Frederick Douglass

(1817-1895)

American abolitionist, orator, and writer, who escaped slavery and urged other blacks to do likewise before and during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Originally named Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, Douglass was born in Tuckahoe, Maryland. He was the son of a slave, Harriet Bailey, and was largely self-educated. Poor treatment instilled in him a hatred of slavery; he failed in an attempt to escape in 1836, but two years later he succeeded and reached New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he assumed the name of Douglass.

His career as an abolitionist began dramatically in 1841 at an antislavery convention in Nantucket, Massachusetts, where his impromptu address to the convention revealed him to be an orator of great eloquence. As “a recent graduate from the institution of slavery with his diploma on his back,” he was engaged as an agent of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. His speeches in the following years in the northern states and his work for the Underground Railroad did much to further the cause of the abolitionists and made his name a symbol of freedom and achievement among whites and blacks alike.

In 1845, Douglass, urged by his friends, came to England to escape the danger of seizure under the Fugitive Slave Laws. His lectures in the British Isles on the slavery question in the United States aroused sympathy for the abolitionists’ cause and prompted his admirers to raise funds to purchase his freedom. After returning to the United States in 1847, Douglass became the “station-master and conductor” of the Underground Railroad in Rochester, New York, where he also established the abolitionist newspaper North Star, which he edited until 1860.

During these years, Douglass became friendly with the American abolitionist John Brown and was given a hint of Brown’s strategy of destroying “the money value of slave property” by training a force of men to help large numbers of slaves escape to freedom in the North via the Underground Railroad. When Douglass learned on the eve of the raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859 that it was Brown’s intention to seize the federal arsenal and armoury there, he objected. Warning Brown that an attack on federal property would be tantamount to an assault on the U.S. government and would prove disastrous, Douglass withdrew from further participation.

After the raid, fearing reprisals by the government, Douglass fled to Europe, where he stayed for six months. On his return to the United States, he campaigned for Abraham Lincoln during the presidential election of 1860 and, following the outbreak of the Civil War, helped raise two regiments of black soldiers, the Massachusetts 54th and 55th. After the war, Douglass, as a recognized leader of and spokesman for the former black slaves, fought for enactment of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution of the United States. He became U.S. marshal for the District of Columbia (1877-1881), recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia (1881-1886), and U.S. minister to Haiti (1889-1891). He died in Washington, D.C., on February 20, 1895.

So impressive were Douglass’s oratorical and intellectual abilities that opponents refused to believe he had been a slave and alleged that he was an impostor foisted on the public by the abolitionists. In reply, Douglass wrote Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), which he revised in later years as; My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), in final form, it appeared in 1882 under the title Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. My Bondage and My Freedom was reprinted in1970 as an Ebony Classic by Johnson Publishing, USA.

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