Frederick Douglass (born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey) was an African-American social reformer, orator, writer, and statesman. After escaping from slavery, he became a leader of the abolitionist movement, gaining note for his dazzling oratory and incisive antislavery writing. He stood as a living counter-example to slaveholders' arguments that slaves lacked the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens. Many Northerners also found it hard to believe that such a great orator had been a slave.
Douglass wrote several autobiographies. He described his experiences as a slave in his 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which became a bestseller and influential in supporting abolition, as did the second, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). After the Civil War, Douglass remained an active campaigner against slavery and wrote his last autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. First published in 1881 and revised in 1892, three years before his death, it covered events through and after the Civil War. Douglass also actively supported women's suffrage, and held several public offices. Without his approval, Douglass became the first African American nominated for Vice President of the United States as the running mate and Vice Presidential nominee of Victoria Woodhull on the impracticable, small, but far foreseeing Equal Rights Party ticket.
A firm believer in the equality of all people, whether black, female, Native American, or recent immigrant, Douglass famously said, "I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong."
Abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland. He became one of the most famous intellectuals of his time, advising presidents and lecturing to thousands on a range of causes, including women’s rights and Irish home rule. Among Douglass’ writings are several autobiographies eloquently describing his experiences in slavery and his life after the Civil War.
Life in Slavery
Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland, around 1818. The exact year and date of Douglass' birth are unknown, though later in life he chose to celebrate it on February 14. Douglass lived with his maternal grandmother, Betty Bailey. At a young age, Douglass was selected in live in the home of the plantation owners, one of whom may have been his father. His mother, an intermittent presence in his life, died when he was around 10.
Frederick Douglass was eventually sent to the Baltimore home of Hugh Ald. It was there that Douglass first acquired the skills that would vault him to national celebrity. Defying a ban on teaching slaves to read and write, Hugh Auld’s wife Sophia taught Douglass the alphabet when he was around 12. When Hugh Auld forbade his wife’s lessons, Douglass continued to learn from white children and others in the neighborhood.
It was through reading that Douglass’ ideological opposition to slavery began to take shape. He read newspapers avidly, and sought out political writing and literature as much as possible. In later years, Douglass credited The Columbian Orator with clarifying and defining his views on human rights. Douglass shared his newfound knowledge with other enslaved people. Hired out to William Freeland, he taught other slaves on the plantation to read the New Testament at a weekly church service. Interest was so great that in any week, more than 40 slaves would attend lessons. Although Freeland did not interfere with the lessons, other local slave owners were less understanding. Armed with clubs and stones, they dispersed the congregation permanently.
With Douglass moving between the Aulds, he was later made to work for Edward Covey, who had a reputation as a "slave-breaker.” Covey’s constant abuse did nearly break the 16-year-old Douglass psychologically. Eventually, however, Douglass fought back, in a scene rendered powerfully in his first autobiography. After losing a physical confrontation with Douglass, Covey never beat him again.
Freedom and Abolitionism
Frederick Douglass tried to escape from slavery twice before he succeeded. He was assisted in his final attempt by Anna Murray, a free black woman in Baltimore with whom Douglass had fallen in love. On September 3, 1838, Douglass boarded a train to Havre de Grace, Maryland. Anna Murray had provided him with some of her savings and a sailor's uniform. He carried identification papers obtained from a free black seaman. Douglass made his way to the safe house of abolitionist David Ruggles in New York in less than 24 hours.
Once he had arrived, Douglass sent for Murray to meet him in New York. They married on September 15, 1838, adopting the married name of Johnson to disguise Douglass’ identity. Anna and Frederick settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, which had a thriving free black community. There, they adopted Douglass as their married name. Frederick Douglass joined a black church and regularly attended abolitionist meetings. He also subscribed to William Lloyd Garrison's weekly journal The Liberator.
Eventually Douglass was asked to tell his story at abolitionist meetings, after which he became a regular anti-slavery lecturer. William Lloyd Garrison was impressed with Douglass’ strength and rhetorical skill, and wrote of him in The Liberator. Several days after the story ran, Douglass delivered his first speech at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society's annual convention in Nantucket. Crowds were not always hospitable to Douglass. While participating in an 1843 lecture tour through the Midwest, Douglass was chased and beaten by an angry mob before being rescued by a local Quaker family.
At the urging of William Lloyd Garrison, Douglass wrote and published his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, in 1845. The book was a bestseller in the United States and was translated into several European languages. Although the book garnered Douglass many fans, some critics expressed doubt that a former slave with no formal education could have produced such elegant prose. Douglass published three versions of his autobiography during his lifetime, revising and expanding on his work each time. My Bondage and My Freedom appeared in 1855. In 1881, Douglass published Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, which he revised in 1892.
Fame had its drawbacks for a runaway slave. Following the publication of his autobiography, Douglass departed for Ireland to evade recapture. Douglass set sail for Liverpool on August 16, 1845, arriving in Ireland as the Irish Potato Famine was beginning. He remained in Ireland and Britain for two years, speaking to large crowds on the evils of slavery. During this time, Douglass’ British supporters gathered funds to purchase his legal freedom. In 1847, Douglass returned to the United States a free man.
Upon his return, Douglass produced some abolitionist newspapers: The North Star, Frederick Douglass Weekly, Frederick Douglass' Paper, Douglass' Monthly and New National Era. The motto of The North Star was "Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren."
In addition to abolition, Douglass became an outspoken supporter of women’s rights. In 1848, he was the only African American to attend the first women's rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York. Elizabeth Cady Stanton asked the assembly to pass a resolution stating the goal of women's suffrage. Many attendees opposed the idea. Douglass stood and spoke eloquently in favor, arguing that he could not accept the right to vote as a black man if women could not also claim that right. The resolution passed. Douglass would later come into conflict with women’s rights activists for supporting the Fifteenth Amendment, which banned suffrage discrimination based on race while upholding sex-based restrictions.
Civil War and Reconstruction
By the time of the Civil War, Douglass was one of the most famous black men in the country. He used his status to influence the role of African Americans in the war and their status in the country. In 1863, Douglass conferred with President Abraham Lincoln regarding the treatment of black soldiers, and with President Andrew Johnson on the subject of black suffrage.
President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect on January 1, 1863, declared the freedom of all slaves in Confederate territory. Despite this victory, Douglass supported John C. Frémont over Lincoln in the 1864 election, citing his disappointment that Lincoln did not publicly endorse suffrage for black freedmen. Slavery everywhere in the United States was subsequently outlawed by the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
Frederick Douglass was appointed to several political positions following the war. He served as president of the Freedman's Savings Bank and as chargé d'affaires for the Dominican Republic. After two years, he resigned from his ambassadorship over objections to the particulars of U.S. government policy. He was later appointed minister-resident and consul-general to the Republic of Haiti, a post he held between 1889 and 1891.
Douglass became the first African American nominated for vice president of the United States, as Victoria Woodhull's running mate on the Equal Rights Party ticket in 1872. Nominated without his knowledge or consent, Douglass never campaigned. Nonetheless, his nomination marked the first time that an African American appeared on a presidential ballot.
In 1877, Douglass visited his former owner, Thomas Auld. Douglass had met with Auld's daughter, Amanda Auld Sears, years before. The visit held personal significance for Douglass, although some criticized him for reconciling with Auld.
Frederick Douglass was an incredibly talented writer and orator who escaped slavery and brought the issue of slavery to the attention of people in the 1840s, 50s, and 60s. He grew up as a slave in Maryland, which is outlined in his work "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass." He secretly taught himself to read and worked hard to save up some money and escape from slavery. In the early 1840s he began working with leaders of the Abolitionist (anti-slavery) movement, making speeches and educating people about the horrors of slavery. He wrote a book about his experiences to educate others, and started the newspaper "The North Star." He later became and advisor and diplomat to people like Abraham Lincoln. His work greatly educated the public about slavery and helped move the abolitionist movement forward. His famous works are "The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" and "The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself." By publishing these works and speaking to the public, he showed everyone that black people were intelligent and talented people too, and deserved freedom.
WHEN & WHERE:
He was born on February, 1818 in Tuckahoe, Maryland. He died on February 20, 1895, in Washington, D.C.
Family Life and Death
Frederick and Anna Douglass had five children: Rosetta, Lewis Henry, Frederick Jr., Charles Redmond, and Annie. Annie died at the age of 10. Charles and Rosetta assisted their father in the production of his newspaper The North Star. Anna Douglass remained a loyal supporter of Frederick's public work, despite marital strife caused by his relationships with several other women.
After Anna’s death, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white feminist from Honeoye, New York. Pitts was the daughter of Gideon Pitts Jr., an abolitionist colleague. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Helen Pitts worked on a radical feminist publication and shared many of Douglass’ moral principles. Their marriage caused considerable controversy, since Pitts was both white and nearly 20 years younger than Douglass. Douglass’ children were especially displeased with the relationship.
Frederick Douglass and Helen Pitts remained married until Douglass’ death, 11 years later. On February 20, 1895, Douglass attended a meeting of the National Council of Women in Washington, D.C. Shortly after returning home, Frederick Douglass died of a massive heart attack or stroke. He was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York.
Washington (CNN) -- When a 7-foot bronze statue of 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass is unveiled at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, the event will honor a figure whose political legacy looms large but whose personal life is lesser known.
Many Americans know that Douglass was born a slave in Maryland in the early 1800s and later wrote an autobiography "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American." His tale of escape from bondage to statesman, abolitionist and activist in the women's suffrage movement is also fairly well known.
But sculptor Steven Weitzman says he found that while working on the piece, Douglass was a man whose life goes far beyond the legend.
Here are five things you might not know about him:
1. He worked across the aisle
Republican House Speaker John Boehner recently called the statue of Douglass "a fitting tribute to one of the greatest Americans and voices for freedom who ever lived."
The GOP connection to Douglass goes back centuries.
Douglass had the ear of President Abraham Lincoln on matters concerning slavery and the treatment of black soldiers who fought in the Civil War.
However, the two had a complicated relationship. Douglass was frustrated by what he saw as Lincoln's delayed support of emancipation. Douglass would later go on to call Lincoln the nation's "greatest president."
During the 1888 Republican National Convention, Douglass was both a speaker and became the first African-American in a major party roll call vote to have his name put forth for president.
Douglass also conferred with Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, on supporting the right of blacks to vote.
2. He held several government positions
At a time when many African-Americans were trying to establish lives after slavery, Douglass was appointed to several high-level U.S. government positions.
He served as minister and general counsel to the Republic of Haiti. He spoke at the 1892 Chicago World's fair where he detailed Haiti's journey as a colony founded on slave labor to one governed by former slaves, and drew a connection to the African-American struggle for freedom. Douglass was also the first black U.S. marshal and served in Washington.
3. He was a twice-married supporter of women's rights
Douglass was first married to Anna Murray, a free black woman who shared his passion and commitment to the abolitionist cause. She helped him escape slavery and the couple eventually adopted the last name Douglass.
The couple and their five children were heavily involved in printing an abolitionist newspaper and helping support Murray's underground railroad efforts as she aided runaway slaves on their journey north.
Douglass' second wife was Helen Pitts, the white daughter of an abolitionist who was very active in the women's rights movement.
Douglass spoke passionately at the Seneca Falls Convention on women's rights and urged the gathering to support the right to vote for both genders regardless of race.
4. He often found himself in difficult political positions
As an outspoken advocate for the right to vote for African-Americans and women, Douglass often found his relationship with those who supported similar causes strained.
Abolitionist John Brown tried to convince Douglass to join the raid on Harper's Ferry, a violent and ultimately failed attempt to start an armed slave revolt.
"I...told him that Virginia would blow him and his hostages sky-high, rather than that he should hold Harper's Ferry an hour. Our talk was long and earnest; We spent the most of Saturday and a part of Sunday in this debate: Brown for Harper's Ferry, and I against it; He for striking a blow which should instantly rouse the country, and I for the policy of gradually and unaccountably drawing off the slaves to the mountains, as at first suggested and proposed by him," Douglass wrote in "The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass."
Douglass also found himself at odds with longtime friend and women's suffrage advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton, over the 15th Amendment, which prevents the government from denying citizens the right to vote based on race. Stanton had hopes to link women's voting rights to the bill; Douglass worried this would sink the measure.
Douglass publicly expressed frustration with Lincoln's latent support of emancipation and once wrote of Johnson, who had blanched at meeting the black abolitionist: "'Whatever Andrew Johnson may be, he certainly is no friend of our race.'"
5. The abolitionist's statue will stand in a place built by slave labor
It is no small symbol that Douglass' statue will stand in the U.S. Capitol, a landmark built partly slave labor. They quarried the stones used in the columns, walls and floors.
Douglass' statue will be featured prominently in Emancipation Hall and will be one of the first big visuals millions of Americans see when they arrive.
Douglass' statue is the first to represent the District of Columbia and the third of an African-American at the Capitol. Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks from the civil rights era also have statues as does abolitionist Sojourner Truth.
The unveiling comes on a day when many states celebrate "Juneteenth," a day in 1865 when African-American slaves in Texas were finally told they were free.
Understanding Frederick Douglass, the great black leader and abolitionist, requires an appreciation of his religious faith. As an atheist friend of his once said: "there was one obstacle to a loving and lasting friendship -- namely, the personal Christian God."
For most of his career Douglass believed in a living God who could change the world. "All things are possible with God," he declared. "I believe in the millennium," a literal heaven on earth as described in Revelation. Love and freedom were for him the hallmarks of Christianity. His faith fueled his hope in an immediate end to slavery and racial oppression.
Douglass saw himself as a prophet heeding God's will. Prophecy enabled him and other abolitionists to bypass biblical and theological defenses of slavery. For hundreds of years, slavery and racism had been virtually unquestioned institutions, with theologians consistently defending these forms of brutality. Slavery existed in ancient Israel and early Christianity, and it appears in the Old and New Testaments. Israelites enslave non-Israelites; Jesus heals a centurion's slave but does not grant him freedom; and Paul instructs slaves to obey their masters and returns a runaway. In antebellum America, most ministers defended (or ignored) slavery, and many argued that Africans bore the mark of Cain and were the children of Ham, cursed by Noah to be "servants of servants." For Douglass, the Bible's overarching message of love and freedom trumped these comparatively isolated defenses of slavery.
Douglass's spiritual journey began in 1831, when he was a 13-year-old slave living in Baltimore. His father was a white man whom he never knew. But the black minister Father Lawson became a father-figure, prompting a conversion experience. "I seemed to live in a new world, surrounded by new objects, and animated by new hopes and desires," he recalled. "My great concern was, now, to have the world converted" to anti-slavery Christianity.
His awakening inspired him, a few years later, to create a secret Sunday School on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. His goal was to teach his fellow slaves to read the Bible, and thus empower them to obtain their freedom. He preached regularly to more than 40 "scholars," as he called them. Many learned to read and some escaped to the North. Sixty years later Douglass remembered his Sunday School with great fondness. "I have had various employments during my life, but to none do I look back with more satisfaction than to this one."
After fleeing slavery in 1838 Douglass became a preacher at the A.M.E. Zion church in New Bedford, Mass., where he lived and worked. Over the next two decades he became world famous as an abolitionist speaker and writer. He is now considered one of the preeminent writers in American history, his words inspiring a host of subsequent leaders, from Lincoln and W.E.B. Du Bois to Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Obama. But few people today recognize that preaching was the foundation of his abolitionist activism.
In fighting slavery in the 1840s and 1850s, Douglass realized that he could not rely on traditional notions of progress. This was because slavery was rapidly expanding and slave owners controlled the levers of federal power. And so he relied instead on Revelation, and its vision of apocalypse that would inaugurate freedom and equality. This radical vision offered him, and many other black and white abolitionists, a way to dispense with chronology and maintain their faith in immediate and universal freedom. Douglass called the Civil War a battle between Michael and his angels against Satan.
For Douglass, there was an intimate link between individual conversion and social reform. The path of reform flowed outward from self to society. Before eradicating social evil, you first had to purify the self. Consequently Douglass and other abolitionists tried to live righteously, abstaining from tobacco, alcohol and other perceived sins that corrupted body and soul. In this sense, they resembled modern evangelicals.
Douglass' faith may sound jarring to progressives and intellectuals today. After all, belief in the millennium is usually associated with pro-lifers, opponents of gay marriage and the right wing of the Republican Party. But Douglass' devotion to a Christian God highlights the degree to which religion has played a crucial role in left-leaning American reform movements, from abolitionism and feminism to labor, civil rights and gay rights.
The prophetic voice, which appeals directly to God, rather than laws, doctrines and institutions, extends from Tom Paine, Nat Turner, Douglass and the abolitionists, through Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Upton Sinclair, Eugene Debs and Dorothy Day, on down to King, James Baldwin, Bill McKibben and Gene Robinson. As the minister and historian Dan McKanan has emphasized, to forget the religious work of our predecessors "is to lose their wisdom and inspiration."
The moral achievement of the abolitionists is especially noteworthy. In 1818, the year Douglass was born, slavery was legal throughout the New World save for the Northern states. Seventy years later it had been outlawed everywhere in the western hemisphere. This stunning transformation stemmed from the collective protests of slaves, ex-slaves and abolitionists, all heeding their belief in a higher power.
One hundred fifty years ago this month, the country was embroiled in a bitter and bloody rebellion, and social revolution was brewing. While armies clashed across the South producing unprecedented death, destruction, and misery, it was a time for heroes to emerge. The battles of the Shenandoah, the inconceivable carnage at Shiloh, and the capture of New Orleans may have produced their share of heroism, but behind the lines a warrior of another sort was transforming the conflict and the nation: Frederick Douglass.
Frederick Douglass, ca. 1879. Courtesy of National Archives.
We generally don’t remember Douglass as we should. His stoic and stately presence and unimpeachable words stand out like a chiseled, motionless effigy. The Frederick Douglass we meet today in films, museums, and popular culture is generally a black “founding father,” with the attendant uninspiring, respectful persona of most depictions of Washington or Jefferson. I think of the portrayal of Douglass in the film Glory in which he dryly, properly, and very firmly offers his prediction of how the black soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts will honorably fight. I think of actors at museums and Civil War reenactments proclaiming the amazingly eloquent words that captivated audiences, but without the fire that made Douglass famous.
This overly honorific public memory of Douglass belies a life entirely defined by action—sometimes action-hero type action. Frederick Douglass was a fighter. Enslaved in Maryland, he completely befuddled his owner, Thomas Auld. The teenage boy refused to call him “Master,” deliberately disobeyed, and violated the oppressive customs of slavery by daring to look Auld in the eye. At sixteen, after being sent for a one year rental to Edward Covey, a sadistic and notorious “nigger breaker,” Douglass fought back. After enduring numerous beatings and torture intended to break his spirit, he lashed out at Covey one morning when he intended to whip Douglass. Young Frederick took on Covey in an epic no holds barred match in the horse stables, and succeeded not only whipping his master, but taking out Covey’s cousin with a kick to the crotch when he came to assist in “teaching Frederick a lesson.”
This victory was a turning point. Douglass wrote that at that moment when his master walked away defeated, “My long crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and now I resolved that, however long I might remain as slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.”
This courage motivated Douglass in the life he created for himself as an orator after his escape from slavery. Even while working as a noted reformer for the nation, he candidly admitted that “I have no love for America.” Douglass exalted in pointing out the hypocrisy and lies he saw across America and even in its greatest leaders. He famously attacked Lincoln’s hero Henry Clay, who purported to hate slavery while owning fifty people. Despite Clay’s proposals to end slavery, Douglass challenged him, “Do you think that God will hold you guiltless if you die with the blood of these fifty slaves clinging to your garment?”
Antislavery medallion, an icon of the early antislavery movement
“Fighting the mob in Indiana,” illustration from Douglass’s 1892 autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Courtesy of University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Though Douglass’s persona was poised, dignified, and proper, to understand him it might be better if we remembered him in a way closer to the long held tradition in black American narrative poetry of “toasts.” Like the character Stack O’ Lee from the early 20th century folk song, Douglass was a bad man. Not bad meaning bad, but bad meaning good. In remembering Douglass, we could use a bit of the late comedian Rudy Ray Moore, whose boast about his character Petey Wheatstraw could apply to Douglass:
He jumped in the ocean and swallowed a whale,
Handcuffed lightnin’ and throwed thunder in jail.
Hip Hop group Run DMC might have said that while “You’re the kind of guy the girls ignored, Fred’s drivin’ a Caddy, you’re fixin’ a Ford.”
Singer Issac Hayes might have said “that cat Frederick is a bad mother (shut yo’ mouth).”
Which brings me back to 150 years ago today. The decisions on slavery from Washington, D.C. were flip flopping, or so it seemed to many. In April 1862, slavery was abolished in the District of Columbia. In May, Lincoln rescinded Major General David Hunter’s proclamation which had freed slaves in three states. Then Lincoln met with free blacks at the White House and told them they could never live with whites in this nation and should accept his plan for colonization to South America or Africa.
Douglass prepared a speech offering two simple strategies for ending slavery which he delivered on July 4th. First, he said, Congress should pass a law allowing confiscation of rebel properties, and then the president should issue a proclamation freeing slaves of anyone in rebellion. A few months later anyone in attendance must have thought Douglass a prophet, for it happened exactly as he suggested.