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Frederick Douglass: An American Narrative

by Legacy Staff

Frederick Douglass celebrated his birthday on Valentine’s Day. Two centuries after he was born, we’re looking at his early years fighting for the abolition of slavery.

Think of a cause you’re passionate about. Maybe it’s welfare reform or cleaning up our nation’s rivers or improving public schools. Imagine that your passion for the cause brings you to nationwide prominence—you’re speaking to huge crowds, traveling all over the country and the world, writing a popular and influential blog and changing the way people think about your cause. You’re in the spotlight, working for your cause and daring to hope that soon you’ll reach your goal.

Now imagine you’re doing all that while being hunted by men who are determined to find you and enslave you.


Frederick Douglass (Wikimedia Commons)

Born in February 1818 (his date of birth wasn’t recorded, but he later adopted February 14 as his birthday), Frederick Douglass started life enslaved in Maryland. A highly intelligent boy, he recognized and questioned the injustice of slavery from an early age. He learned to read—a skill that was generally denied to slaves—under the tutelage of his master’s wife. When she was discovered and commanded to stop teaching him, he secretly continued his studies on his own.

As Douglass developed his critical thinking skills, his yearning for freedom grew until it was unbearable. He rebelled, clandestinely teaching other slaves to read when he was barely more than a boy. During his teen years, he was transferred to several other households, made several escape attempts, and was beaten so often and so badly that he nearly gave up. But he didn’t. He fought back and somehow maintained his will to escape.

In 1838 after 20 years of slavery, Douglass made his final escape attempt—the one that was successful. With the assistance of a free Black seaman, who provided Douglass with papers and a sailor’s uniform to wear, he made it safely to New York. Shortly after arriving there, he wrote, “I felt as one might feel upon escape from a den of hungry lions.”

Frederick Douglass (Wikimedia Commons)

Douglass moved on to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he quickly became involved in the abolition movement. At 23, he began his career as a powerful and influential orator when he was asked to speak about his life as a slave at a meeting of the Bristol Anti-Slavery Society. His speech was so effective that he was asked to join the American Anti-Slavery Society’s Hundred Conventions project. The Society, founded by William Lloyd Garrison—who would later become a close friend of Douglass—was taking their message on the road with an extensive six-month tour of meeting halls.

As Douglass’s reputation grew, he wrote his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. The book’s publication and Douglass’s expanding fame caused his friends in the movement to be concerned about his safety. For seven years Douglass had lived as a free man—without ever legally obtaining his freedom. In 1845 a slaveholder would go to great lengths to reclaim an escaped slave, and once the escapee was captured, punishments were horrifically severe, often resulting in death. As far as his former master Hugh Auld was concerned, Douglass was still his property. Even if Auld himself didn’t recapture Douglass, slave patrols could—and would, given the chance—capture and punish him, even kill him. Most who escaped slavery, if they were to elude capture, kept a low profile. But Douglass’s profile was anything but low.

At the request of his friends and supporters, Douglass traveled far away to Ireland. What he found there was a veritable paradise to an American Black man escaped from slavery. That’s because he was treated exactly like everybody else. There were no separate accommodations, no back doors for Black patrons to use. He was given respect, kindness and dignity, things he had learned not to expect in America.

The people of Ireland and England were sympathetic to, and outraged by, the plight of enslaved people in America. Douglass toured the countries, giving speeches to packed houses with no fear of attracting the attention of Auld or the slave patrols. He was happy, respected, and important. And then came perhaps the best result of all from his trip: his Irish and British admirers raised money and bought his freedom. After paying his owner the price he would expect, they were able to declare him free—officially and legally.

When Douglass returned to the U.S. after two years abroad, it was surely with a sigh of relief that he stepped onto American soil, knowing he was no longer on the run and could confidently continue his anti-slavery work. And so he did—he published newspapers with great readership and influence, gave speeches to ever larger crowds, met with presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. He worked to empower Black people by advocating for their education—he wanted more Black children in school, and he wanted integrated schools so Black students could benefit from superior facilities. And it wasn’t just Black people he wanted to empower: Douglass was also a strong supporter of women’s suffrage, reasoning that if he wanted the right to vote as a Black man, he couldn’t deny that right to a woman of any color.

Douglass was able to see the fruition of one of his dreams during his lifetime when in 1863 the Emancipation Proclamation outlawed slavery in the Confederate states. It was followed by the 13th Amendment in 1865, fully and completely outlawing slavery in the United States. His death Feb. 20, 1895, meant that he saw neither the integration of schools nor women’s suffrage become law, but they did follow. It seems sure that his huge influence in freeing America’s slaves helped pave the way for those and other civil rights victories.

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