Frederick Douglass (c. 1818–1895)
Table of Contents
Early Life and Enslavement
Frederick Douglass was born into slavery around 1818 (the exact year is unknown) in Talbot County, Maryland. Named Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, he lived with his grandmother after being separated from his mother at an early age. As was common for enslaved children, Douglass did not know the identity of his father, although it was believed he was a white man, possibly his owner.
Escape and Abolitionist Work
In 1837, Douglass met and fell in love with Anna Murray, a free black woman. With her support, he managed to escape from slavery in 1838. After his escape, he changed his surname to Douglass, taken from a poem by Sir Walter Scott.
Douglass quickly became a prominent figure in the abolitionist movement, using his oratory skills and experiences as a former slave to argue against the institution of slavery. He began speaking at various conventions and gatherings and soon caught the attention of abolitionist leaders like William Lloyd Garrison.
In 1845, to quell doubts among critics who couldn’t believe that a former slave could be such a brilliant orator, Douglass wrote his first autobiography, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.” The book became an instant bestseller, but its popularity also put Douglass at risk of being recaptured by his former owner. To avoid this, Douglass traveled to Ireland and Great Britain, where he spent two years speaking against slavery and meeting with local reformers.
Frederick Douglass was primarily known for his speeches, essays, and autobiographies that detailed his experiences as a former slave and his fight for abolition and civil rights. Here are the most notable works by Frederick Douglass:
- “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” (1845)
- This is Douglass’s first autobiography and perhaps his most widely read work. It chronicles his early life in slavery, his escape to freedom, and his early years as a free man.
- “My Bondage and My Freedom” (1855)
- An expanded version of his first autobiography, this work delves deeper into Douglass’s experiences as a slave and his life after escaping slavery. It also offers his evolving thoughts on the anti-slavery movement.
- “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass” (1881; revised in 1892)
- This is Douglass’s final autobiography, where he expanded on his previous works to detail his life during the Civil War, his interactions with Abraham Lincoln, and his post-war experiences.
- “The Heroic Slave” (1853)
- A novella by Douglass, this work is a fictionalized account of the real-life rebellion on the ship Creole in 1841.
- Speech: “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” (1852)
- In this iconic speech, Douglass critically examines the hypocrisy of celebrating freedom and independence in a nation that still upholds the institution of slavery.
- Speech: “Self-Made Men” (various versions delivered between 1859 and the 1890s)
- This speech reflects on personal responsibility and the importance of self-improvement.
- “The North Star” (1847-1851)
- Douglass was the founder and chief editor of this abolitionist newspaper. It later merged with another paper to become “Frederick Douglass’ Paper” and remained in publication until 1860.
- “The Color Line” (1881)
- An essay that reflects on racism in America post-Civil War and the challenges still faced by African Americans.
- “Why Is the Negro Lynched?” (1895)
- An essay that criticizes the rise of lynching in the post-Civil War South.
In addition to these primary works, Frederick Douglass wrote numerous articles, letters, and speeches that were published in various journals, newspapers, and other publications throughout his life. He was a prolific writer and speaker, using his platform to advocate for the abolition of slavery, civil rights, and women’s suffrage.
Later Life and Achievements
After returning to the U.S. (having had his freedom purchased by British supporters), Douglass continued his abolitionist activities, advocating for the rights of African Americans and women. He published his own abolitionist newspaper, “The North Star,” and wrote two more versions of his autobiography.
During the Civil War, Douglass consulted with President Abraham Lincoln, advocating for the enlistment of African-American soldiers. After the war, he continued to push for civil rights and held several governmental positions, including U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia and Minister to Haiti.
Frederick Douglass married Anna Murray in 1838, and together they had five children. Anna played a crucial role in his life, supporting him throughout his abolitionist career. After Anna’s death in 1882, Douglass remarried in 1884 to Helen Pitts, a white feminist and abolitionist.
Death and Legacy
Frederick Douglass died on February 20, 1895. His life and work remain a testament to the fight against racial injustice and oppression. Douglass’s writings and speeches laid the groundwork for future civil rights movements in the United States. His perseverance, intellect, and commitment to justice continue to inspire people worldwide.