Born a slave in Tuckahoe, Talbot County, Eastern Shore, Maryland, near Hillsborough, Frederick Douglass , eventually emerged as one of the foremost leaders of the abolitionist movement, which fought to end slavery within the United States.
He was separated from his mother, Harriet Bailey, when he was still an infant. As she was working as a slave in a distant plantation. His early life as a slave was on a plantation in Maryland. When his mother died when Douglass was about 7, Douglass was separated from his grandmother in whose care he had been and moved to the Wye House plantation, where his step-father, Anthony, worked as overseer of vast plantations. Here he experienced much of the bitterness of slave life often being so pinched with hunger that he competed with the dog for the crumbs falling off from the kitchen table cloth. When Anthony died, Douglass was given to Lucretia Auld, wife of Thomas Auld who sent Douglass to Baltimore to serve Thomas’ brother, Hugh Auld..
When Douglass was about 12, Hugh Auld’s wife started teaching him the alphabet. Thereafter, Douglass succeeded in learning to read from white children in his neighborhood, and by observing the writings of the men with whom he worked. When Hugh Auld discovered this, he strongly disapproved, saying that if a slave learned to read, he would become dissatisfied with his condition and desire freedom. This, Douglass came to describe as the first anti-abolitionist speech he ever heard which stirred much urge in him to equip himself well for his education and thence his liberation.
In 1833, Thomas Auld took Douglass back from his brother after a dispute. Unable to put up with Douglas’s rebellious spirit, Thomas Auld then sent Douglass to work for Edward Covey, a poor farmer who had a reputation as a “slave-breaker,” for a year to have his spirit tamed. There Douglass was regularly whipped.and was indeed nearly broken psychologically by his ordeal until he finally rebelled and fought back. Covey lost in this confrontation and never tried to beat him again.
Douglass succeeded in escaping on September 3, 1838. He boarded a train going to Havre de Grace, Maryland, dressed in a sailor’s uniform and carrying identification papers provided by a free black seaman. After crossing the Susquehanna River by ferry at Havre de Grace, he continued by train to Wilmington, Delaware from where he went by steamboat to “Quaker City” – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He eventually arrived in New York.
In New Bedford, Massachusetts Douglass joined a black church. He regularly attended abolitionist meetings. He subscribed to William Lloyd Garrison’s weekly journal, The Liberat. Then in 1841, he heard Garrison speak at a meeting of the Bristol Anti-Slavery Society. Douglass was unexpectedly asked to speak. There he told his story fervently calling for the freedom of the slaves. Douglass was inspired by Garrison. He was greatly impressed for “no face and form ever impressed me with such sentiments (the hatred of slavery) as did those of William Lloyd Garrison.” This was to start off his impressive career as a lecturer, orator and public speaker. A few weeks later, Douglass again spoke, relating his experiences as a slave at a grand anti-slavery convention in Nantucket. His convincing narrative electrified the audience so much that Garrison, the next speaker, had to use Douglass’ speech as his text.
Garrison was likewise impressed with Douglass, and wrote of him in The Liberator. Several days later, Douglass delivered his first speech at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society’s annual convention in Nantucket. Twenty-three years old at the time, Douglass said that his legs were shaking. But he eventually conquered his nervousness and gave an eloquent speech about his rough life as a slave.
Douglass after sustained pressure on him accepted the offer of becoming an active lecturer for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. He thus resolved to devote his entire life to the cause of abolition and together with people like Abby Kelly, S.S. Foster, Parker Pillsbury and Garrison himself, he lectured throughout the state. Wherever he toured crowds of people listened attentively to his story. At a convention of the Worcester North Division Society the members adopted a resolution welcoming into their midst , Frederick Douglass, a fugitive from slavery, and extending to him the right hand of fellowship as a co-worker in the great cause of human redemption…”
Being an abolitionist activist then was fraught with many hazards. In many communities, hoodlums would be hired to attack ant-slavery speakers and disrupt their meetings. For a Negro, the situation would be far worse, as he could be forced to face the most humiliating discrimination while traveling, and was the first person set upon by thugs who would attack a meeting crying, “Get the nigger”; “kill the damn nigger.” Even though Douglass , like other great Negro spokesmen in the Abolitionist movement, met these attacks , he continued to bring the message of freedom and liberation to the people whilst at the same time conducting a consistent battle against discrimination which he correctly regarded as the direct result of the enslavement of the Negro people.
Douglass’ initial tour for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society was very successful. John Collins was therefore very lavish in his praise of his exemplary performance. He said that though he had not been favored with an education his style of speaking was courteous but forceful, his enunciation was clear and distinct, his description of slavery were most graphic, his arguments lucid and pleasant to the ear so much so that his addresses though long were listened to with most profound respect and attention. This report brought him more engagements as an anti-slavery speaker.
In 1843, Douglass participated in the American Anti-Slavery Society’s Hundred Conventions project, a six month tour of meeting halls throughout the Eastern and Midwestern United States. He participated in the Seneca Falls Convention, the birthplace of the American feminist movement, and was a signatory of its Declaration of Sentiments.
Douglas soon established a reputation as a brilliant speaker. On the request of the American Anti-Slavery Society Douglass engaged in a lecture tour which brought him recognition as one of America’s first great black speakers. This won him world fame when his autobiography was published in 1845.
As one of the most prominent figures, and one of the most influential lecturers and authors in American history, Douglas’s towering posture showed dignity and strength, especially when speaking, with his powerful baritone voice booming out. to keenly listening crowds of listeners. Douglass therefore had a strong presence everywhere he appeared.
Douglass spent two years in Great Britain and Ireland giving several lectures, mainly in Protestant churches or chapels, some “crowded to suffocation,” At his hugely popular London Reception Speech, which Douglass delivered at Alexander Fletcher’s Finsbury Chapel in London in May 1846. Douglass remarked that there he was treated not “as a color, but as a man.” He also met and befriended the Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell. In March 1860, Annie, Douglass’ youngest daughter, died in Rochester, New York, while her father was still in England causing Douglass to cut short his speaking engagements and return from England the following month, taking the route through Canada to avoid detection.
He soon became one of the most effective orators of his day, a confidant of the radical abolitionist, John Brown, a militant reformer and a respected diplomat. Douglass’ work spanned the years prior to and during the Civil War with him conferring with President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 on the treatment of black soldiers, and with President Andrew Johnson on the subject of black suffrage.
By the time of the Civil War, Douglass was one of the most famous black men in the country, known for his oratories on the condition of the black race, and other issues such as women’s rights.
Douglass and the abolitionists argued that the aim of the war was to end slavery and that African Americans should be allowed to engage in the fight for their freedom. Douglass gave several speeches declaring his thoughts and how the war was indeed for the liberation of the slaves.
On the night of December 31, 1862, when President Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass describes the spirit of those waiting for the announcement: “We were waiting and listening as for a bolt from the sky…we were watching…by the dim light of the stars for the dawn of a new day…we were longing for the answer to the agonizing prayers of centuries.”
Once the slaves were freed, Douglass also wanted equality for his people as well. He and Abraham Lincoln worked together providing plans to move the liberated slaves out of the South. Lincoln had doubts about the war ever ending, but soon enough the Confederate forces gave in to the Union and the war to end slavery was won.
At Abraham Lincoln’s memorial, a tribute to Lincoln being given by a prominent lawyer. was not as successful as some of the audience there would have hoped, when Douglass was goaded to stand up and speak. At first out of respect for the speaker he declined, but eventually he gave into the pressure and with no preparation gave a glowing tribute for which he received much respect. The crowd, roused by his speech, gave him a standing ovation. A witness later said, “I have heard Clay speak and many fantastic men, but never have I heard a speech as impressive as that.” Lincoln’s wife is said to have given Douglass Lincoln’s favorite walking stick which still rests in Douglas’s Cedar Lodge.
Douglas criticized Lincoln’s successors over what he felt was an insufficiently prompt and just Reconstruction policy one the war had been won. Douglas was particularly insistent on the necessity for swift passage of the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteeing suffrage to the newly emancipated slaves. Never satisfied with the grudging legal concessions the Civil War yielded, Douglas continued to object to every sign of discrimination – whether economic, sexual, legal or social. He continued to speak out on such matters as the exploitation of black sharecroppers in the South. He went on to demand ant-lynching legislation and to protest the exclusion of blacks from public accommodations. He was also active in suffrage movements for women, believing firmly in the power of the ballot as one of the necessities of freedom.
Douglas’s life has become the heroic paradigm for all oppressed people. He is in fact one of the hundreds of freedom heroes I saw showcased at the Underground Freedom Centre as well as many other exhibitions on American History or Culture in Washington D.C, San Francisco or wherever .His career as a champion of human rights led the way for later black leaders like Booker T. Washington, W.E. B. DuBois and Martin Luther King Jr.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ed. Frederick Douglass, Autobiography (Library of America, 1994)
Foner, Philip Sheldon. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. New York: International Publishers, 1950.
Huggins, Nathan Irvin, and Oscar Handlin. Slave and Citizen: The Life of Frederick Douglass. Library of American Biography. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980.
Lampe, Gregory P. Frederick Douglass: Freedom’s Voice,. Rhetoric and Public Affairs Series. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1998. X (on his oratory)
McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass. New York: Norton, 1991
Quarles, Benjamin. Frederick Douglass. Washington: Associated Publishers, 1948.
Works by Frederick Douglass at Project Gutenberg
Online Books Page (University of Pennsylvania)
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass at Project Gutenberg.
Audio book of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass at FreeAudio.org.
The Heroic Slave at the Documenting the American South website.
Frederick Douglass Project at the University of Rochester.
My Bondage and My Freedom at Project Gutenberg.
Collected Articles Of Frederick Douglass, A Slave (Project Gutenberg)
Frederick Douglass (American Memory, Library of Congress) Includes timeline.
Timeline of Frederick Douglass and family
Frederick Douglas Timeline
Frederick Douglass NHS – Douglass’ Life
Frederick Douglass NHS – Cedar Hill National Park Service site
Frederick Douglass Western New York Suffragists
Mr. Lincoln and Freedom: Frederick Douglass
Mr. Lincoln’s White House: Frederick Douglass