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Frederick Douglass was an escaped slave who became a prominent activist, author and public speaker. He became a leader in the abolitionist movement, which sought to end the practice of slavery, before and during the Civil War. After that conflict and the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862, he continued to push for equality and human rights until his death in 1895.
Douglass’ 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, described his time as an enslaved worker in Maryland. It was one of five autobiographies he penned, along with dozens of noteworthy speeches, despite receiving minimal formal education.
An advocate for women’s rights, and specifically the right of women to vote, Douglass’ legacy as an author and leader lives on. His work served as an inspiration to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and beyond.
READ MORE: What Frederick Douglass Revealed—and Omitted—in His Famous Autobiographies
Who Was Frederick Douglass?
Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in or around 1818 in Talbot County, Maryland. Douglass himself was never sure of his exact birth date.
His mother was of Native American ancestry and his father was of African and European descent. He was actually born Frederick Bailey (his mother’s name), and took the name Douglass only after he escaped. His full name at birth was “Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey.”
After he was separated from his mother as an infant, Douglass lived for a time with his maternal grandmother, Betty Bailey. However, at the age of six, he was moved away from her to live and work on the Wye House plantation in Maryland.
From there, Douglass was “given” to Lucretia Auld, whose husband, Thomas, sent him to work with his brother Hugh in Baltimore. Douglass credits Hugh’s wife Sophia with first teaching him the alphabet.
From there, he taught himself to read and write. By the time he was hired out to work under William Freeland, he was teaching other enslaved people to read using the Bible.
As word spread of his efforts to educate fellow enslaved people, Thomas Auld took him back and transferred him to Edward Covey, a farmer who was known for his brutal treatment of the enslaved people in his charge. Roughly 16 at this time, Douglass was regularly whipped by Covey.
Escape from Slavery
After several failed attempts at escape, Douglass finally left Covey’s farm in 1838, first boarding a train to Havre de Grace, Maryland. From there he traveled through Delaware, another slave state, before arriving in New York and the safe house of abolitionist David Ruggles.
Once settled in New York, he sent for Anna Murray, a free Black woman from Baltimore he met while in captivity with the Aulds. She joined him, and the two were married in September 1838. They would have five children together.
READ MORE: Frederick Douglass's Emotional Meeting with His Former Slave Master
From Slave to Abolitionist Leader
After their marriage, the young couple moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where they met Nathan and Mary Johnson, a married couple who were born “free persons of color.” It was the Johnsons who inspired the couple to take the surname Douglass, after the character in the Sir Walter Scott poem, “The Lady of the Lake.”
In New Bedford, Douglass began attending meetings of the abolitionist movement. During these meetings, he was exposed to the writings of abolitionist and journalist William Lloyd Garrison.
The two men eventually met when both were asked to speak at an abolitionist meeting, during which Douglass shared his story of slavery and escape. It was Garrison who encouraged Douglass to become a speaker and leader in the abolitionist movement.
By 1843, Douglass had become part of the American Anti-Slavery Society’s “Hundred Conventions” project, a six-month tour through the United States. Douglass was physically assaulted several times during the tour by those opposed to the abolitionist movement.
In one particularly brutal attack, in Pendleton, Indiana, Douglass’ hand was broken. The injuries never fully healed, and he never regained full use of his hand.
In 1858, radical abolitionist John Brown stayed with Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York, as he planned his raid on the U.S. military arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, part of his attempt to establish a stronghold of formerly enslaved people in the mountains of Maryland and Virginia. Brown was caught and hanged for masterminding the attack, offering the following prophetic words as his final statement: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”
READ MORE: Why Frederick Douglass Matters
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Two years later, Douglass published the first and most famous of his autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. (He also authored My Bondage and My Freedom and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass).
In it Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he wrote: “From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace; and in the darkest hours of my career in slavery, this living word of faith and spirit of hope departed not from me, but remained like ministering angels to cheer me through the gloom.”
He also noted, “Thus is slavery the enemy of both the slave and the slaveholder.”
Frederick Douglass in Ireland and Great Britain
Later that same year, Douglass would travel to Ireland and Great Britain. At the time, the former country was just entering the early stages of the Irish Potato Famine, or the Great Hunger.
While overseas, he was impressed by the relative freedom he had as a man of color, compared to what he had experienced in the United States. During his time in Ireland, he would meet the Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell, who would become an inspiration for his later work.
In England, Douglass also delivered what would later be viewed as one of his most famous speeches, the so-called “London Reception Speech.”
In the speech, he said, “What is to be thought of a nation boasting of its liberty, boasting of its humanity, boasting of its Christianity, boasting of its love of justice and purity, and yet having within its own borders three millions of persons denied by law the right of marriage?… I need not lift up the veil by giving you any experience of my own. Every one that can put two ideas together, must see the most fearful results from such a state of things…”
Frederick Douglass’ Paper
When he returned to the United States in 1847, Douglass began publishing his own abolitionist newsletter, the North Star. He also became involved in the movement for women’s rights.
He was the only African American to attend the Seneca Falls Convention, a gathering of women’s rights activists in New York, in 1848.
He spoke forcefully during the meeting and said, “In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world.”
He would later include coverage of women’s rights issues in the pages of the North Star. The newsletter’s name was changed to Frederick Douglass’ Paper in 1851, and was published until 1860, just before the start of the Civil War.
Frederick Douglass Quotes
In 1852, he delivered another of his more famous speeches, one that later came to be called “What to a slave is the 4th of July?”
In one section of the speech, Douglass noted, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”
For the 24th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, in 1886, Douglass delivered a rousing address in Washington, D.C., during which he said, “where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”
Frederick Douglass During the Civil War
During the brutal conflict that divided the still-young United States, Douglass continued to speak and worked tirelessly for the end of slavery and the right of newly freed Black Americans to vote.
Although he supported President Abraham Lincoln in the early years of the Civil War, Douglass would fall into disagreement with the politician after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which effectively ended the practice of slavery. Douglass was disappointed that Lincoln didn’t use the proclamation to grant formerly enslaved people the right to vote, particularly after they had fought bravely alongside soldiers for the Union army.
It is said, though, that Douglass and Lincoln later reconciled and, following the latter’s assassination in 1865, and the passage of the 13th amendment, 14th amendment, and 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution (which, respectively, outlawed slavery, granted formerly enslaved people citizenship and equal protection under the law, and protected all citizens from racial discrimination in voting), Douglass was asked to speak at the dedication of the Emancipation Memorial in Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Park in 1876.
Historians, in fact, suggest that Lincoln’s widow, Mary Todd Lincoln, bequeathed the late-president’s favorite walking stick to Douglass after that speech.
In the post-war Reconstruction era, Douglass served in many official positions in government, including as an ambassador to the Dominican Republic, thereby becoming the first Black man to hold high office. He also continued speaking and advocating for African American and women’s rights.
In the 1868 presidential election, he supported the candidacy of former Union general Ulysses S. Grant, who promised to take a hard line against white supremacist-led insurgencies in the post-war South. Grant notably also oversaw passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which was designed to suppress the growing Ku Klux Klan movement.
READ MORE: Why Frederick Douglass Wanted Black Men to Fight in the Civil War
Frederick Douglass: Later Life and Death
In 1877, Douglass met with Thomas Auld, the man who once “owned” him, and the two reportedly reconciled.
Douglass’ wife Anna died in 1882, and he married white activist Helen Pitts in 1884.
In 1888, he became the first African American to receive a vote for President of the United States, during the Republican National Convention. Ultimately, though, Benjamin Harrison received the party nomination.
Douglass remained an active speaker, writer and activist until his death in 1895. He died after suffering a heart attack on his way home from a meeting of the National Council of Women, a women’s rights group still in its infancy at the time, in Washington, D.C.
His life’s work still serves as an inspiration to those who seek equality and a more just society.
Frederick Douglas, PBS.org.
Frederick Douglas, National Parks Service, nps.gov.
Frederick Douglas, 1818-1895, Documenting the South, University of North Carolina, docsouth.unc.edu.
Frederick Douglass Quotes, brainyquote.com.
“Reception Speech. At Finsbury Chapel, Moorfields, England, May 12, 1846.” USF.edu.
“What to the slave is the 4th of July?” TeachingAmericanHistory.org.
Graham, D.A. (2017). “Donald Trump’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” The Atlantic.
Thoughts for All Time
A statue of Frederick Douglass by sculptor Ed Dwight (1981) stands in the visitor center next to a wall of quotes.
"No, I make no pretension to patriotism. So long as my voice can be heard on this or the other side of the Atlantic, I will hold up America to the lighting scorn of moral indignation. In doing this, I shall feel myself discharging the duty of a true patriot for he is a lover of his country who rebukes and does not excuse its sins."
"Love of God, Love of Man, Love of Country," speech at Market Hall, New York City, October 22, 1847
"It may be said that I am growing old and am easily satisfied with things as they are. When our young men shall have worked and waited for victory as long as I have worked and waited, they will not only learn to have patience with the men opposed to them, but with me also for having patience with such."
"The Race Problem," speech at the Bethel Literacy and Historical Association, October 21, 1890
Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, 1881
"What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham your boasted liberty, and unholy license your national greatness, swelling vanity your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence, your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to him, more bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy, a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages."
"What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" speech in Rochester, New York, July 5, 1852
"We are fighting for unity unity of idea unity of sentiment, unity of object, unity of institutions, in which there shall be no North, no South, no East, no West, no black, no white, but solidarity of the nation, making every slave free, and every free man a voter."
“Our Work Is Not Done,” speech at the Annual Meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, December 3-4, 1863
"I have made up my mind wherever I go, I shall go as a man, and not as a slave… I shall always aim to be courteous and mild in deportment towards all with whom I come in contact, at the same time firmly and constantly endeavoring to assert my equal right as a man and a brother."
Address to the American Colonization Society, Faneuil Hall Boston, Massachusetts, June 8, 1849
"In respect to political rights, we hold woman to be justly entitled to all we claim for man… all the political rights which it is expedient for man to exercise, it is equally so for women."
“The Rights of Women,” North Star, July 28, 1848
"Mankind differs as the waves, but they are one as the sea."
"A Sentimental Visit to England," September 22, 1887
"I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong."
"The Anti-Slavery Movement," Rochester, New York, 1855
"It is something to give the Negro religion. It is more to give him justice. It is something to give him the Bible it is more to give him the ballot. It is something to tell him that there is a place for him in the Christian’s heaven it is more to let him have a place in this Christian country to live upon in peace."
letter to W. H. Thomas, July 16, 1886
"Men may combine to prevent cruelty to animals, for they are dumb and cannot speak for themselves but we are men and must speak for ourselves, or we shall not be spoken for at all."
"Address to the People of the United States," delivered at a Convention of Colored Men, Louisville, Kentucky, September 25, 1883
"When I ran away from slavery, it was for myself when I advocated emancipation, it was for my people but when I stood up for the rights of woman, self was out of the question."
"Address to the National American Woman Suffrage Association," April 14, 1888
"I would give a woman vote, give her motive to qualify herself to vote, precisely as I insisted upon giving the colored man the right to vote."
Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, 1881
"Standing as we do upon the watch-tower of human freedom, we cannot be deterred from an expression of our approbation of any movement, however humble, to improve and elevate the character and condition of any members of the human family."
"Right is of no sex. Truth is of no color. God is the Father of us all, and all we are brethren."
masthead of the North Star
Frederick Douglass's strength and determination are captured in this statue by Ed Dwight (1981) that stands in the visitor center.
"We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future. To all inspiring motives, to noble deeds which can be gained from the past, we are welcome. But now is the time, the important time. Your fathers have lived, died, and you must do your work."
"What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" speech in Rochester New York, July 5, 1852
Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, 1881
“What the Black Man Wants” speech at the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, Boston, Massachusetts, April 1865
“Southern Barbarism” speech on the occasion of the 24th Anniversary of Emancipation, Washington, D.C., 1886
Life and Times Of Frederick Douglass, 1881
letter from Montrose, Scotland, to William Lloyd Garrison, February 26, 1846
speech at West India Emancipation celebration, Rochester, New York, August 1, 1848
North Star, January 26, 1849
"West India Emancipation” speech in Canandaigua, New York, August 4, 1857
10 Facts You Might Not Know About Frederick Douglass, in Honor of His 200th Birthday
This famed abolitionist’s story is even more fascinating than what many of us learn in school.
He escaped slavery at age 20 and went on to become one of the most important political activists fighting for emancipation and the equality of all people. He published three autobiographies, spent years writing and editing an influential abolitionist newspaper, broke barriers for African Americans in government service, served as an international spokesman and statesman, and helped combat racial prejudice during the Reconstruction Era. And yet there is even more to know about Frederick Douglass’ remarkable story than the facts we learn in school.
Here are a few things that might surprise you about this pioneering historic figure as the National Park Service prepares to celebrate the bicentennial of his birth at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Washington, D.C., February 17-18, 2018.
1. One of the reasons we celebrate Black History Month in February is because of Frederick Douglass. Historian and educator Carter G. Woodson founded the precursor to Black History Month, “Negro History Week,” to coincide with the time of year when both Douglass and Abraham Lincoln celebrated their birthdays. Although Douglass was born into slavery and his actual birth date is unknown, he chose to commemorate his birthday on February 14.
Frederick Douglass, circa 1866.
2. Douglass was the most photographed American of the 19th century, sitting for more portraits than even Abraham Lincoln. Douglass intentionally sought out the cameras, believing that photography was an important tool for achieving civil rights because it offered a way to portray African Americans fairly and accurately. He intentionally did not smile for the camera, in part because he wanted to counter “happy slave” caricatures that were common at the time, particularly at places such as minstrel shows where white actors performed racist skits in blackface.
3. Frederick Douglass chose his name from a poem. Douglass was born with the name Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. After he successfully escaped slavery in 1838, he and his wife adopted the name Douglass from a narrative poem by Sir Walter Scott, &ldquoThe Lady of the Lake,&rdquo at the suggestion of a friend.
4. Douglass became a free man thanks to help from European allies. His first autobiography, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,” was so popular after it was published in 1845, he feared the publicity could lead to his capture, and he chose to live in Ireland and Britain for two years. While abroad, he went on a speaking tour and his British supporters were so moved, they collected funds to purchase his freedom in 1846. His autobiographies remain some of the most important and widely read accounts of slavery today.
5. Douglass was the only African American to attend the First Women’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Shortly after the convention, Douglass wrote in his influential weekly abolitionist newspaper, the North Star, “In respect to political rights, we hold woman to be justly entitled to all we claim for man.” In 1866, he cofounded the American Equal Rights Association with Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other feminist leaders supporting suffrage for all people.
6. During the Civil War, Douglass passionately helped enlist free black men to fight in the Union Army, convinced it would help African Americans win freedom, respect and full citizenship. He wrote persuasive articles in his weekly newspaper, and when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 allowing African Americans to serve, two of Douglass’ sons were among the first to enlist. Douglass also helped improve conditions for the soldiers, meeting with Lincoln on issues such as equal pay and merit-based promotions, which African American soldiers eventually received.
7. Douglass was the first African American to receive a vote for president at a major political party convention. The vote came from the Kentucky delegation during the Republican National Convention of 1888.
8. Douglass was also the first African American to receive a vice presidential nomination when Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president, chose him as her running mate at the Equal Rights Party Convention in 1872, although he did not acknowledge the nomination or campaign for the office.
9. Later in his life, Douglass did much of his writing and deep thinking in a one-room cabin that he referred to as his “Growlery.” This odd name for the building on Douglass’ Cedar Hill property in Washington, D.C., was likely a reference to “Bleak House” by Charles Dickens in the book, the character John Jarndyce has a small library next to his bedroom where he goes when he needs a place of refuge. Today, the Park Service maintains a replica of the Growlery at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site made with materials from the original stone structure.
10. Many of Douglass’ possessions were lost in a devastating fire in 1877. Douglass was visiting Washington, D.C., in 1877 when his home in Rochester, New York, burned down in a suspected arson that destroyed most of his family’s possessions. He went on to purchase Cedar Hill, the property that would become his final home and the national park site in his name, and he lived in the nation’s capital from that point on instead of returning to New York. Hundreds of Douglass’ letters and the only known complete set of Douglass’ newspapers were lost in the 1877 fire, and no photographs of the Rochester home survive. All of the books, furniture and photographs that firefighters saved from the blaze were sent to Cedar Hill, however, and the Park Service continues to preserve surviving artifacts, from his collection of walking canes to the violin he taught his grandson to play. In 1927, the city of Rochester built a public library at the site of Douglass’ former home that was formally renamed the Frederick Douglass Community Library in 2016.
Learn more about Douglass and his legacy at www.nps.gov/frdo.
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Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln
Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818 along the Eastern Shore of Maryland. During his childhood, the wife of one of his owners taught Douglass the alphabet. Later, she was forbidden to continue because slave literacy was illegal in Maryland. Undeterred, young Douglass taught himself, recognizing that education could be “the pathway from slavery to freedom.” 1 Experiencing the cruelty and moral injustices of the institution of slavery, Frederick Douglass successfully fled to the North in 1838 at age twenty by posing as a free black sailor and traveling via the Underground Railroad. Over the next six decades, he worked tirelessly to advocate for enslaved and free African Americans, rising to prominence in the United States government and throughout the entire country.
Upon arrival in New York City in 1838, Douglass was officially a free man, but he was also aware that there was much to be done to free those still in bondage. Douglass relocated to Massachusetts where he attended antislavery meetings and read abolitionist literature. In 1841, Douglass met William Lloyd Garrison, a famous abolitionist and editor of The Liberator, and began working for the cause as an orator—telling his story throughout New England and encouraging the end of slavery. 2 After moving to Rochester, New York, in 1843, he and his wife Anna Murray-Douglass began facilitating the movement of enslaved fugitives to Canada via the Underground Railroad.
Frederick Douglass, pictured here in 1876, was the most photographed man in nineteenth century America.
After publishing Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave in 1845 and founding his own antislavery newspaper, The North Star, two years later, Douglass was the most famous African-American man in the country. 3 He decided to break ties with Garrison, his one-time mentor, believing that African Americans should lead the American abolition movement. Meanwhile, his eloquent speeches outlining the moral indignities of slavery garnered national attention, and bolstered the popularity of abolitionism throughout the country. In 1852, Douglass gave what is now his best-known speech, lamenting the state of American racial inequality: “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?”
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham… There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour. 4
Douglass was also very involved in national politics, and as the presidential election of 1860 approached, he advocated for candidates with strong antislavery platforms. American voters received a ballot crowded with four candidates: Abraham Lincoln (Republican), John C. Breckenridge (Southern Democrat), Stephen A. Douglas (Democrat), and John Bell (Constitutional Union). Douglas’s belief in “popular sovereignty,” Breckenridge’s pro-slavery platform, and Bell’s aversion to the issue entirely left Frederick Douglass to endorse Lincoln and the Republicans, whom he believed were more antislavery than the divided Democrats. 5 With four primary candidates, a breakaway sect of the Democratic Party, and the hotly contested issue of slavery, the election itself was highly complex. Abraham Lincoln, elected president with less than forty-percent of the popular vote, successfully earned the majority of Electoral College votes. After the election, Frederick Douglass eloquently outlined the benefits of Lincoln’s presidency:
What, then, has been gained to the anti-slavery cause by the election of Mr. Lincoln? Not much, in itself considered, but very much when viewed in the light of its relations and bearings. Lincoln's election … has taught the North its strength, and shown the South its weakness. More important still, it has demonstrated the possibility of electing, if not an Abolitionist, at least an anti-slavery reputation to the Presidency of the United States. 6
This political cartoon depicts presidential candidates tearing apart the U.S. map, emphasizing the divided nature of the country over the election of 1860
At the same time, Lincoln’s antislavery sentiments were lacking in the eyes of Douglass. While he is known to many today as the “Great Emancipator,” Abraham Lincoln’s own views on slavery were more multifaceted and convoluted than that title might imply, evolving significantly during the four years of his presidency. 7 Upon his inauguration, his moral outrage toward slavery was clear, but he made no political effort to outline a plan to emancipate millions of enslaved people throughout the country. His opinions often vacillated between the need to end the moral injustices of slavery while also gradually finding the “proper” solution for a country in turmoil. Early in his presidency, he sought to mollify slave states by preserving their constitutional right to maintain the practice of slavery. In many ways, Lincoln’s true feelings about slavery were veiled by his desire to maintain the Union. Despite these intentions, his election to the presidency triggered the secession of southern states, and the Civil War began only a few months later in April 1861.
The two leaders shared a complicated relationship during Lincoln’s time in office. President Lincoln’s support of colonization efforts to displace free black Americans offended and angered Douglass. Lincoln, along with many antislavery politicians, believed that black and white Americans could not peacefully coexist post-emancipation. Thus, he proposed sending freed African Americans to Liberia or Central America—an idea popularized by the American Colonization Society, whose past members included former U.S. presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. 8 On August 14, 1862, President Lincoln invited a delegation of prominent black leaders (interestingly, this did not include Frederick Douglass) to the White House in order to discuss these ideas. Lincoln’s proposition illuminated the limits of his ideas on equality: “It is better for us both to be separated… You may believe you can live in Washington or elsewhere in the United States the remainder of your life… This is (I speak in no unkind sense) an extremely selfish view of the case.” 9 Click here to learn more about the enslaved households of President Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe.
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham… There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.
Frederick Douglass published a scathing response in Douglass’ Monthly:
In this address Mr. Lincoln assumes the language and arguments of an itinerant Colonization lecturer, showing all his inconsistencies, his pride of race and blood, his contempt for Negroes and his canting hypocrisy… though elected as an anti-slavery man by Republican and Abolition voters, Mr. Lincoln is quite a genuine representative of American prejudice and Negro hatred and far more concerned for the preservation of slavery, and the favor of the Border Slave States, than for any sentiment of magnanimity or principle of justice and humanity. 10
Though highly critical of Lincoln’s sluggishness toward emancipation and his support of the racist underpinnings behind colonization, Douglass also respected the president, especially following the implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. In Douglass’ Monthly, he wrote:
Abraham Lincoln… in his own peculiar, cautious, forbearing and hesitating way, slow, but we hope sure, has, while the loyal heart was near breaking with despair, proclaimed and declared: That on the First of January, in the Year of Our Lord One Thousand, Eight Hundred and Sixty-three, All Persons Held as Slaves Within Any State or Any Designated Part of a State, The People Whereof Shall Then be in Rebellion Against the United States, Shall be Thenceforward and Forever Free. 11
Within the article, Douglass praised President Lincoln for the decision and assured readers of its legitimacy: “Abraham Lincoln may be slow, Abraham Lincoln may desire peace even at the price of leaving our terrible national sore untouched, to fester on for generations, but Abraham Lincoln is not the man to reconsider, retract and contradict words and purposes solemnly proclaimed over his official signature.” 12
As the Civil War continued to rage, Douglass dedicated himself to recruiting African-American soldiers and encouraging equal pay and treatment for the enlisted. He recruited his sons, Charles and Lewis, to join the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and mass-produced broadsides of his enlistment speech: “Men of Color to Arms!” in March 1863. 13 To further his cause, Douglass decided to pay the president a visit at the White House on August 10, 1863. At this meeting, he urged the president to improve the treatment of African-American soldiers fighting to save the country. Douglass offered many critiques on the Union’s misconduct toward black soldiers, and the president listened to his requests respectfully with rapt attention. More importantly, Douglass illuminated the importance of African-American enlistment for the Union cause, and Lincoln gave him permission to recruit in the South. 14
Douglass’s mass-produced broadside urging men of color to join the Union cause
201 Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
One year later, Douglass was invited back to the White House to discuss Lincoln’s emancipation efforts specifically, the president sought advice on how “to induce the slaves in the rebel States to come within the Federal lines” in order to ensure their freedom—especially with an election on the horizon, which Lincoln feared he might lose. At this meeting, prior tension between the two men began to disappear, and Douglass commented in his autobiography that “What [Lincoln] said on this day showed a deeper moral conviction against slavery than I had even seen before in anything spoken or written by him.” 15
After President Lincoln’s second inauguration in 1865, Douglass met with him for the last time. Douglass made the trip to Washington, D.C. to hear the president’s speech, and later attempted to visit him at the White House. White doorkeepers initially barred his entrance, based solely upon his race. However, Douglass negotiated his way into the East Room, where he was happily received by his foe-turned-friend. There, Lincoln said, “I am glad to see you. I saw you in the crowd to-day, listening to my inaugural address…Douglass there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours. I want to know what you think of it.” 16 This meeting, where a formerly-enslaved man was greeted by the American president as a “man among men,” resonated with Douglass for the rest of his life. 17
Lincoln’s favorite walking stick, gifted to Douglass after his assassination
FRDO 1898, Cane, Courtesy of the National Park Service, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
Less than two months later, President Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth during a trip to Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. Following his death, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln sent Douglass her husband’s “favorite walking staff” in recognition of the relationship between the two men, and the impact that Douglass’s advice had had on the president. 18 Douglass—as Lincoln’s friend, critic, and adviser—perhaps best summarized his thoughts about the president during a speech in 1876, given during the unveiling of the Freedman’s Monument in the nation’s capital:
Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model…He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men… though the Union was more to him than our freedom or our future, under his wise and beneficent rule we saw ourselves gradually lifted from the depths of slavery to the heights of liberty and manhood. 19
The Emancipation Memorial in Washington, D.C., paid for by donations from emancipated African Americans across the country and unveiled in 1868
About eight months after Lincoln’s assassination, the thirteenth Amendment was ratified, formally abolishing slavery throughout the country. 20 Frederick Douglass continued to fight for racial equality during the Reconstruction era, focusing on African-American voting rights, women’s suffrage, and equality for all Americans. Later in his life, he served the country in many different capacities, working in the administrations of Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, and Benjamin Harrison in various positions including U.S. Marshal of the District of Columbia, Recorder of Deeds, and Consul General to Haiti. 21 Click here to learn more about the enslaved households of President Ulysses Grant. His legacy is inestimable—a man born into slavery, who became the voice of a movement and a trailblazer who illuminated the path to equality in a time of vast disparity. His death in 1895 ushered in a new era of African-American activism led by intellectuals such as Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, who carried the legacy of Douglass’s cause forward into an uncertain century.
Special thanks to Ka'mal McClarin at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site for assistance with this article.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Quotes About Education
The first step in her downward course was in her ceasing to instruct me. She now commenced to practise her husband’s precepts. She finally became even more violent in her opposition than her husband himself. She was not satisfied with simply doing as well as he had commanded she seemed anxious to do better. Nothing seemed to make her angrier than to see me with a newspaper. She seemed to think that here lay the danger. I have had her rush at me with a face made all up of fury, and snatch from me a newspaper, in a manner that fully revealed her apprehension. She was an apt woman and a little experience soon demonstrated, to her satisfaction, that education and slavery were incompatible with each other. Chapter 7
Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master. Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read. The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read.Chapter 6
After apologizing for his ignorance, and reminding the audience that slavery was a poor school for the human intellect and heart, he proceeded to narrate some of the facts in his own history as a slave, and in the course of his speech gave utterance to many noble thoughts and thrilling reflections. Preface
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: Autobiography Detailing Slavery History, Escape, Freedom and More
In the autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the author details portions of slavery history in this compelling first-person account.
Slavery history is filled with books about the “peculiar institution” but slave narratives like Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass provide a unique primary historical document for students and professors, giving a strong look at events from the perspective of those enslaved.
Frederick Douglass and Slavery History
Douglass’s mother was a slave, and his father a white man, likely his master. He describes being separated from his mother at a young age, and her death when he was approximately seven years old. These facts are laid out succinctly, as if needing to be gotten out of the way in Chapter 1, while Chapter 2 focuses on daily life and the operations of the farm on which he lived.
This narrative, a slim 11 chapters with an appendix, totalling 76 pages, has a goal: to set the record straight on the experiences of slaves. Chapter 3 uses descriptions of a local plantation owner, Colonel Lloyd, to show how demeaning work could be. Chapter 4 describes the killing of slaves by white people. Douglass focuses on the lack of consequences for white murderers of black people, but also on the terror such examples created in slaves, another level of dehumanization.
In Chapter 5 Douglass describes his move to Baltimore, and Chapter 6 is pivotal, for Mrs. Auld, his new mistress, is kind and teaches him to read. Douglass notes that “”From that moment I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom” and he decided that every bit of education he could receive would be critical. Chapter 7 continues his description of life as a city slave.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and Escape
Once Frederick Douglass acquires basic literacy he begins to read more widely, when possible, and becomes despondent when contemplating the plight of the slave. “I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity,” he laments in Chapter 7, and decides to escape.
In Chapter 8 Douglass describes nearly being sent away, and then in Chapter 9 is sent to live with Mr. Auld’s brother, Thomas, who deprived slaves of enough food. “Not to give a slave enough to eat, is regarded as the most aggravated development of meanness even among slaveholders,” he notes.
Thomas Auld had undergone a religious conversion to Methodism shortly before Douglass came under his control, and in this chapter the author discusses this issue as it pertains to Auld: “Prior to his conversion, he relied upon his own depravity to shield and sustain him in his savage barbarity but after his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty.”
Religion as justification for slavery clearly angers Douglass. In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and future writings he zeroes in on this specific use of the Bible and religion and decries it. This section in Chapter 9 is his first printed discussion of the issue, a small seed that grows throughout his body of published works.
Chapter 10 is a turning point in Frederick Douglass’ life as he is sold to a new master, Mr. Covey, and becomes a field hand for the first time. Whipped repeatedly by his new master, Douglass reaches a point of no return with Covey after six months and gets into a physical fight with his master, gaining confidence when Covey backs off. Sent to live with Mr. Freeland, an educated southern gentleman, Douglass is able to create his own school, housed by a freed black, and teach more than 40 fellow slaves how to read.
The chapter ends with a description of a thwarted escape attempt and Douglass being sent out as a skilled apprentice back in Baltimore, where he is more determined than ever to live as a free man. As he notes, “I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one….He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery he must be made to feel that slavery is right and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man.”
Chapter 11 details the author’s escape he leaves out the details of his successful escape to New York in 1838, afraid to implicate those who helped. Omitting these details was understandable in 1845, when the book was published, as slavery was still legal and aiding slaves to escape was a crime in many states. Douglass does provide more details in future writings, but this section of the book feels anticlimatic, leaving the reader wanting more.
The Appendix is a diatribe against religion, full of self-righteous indignation about the use of religion to justify slavery. It detracts from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and does not blend well with the original manuscript. In the end the book would be better without the final section, standing well as a primary source document from the 1840s and as an articulate, strong slave narrative.
To Buy the Book Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass:
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Dover Publications, 1995. ISBN: 0-486-28499-9
Major Themes in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”
There are a number of important themes in “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”. A few of which include inequality, education and an urban environment as the keys to freedom, as well as the duality of Christianity in terms of its true values within the institution of slavery are three themes that are present in the autobiography of Frederick Douglass. These three themes not only occur frequently throughout “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”, but are in many ways interconnected.
One of the most prevalent themes in “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” as well asother slave narratives by others, is that of inequality. Although Douglass attempts to show how African American slaves are simply human beings like their white counterparts, there are numerous instances in which it is shown how many whites did not accept slaves as truly human. Frederick Douglass perceives the gross racial inequities at an early age and notes, “I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell his birhday. They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time. A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege" (13). Merely pointing out the fact that he did not know the details of his background is a structurally vital part of the narrative since it defines an early and formative example of inequality, but Douglass takes this observation one step further by remarking upon the difference between the white and black children. Instead of merely accepting this difference, he is keenly aware of the inequality of even the most minor details. These descriptions of inequality plague the first half of the book and the reader realizes the “worth" of a slave when Douglass states in one of the important quotes from “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass : An American Slave”, “We were all ranked together at the valuation. Men and women, old and young, married ands single, were ranked with horses, sheep and swine. There were horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children, all holding the same rank in the scale of being, and were all subjected to the same narrow examination" (51). It is clear that Douglass wants his readers to see the humanity of both himself and other slaves and wishes to show the extent to which perceptions of inequality are flawed.
For Frederick Douglass, there are two routes that appear to be the most direct path to a sense of freedom and liberty a progressive, urban environment as well as education. At first, he is convinced that the key to freedom is as simple as moving to an urban area. He remarks, “A city slave is almost a freeman, compared with a slave on the plantation. He is much better fed and clothed, and enjoys privileges altogether unknown to the slave on the plantation. There is a vestige of decency, a sense of shame, that does much to curb and check those outbreaks of atrocious cruelty enacted on the plantation" (38). Later, he comes to find that while the conditions may be slightly better there is still a great deal of injustice. He then begins to think that his education will be the secret to freedom and liberty and although he endeavors to learn as much as possible, he begins to doubt whether or not he was correct. At one point he states, “I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out" (47). In the end, these elements of freedom—becoming urban and educated—led to his final act of rebellion, which he hoped would bring freedom and education does not always appear to be a salvation from slavery. He engages in a fight with is cruel master. He can no longer stand the combination of inequality with his newfound sense of education and urban knowledge. He states, “This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free" (70). He gets away and becomes a free man, only to realize that these is still no such thing as complete freedom for a black man, even in the North. He recalls, “There I was in the midst of thousands, and yet a perfect stranger without home and without friends, in the midst of thousand of my own brethren—children of a common Father, and yet I dared not to unfold to any one of them my sad condition" (79). For Douglass, freedom and liberty had to be obtained through a combination of factors, with education at the top, followed closely by a rebellious spirit and access to friendly Northerners and the community of urban blacks who were able to live more progressive lives away from the plantation.
There are two forms of Christianity represented in “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” and each are described and function differently throughout the text. Based on Douglass’ personal recollections and thoughts within the text, there are both real and false versions of religion and generally, the real or “true" form of Christianity is practiced by himself as well as some whites who are opposed to slavery. In other words, the role of religion in “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” serves symbolic as well as narrative functions. The false form of religion, or what Douglass terms, “the hypocritical Christianity of this land" (95) is practiced by whites, most notably Mr. Covey, and is a complete bastardization of the true ideals behind genuine Christian thought. In fact, through his discussions of religion that are interspersed throughout the text, the reader gets the sense that slavery and true Christianity are opposing forces and one cannot be present while the other exists. Not only is the simultaneous existence of the true version Christianity with slavery impossible, it appears that even if real Christianity does exist in a pure form, the introduction of slavery corrupts it inevitably and completely. For these reasons, Douglass juxtaposes both forms of Christianity to reveal the underlying hypocrisy of the slaveholding South as well as the potential redemptive value of his version of true Christianity. The final result is not just a religious or traditionally Christian exposition of the evils of human bondage, but an overtly political statement about how ideals can be easily contorted to fit the current situation.
In sum, all of these themes exist in “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” because of the institution of slavery and its resulting lack of freedom and the rhetoric that used to defend it. This text’s themes could all be gathered together under the common element of inequality and how it affects the practical, social, and even spiritual lives of the characters represented.
• For more information on this text, be sure to look at the full summary and analysisof “The Narrative of Frederick Douglass” here at ArticleMyriad •
Douglass begins by explaining that he does not know the date of his birth (he later chose February 14, 1818), and that his mother died when he was 7 years old. He has very few memories of her (children were commonly separated from their mothers), only of the rare nighttime visit. He thinks his father is a white man, possibly his owner. At a very early age, he sees his Aunt Hester being whipped. Douglass details the cruel interaction that occurs between slaves and slaveholders, as well as how slaves are supposed to behave in the presence of their masters, and even when Douglass says that fear is what kept many slaves what they were, for when they told the truth they were punished by their owners.
At this point in the Narrative, Douglass is moved to Baltimore, Maryland. This move is rather important for him because he believes that if he had not been moved, he would have remained a slave his entire life. He even starts to have hope for a better life in the future. He also discusses his new mistress, Mrs. Sophia Auld, who begins as a very kind woman but eventually turns cruel. Douglass learns the alphabet and how to spell small words from this woman, but her husband, Mr. Auld, disapproves and states that if slaves could read, they would not be fit to be slaves, being unmanageable and sad. Upon hearing why Mr. Auld disapproves of slaves being taught how to read, Douglass realizes the importance of reading and the possibilities that this skill could help him. He takes it upon himself to learn how to read and learn all he can, but at times, this new found skill torments him. Douglass then gains an understanding of the word abolition and develops the idea to run away to the North. He also learns how to write and how to read well.
At the age of ten or eleven, Douglass's master dies and his property is left to be divided between the master's son and daughter. The slaves are valued along with the livestock, causing Douglass to develop a new hatred of slavery. He feels lucky when he is sent back to Baltimore to live with the family of Master Hugh.
He is then moved through a few situations before he is sent to St. Michael's. His regret at not having attempted to run away is evident, but on his voyage he makes a mental note that he traveled in the North-Easterly direction and considers this information to be of extreme importance. For some time, he lives with Master Thomas Auld who is particularly cruel, even after attending a Methodist camp. Douglass is pleased when he eventually is lent to Mr. Covey for a year, simply because he would be fed. Mr. Covey is known as a "negro-breaker", who breaks the will of slaves.
While under the control of Mr. Covey, Douglass is a field hand and has an especially hard time at the tasks required of him. He is harshly whipped almost on a weekly basis, apparently due to his awkwardness. He is worked and beaten to exhaustion, which finally causes him to collapse one day while working in the fields. Because of this, he is brutally beaten once more by Covey. Douglass eventually complains to Thomas Auld, who subsequently sends him back to Covey. A few days later, Covey attempts to tie up Douglass, but he fights back. After a two-hour long physical battle, Douglass ultimately conquers Covey. After this fight, he is never beaten again. Douglass is not punished by the law, which is believed to be due to the fact that Covey cherishes his reputation as a "negro-breaker", which would be jeopardized if others knew what happened. When his one-year contract ends under Covey, Douglass is sent to live on William Freeland's plantation. Douglass comments on the abuse suffered under Covey, a religious man, and the relative peace under the more favorable, but more secular, Freeland. On Freeland's plantation, Douglass befriends other slaves and teaches them how to read. Douglass and a small group of slaves make a plan to escape, but before doing so, they are caught and Douglass is put in jail. Following his release about a week later, he is sent to Baltimore once more, but this time to learn a trade. He becomes an apprentice in a shipyard under Mr. Gardner where he is disliked by several white apprentices due to his slave status and race at one point he gets into a fight with them and they nearly gouge out his left eye. Woefully beaten, Douglass goes to Master Hugh, who is kind regarding this situation and refuses to let Douglass return to the shipyard. Master Hugh tries to find a lawyer but all refuse, saying they can only do something for a white person. Sophia Auld, who had turned cruel under the influence of slavery, feels pity for Douglass and tends to the wound at his left eye until he is healed. At this point, Douglass is employed as a caulker and receives wages, but is forced to give every cent to Master Auld in due time. Douglass eventually finds his own job and plans the date in which he will escape to the North. He succeeds in reaching New Bedford, but does not give details of how he does so in order to protect those who help him to allow the possibility for other slaves to escape by similar means. Douglass unites with his fiancée and begins working as his own master. He attends an anti-slavery convention and eventually becomes a well-known orator and abolitionist.
Douglass' appendix clarifies that he is not against religion as a whole instead he referred to "the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper". He condemns the hypocrisy in southern Christianity between what is taught and the actions of the slaveowners who practice it. He compares their Christianity to the practices of "the ancient scribes and Pharisees" and quotes passages from Matthew 23 calling them hypocrites. At the end, he includes a satire of a hymn "said to have been drawn, several years before the present anti-slavery agitation began, by a northern Methodist preacher, who, while residing at the south, had an opportunity to see slaveholding morals, manners, and piety, with his own eyes", titled simply "A Parody". It criticizes religious slaveowners, each stanza ending with the phrase "heavenly union", mimicking the original's form.
The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was published on May 1, 1845, and within four months of this publication, five thousand copies were sold. By 1860, almost 30,000 copies were sold.  After publication, he left Lynn, Massachusetts and sailed to England and Ireland for two years in fear of being recaptured by his owner in the United States. While in Britain and Ireland, he gained supporters who paid $710.96 to purchase his emancipation from his legal owner. One of the more significant reasons Douglass published his Narrative was to offset the demeaning manner in which white people viewed him. When he spoke in public, his white abolitionist associates established limits to what he could say on the platform. More specifically, they did not want him to analyze the current slavery issues or to shape the future for black people. However, once Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was published, he was given the liberty to begin more ambitious work on the issue rather than giving the same speeches repetitively. Because of the work in his Narrative, Douglass gained significant credibility from those who previously did not believe the story of his past. While in Ireland the Dublin edition of the book was published by the abolitionist printer Richard D. Webb to great acclaim and Douglass would write extensively in later editions very positively about his experience in Ireland. His newfound liberty on the platform eventually led him to start a black newspaper against the advice of his "fellow" abolitionists. The publication of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass opened several doors, not only for Douglass's ambitious work, but also for the anti-slavery movement of that time.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass received many positive reviews, but there was a group of people who opposed Douglass's work. One of his biggest critics, A. C. C. Thompson, was a neighbor of Thomas Auld, who was the master of Douglass for some time. As seen in "Letter from a Slave Holder" by A. C. C. Thompson, found in the Norton Critical Edition of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, he claimed that the slave he knew was "an unlearned, and rather an ordinary negro". Thompson was confident that Douglass "was not capable of writing the Narrative". He also disputed the Narrative when Douglass described the various cruel white slave holders that he either knew or knew of. Prior to the publication of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the public could not fathom how it was possible for a former slave to appear to be so educated. Upon listening to his oratory, many were skeptical of the stories he told. After Douglass's publication, however, the public was swayed.  Many [ who? ] viewed his text as an affirmation of what he spoke of publicly. Also found in The Norton Critical Edition, Margaret Fuller, a prominent book reviewer and literary critic of that era, had a high regard of Douglass's work. She claimed, "we have never read [a narrative] more simple, true, coherent, and warm with genuine feeling".  She also suggested that "every one may read his book and see what a mind might have been stifled in bondage — what a man may be subjected to the insults of spendthrift dandies, or the blows of mercenary brutes, in whom there is no whiteness except of the skin, no humanity in the outward form". Douglass's work in this Narrative was an influential piece of literature in the anti-slavery movement. [ citation needed ]
The first chapter of this text has been mobilized in several major texts that have become foundational texts in contemporary Black studies: Hortense Spillers in her article "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book” (1987) Saidiya Hartman in her book Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (1997), and Fred Moten in his book In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (2003). Each author uniquely contends with and navigates through Douglass’ writing. Specifically, each author has a divergent approach to revisiting or reproducing narratives of the suffering enslaved body. These divergences on Douglass are further reflected in their differing explorations of the conditions where subject and object positions of the enslaved body are produced and/or troubled. Spillers mobilizes Douglass’ description of his and his siblings’ early separation from their mother and subsequent estrangement from each other to articulate how the syntax of subjectivity, in particular “kinship”, has a historically specific relationship to the objectifying formations of chattel slavery which denied genetic links and familial bonds between the enslaved. This denial was part of the processes that worked to reinforce the enslaved position as property and object. Spillers frames Douglass’ narrative as writing that, although frequently returned to, still has the ability to “astonish” contemporary readers with each return to this scene of enslaved grief and loss (Spillers, “Mama’s Baby”, 76). By tracing the historical conditions of captivity through which slave humanity is defined as “absence from a subject position” narratives like Douglass’, chronicles of the Middle Passage, and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, are framed as impression points that have not lost their affective potential or become problematically familiar through repetitions or revisions (Spillers, “Mama’s Baby”, 66). Spillers own (re)visitation of Douglass’ narrative suggests that these efforts are a critical component to her assertion that “[i]n order for me to speak a truer word concerning myself, I must strip down through layers of attenuated meanings, made an excess in time, over time, assigned by a particular historical order, and there await whatever marvels of my own inventiveness” (Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, 65).
In contrast to Spiller’s articulation that repetition does not rob Douglass’ narrative of its power, Saidiya Hartman explores how an over familiarity with narratives of the suffering enslaved body is problematic. In Hartman’s work, repeated “exposure of the violated body” is positioned as a process that can lead to a benumbing “indifference to suffering” (Hartman, Scenes of Objection, 4). This turn away from Douglass’ description of the violence carried out against his Aunt Hester is contextualized by Hartman’s critical examination of 19th century abolitionist writings in the Antebellum South. These abolitionist narratives included extreme representations of violence carried out against the enslaved body which were included to establish the slave’s humanity and evoke empathy while exposing the terrors of the institution. However, Hartman posits that these abolitionist efforts, which may have intended to convey enslaved subjectivities, actually aligned more closely to replications of objectivity since they “reinforce[d] the ‘thingly’ quality of the captive by reducing the body to evidence” (Hartman, Scenes of Subjection, 19). Instead of concentrating on these narratives that dramatized violence and the suffering black body, Hartman is more focused on revealing the quotidian ways that enslaved personhood and objectivity were selectively constructed or brought into tension in scenes like the coffle, coerced performances of slave leisure on the plantation, and the popular theater of the Antebellum South.
Fred Moten’s engagement with Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass echoes Spillers assertion that “every writing as a revision makes the ‘discovery’ all over again” (Spillers, 69). In his book chapter “Resistance of the Object: Aunt Hester’s Scream” he speaks to Hartman’s move away from Aunt Hester’s experience of violence. Moten questions whether Hartman’s opposition to reproducing this narrative is not actually a direct move through a relationship between violence and the captive body positioned as object, that she had intended to avoid. Moten suggests that as Hartman outlines the reasons for her opposition, her written reference to the narrative and the violence of its content may indeed be an inevitable reproduction. This is reflected in his question “of whether performance in general is ever outside the economy of reproduction” (Moten, In the Break, 4). A key parameter in Moten’s analytical method and the way he engages with Hartman’s work is an exploration of blackness as a positional framework through which objectivity and humanity are performed. This suggests that an attempt to move beyond the violence and object position of Aunt Hester would always be first a move through these things. Through this framework of the performativity of blackness Moten’s revisitation of Douglass’ narrative explores how the sounds of black performance might trouble conventional understandings of subjectivity and subjective speech.
Frederick Douglass’ Irish sojourn: A bracing look at his encounters with poverty and prejudice across the Atlantic
By Joan Walsh
Published December 30, 2014 11:58AM (EST)
Frederick Douglass (Wikimedia)
Frederick Douglass’ four-month Irish sojourn – he traveled to Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Belfast in 1845, part of a two-year stay in the United Kingdom – has long fascinated historians and others who care about human rights. Douglass crossed paths with the great Irish “Liberator,” Daniel O’Connell, a champion of his own people and also an abolitionist, who the younger leader praised as a mentor and an inspiration throughout most of his life. He flourished in Ireland, where he was seen as a man, not “chattel.” Mixing with intellectual elites, he – and they – realized that the auto-didact and former slave could more than hold his own. A statue of Douglass stands proudly in Cork’s University College today.
“I can truly say,” he wrote to his abolitionist ally (and sometimes antagonist) William Lloyd Garrison, “I have spent some of the happiest moments of my life since landing in this country, I seem to have undergone a transformation, I live a new life.”
Yet comparatively little is known about what Douglass thought and felt about the most pressing Irish issues of that time – the fight to repeal the Act of Union with Great Britain, which had stripped the native Irish Catholic majority of many rights, and the gathering storm of the catastrophic potato famine. In the years around his visit, famine or its attendant diseases killed at least a million Irish and sent two million more fleeing the country. The potato blight was only a rumor and a worry when Douglass visited Ireland in 1845, but it was a crisis by the time he left England in 1847 to return to the U.S. How could such a towering human rights figure remain silent on the catastrophe, as it seemed he had?
Until now, the best attempt to flesh out Douglass’ Irish sojourn came last year in “Transatlantic,” Colum McCann’s wonderful novel about real and imagined historic encounters between Irish and Americans. One affecting segment breathes life into Douglass’s time in Cork, albeit fictionally (though based on archival research.) McCann probed the abolitionist’s pained encounters with Irish poverty, as well as his close friendship with wealthy Irish abolitionist Isabel Jennings and her family. But the novelist didn’t venture to imagine how Douglass squared the kindness of his wealthy Protestant hosts with the misery of the country’s majority-Catholic population.
Now historian Tom Chaffin has filled in some of those blanks – and he’s done much more – with a new book, “Giant’s Causeway: Frederick Douglass’s Irish Odyssey and the Making of an American Visionary.” A vivid social and intellectual history of Douglass’s Irish, Scottish and British travels, and of their influence throughout his life, Chaffin wrestles with the great leader’s relative silence about the famine and Irish Catholic oppression -- and with the fact that when he wasn't silent, Douglass tended to blame their problems on drunkenness and general Catholic backwardness.
“Giant’s Causeway” – it takes its title from Douglass’s description of his wide Irish wandering, “from the hills of Howth to the Giant’s Causeway, and from the Giant’s Causeway to Cape Clear” -- is clear-eyed and sympathetic, showing the way Douglass walked the tightrope of Irish sectarianism as he stayed understandably focused on the cause of building support for abolitionism. He comes across as sensible and pragmatic proud and prickly, a warm-hearted friend and an imposing enemy.
Douglass’s reservations about Irish Catholics seem to have been one part Protestant moral and intellectual elitism, and two parts justifiable anger the role of Irish Catholic immigrants to the U.S. in supporting slavery in the south, and blocking the progress of free blacks in the north. The book gives a vivid sense of the restraints on Douglass during his Irish sojourn and afterward, despite his nominal “freedom.” You come away clear about why he chose the course he did on the Irish question, even if you wish it had been different.
In today’s parlance, this might sound like the ultimate version of white-centered discourse, to take a revered figure from African American history and ask what he thought about the struggles of a white ethnic group. Yet Douglass deserves no less. He saw himself as, and he was, a leader of a global human rights movement. “I am for fair play for the Irishman, the negro, the Chinaman, and or all men of whatever country or clime, and for allowing them to work out their own destiny without outside interference,” he wrote. He fought for women’s rights, and later in his life supported Irish independence. But for much of his career he had doubts about the case for blaming Irish poverty and misery on the British.
Some of his reservations came from the reaction of American Irish Catholics to Daniel O’Connell efforts to get them to join the anti-slavery movement. In 1841, O’Connell signed an "Address from the People of Ireland to their Countrymen and Countrywomen in America," a spirited call to join the movement of Garrison and Douglass ultimately signed by 60,000 Irish men and women. "America is cursed by slavery!” it read. “JOIN WITH THE ABOLITIONISTS EVERYWHERE! They are the only consistent advocates of liberty….CLING BY THE ABOLITIONISTS."
American Irish leaders rejected the address almost immediately, out of racism and self-interest, as well as a justifiable suspicion of American abolitionists, who tended to be elite evangelical Protestants with grave doubts about the fitness of Irish Catholics for American democracy. The Beechers and the Tappans, Wendell Phillips and Elijah Lovejoy many of the renowned names of abolitionist history were also associated with ugly anti-Irish Catholic biases over the years.
O’Connell himself knew this, but fervently supported the anti-slavery cause anyway, though he told Irish American supporters that perhaps there was a need for "an Irish Address in reverse:" an "Address to the Abolitionists" that would ask them to "cooperate in the spread of Christian charity with the Irishmen and Catholics in America, and obtain their assistance."
There’s no evidence Douglass knew much about this intra-Irish squabbling. He embraced the Irish Catholic O’Connell with gratitude and respect. “I feel grateful to him, for his voice has made American slavery shake to its centre,” he said in one speech. “I am determined wherever I go, and whatever position I may fill, to speak with grateful emotions of Mr. O’Connell’s labors.” Ironically, that meant early in his travels, when Douglass slipped off the Irish sectarian tightrope, it was by seeming to favor O’Connell, and by implication, Catholics, over Protestants.
Chaffin shows that Douglass was careful, even when he shared a platform with O’Connell at Conciliation Hall in his visit to Cork, to avoid taking sides on the issue of repealing the Act of Union, O’Connell’s primary cause. Introduced by the Liberator himself as “the black O’Connell,” Douglass averred that “he would not be expected to speak of Repeal as a political question,” according to a newspaper report at the time.
But in a few early speeches, when Douglass called out the hypocrisy of Protestant sects like Presbyterians and Methodists for tolerating or even abetting slavery in the U.S., he noted that Catholics “showed they felt more sympathy for the slave than did the other sects” – a point he would not make later in his life. Likewise Catholic churches in the U.S. didn’t have segregated “black pews,” he observed, as most Protestant churches did.
The strategic Douglass soon realized he was alienating some of his audience with his apparent tilt toward O’Connell and the Catholics. While he never backed away from thanking O’Connell personally, even in hostile Protestant Belfast, he was careful not to mention his cause, or the plight of native Irish Catholics in their own country -- either in his speeches in Ireland or in most of his later work.
Some of that reticence came from his own deep doubts that Britain to blame for the troubles of the Irish. Douglass was, frankly, an Anglophile, partly because the United Kingdom had abolished slavery in 1833, and partly out of his love for its culture (born Frederick Bailey, he took the name Douglass from Sir Walter Scott’s “Lady of the Lake.”) The former slave was aware of the irony of moving from “American republican slavery, to monarchical liberty,” but made no apologies for enjoying that liberty. He also talked about wanting to visit “the land of my paternal ancestors.”
But once he got to Ireland, he had to admit that though he’d thought the plight of native Catholics had been exaggerated -- in part designed to embarrass Britain and morally discredit it as a foe of slavery -- he found the poverty and misery worse than he had imagined. “I must confess, my experience has convinced me the half has not been told,” he wrote in a letter Garrison published in The Liberator, his abolitionist journal.
Douglass was haunted by “streets almost literally alive with beggars” and women with “infants in their arms, whose emaciated forms, sunken eyes and pallid cheeks, told too plainly that they had nursed still they had nursed in vain.” And he saw kinship between black slaves and the poorest of the Irish Catholic poor. “These people lacked only a black skin and wooly hair, to complete their likeness to the plantation Negro,” he wrote. Yet Douglass identified only one common reason for the plight of American blacks, both slaves and freedmen, and Irish Catholics: Not political oppression, but drunkenness.
On one level, that made sense: The famous abolitionist had gotten his start in public life as a temperance crusader, lecturing in New Bedford’s Zion Methodist Church about the evils of alcohol. In Ireland, Chaffin shows, his closest local ally was not O’Connell, whom he only met once, but the renowned international temperance crusader Father Theobold Matthew of Cork, who had gotten tens of thousands of Irish to take the “pledge” of abstinence. Douglass met and lectured many times with the Irish temperance champion.
That’s partly why, in his famous letter to Garrison about the misery of the Irish on the eve of the famine, Douglass blamed not British oppression but alcohol:
The immediate, and it may be the main cause of the extreme poverty and beggary in Ireland, is intemperance. This may be seen in the fact that most beggars drink whiskey…Drunkenness is still rife in Ireland. The temperance cause has done much—is doing much—but there is much more to do, and, as yet, comparatively few to do it.
But to be fair, he had said similar things about free blacks in the North who, “through the influence of intemperance, [had] done much to retard the progress of the anti-slavery movement…Notwithstanding my efforts, and those of others, intemperance stalks abroad among the colored people of my country.”
If Douglass’s views on Irish intemperance are easy to accept, given his activism, his ideas about Catholicism are less so. An Anglophile of vaguely Protestant (but mostly unaffiliated) religious leanings, Douglass was capable of a rigid anti-Catholicism that was common in the abolitionist movement, Chaffin found. The author may, in fact, soft-pedal that prejudice. Essays in “Liberating Sojourn: Frederick Douglass and Transatlantic Reform” trace Douglass’s crusade against “the slavery of Romanism,” through his publication “The Douglass Monthly” and other work, and they feature much more cringe-making examples of Douglass’s anti-Catholic prejudice than found in “Giant’s Causeway.”
Chaffin notes that for a new Irish version of his “Narrative,” Douglass sought and won an endorsement from a rabidly anti-Catholic Irish Protestant minister. In his later work he described watching a procession of Catholic novitiates in Rome, saddened “that they are being trained to defend dogmas and superstitions contrary to the progress and enlightenment of the age.” And while it pained Douglass that the Ireland in which he thrived was a country where so many people were suffering, for reasons of religion, culture and self-preservation, he couldn’t indict the ruling elites who welcomed him for their oppression of the Catholic majority. “He often mistook hospitalities accorded him as a guest among white, middle and upper class reformers as evidence of a more general societal egalitarianism,” Chaffin writes.
Oddly, in the years after his Irish trip, he wrote and spoke of O’Connell less than later in his career, rarely mentioning him in his publications and leaving him entirely out of his second memoir, “My Freedom and My Bondage,” though the Liberator is mentioned in later books. “Douglass’s silence on O’Connell during those years likely resulted from frictions between African Americans and Irish Americans, as well as Douglass’s reluctance to risk antagonizing British abolitionists – including British subscribers,” Chaffin wrote. Those years certainly saw an escalation in tensions between black people and Irish Americans, culminating in the awful New York City Draft Riots of 1863.
Yet later in life, Douglass would return often to the work of O’Connell, and even endorsed the cause of Irish independence, becoming an advocate for Charles Stuart Parnell’s Home Rule movement. After the Civil War, he would also use the Irish example to argue against ongoing anti-black discrimination, pointing out how it had created both a moral and an economic blight for England:
No people on the face of the earth have been more relentlessly persecuted and oppressed on account of race and religion, than the Irish people. But in Ireland, persecution has at last reached a point where it reacts terribly upon her persecutors. England today is reaping the bitter consequences of her own injustice and oppression…. Fellow citizens! We want no Black Ireland in America.
Of course, one could argue that we in fact have what Douglass would have called a “Black Ireland in America,” given the persistence of poverty and oppression for African Americans. It would probably not be surprising for the abolitionist to discover that some of the loudest voices denying the persistence of racism belong to guys named O’Reilly and Hannity and Lynch.
Douglass’s deep ambivalence about the Irish – loving O’Connell, despising many of his countrymen on this soil – is part of a larger story about fissures of race and class that thwart progressive politics 150 years later. The failure of O’Connell’s pro-abolition Irish Address represented a tragic missed opportunity to ally the country’s two most oppressed groups, rather than see them fight one another. That missed opportunity is central to whiteness studies tomes indicting the Irish for stepping on blacks as they “became white,” which I wrote about in my own book, wishing for a history like Chaffin's.
But the failure of Douglass to perceive that British and American oppression and prejudice, not just Catholicism and drunkenness, were implicated in Irish poverty -- both in Ireland and the U.S. -- was also a missed opportunity. The class and cultural prejudices of abolitionists helped create lingering political fissures as well, especially with the white working class. Just as Chaffin’s sympathetic portrait makes it seem unreasonable to expect Douglass to have taken on another divisive cause in addition to abolition, some may also seek to understand why despised Irish immigrants regrettably opposed black freedom. It’s a painful, poorly understood history that haunts us to this day.
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Slave Fredrick Douglass
man of hope and undying perseverance, Frederick Douglass escapes the shackles of slavery into the safety of the North, where he achieves the ultimate dream of the southern slave: freedom. He overcomes his struggles with his identity and knowledge of his past. In his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the cruelty and inhumane ways of slaveholders are depicted in their truest forms through the personal accounts of Frederick Douglass. Douglass is fearful of having to stay as a slave for life
Frederick Douglass - Narrative, Quotes and Facts - HISTORY
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.