought among black Americans for the period covered and suggests an intriguing, plausible thesis regarding shifts of opinion in the black community. Although the era dealt with by Meier covers only the last fifteen years of Douglass’ life, it is still worth reading the book for insight into Douglass and especially for any comparison or contrast of Douglass with later black spokesmen such as Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois.
Quarles, Benjamin. Frederick Douglass. Washington, D.C.: Associated Publishers, 1948. Reprint. New York: Atheneum Publishers, 1976. Originally published in 1948, this is an easily available, thorough biography.