Frederick Douglass was the most eminent African American of the nineteenth century. Born in Talbot County, Eastern shore, Maryland, in the year 1818 to a slave mother for whom he felt little attachment and a white father whom he never knew, young Frederick Bailey (his given name), after twenty years of slavery, fled to the North, where he became a leading orator and editor in the struggle for African-American freedom and civil rights. Biographers and historians have made him the subject of many articles and books that have attempted to understand the source of his genius and the meaning of his remarkable life. He himself told his story in three separate autobiographies: First in 1845 he published his fairly short Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass as an antislavery tract; in 1855 he expanded upon this in My Bondage and My Freedom; and finally in 1881 his mature memoirs, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (revised in 1892), appeared as an expanded narrative of his life, describing his achievements and honors received while calling attention to those denied him because of his race.
In the twentieth century, African Americans have found in Douglass’ life a model for a variety of political positions, from Black Nationalist to accommodationist. His 1845 autobiography and the 1948 biography Frederick Douglass by Benjamin Quarles (reprinted in 1968 amid the civil rights struggles) became standard reading in many history courses. In the 1980’s, two major additional works gave new insights into an understanding of his life: Dickson J. Preston’s Young Frederick Douglass: The Maryland Years (1980) examined in greater detail than ever before Douglass’ life as a slave in Maryland, and Waldo E. Martin’s The Mind of Frederick Douglass (1985) traced Douglass’ intellectual development through his writings. Now there is a splendid, highly readable biography, William S. McFeely’s Frederick Douglass, that promises to be the definitive work on his life.
As a slave, Douglass was shipped back and forth between masters in Talbot County, Maryland, and Baltimore, where he eventually worked in the shipyards. Against the laws and traditions of the time, he learned to read, and when he was twelve he somehow managed to purchase for fifty hard-earned cents a copy of The Columbian Orator, from which he recited great speeches and learned the art of oratory. His time in Baltimore provided him with hopes of freedom that were dashed when his master returned him to Talbot County in the years immediately following the Nat Turner revolt. Back in Talbot County, his master Thomas Auld found religion at a camp meeting, and when a neighbor manumitted his slaves, Douglass believed he too might be freed, but once again he was disappointed. Instead he was hired out to Edward Covey, whom Douglass described as a “nigger breaker,” not because it was Covey’s profession, but, as McFeely explains, because it was his reputation. Covey was a sadist whose savagery “strongly suggests a perversion of homosexual attraction,” and when he beat Douglass, Douglass, out of desperation, fought back. It was the turning point of Frederick Bailey’s life: “I was nothing before;” he later wrote. “I WAS A MAN NOW,” and one determined to be free.
Thomas Auld next hired him out to work for William Freeland, evidently a kindly master, but a master nonetheless. While working for Freeland, Douglass, by then a tall, strong seventeen- year-old, and five “revolutionary conspirators” decided upon a plan to run away to Pennsylvania. Deceived by an informant, Douglass was placed in jail, and only through the intervention of Thomas Auld was he saved from being shipped south. Instead, he was sent once more to Baltimore, where he returned to work in the shipyards. Finally in 1838 he escaped and became a great abolitionist orator and leader and a prominent spokesperson for women’s rights. With outbreak of the Civil War, he strongly supported Lincoln’s wartime leadership and worked to recruit black troops to fight in the war. His own sons joined the Union Army, and one, Sergeant Major Lewis Douglass, fought under Colonel Robert Gould Shaw at Fort Wagner, South Carolina.
After the war, Douglass became a leading spokesperson for radical reconstruction and the rights of the freed slaves. “Whether the tremendous war so heroically fought and so victoriously ended,” he wrote, “shall pass into history a miserable failure, barren of permanent results…or whether…we shall…have a solid nation, entirely delivered from all contradictions and social antagonisms, based upon loyalty, liberty and equality,” was the question he raised before the nation. His struggles for the Civil Rights Acts and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments frequently ended in...
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