Frederick Douglass: From Slavery to Freedom and Beyond
The great civil rights activist Frederick Douglass was born into slavery on a Maryland Eastern Shore plantation in February 1818. His given name, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, seemed to portend an unusual life for this son of a field hand and a white man, most likely Douglass's first master, Captain Aaron Anthony. Perhaps Harriet Bailey gave her son such a distinguished name in the hope that his life would be better than hers. She could scarcely imagine that her son's life would continue to be a source of interest and inspiration nearly 190 years after his birth. Indeed, it would be hard to find anyone who more closely embodies this year's Black History Month theme, "From Slavery to Freedom: Africans in the Americas." Like many in the nineteenth-century United States, Frederick Douglass escaped the horrors of slavery to enjoy a life of freedom, but his unique personal drive to achieve justice for his race led him to devote his life to the abolition of slavery and the movement for black civil rights. His fiery oratory and extraordinary achievements produced a legacy that stretches his influence across the centuries, making Frederick Douglass a role model for the twenty-first century.
One reason Douglass's story continues to resonate is that his life embodies the American dream of overcoming obstacles and reaching one's goals. Young Frederick Bailey spent his first twenty years in slavery, first on a Talbot County, Maryland plantation, then in the ship-building city of Baltimore. In the first of three autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, published in 1845, he recounts the adversity of his early life. He rarely saw his mother who worked as a field hand, had barely enough clothes to cover his body, and had to eat from a trough like a farmyard animal. As he grew old enough to work he passed through a series of masters, some kind and some cruel.
Despite his situation, Frederick managed to learn to read and write, sometimes by bribing white boys into teaching him in exchange for bits of bread. At the age of about twelve, he acquired a copy of the Columbian Orator, a book of famous speeches that formed the basis for his later skills as an outstanding public lecturer. After he gained basic literacy, Frederick began to reach out to others, assisting his fellow slaves to read and operating a forbidden Sunday school. As he gained more knowledge of the world at large, he could no longer passively submit to a life of slavery. In September 1838, he borrowed the identification papers of a free black sailor and boarded a train for the North. Locating in New Bedford, Massachusetts, he took the name Frederick Douglass, after a character in Sir Walter Scott's epic poem, The Lady in the Lake.
Although it was a momentous achievement, attaining freedom was merely a starting-point for Frederick Douglass. Within a few years he was a world-famous abolitionist, author, and orator. He published his narrative detailing his time as a slave, edited his own newspaper, and traveled throughout the United States and Britain lecturing on important civil rights and social justice topics. He was the single male delegate at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention on women's rights to support the call for woman's suffrage. When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Douglass was twice invited to the White House to advise President Abraham Lincoln, and then acted as a recruiter for African American troops. Following the war, hoping that equality would be achieved with the end of slavery, he moved his family to Washington, D.C., where he was appointed president of the Freedman's Savings Bank. In 1877 President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him federal marshal for the District of Columbia, and in that capacity he stood beside James Garfield as he took the presidential oath of office in 1881. By 1889 Frederick Douglass was the U.S. resident minister and consul general (ambassador) to Haiti. Ending his life at Cedar Hill, his twenty-one room District of Columbia home, in February 1895, Frederick Douglass had come about as far as humanly possible from his beginnings in a Maryland slave cabin.
The social distance Douglass traveled during his lifetime continues to inspire modern Americans to take a lesson from his life. If he could achieve so much after his most humble of beginnings, perhaps our own dreams and goals are within reach. Indeed, the words, images and heritage of Douglass abound in history and popular culture. Douglass once said, "If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning." Because he was willing to dedicate his life to struggle and agitate for the abolition of slavery, and then the cause of civil rights, Douglass remains at the forefront of the American consciousness.
His eloquence with words and prolific publications also make him accessible to modern Americans. Each of his three autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845); My Bondage and My Freedom (1855); and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, 1892), remain in print and are widely read by schoolchildren, college students, historians, and literary scholars. The remaining texts of his famous speeches make him one of the most quoted men of the nineteenth century. A scholar at a conference was once overheard to say, "When in doubt, quote Douglass." Indeed, President George W. Bush invoked Douglass's name when he spoke to an assembled group during his visit to Senegal in 2003. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has quoted Douglass in his rulings on several education cases.
Modern Americans are constantly reminded about the importance of Douglass's life and accomplishments. Many sites in the United States pay homage to the civil rights activist through adopting his name. At least twenty-four schools and academies are named for Douglass, and parks and buildings from New York to Louisiana bear his name. Places as diverse as Harlem, Detroit, and Oklahoma City have Frederick Douglass streets or avenues. His life has been dramatized in the fiction of such authors as Miriam Grace Monfredo and Jewell Parker Rhodes, and celebrated in the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Robert Hayden. He was memorialized on a U.S. postage stamp in 1985. The famous "history painter" Jacob Lawrence painted a series of thirty-two canvases dedicated to the life and memory of Douglass. To ensure that his words remain accessible, Yale University Press and a series of historical editors are producing modern editions of Douglass's autobiographies as well as his correspondence and speeches. The Library of Congress has digitized its entire collection of Douglass's papers and made them available at its American Memory website. Yale University's Gilder Lehrman Center awards an annual Frederick Douglass Prize for the best book on slavery or abolition. Monuments to Douglass stand in all of the cities and towns where he once lived, and Cedar Hill, his Anacostia, D.C., home is a National Park Service site visited by thousands each year.
The influence of Frederick Douglass reaches beyond his symbolic role as America's most famous former slave, although in his lifetime moving from slavery to freedom proved a tremendous accomplishment. He continues to be relevant to both history and modern American culture because he moved beyond enjoying freedom to dedicate his life to the principle that struggle is necessary to achieve progress. His desire to make his world a more just place led him to fight for the abolition of slavery and to support social justice and civil rights for African Americans and women. We would do well to follow his example, and to take inspiration from his famous words that "It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake."
L. Diane Barnes
Youngstown State University
What are Douglass's views on Christianity?
Douglass does not hold back on his views regarding the slaveowners' interpretation of Christianity. When writing about Thomas Auld, he explained that his master had experienced a religious conversion but did not change for the better; rather, he found greater sanction for his cruelty through religion. Covey was also a religious man, but readers of the autobiography learned about his deceit, treachery, and brutality. At Freeland's farm Douglass remarked how pleased he was that the man pretended no religion; according to him, "religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and the basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others" (57). Such slaveowners were capable of gross misdeeds and blasphemy but pretended that they were paragons of virtue. In the Appendix, Douglass clarified his views on Christianity. He explained that he was not irreligious, but that the Christianity of Christ was far different than the Christianity of the southern whites. They were above all hypocrites and traitors to the word of God. Throughout the work it is clear that Douglass locates the true faith in the black community, where it was purer and unadulterated by racism and evil.
What are the elements of traditional African religion and dialect in the autobiography?
Although Christianity has a far larger presence in the autobiography than traditional African religion, it is nonetheless present in the work. It is present in the wild, raw, and emotional outpourings of song by the slaves in the field and forest. It is exemplified by Sandy Jenkins, the slave who counsels Douglass to carry a special root at his side so he will go unmolested by Covey. Jenkins tells him, "he had carried it for years; and since he had done so, he had never received a blow, and never expected to while he carried it." Douglass was skeptical but took the root with him. In the end, the root was more of a symbol than a literal object to ward off violence; it symbolized the power of African tradition and community in resisting the bonds of slavery. African dialect is expressly ignored by Douglass in the writing of his work, but the weight of accumulated oral traditions and speech underlie the work. Many of the stories Douglass related from his younger days could only come from the stories told by slaves in their own voices. Thus, African religion and the dialect and stories of the slaves are present in the Narrative, albeit in a limited fashion.
What are Douglass's strengths?
Douglass is a man who seems to possess nearly all strengths and no weaknesses. The former include humility, compassion, kindness, sympathy, intelligence, patience, fortitude, and wisdom. He derived great pleasure in his work with others and often put them above himself. He was not aggressive; even in his "fight" with Covey he did not actually fight back but simply resisted Covey's attack and would not let him beat him. He was tireless in his devotion to abolition; he toured the North and gave speeches, wrote journal articles, and told his story time and time again. He gave a voice to those who were still enmeshed in the net of slavery. He was a brilliant writer and speaker; he utilized skillful rhetorical devices and impressed all who listened to him. He was assiduous and diligent, never giving up on things that were important to him: learning how to read and write, escaping from slavery, and helping his black brethren. He was also selfless, devoting himself to the cause of women's suffrage in his later years. All in all, Frederick Douglass was one of the most remarkable Americans that ever lived.
What are the various ways in which Douglass expresses the horrors of slavery?
Douglass's autobiography reveals a multitude of ways in which African Americans suffered under the yoke of slavery. They did not know their own birthdays or much other information about their past. They rarely knew their family members or were torn from them without warning. They were frequently without enough food, clothing, or sleep. They were beaten mercilessly and cruelly, sometimes when they had committed no offense. Some women were raped and forced to bear the children of their master. Some were killed or maimed. They were forbidden from attaining any sort of education for fear that they would become unmanageable, while slaveholders maintained ignorance was also good for the slaves, who would be unhappy with knowledge. Douglass's grandmother, who had cared for several generations of the Anthony family, was turned out into the forest to die alone. Slave Demby was killed by Mr. Gore for refusing to come out of the river to finish his beating. Slaves had no legal rights; therefore, there was no way to prosecute anyone who killed one of them. They had to conceal their true feelings and lie about their happiness in order not to be killed. They were considered assets of the estate and valued just like animals. Overall, Douglass's text is rife with damning evidence about the terrible nature of slavery in America.
What are the tone and style Douglass employs in his prose?
Douglass is a master of the written word. He employs metaphor, pathos, wit, irony, and other literary devices. His tone is placid and removed; he relates the most horrifying events in a stable, straight-forward fashion. Sometimes a note of melodrama seeps into the text, but most of the time Douglass is cool and intellectual. He jumps between past and present, sometimes relating personal stories and sometimes reflecting on society and slavery as a whole. There is little dialogue present, which helps to elevate the text from personal narrative to historical document. His prose flows well and is lucidly rendered. He has an excellent command of language and presents an elevated, intellectual style throughout - which aided his cause to refute slavery's lie that African-Americans were not capable of intelligent thought.
What are Douglass's perceptions of the North?
Douglass was very surprised at what he found in New Bedford. He had expected that the people in the North would be no different than those who did not own slaves in the South - they would be poor, quaint, and live humbly. He assumed that only those who owned slaves could be rich and comfortable. However, New Bedford subverted his expectations. There were large and well-kept ships in the harbor, crowded warehouses of goods, and clean houses. The people were well-mannered, intelligent, and hardworking. Each man "seemed to understand his work, and went at it with a sober, yet cheerful earnestness" (78). There were many churches, all lovely and shining. Gardens populated the city. The residents seemed happier and healthier than those who resided in Maryland. The man with whom Douglass resided for a time was not a wealthy slaveowner, but had a better table and was more moral, religious, and politically-informed than nine-tenths of southern slaveowners. Douglass marveled at what he observed. However, things in the North were not perfect; he experienced prejudice in the calking business and could not find work. He was reduced to taking odd jobs. Thus, the North was not free from racism but was a much more pleasant place in which to dwell.
How does Douglass attain literacy and what does this ability do for him?
Mrs. Auld begins to teach Douglass his ABCs but is thwarted by her husband, who warns that the young slave will become unmanageable and unfit to be a slave if he enters the world of literacy. Hearing this, Douglass immediately resolves to learn to read. He accomplishes this by befriending the young white Baltimore street boys and snatching lessons from them in his free time. He attained a copy of the The Columbian Orator and devoured its contents - which inspired him with its anti-slavery tales. As for learning how to write, he studied the letters at the shipyard and worked in his master's son's copybooks when the family was not around. Literacy gave Douglass exactly what Master Auld had feared: autonomy, discontent, and the yearning to be free. When Douglass was literate he was no longer content to be in the bonds of servitude any longer. He became restless and agitated. However, literacy also gave him the ability to create relationships with his fellow slaves and to serve them. At Freeland's farm he gave lessons to nearly forty slaves, improving their lives immeasurably. Literacy was Douglass's first step on the road to freedom.
Why are William Lloyd Garrison's and Wendell Phillips's preface and letter, respectively, included at the beginning of the Narrative?
As a slave, Douglass's credibility was often questioned by reviewers. Antebellum slaves narratives often faced a test of their veracity. Two scandals in the early 1800s revealed slave narratives that were fabricated. Many events of Douglass's narrative would face scrutiny. Thus, noted white abolitionists Garrison and Phillips were enlisted by Douglass to add a preface and a letter; their doing so added legitimacy and credibility to the narrative. Both men were prominent abolitionists active in the American Anti-Slavery Society. Garrison wrote of how even though Maryland was not as barbarous in its slavery as other southern states, Douglass's work illuminated how bad it could still be. He also wrote of how much he admired and was inspired by the slave. Phillips wrote of how he knew Douglass personally and that the narrative was true in all of its particulars. Justice was done through the account. Douglass also cemented the veracity of his account by placing a daguerreotype of himself and his signature on the book's frontispiece. Most dramatically, he sent a copy to Thomas Auld and challenged him to publicly refute it.
How does Douglass's abolitionism begin and develop?
Douglass first hears the term "abolition" when he is living in Baltimore. Intrigued, the young slave tries to puzzle out the meaning. He eventually succeeds when he attains some of the city newspapers and reads about the current political endeavors to end the slavery in Washington, DC. He writes that the words "abolition" and "abolitionist" were attractive to him forever afterward. He read of emancipation in The Columbian Orator. It was not until he moved to New Bedford after he escaped slavery, however, that he was really able to embrace the abolitionist ideology and cause. He began reading William Lloyd Garrison's "The Liberator," writing "the paper became my meat and drink. My soul was set all on fire. Its sympathy for my brethren in bonds...sent a thrill of joy through my soul..." (80). At the end of the text Douglass explains that he was attending an anti-slavery convention in Nantucket when he was asked to speak. He nervously took the stage and began orating. This, he wrote, began his long career in "pleading the cause of my brethren" (80).
How does Douglass evolve from a boy and a slave to a fully-realized man and human being?
There are several significant moments in Frederick Douglass's life. First, he was chosen from among several eligible slave children to move to Baltimore. If he had not moved to that bustling city full of opportunities for greater freedom it is doubtful that he would have turned into the famed orator and reformer. Secondly, he realized that learning how to read and write would catapult him from ignorance and darkness to knowledge and illumination. Through expanding his mind and attaining a full realization of his capabilities, he realized he was not meant to be a slave and endeavored to free himself from bondage. Thirdly, at Covey's farm he finally stood up for himself and resisted Covey's brutal and capricious beatings. This took him from slave to man; his self fully-realized. Finally, to cement the gains earned by literacy and resistance, Douglass escaped from the oppressive land of the South where he was forever to be in servitude. The physical act of moving North was the final climax in the Narrative. Douglass was a free man, with both of the words "free" and "man" being significant.