Frederick Douglass was born on a plantation on the Eastern Shore of Maryland around 1818. He died 77 years later in his home at Cedar Hill, high above Washington, DC. In his journey from captive slave to internationally renowned activist, Douglass changed how Americans thought about race, slavery, and American democracy. Since the early 1800s Douglass' life has been a source of inspiration and hope for millions. He has also been an ever present challenge, demanding that American citizens live up to their highest ideals and make the United States a land of liberty and equality for all.
Slavery and Escape
Douglass began his life on a plantation belonging to Edward Lloyd in February, 1818. He was named Frederick Bailey after his mother (Harriett Bailey), though he only met her three or four times in his life. Around the age of eight he was sent to live with one of his owner's relatives in Baltimore, Maryland. It was while living in Baltimore that he was mistakenly taught the first several letters of the alphabet. Those few letters opened a new world to him and began his lifelong love of language.
At fifteen, the now literate Douglass was returned to the Eastern shore to work as a field hand. Here the increasingly independent teenager educated other slaves, resisted efforts to beat him, and planned a failed escape attempt.
Three years later, on September 3, 1838, Douglass disguised himself as a sailor, and carrying a friend's passport, boarded a northbound train from Baltimore.He arrived in New York City and declared himself a free man.
After escaping from slavery Douglass changed his name to avoid being recaptured and turned his efforts to helping those still held in bondage. Douglass travelled around Massachusetts speaking about his experiences with slavery and the need to destroy it.One of the most prominent abolitionists in America, William Lloyd Garrison heard Douglass and invited him to join the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Douglass was soon touring across the North speaking against slavery and becoming one of the country's finest orators.
Douglass was such an impressive speaker and he broke so many of his audiences' preconceptions that some people began to doubt he was truly a fugitive slave.To prove them wrong Douglass wrote his first autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), in which he revealed his original name, his owner's names, and where he was born. The book was wildly popular, but with his identity known Douglass was in danger of being returned to slavery. Once again he had to flee, this time to England, Scotland, and Ireland.
While in the British Isles Douglass continued speaking against slavery. British supporters were so impressed with Douglass that they purchased his freedom. After more than two years abroad Douglass was able to return to the United States a legally free man. He settled in Rochester New York, a hotbed of the abolitionist and women's rights movements. Using additional money raised in Britain, Douglass bought a printing press and began publishing The North Star newspaper. He now proudly referred to himself as "Mr. Editor."
In 1861 tensions over slavery erupted into civil war. Douglass welcomed the conflict as the cataclysmic event needed to wipe slavery from America. As always, he acted as the nation's conscience, arguing that the war was about more than union and state's rights. It was, he said, about a new birth of freedom, a great step towards the nation promised in the Declaration of Independence.
Douglass knew that this new freedom had to be won both on and off the battlefield. Though he was too old to serve in battle, himself he recruited other African Americans to fight in the Union Army, including two of his sons, who served with the famous 54th Massachusetts. Away from the fighting Douglass continued to write and speak against slavery, arguing for a higher purpose to the war. He met with Abraham Lincoln to advocate for African American troops and to encourage Lincoln to see the war as a chance to transform the country into a more perfect nation. Douglass' influence was crucial to Lincoln's evolution as a thinker over the course of the war. This influence can be seen in the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln's second inaugural speech.
Post Civil War
Following the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery new possibilities opened up for Douglass. He moved from Rochester to Washington, D.C., eventually buying the home at Cedar Hill. During this time he served as the U.S. Marshall for the District of Columbia, the District's Registrar of Deeds, and the U.S. Minister to Haiti and Charge d'Affairs to the Dominican Republic. Despite his victories and successes, Douglass still had many battles to fight. African Americans hold on their newly won civil rights remained tenuous and women were still not allowed to vote. He continued to work to expand civil rights in the country until his death in 1895.
Frederick Douglass stood at the podium, trembling with nervousness. Before him sat abolitionists who had travelled to the Massachusetts island of Nantucket. Only 23 years old at the time, Douglass overcame his nervousness and gave a stirring, eloquent speech about his life as a slave. Douglass would continue to give speeches for the rest of his life and would become a leading spokesperson for the abolition of slavery and for racial equality.
The son of a slave woman and an unknown white man, "Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey" was born in February of 1818 on Maryland's eastern shore. He spent his early years with his grandparents and with an aunt, seeing his mother only four or five times before her death when he was seven. (All Douglass knew of his father was that he was white.) During this time he was exposed to the degradations of slavery, witnessing firsthand brutal whippings and spending much time cold and hungry. When he was eight he was sent to Baltimore to live with a ship carpenter named Hugh Auld. There he learned to read and first heard the words abolition and abolitionists. "Going to live at Baltimore," Douglass would later say, "laid the foundation, and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity."
Douglass spent seven relatively comfortable years in Baltimore before being sent back to the country, where he was hired out to a farm run by a notoriously brutal "slavebreaker" named Edward Covey. And the treatment he received was indeed brutal. Whipped daily and barely fed, Douglass was "broken in body, soul, and spirit."
On January 1, 1836, Douglass made a resolution that he would be free by the end of the year. He planned an escape. But early in April he was jailed after his plan was discovered. Two years later, while living in Baltimore and working at a shipyard, Douglass would finally realize his dream: he fled the city on September 3, 1838. Travelling by train, then steamboat, then train, he arrived in New York City the following day. Several weeks later he had settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, living with his newlywed bride (whom he met in Baltimore and married in New York) under his new name, Frederick Douglass.
Always striving to educate himself, Douglass continued his reading. He joined various organizations in New Bedford, including a black church. He attended Abolitionists' meetings. He subscribed to William Lloyd Garrison's weekly journal, the Liberator. In 1841, he saw Garrison speak at the Bristol Anti-Slavery Society's annual meeting. Douglass was inspired by the speaker, later stating, "no face and form ever impressed me with such sentiments [the hatred of slavery] as did those of William Lloyd Garrison." Garrison, too, was impressed with Douglass, mentioning him in the Liberator. Several days later Douglass gave his speech at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society's annual convention in Nantucket-- the speech described at the top of this page. Of the speech, one correspondent reported, "Flinty hearts were pierced, and cold ones melted by his eloquence." Before leaving the island, Douglass was asked to become a lecturer for the Society for three years. It was the launch of a career that would continue throughout Douglass' long life.
Despite apprehensions that the information might endanger his freedom, Douglass published his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written By Himself. The year was 1845. Three years later, after a speaking tour of England, Ireland, and Scotland, Douglass published the first issue of the North Star, a four-page weekly, out of Rochester, New York.
Ever since he first met Garrison in 1841, the white abolitionist leader had been Douglass' mentor. But the views of Garrison and Douglass ultimately diverged. Garrison represented the radical end of the abolitionist spectrum. He denounced churches, political parties, even voting. He believed in the dissolution (break up) of the Union. He also believed that the U.S. Constitution was a pro-slavery document. After his tour of Europe and the establishment of his paper, Douglass' views began to change; he was becoming more of an independent thinker, more pragmatic. In 1851 Douglass announced at a meeting in Syracuse, New York, that he did not assume the Constitution was a pro-slavery document, and that it could even "be wielded in behalf of emancipation," especially where the federal government had exclusive jurisdiction. Douglass also did not advocate the dissolution of the Union, since it would isolate slaves in the South. This led to a bitter dispute between Garrison and Douglass that, despite the efforts of others such as Harriet Beecher Stowe to reconcile the two, would last into the Civil War.
Frederick Douglass would continue his active involvement to better the lives of African Americans. He conferred with Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and recruited northern blacks for the Union Army. After the War he fought for the rights of women and African Americans alike.