Frederick Douglass is one of the most significant figures in American History, especially in relation to the time period of the American Civil War and the issue of slavery in the United States. More specifically, Frederick Douglass is remembered today as an important advocate against slavery and was a leader in the abolitionist movement of the United States. In fact, after being freed from slavery himself, Frederick Douglass became known for his public speaking and his ability to intelligently debate a variety a topics. Today, he is remembered for his efforts to end slavery in the United States including his many speeches and writings.
Born as a slave in 1818 in Maryland, and escaping twenty years later, Douglass is one of the few people in history to know life on both sides of the coin, per say. After his escape, Douglass wrote the ‘Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave’ which was written in 1845 and gave people insight into what life as a slave was really like, opening the eyes of many to the injustice that was taking place around them. This, along with two other autobiographies written by Douglass are regarded as the best examples of slave narrative tradition in history. Because of these accomplishments, Frederick Douglass is often considered to be the single most important black American leader of the 19th century.
FREDERICK DOUGLASS' LIFE AS A SLAVE
Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in February of 1818 on a plantation in Talbot County, Maryland. The exact location of his birth is unknown, but historians believe that he was likely born in his grandmother’s cabin. Also, the exact date of his birth is unknown, but he chose to celebrate it on February 14th. When he was born his mother, Harriet Bailey, named him Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. However, he later changed his last name to Douglass after he escaped slavery. Also of note, is that Frederick Douglass was off mix race. It is believed that his mother, a slave herself, was of African and Native American heritage, while his father was of European heritage. In fact, Frederick Douglass believed that his father may have been the original master of him and his mother. For example, in his famous autobiography titled ‘Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave’ Douglass stated that “The opinion was... whispered that my master was my father; but of the correctness of this opinion I know nothing.”
Douglass spent little time with his birth mother and was moved around quite a bit as a child. For example, he and his mother were separated when he was just an infant, which was a common practise by slave owners at the time. Instead, Douglass spent the early years of his life with his mother’s parents – Isaac and Betsy Bailey. He saw his mother from time to time, but she did not play a big role in his life. At the age of six, he was separated from his grandparents and sent to work on a plantation in Talbot County. Six years later in 1826, he was sent to serve another master in Baltimore, Maryland. This proved to be a pivotal moment in his life.
In Baltimore, Douglass worked as a slave for Thomas Auld, who instead had him serve Thomas' brother Hugh Auld and his wife Sophia Auld. Douglass later spoke positively about his time with the Auld’s as it was during this period that he began his education. While Sophia Auld assisted him to some extent, Douglass also taught himself to read and write. With this basic education, Douglass began to educate himself on the issues of the day including the moral controversy surrounding slavery.
During his teens, Douglass continued with his education despite the wishes of his master. For some slave owners of the time, educating their slaves was not looked upon well. Instead, they believed that educated slaves might question their position. For instance, in 1833, Thomas Auld sent Douglass to work for a farmer named Edward Covey. Covey regularly beat and whipped Douglass that left him with raw and painful wounds. The beatings became so intense, that Douglass eventually fought back against Covey. In fact, Douglass considered this a pivotal moment in his life and one that led towards his freedom.
FREDERICK DOUGLASS' ESCAPE FROM SLAVERY
Frederick Douglass attempted to escape his slavery several times throughout the 1830s. However, it wasn’t until 1837, when he met Anna Murray that this became a reality. Anna Murray was a free black woman who lived in Baltimore, Maryland. The two fell in love, and Murray helped Douglass’ eventual flee from slavery. For instance, Douglass finally escaped on September 3rd, 1838 when he headed north from Baltimore. Using money and supplies given to him by Murray, Douglass traveled for just under 24 hours by train and steam boat until he reached Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and later New York City.
Frederick Douglass wrote about his arrival in New York City, and freedom from slavery in his third autobiography titled ‘Life and Times of Frederick Douglas’, which was first published in 1881. “I have often been asked, how I felt when first I found myself on free soil. And my readers may share the same curiosity. There is scarcely anything in my experience about which I could not give a more satisfactory answer. A new world had opened upon me. If life is more than breath, and the 'quick round of blood,' I lived more in one day than in a year of my slave life. It was a time of joyous excitement which words can but tamely describe. In a letter written to a friend soon after reaching New York, I said: 'I felt as one might feel upon escape from a den of hungry lions.' Anguish and grief, like darkness and rain, may be depicted; but gladness and joy, like the rainbow, defy the skill of pen or pencil.”
Murray arrived in New York City soon after to join Douglass and the two were married on September 15, 1838. During this time, he and Murray used the last name of Johnson, although they soon changed it to Douglass. The newly married couple moved from New York to Massachusetts. When they arrived in 1838 the moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts but later moved to Lynn, Massachusetts in 1841. It was at this time, that Frederick Douglass became a preacher and worked to expand the abolitionist movement.
FREDERICK DOUGLASS THE WRITER AND SPEAKER
After fleeing slavery in 1838, Frederick Douglass began to hone his skills as a powerful speaker and writer. He did this in a variety of ways, but his work in the church and as a preacher helped him in this regard. For instance, he joined the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and became a preacher in 1839. This allowed him to begin giving speeches and perfect his speaking skills. Others began to take note of his skills as a speaker and Douglass was invited to be a lecturer for the anti-slavery movement. He was encouraged to tell the story of his life as slave and his escape to freedom. For instance, Douglass was heavily inspired by William Lloyd Garrison, who was a prominent writer and abolitionist. Garrison was the producer of the abolitionist newspaper, ‘The Liberator’. Both men were inspired by each other. For example, Garrison inspired Douglass to continue speaking and writing, including articles for ‘The Liberator’.
However, Fredrick Douglass’ legacy is much more than his ability to tell his stories and use those stories as anti-slavery propaganda. Douglass was a fantastic writer and speaker and was able to use these skills to be an editor for an influential black newspaper and speak around the country to influence people’s opinions on the intelligent black male. His speeches and editorials numbered in the thousands, with each leading an incredibly persuasive view against slavery. His voice was recognizable (largely due to his wonderful use of irony), and repetitive to the point where it was impossible to ignore the message he was trying to spread across America.
As stated previously, Fredrick Douglass is remembered today for his contributions to the abolitionist movement in the United States in the 19th century. However, he achieved this by expressing his own story of slavery through his many public speeches and in his writings. Of all of his writings, Douglass is most famous for his three autobiographies. Douglass’ first autobiography, ‘Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave’, was written while he was living in Lynn, Massachusetts and first published in 1845. At the time it was a bestseller and printed in multiple languages. It is one of the most influential pieces of writing in the 19th century and had a profound impact on the anti-slavery movement in the United States. For instance, in the autobiography, Douglass details his life as a slave and his escape to freedom. The narrative was so eloquent in its language that some at the time, questioned whether it had actually been written by a former slave. This highlights the power of Douglass’ writing and his life story. Today, it stands as the single most significant account of slave life in the United States.
As mentioned above, Douglass went on the write three autobiographies in total. While his first was his most influential and significant, his later autobiographies were important in their own right and added to the story of slavery in the United States. For instance, in 1855, Douglass expanded his earlier autobiography, and published ‘My Bondage and My Freedom’. In it he further detailed his path to freedom from a life of slavery. He completed his third autobiography in 1881, which was titled ‘Life and Times of Frederick Douglass’. This third, and final, autobiography was written following the completion of the American Civil War, and detailed his life during this time while also adding further details about his early life as a slave. Taken together, these three autobiographies are some of the most important pieces of writing in the 19th century related to slavery in the United States and played a significant role in the abolition movement.
In August of 1845, Douglass left the United States and travelled throughout Ireland and England for approximately two years. During this time he delivered speeches related to the abolition movement in the United States. His travels allowed him to further his speaking and writing skills, but it also gave him a new perspective on the world and his place within it. For instance, in relation to Ireland he commented the following in ‘My Bondage and My Freedom’:
“Eleven days and a half gone and I have crossed three thousand miles of the perilous deep. Instead of a democratic government, I am under a monarchical government. Instead of the bright, blue sky of America, I am covered with the soft, grey fog of the Emerald Isle. I breathe, and lo! the chattel [slave] becomes a man. I gaze around in vain for one who will question my equal humanity, claim me as his slave, or offer me an insult. I employ a cab—I am seated beside white people—I reach the hotel—I enter the same door—I am shown into the same parlour—I dine at the same table—and no one is offended... I find myself regarded and treated at every turn with the kindness and deference paid to white people.”
Douglass returned to the United States in the spring of 1847 and immediately began published his abolitionist newspaper called the ‘North Star’. The motto of the newspaper was "Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren." At the same time, he and his wife helped other slaves escape to freedom by way of the famous Underground Railroad. It is believed that as many as 400 slaves stayed in Douglass home on their way to freedom.
In 1848, Douglass used his speaking and writing skills to bring attention to the issue of women’s rights. For instance, he famously attended the Seneca Falls Convention in July of 1848, which was the first women's rights convention and sought to “discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman”. The convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York and considered a motion to pass women’s suffrage. At the time, the idea of women voting was not popular and many at the convention opposed the motion. However, Douglass delivered an eloquent speech arguing in favor of women’s right and persuaded enough, that the motion passed. He also wrote articles related to women’s rights for the ‘North Star’ newspaper. The newspaper was merged with another paper in 1851 and renamed ‘Frederick Douglass’ Paper’ due to his increased notoriety and popularity in the anti-slavery and rights movement.
In 1859, Douglass met with the famous abolitionist, John Brown. John Brown is remembered today as a radical abolitionist who used armed resistance and violence in an attempt to end slavery in the United States. In fact, he supported the idea of an armed uprising by slaves in the south in order to overthrow the structures that supported slavery. Frederick Douglass met with Brown and some of his supporters in the spring and summer of 1859 to discuss the idea of an armed raid. However, Douglass disagreed with Brown on the need for the use of violence and did not think the raid would gain abolitionists any support from the wider American public. As a result, when John Brown carried out his famous Harpers Ferry Raid just a few months later, Douglass was worried for how it made him and other abolitionists appear. In fact, Douglass went to Canada for a short period at this time to avoid being associated with the raid.
FREDERICK DOUGLASS AND THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR
Douglass’ impact continued during the American Civil War in 1861 when he was a propagandist to the Union Army and was even used as an advisor to President Abraham Lincoln on multiple occasions. At its core, the American Civil War was centered around the issue of slavery, with states in the south wanting control over the use of slavery. On the other hand, states in the north were generally against slavery. As such, the war erupted in 1861 and saw the northern Union Army fight against the southern Confederate Army. The war lasted until 1865, with the eventual victory of the Union Army. In all, the Civil War showed the bitter divide that existed in the United States at the time and highlighted the issue of slavery as a controversial topic.
For his part, Douglass continued to fight for equality of African Americans throughout the years of the Civil War. For example, he argued that black freemen of the northern states should be allowed to join the Union Army in the war. Then, he used his writing skills to highlight the experiences of black soldiers in the war, especially in the First Battle of Bull Run. He used his many speeches and writing from the time to express these views and even met several times with Abraham Lincoln throughout the events of the Civil War. An important event that emerged from this time was the Emancipation Proclamation.
The Emancipation Proclamation was an Executive Order by President Abraham Lincoln that took effect on January 1st, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation was an important event in the history of African Americans and slavery as it fundamentally changed American society. In general, it freed all slaves that were currently enslaved in the southern Confederate States. While the Civil War was not yet over, this meant that any slaves that could escape their slavery in the south would be automatically free if they could find their way to the northern states.
The American Civil War ended on April 9th, 1865 at the Battle of Appomattox Court House. With the end of the Civil War, slavery in the United States was over. President Lincoln was assassinated just days later on April 15th, 1865 while attending a play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. Despite this, Douglass continued his push for the equality of African Americans in the greater American society. For instance, the passage of the 13th Amendment, 14th Amendment , and 15th Amendment were pivotal moments in the history of the United States.
FREDERICK DOUGLASS' LATER YEARS AND DEATH
Although he was incorrect in thinking that the Union Victory was the swiftest way towards total equality for Black Americans, Douglass’s goals persisted until his death in 1895. In these later years, Douglass moved to Washington D.C. where we would serve as marshal and recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia and was also minister to Haiti. During these later years he continued to write and fight for equality for African Americans in the United States. In fact, he played a significant role in the fight for equal rights through the Reconstruction Era of the United States. For instance, while African Americans had been freed from slavery, the country was still bitterly divided and racism was present in many aspects of everyday life.
Frederick Douglass died on February 20th, 1885, from a massive heart attack. He was 77 years old at the time of his death and a celebrated figure in American society. His body was buried in Rochester, New York.
FREDERICK DOUGLASS' LEGACY
Frederick Douglass was much more than his actions, as he was also a symbol for a movement. He was unique in the way he spoke and wrote, and showed a human side that had not been seen from prominent black individuals during that era. Douglass was brilliant yet complex and that all added to a level of heroism that was never before seen. His writings are still referred to and revered today, and the example he set has been and will be followed by activists for centuries. His story of going from being born as a slave to becoming a prominent writer, activist, and adviser to the President of the United States is a tale of magnificent perseverance and hard work that goes beyond admirable civil rights advocate, to simply being an admirable person. He is remembered today as one of the most significant people in the entire history of the United States.
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