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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

by Frederick Douglass

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4283

The author of the most influential African American autobiography of his era rebelled against his enslavement in the South and rose through the ranks of the American antislavery movement in the North to become the most electrifying speaker and compelling writer produced by black America in the nineteenth century. With the publication of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself in June 1845, Frederick Douglass (1818895) became an international sensation at the age of twenty-seven. Within five years of its publication, Douglass's Narrative had become a best-seller, with an estimated thirty thousand copies in print by 1850. The Narrative's sales dwarfed the combined sales of such mid-nineteenth-century American literary classics as Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851), Henry David Thoreau's Walden (1854), and Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1855) during the first five years of their publication. The success of the Narrative spurred its author's enlistment into the antislavery literary wars, where he became black America's most effective exponent. For a half century after the appearance of his Narrative, Douglass enjoyed fame and endured controversy as a newspaper editor, the author of three more autobiographies, a professional orator, a U.S. government official and diplomat, and a tireless civil rights agitator, all predicated on the inspiring self-image that he fashioned in the pages of his first and best-known book, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. In the late twentieth century, Douglass's Narrative joined the canon of American literature, having been recognized as one of the most artful and influential autobiographies of the nineteenth century.


Frederick Douglass was born a slave on Maryland's Eastern Shore sometime in February 1818, according to his master's property book. Frederick's mother was Harriet Bailey, about whom he knew little other than that she enjoyed the rare distinction of being able to read. Douglass was never able to trace his paternity, though he speculated in his Narrative that Aaron Anthony, his master, had been his father. Growing up under the care of his grandmother, Betsy Bailey, Frederick had little chance to learn more about the world beyond the obscure backwater where he was born. But in 1826 he was selected by his master's son-inlaw, Thomas Auld, to go to Baltimore, where Frederick spent five years as a servant in the home of Auld's brother, Hugh. Hugh Auld's wife Sophia treated the bright and engaging slave boy with unusual kindness, giving reading lessons to Frederick until her husband forbade them. Ignoring Hugh Auld's dictates, Frederick took his first steps toward freedom and an eventual literary career by teaching himself to read and write.

In 1833 a quarrel between the Auld brothers brought Frederick, now a self-willed teenager, back to his home in St. Michaels, Maryland, where Thomas Auld, who had inherited Frederick, took charge of him. Provoked by the youth's lack of respect, Thomas Auld hired him out to Edward Covey, a local farmer and well-known slave breaker, in January 1834. After eight months of unstinting labor and repeated whippings, the desperate sixteen-year-old fought back. His forcible resistance unnerved Covey, compelling him to back down. In his Narrative, Douglass portrayed his struggle with Covey as "the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free" (p. 69). Douglass's portrayal of his triumph over Covey has become one of the most celebrated scenes in all of African American literature.

In the spring of 1836, after Frederick...

(This entire section contains 4283 words.)

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tried and failed to escape from slavery, Thomas Auld sent him back to Baltimore to learn the caulking trade on the city's docks. Restless and resentful of Hugh Auld's supervision, Frederick enlisted the aid of his future spouse, Anna Murray, in a scheme by which he would masquerade as a free black merchant sailor and board a northbound train from Baltimore to Wilmington, Delaware. On 3 September 1838 the young man made his escape. Within a month of his arrival in the North, Frederick and Anna were married and living in New Bedford, Massachusetts, as Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Douglass, the newly adopted last name having been recommended by a friend in New Bedford's thriving African American community. The friend who recommended Douglass to the runaway slave had been reading Sir Walter Scott'sThe Lady of the Lake.

Less than three years later, officials of the American Anti-Slavery Society, impressed by Douglass's preaching to a black congregation in New Bedford, invited the eloquent young man to speak at an antislavery rally in Nantucket, Connecticut. There Douglass recalled his experience as a slave so powerfully and persuasively that William Lloyd Garrison (1805879), the leading antislavery activist in America, declared (as he stated in his preface to Douglass's Narrative) that "Patrick Henry, of revolutionary fame, never made a speech more eloquent in the cause of liberty, than the one [Garrison heard] from the lips of that hunted fugitive" (p. 24), Frederick Douglass. Immediately the New Bedford wharf worker found himself recruited into the ranks of the American Anti-Slavery's Society's corps of full-time lecturers.


The next three years on the antislavery platform gave Douglass, who never had a day of formal schooling in his life, the practical lessons in rhetoric and self-representation before an audience that were crucial to his decision in 1844 to undertake the writing of his own life story. The genre Douglass chose for his literary debut, the fugitive slave narrative, was well established in England and the United States, though not entirely reputable because of frequent allegations that such narratives were ghostwritten and exaggerated by white abolitionists. A half century earlier the life stories of African-born slaves such as James Gronniosaw and Olaudah Equiano had begun to appear in Great Britain. In addition to attracting substantial attention and sales abroad, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789) went through multiple reprint editions in the early United States, indicating a receptive audience for such writing in colonial North America and the early Republic. Not until the 1830s, however, did the antislavery movement in the United States seek purposefully to enlist the talents and energies of black American writers in a national movement to extirpate slavery from the so-called land of the free.

Increasingly aggressive in its attacks on slavery in the late 1830s, the American antislavery press decided to seek out narratives by fugitive slaves who could document convincingly what they had experienced or witnessed in the South. As Theodore Dwight (1796866), secretary of the American Anti-Slavery Society, observed in an 1837 letter, "The north is so blinded it will not believe what we [abolitionists] say about slavery," but "facts and testimony as to the actual condition of the Slaves," Dwight asserted, "would thrill the land with Horror" (Andrews, To Tell a Free Story, p. 62). One of the founding texts of the fugitive slave narrative, A Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper, from American Slavery (1837), shocked its readers with graphic depictions of slavery's atrocities as Roper had experienced them. Roper's suspenseful accounts of his numerous attempts to escape followed by his ultimately successful flight to England guaranteed wide sales in English and American editions. A year after Roper's story came out, the Narrative of James Williams, an American Slave, Who Was for Several Years a Driver on a Cotton Plantation in Alabama appeared in Boston and New York, transcribed by the renowned antislavery poet John Greenleaf Whittier (1807892) and published by the American Anti-Slavery Society. Williams's Narrative, however, came under fire from proslavery critics who claimed the text was riddled with errors and untraceable references. Apprehensive that such challenges could discredit the growing effort to mobilize the firsthand testimony of fugitive slaves against slavery, the American Anti-Slavery Society withdrew the Narrative of James Williams from circulation.

Aware of the potential of the slave narrative to combat proslavery propaganda, Douglass had several motives in contributing to this relatively new form of American autobiography. Having heard doubts expressed about whether someone as articulate and knowledgeable as he could have ever been held in bondage, Douglass decided that issuing his own autobiography, in which he documented as many of the facts of his life as he could, would help to silence his critics. Unlike many of his predecessors in the slave narrative, including James Williams (b. 1805), Douglass was determined to write his own story instead of asking a white person, even someone as respected as Whittier, to transcribe it from his dictation. Douglass knew that a subtitle, "Written by Himself," featured on the title page of his Narrative would testify convincingly to the intellectual capacity of black people, even those who had been enslaved, to compose and represent themselves in language on a par with any white American writer. Even the presence of his autograph under the likeness of himself on the frontispiece of his Narrative bore political significance. By demonstrating that a former slave could read, write, and represent himself through authorship, Douglass's Narrative shattered the contention of many who tried to justify slavery by claiming that African-descended people lacked the intellectual ability to function proficiently in the world of letters.

Although many African Americans published narratives of their enslavement and freedom after Douglass, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is generally considered the epitome of the preivil War fugitive slave narrative. Priced at fifty cents a copy (about $8.50 in the early twenty-first century), the Narrative's first printing of five thousand sold out in four months. To satisfy demand, four additional reprintings of two thousand copies each were brought out within a year. Editions appeared in England and Ireland. In 1846 a Dutch translation and in 1848 a French translation of the Narrative helped spread Douglass's fame on the European Continent. Positive reviews comparing Douglass's style to that of classic British writers John Bunyan and Daniel Defoe spurred sales. So did complimentary notices in prominent newspapers by such noted American writers as the transcendentalist and feminist reformer Margaret Fuller (1810850), who stated in the New York Tribune (1845) that she had never read a narrative "more simple, true, coherent, and warm with genuine feeling." The London Spectator called the Narrative a "singular book," striking because its denunciation of slavery rested not on the institution's physical cruelties but on "the brutish degradation to which the mind of the slave is reduced" (29 November 1945).

The self-consciousness of the writing in the Narrative attests to Douglass's determination to make his story not merely an exposé of the evils of slavery but also an exploration of the mind of a slave aspiring to freedom. The key to the originality and import of Douglass's rendition of his life, in contrast to that of most other fugitive slave narrators, is his emphasis on the psychological and intellectual struggle that he waged against slavery from his early childhood on Maryland's Eastern Shore. The Narrative recounts Douglass's boyhood as a series of challenges to white authorities intent on preventing him from achieving knowledge of himself and his relationship to the outside world. Resistance to slavery takes the form of an early clandestine pursuit of literacy. Armed with the power to read and write, the young slave graduates to a culminating physical rebellion against the slave breaker, Edward Covey, who symbolizes the ultimate physical tyranny of slavery. Douglass's reputation as a fighter gives him a leadership role in his local slave community, which he uses to teach other slaves to read and then to engineer a runaway plot. The first attempt for freedom fails, but a second try proves successful, thereby reinforcing the image Douglass gives himself in the Narrative as a man of indomitable determination to be free.

In the last chapter of the Narrative, Douglass recounts his marriage, his integration into a new life of economic independence and self-sufficiency in the North, and his discovery of an intellectually and spiritually self-validating vocation as a speaker for the American Anti-Slavery Society. Although the Narrative ends modestly, with Douglass inviting others to assess the achievements of his relatively short career as an antislavery lecturer, the cumulative effect of reading Douglass's entire life is to see the Narrative as a great American success story. This, no doubt, was one reason for the favorable reception the Narrative enjoyed. While it indicted slavery in the South, it presented the escaped slave in the North as a productive, respectable, and progressive member of American society.


Like most slave narrators, Douglass knew that the majority of his potential audience was whites in the North, most of them ignorant of slavery and few committed to its abolition. To convince his readers of the injustice of slavery, Douglass had to revise their notions of what slavery was actually like. To change white assumptions about slavery as an institution, Douglass attacked stereotypical white attitudes toward black people as subhuman, a race fit only for slavery. Although he included sympathetic and complimentary portraits of several fellow-slaves in the Narrative, Douglass's brief in favor of the full humanity and dignity of black people rested primarily on the way he represented himself. The Narrative says little about Douglass's family, friends, or mentors in slavery. The focus is predominantly on Douglass's radical individuality and the process by which he became the man who could no longer be enslaved. The key, therefore, to Douglass's protest against slavery in the Narrative is the manner in which the author portrays himself as an exemplary black individual, the antithesis of everything considered slavish. By fashioning his Narrative into the story of the evolution of his own sense of indomitable self-hood, Douglass aimed to do two things: denounce the principle and practice of human bondage while proving simultaneously the capacity of black people, personified by himself, for freedom and citizenship.

Knowing that the main reason his story would be read was because it revealed slavery in the South to white readers in the North, Douglass focused a good deal of his Narrative's attention on the nature of slavery itself, the major theme of the early chapters of the book. Douglass's purpose was to debunk myths of slavery that claimed it was both an economic necessity and a morally defensible institution. Instead of myths espoused by slaveholders and their defenders, Douglass offers facts based on his own personal experience. With as much specificity about names and dates as he could muster, Douglass details the daily lives of slaves on the plantations where he lived, noting memorable instances of physical cruelty, such as the murder of William Demby by the overseer Mr. Gore and the terrible whipping of Douglass's aunt, Hester Bailey, by Aaron Anthony, Douglass's master. Although such atrocities were widely publicized in slave narratives, Douglass's story is distinctive for downplaying cruelties suffered by the author himself. Instead of beatings, Douglass recalls various forms of deprivation, some physical, such as shortages of food and clothing, but more often emotional and psychological, including denial of access to his mother and the withholding of information about when he was born.

The Narrative begins tellingly with the author's admission that, unlike most autobiographers, he cannot give the reader his birthday because his master "deemed all such inquiries on the part of a slave improper and impertinent, and evidence of a restless spirit" (p. 31). Thus from the first paragraph of his story, Douglass puts his reader on notice that slavery failed in its attempt to deny him the individuality that a birthday commonly gives every man and woman. Ironically the effort to deny him a sense of self elicited from him a "restless spirit" (p. 31) that demanded to know what he, as a slave, had been denied. This restless, searching spirit of inquiry characterizes Douglass throughout his story, driving him to become the individual who ultimately would triumph over slavery and tell the story of that triumph to the nation.

The story of Douglass's youth is predicated on an intellectual questor knowledge and the means of gaining it, literacyhat anticipates his eventual physical quest from enslavement to freedom. As a boy Douglass learns the importance of knowledge to a slave when he overhears Hugh Auld chastise his wife Sophia for teaching a slave to read. Once his Baltimore master acknowledges the effect of reading on a slaveIt would forever unfit him to be a slave" (p. 49)he slave boy undergoes a kind of epiphany, realizing that ignorance was the source of "the white man's power to enslave the black man. . . . From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom" (p. 48). Literacy becomes the pathway from slavery to freedom.

By teaching himself to read, the slave boy not yet ten years old makes his first conscious act of rebellion against his master. In the process he begins to think for himself, the first stage in becoming an independent self. Once the slave boy makes his commitment to literacy, a second major theme moves to the center of the Narrative, the process by which the slave realizes and exercises his sense of individual selfhood.

Although laying claim to selfhood would seem the most natural of acts for any autobiographer, whose writing is expected to chronicle the growth of an individual self, an African American in Douglass's time, particularly one who had been born a slave, made an inevitably political statement when he or she undertook to write a personal narrative. Mid-nineteenth-century America still heard much debate over whether African Americans deserved even to be called people. The Constitution of the United States did not consider the millions of slaves living in the South to be people. U.S. law ruled that slaves were chattel, that is, that they were property, having no more right to their own persons than a horse or a table. Property, since it could not be human, could not lay claim to human rights or human dignity, for the fundamental basis of such dignity, the belief in the unique selfhood of every human being, had no application to slaves.

The aim of the Narrative was to demonstrate the unique selfhood of the author so as to lay the groundwork for his eventual claim to full manhood. The Narrative is structured by moments of intense revelation that dramatize Douglass's evolving sense of self-hood. Through the first half of his Narrative, Douglass stresses the interconnectedness of selfhood and literacy. Reading breeds thinking, which leads to brooding about the differences between the life he lives as a slave and the world of freedom he discovers by peering into newspapers and books. Reading teaches him what abolitionism is, spurring in the teenage slave not only his latent desire to be free but fantasies about how he might actually attain his liberty. But the more pronounced Douglass's consciousness of himself as unjustly enslaved grew, the more the authorities who claimed him as their propertyhomas Auld, especiallyistrusted him and sought to quash his recalcitrance and incipient rebellion. In the famous tenth chapter of the Narrative, Douglass's developing sense of selfhood expresses itself in open, violent defiance of white power when he successfully throttles Edward Covey. This victory over the slave breaker is the "turning-point" in Douglass's life as a slave because it restored to him a liberating "sense of my own manhood" (p. 69).

The last chapters of Douglass's Narrative bring out the third major theme of the story, the kind of "manhood" Douglass sought and earned both in slavery and freedom. Knowing that plenty of white readers would be disturbed by the association of violence and black masculinity that emerges in the battle with Covey, Douglass is careful in the Narrative to point out that his sense of manhood depended not on beating his oppressor but on preventing that oppressor from beating him. Douglass recounts the events leading up to the fight with Covey so as to argue that he turned to violence only as a last resort, when every other means of defending himself against the tyrannical slave breaker had failed. For Douglass, reclaiming his manhood entails, almost literally in the fight with Covey, standing up for himself and demanding his human rights not to be abused physically and humiliated psychologically.

After the battle with Covey, Douglass shows that his revived sense of manhood found expression in community building, namely, the establishment of a clandestine Sabbath school in which the seventeen-year-old taught other slaves to read. His commitment to his fellow slaves impels him to include several in his first attempt to escape. After the plan is betrayed and he is separated from his friends, Douglass recalls suffering greatly from his isolation. This reinforces the impression he gives his reader that the kind of fulfillment he sought as a black man was communal, not merely personal.

Virtually everything Douglass writes about his final years in slavery and his early years of freedom testifies to his dedication to an ideal of black manhood that is firmly aligned with traditional middle-class American standards. Hiring his time in the shipbuilding trades of Baltimore, Douglass espouses the Protestant work ethic: "I bent myself to the work of making money" (p. 85), saving as much as he could for his eventual flight to freedom. The economic freedom and independence he demands of Hugh Auld are utterly consistent with what any white male workingman would have expected as his employment rights in mid-nineteenth-century America. After he escapes, Douglass's actionsarriage, employment, continued self-improvement, and community activismnderline his bid for respectability as a productive, contributing member of a free society.

The climactic scene of the Narrative places Douglass on a platform, for the first time speaking out in a public setting against slavery. This scene effectively melds the central themes of the Narrative into a final positive statement that prefigures Douglass's future greatness. The occasion is an antislavery rally in Nantucket, Connecticut, in August 1841; it is the first time Douglass speaks to whites about slavery in general and his personal enslavement in particular. As he approaches the podium, Douglass acknowledges a lingering shackle on his sense of self: "The truth was, I felt myself a slave, and the idea of speaking to white people weighed me down" (p. 92). The act of speaking proves liberating, however. Marshaling the power of language to attack slavery and to identify himself as a self-liberated free man, Douglass at the end of his autobiography lays claim to the intellectual and moral authority necessary to become a public man of words, the eventual author of the Narrative itself.


In the history of African American literature, Douglass's importance and influence are virtually immeasurable. Many memorable slave narratives, including William Wells Brown's Narrative of William W. Brown, an American Slave (1847) and Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), were inspired by Douglass's example. His Narrative gave the world the most compelling and sophisticated rendition of African American selfhood and manhood seen in literature up to that time. Douglass's artistry invested his model of selfhood with a moral and political significance that subsequent aspirants to the role of African American culture herorom the conservative Booker T. Washington (1856915) to the radical W. E. B. Du Bois (1868963)ould seek to appropriate for their own autobiographical self-portraits. In twentieth-century African American literature, from Paul Laurence Dunbar's brooding poetic tribute "Douglass" (1903) to the idealistic characterization of Ned Douglass in Ernest J. Gaines's novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), the criterion for African American heroism and mastery of words as a weapon in the struggle for self- and communal liberation remains the Frederick Douglass pictured in his Narrative.

See alsoAbolitionist Writing; Autobiography; Blacks; Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl;Literacy; Manhood; Rhetoric; Slave Narratives; Slavery


Primary Works

Douglass, Frederick. The Frederick Douglass Papers. Edited by John W. Blassingame. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979

Douglass, Frederick. The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader. Edited and with an introduction by William L. Andrews. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Secondary Works

Andrews, William L. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760865. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Andrews, William L., ed. Critical Essays on Frederick Douglass. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991.

Huggins, Nathan Irvin. Slave and Citizen: The Life ofFrederick Douglass. Edited by Oscar Handlin. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980.

Martin, Waldo E., Jr. The Mind of Frederick Douglass. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass. New York: Norton, 1991.

Preston, Dickson J. Young Frederick Douglass: TheMaryland Years. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

Sundquist, Eric J., ed. Frederick Douglass: New Literary andHistorical Essays. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

William L. Andrews


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide