The foremost African American abolitionist in antebellum America, Frederick Douglass (ca. 1817-1895) was the first African American leader of national stature in United States history.
Frederick Douglass was born, as can best be determined, in February 1817 (he took the 14th as his birthday) on the eastern shore of Maryland. His mother, from whom he was separated at an early age, was a slave named Harriet Bailey. She named her son Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey; he never knew or saw his father. (Frederick adopted the name Douglass much later.) Douglass's childhood, though he judged it in his autobiography as being no more cruel than that of scores of others caught in similar conditions, appears to have been extraordinarily deprived of personal warmth. The lack of familial attachments, hard work, and sights of incredible inhumanity fill the text of his early remembrances of the main plantation of Col. Edward Lloyd. In 1825 his masters decided to send him to Baltimore to live with Hugh Auld.
Mrs. Auld, Douglass's new mistress and a Northerner unacquainted with the disciplinary techniques Southern slaveholders used to preserve docility in their slaves, treated young Douglass well. She taught him the rudiments of reading and writing until her husband stopped her. With this basic background he began his self-education.
Escape to Freedom
After numerous ownership disputes and after attempting to escape from a professional slave breaker, Douglass was put to work in the Baltimore shipyards. There in 1838 he borrowed a African American sailor's protection papers and by impersonating him escaped to New York. He adopted the name Douglass and married a free African American woman from the South. They settled in New Bedford, Mass., where several of their children were born.
Douglass quickly became involved in the antislavery movement, which was gaining impetus in the North. In 1841, at an abolitionist meeting in Nantucket, Mass., he delivered a moving speech about his experiences as a slave and was immediately hired as a lecturer by the Massachusetts Antislavery Society. By all accounts he was a forceful and even eloquent speaker. His self-taught prose and manner of speaking so inspired some Harvard students that they persuaded him to write his autobiography. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was published in 1845. (Ten years later an enlarged autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, appeared. His third autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, was published in 1881 and enlarged in 1892.) The 1845 publication, of course, meant exile for Douglass, a fugitive slave.
Fearing capture, Douglass fled to Britain, staying from 1845 to 1847 to speak on behalf of abolition and to earn enough money to purchase his freedom when he returned to America. Upon his return Douglass settled in Rochester, N.Y., and started publishing his newspaper, North Star (which continued to be published under various names until 1863).
In 1858, as a consequence of his fame and as unofficial spokesman for African Americans, Douglass was sought out by John Brown as a recruit for his planned attack on the Harpers Ferry arsenal. But Douglass could see no benefit from what he considered a futile plan and refused to lend his support.
Civil War and Reconstruction
The Civil War, beginning in 1861, raised several issues, not the least of which was what role the black man would play in his own liberation—since one of the main objectives of the war was emancipation of the slaves. Douglass kept this issue alive. In 1863, as a result of his continued insistence (as well as of political and military expediency), President Abraham Lincoln asked him to recruit African American soldiers for the Union Army. As the war proceeded, Douglass had two meetings with Lincoln to discuss the use and treatment of African American soldiers by the Union forces. In consequence, the role of African American soldiers was upgraded each time and their military effectiveness thereby increased.
The Reconstruction period laid serious responsibilities on Douglass. Politicians differed on the question of race and its corresponding problems, and as legislative battles were waged to establish the constitutional integrity of the slaves' emancipation, Douglass was the one African American with stature enough to make suggestions.
In 1870 Douglass and his sons began publishing the New National Era newspaper in Washington, D.C. In 1877 he was appointed by President Rutherford B. Hayes to the post of U.S. marshal for the District of Columbia. From this time until approximately 2 years before his death Douglass held a succession of offices, including that of recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia and minister-resident and consul-general to the Republic of Haiti, as well as chargé d'affaires to Santo Domingo. He resigned his assignments in Haiti and Santo Domingo when he discovered that American businessmen were taking advantage of his position in their dealings with the Haitian government. He died in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 20, 1895.
Further Reading on Frederick Douglass
Douglass's writings can be found in The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, edited by Philip S. Foner (4 vols., 1950-1955). Frederick Douglass, edited by Benjamin Quarles (1968), contains excerpts from Douglass's writings, portrayals of him by his contemporaries, and appraisals by later historians.
Benjamin Quarles, Frederick Douglass (1948), is a well-written, scholarly biography. See also Philip S. Foner, Frederick Douglass: A Biography (1964), and Arna Bontemps, Free at Last: The Life of Frederick Douglass (1971). There is a biographical sketch of Douglass in William J. Simmons, Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising (1887; repr. 1968). Works that discuss Douglass at length are John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of American Negroes (1947; 3d ed. 1967); Louis Filler, The Crusade against Slavery, 1830-1860 (1960); and Martin Duberman, ed., The Antislavery Vanguard: New Essays on the Abolitionists (1965).