Authors: Frederick Douglass

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American abolitionist, orator, and writer

ca. February 1818

Tuckahoe, Talbot County, Maryland

February 20, 1895

Washington, DC


Frederick Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, the son of Harriet Bailey, an African American slave, and a white man. He never knew his birthday or his father’s name. He hardly ever saw his mother. His autobiographical writings show a lifelong interest in his origins and the need to establish an identity and a heritage for himself. In later life Douglass even returned to Tuckahoe, Maryland, to see the place where he had been born.

Frederick Douglass

(Library of Congress)

Douglass was born into slavery. He was originally owned by Aaron Anthony, the general overseer for Edward Lloyd. Douglass’s early years were passed in the care of his grandmother, Betsey Bailey. When he was six years old she took him to his master’s plantation house, where he was assigned to serve as a companion to Lloyd’s twelve-year-old son Daniel, from whom Douglass learned a “correct” dialect such as the one spoken by the white ruling class. His education continued when in 1826 he was sent to the home of Hugh and Sophia Auld in Baltimore; Sophia began to teach Douglass to read, but Hugh stopped the lessons for fear that education would make a slave rebellious. Douglass continued his reading lessons on his own after he began working on the shipyards in 1829. In 1831 he purchased a copy of The Columbian Orator, edited by Caleb Bingham. From this collection of the great speeches of the Western tradition Douglass learned rhetoric and oratory.

After Aaron Anthony’s death, ownership of Douglass passed to Hugh Auld’s brother Thomas, and in 1833 he was sent to Thomas Auld’s home in St. Michaels, Maryland. There Douglass began to teach reading to other slaves at Sunday school meetings until Thomas forbade it. In hopes of breaking Douglass’s spirit, Thomas rented him to a brutal farmer, Edward Covey. Here Douglass endured many savage beatings before he finally resisted and successfully fought Covey. In his autobiographies this battle serves as a climactic moment, the point at which Douglass ceased to consider himself a slave and began to consider himself a man.

Continuing his clandestine Sunday school meetings, Douglass forged an escape plan with five other slaves in 1836. The plan was discovered, probably because one of the conspirators revealed it. Douglass returned to Baltimore and arranged to learn caulking. In 1838 he successfully escaped to the north, married Anna Murray, and settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts. At the suggestion of a friend, he assumed the name “Douglass,” which is taken from a character in Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake.

While working as a laborer on the docks Douglass gradually acquired a reputation among abolitionists. In 1842 the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society hired him as a touring speaker. In 1845 the Anti-Slavery Office published his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. The emotion in this book, which continues to be one of Douglass’s most enduringly popular writings, is unmatched by his later autobiographies, although My Bondage and My Freedom makes up in complexity what it loses in pathos. Later critics of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself have speculated about the extent to which the concerns of white abolitionists, Douglass’s own concerns about appealing to white readers, and his propagandistic aims may have played a part in shaping the book. Despite the flaws imposed upon it by the circumstances surrounding its composition and publication, the book remains an important work of the American Renaissance. Douglass shares with writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau a concern that physically, spiritually, and intellectually each person should be free and self-reliant.

Worried that the details he had revealed about his past might lead to his being recaptured by his master, Douglass began a lecture tour of Ireland, Scotland, and England. Friends he made while in England arranged to buy his freedom, and he returned to the United States in 1847 a free man at last. In that year he began his career as a newspaper editor; the first issue of his North Star appeared in December. His newspapers provided a necessary forum for African American concerns.

For the rest of his life Douglass was an important public figure. He lectured widely on slavery, racism, and the need for civil rights for African Americans and for women. He advised Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, and James A. Garfield. After his wife, Anna, died in 1882, Douglass married the women’s rights activist Helen Pitts in 1884.

Literary scholars remember Douglass for his three autobiographies (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, My Bondage and My Freedom, and the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass) and for his powerful speeches, especially his What to a Slave Is the Fourth of July? A comparison of the autobiographies provides a fascinating insight into the changing man and his changing times.

Author Works Nonfiction: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, 1845 What to a Slave Is the Fourth of July?, 1852 The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered, 1854 The Anti-Slavery Movement: A Lecture, 1855 My Bondage and My Freedom, 1855 Two Speeches by Frederick Douglass, 1857 The Constitution of the United States: Is It Pro-Slavery or Anti-Slavery? A Speech, 1860 Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself, 1881, revised 1892 The Lessons of the Hour, 1894 Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, 1999 (Philip S. Foner, editor) Long Fiction: The Heroic Slave, 1853 Edited Texts (Journals): North Star, 1847–51 Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 1851–60 Douglass’ Monthly, 1859–63 New National Era, 1870–74 Miscellaneous: The Frederick Douglass Papers, 1979–92 (5 volumes) The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader, 1996 (William L. Andrews, editor) In the Words of Frederick Douglass: Quotations from Liberty’s Champion, 2012 (John R. McKivigan and Heather L. Kaufman, editors) Bibliography Andrews, William L. The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Collects the most notable of Douglass’s speeches, fiction, journalism, and autobiographical writings in one volume. McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass. New York: Norton, 1991. A solid and well-researched biography with a lengthy bibliography. Martin, Waldo E., Jr. The Mind of Frederick Douglass. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984. An excellent study of the evolution of Douglass’s thought. Preston, Dickson J. Young Frederick Douglass: The Maryland Years. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980. Recommended, especially as background to the Narrative of Frederick Douglass. Starling, Marion Wilson. The Slave Narrative: Its Place in American History. 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1988. A consideration of the Narrative of Frederick Douglass in its larger historical context. Stone, Albert E. “Identity and Art in Frederick Douglass’s Narrative.” CLA Journal 17 (1973). A seminal article; Stone’s analysis is probably the first to consider Douglass’s 1845 autobiography as a major work of literary art. Sundquist, Eric J., ed. Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Provides essays on Douglass from a variety of perspectives.

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