The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Abolitionist, women’s rights
advocate, journalist and newspaper editor, social reformer
and race leader, Frederick Douglass was unquestionably one
of the most prominent black leaders of the nineteenth century
and one of the most eloquent orators in American public life.
Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born a slave in Talbot
County, Maryland in February 1818. His mother, Harriet Bailey,
was a slave; his father, Douglass suspected, was probably
Aaron Anthony, the general plantation superintendent for the
Lloyd plantation, where Douglass spent his early childhood.
A sensitive and intelligent child, Douglass was quick to observe
the horrors and routine injustices of slavery and his passion
for black liberation and women’s rights was undoubtedly fueled
by his early observations and experiences on the Lloyd plantation.
When Douglass was eight years old, he was sent to Baltimore
to live with and work for the Auld family. There he learned
an important lesson about the relationship of reading and
writing to a liberated consciousness. In the face of the adamant
opposition of the Aulds to his receiving even the most elementary
instruction, Douglass, through a series of ruses, slowly and
painstakingly taught himself the rudiments of reading and
Another step towards his liberation occurred at the age of
sixteen, when he was hired out to Edward Covey, a notorious
“Negro breaker.” For the first time Douglass, who had until
this point lived as either a house- or urban slave, became
a field hand and, for the first time in his life, he was regularly
whipped and his spirit almost broken. Douglass’s decision
to physically defend himself against Covey’s brutality—a central
moment in his 1845 Narrative—was a turning point in
his life as a slave and the final rehearsal for his escape
from bondage. In 1838, Douglass escaped from slavery in Baltimore
to pursue his vision of freedom in the North. In New York
City he married Anna Murray, a free black woman from Baltimore
who had been instrumental in his escape; Douglass and his
bride then made their way to New Bedford, Massachusetts, in
search of a new life. Typical of many former slaves who had
decisively broken away from the shackles of slavery, Douglass
renamed himself shortly after he arrived in the North, choosing
as his own the name of the hero of Sir Walter Scott’s novel
The Lady of the Lake.
In early 1839, Douglass purchased his first copy of William
Lloyd Garrison’s radical abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator—the
initial step towards his transformation into an abolitionist
leader. He read the Liberator religiously, began to
attend anti-slavery meetings in the local black community
and, by 1841, had emerged as an eloquent leader of the black
people in New Bedford. Later that year, Douglass was electrified
when he heard Garrison speak for the first time and decided
to attend an anti-slavery convention at Nantucket, where Garrison
was scheduled to speak again. It was at that meeting on August
12, 1841, that Douglass was encouraged to address the audience.
In spite of his embarrassment, Douglass stood up and offered
a very moving account of his experiences as a slave. Douglass
addressed the convention again that evening and, when the
meeting was over, John A. Collins, general agent of the Massachusetts
Anti-Slavery Society, asked Douglass to join them as an agent.
After some soul-searching, Douglass agreed. From that point
on, Douglass committed his life to, in his words, the “great
work” of abolition and black liberation.
Douglass’s public career unfolded in several distinct phases.
Between 1841 and 1845, he lectured extensively on the anti-slavery
circuit. When he published his Narrative in 1845, it
was so explicit in its details that it exposed him to the
risks of capture and re-enslavement. He fled to England and
spent the years between 1845 and 1847 lecturing and promoting
the anti-slavery cause throughout the British Isles. His English
friends raised the money which allowed Douglass to purchase
his freedom and to publish his own journal.
When Douglass returned to the United States, he broke with
William Lloyd Garrison, who was then advocating that New England
secede from the United States—a strategy which, in Douglass’s
view, would allow slavery to flourish in the South unchallenged.
Ultimately, Douglass came to differ with Garrisonian abolitionists
on a number of other issues as well, including the usefulness
of electoral politics and the centrality of non-resistance—indeed,
Douglass became a supporter of John Brown’s direct attacks
on the slave power. Douglass moved to Rochester, New York,
in 1847, where he established his newspaper, The North
Star (later renamed Frederick Douglass’ Paper)
and vigorously resumed his efforts on behalf of the abolitionist
movement. He also became a participant in the first women’s
rights conventions in 1848, at Seneca Falls and at Rochester.
Although his despair over the bleak condition of blacks during
the 1850s led him to briefly consider emigration to another
country as a solution, Douglass welcomed the outbreak of the
Civil War as the moment in which the long-awaited opportunity
for black emancipation and elevation had arrived. During the
war, he functioned as a public spokesman for the position
that this conflict should be seen as a war of emancipation
and, along with Sojourner Truth, urged Abraham Lincoln to
enlist blacks in the Union army. When Lincoln yielded to these
demands in 1862, Douglass was at the forefront in urging blacks
to join the army to fight for their freedom. Between 1865
and his death in 1895, Douglass continued to function as one
of the most prominent black spokesmen in the country and as
a political leader in the Republican Party. He served as U.S.
Marshal of the District of Columbia (1877–1881), Recorder
of Deeds for the District of Columbia (1881–1886) and chargé
d’affaires for Santo Domingo and minister to Haiti (1889–1891).
He also completed the third and final of his autobiographical
writings, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass’s life, politics, and writings are inextricably
linked. His first speeches were moving and powerful evocations
of his experiences as a slave and, in his early public appearances,
he was often presented as a showpiece for major abolitionist
lectures. “Give us the facts,” he was told by John Collins,
“we will take care of the philosophy.” As Douglass grew more
confident of his speaking abilities, however, he increasingly
chafed under these guidelines, and he began to expand the
scope of his speeches, incorporating larger issues and elaborating
his own philosophy. His mentors became concerned that Douglass’s
eloquence would undermine his authenticity as a former slave,
and Collins even urged him to sprinkle his speech with a little
plantation language to maintain his credibility with his audiences.
To dispel growing public doubts about his experiences as a
slave, Douglass spent the winter of 1844 to 1845 writing an
account of his experiences. Narrative of the Life of Frederick
Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself appeared
in May, 1845, with a preface by William Lloyd Garrison and
an introductory letter by Wendell Phillips. Douglass’s narrative
was an instant popular success. In the first five months 4,500
copies were sold and, over the next several years, editions
appeared in England, Ireland, France, and Germany.
One of the reasons for the popular appeal of Douglass’s Narrative
would certainly be the skill with which he appropriated the
language and symbolism of American middle-class culture and
religion to denounce the evils of slavery and racism. Unlike
David Walker, for example, whose Appeal was addressed
to the black community and issued dire warnings of America’s
impending doom, Douglass’s Narrative excoriated American
society for its lapses at the same time that it affirmed its
original promise. In this respect, as William L. Andrews has
pointed out, Douglass’s Narrative is a kind of American
jeremiad. Throughout his autobiography, Douglass blends his
personal experiences as a slave with sharp attacks on the
inequities of slavery and racism. And he appropriates the
rhetoric of the jeremiad to distinguish between true and false
Americans and Christians, between those who would affirm the
dream and those who would destroy it. In the process, particularly
by appropriating the rhetoric and symbols of Christianity,
Douglass establishes a convincing case for himself as a lonely
outcast in his own land and, more importantly, as a prophet
ordained to warn American society against perversity and error.
Against the backdrop of his relationship with the abolitionist
movement, Douglass’s Narrative can also be read as
a step towards the declaration of his literary and political
independence—the first step towards his ultimate break with
the Garrisonians and his long and extraordinary public career.
| James A. Miller|
In the Heath Anthology
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,
an American Slave (
What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July? (
I not a Man and a Brother?"
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A good overview of Douglass's place in American culture.
Douglass -- "Abolitionist/Editor"
Extensive biography and chronology.
List of secondary materials.
Frederick Douglass Museum and Cultural Center
Collection of photos of Douglass and scans of newspapers and
William L. Andrews, To
Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography,
Critical Essays on Frederick Douglass, William L. Andrews,
Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick
Douglass, ed. Harold Bloom, 1988
Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays,
Eric Sundquist, ed., 1990
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., "Binary Oppositions in Chapter One
of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American
Slave, Written by Himself, " in Dexter Fisher and Robert
Stepto, eds., Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction
of Instruction, 1979
Waldo E. Martin, Jr., The Mind of Frederick Douglass,
William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass, 1991
Robert G. O'Meally, "Frederick Douglass's 1845 Narrative:
The Text Was Meant to Be Preached," in Dexter Fisher and Robert
Stepto, eds., Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction
of Instruction, 1979
Robert B. Stepto, "Narration, Authentication and Authorial
Control in Frederick Douglass's Narrative of 1845, " in Dexter
Fisher and Robert Stepto, eds., Afro-American Literature:
The Reconstruction of Instruction, 1979
Eric Sundquist, To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making
of American Literature, 1993