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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Frederick Douglass
(1818- 1895)

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 writing.

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 (1892).

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
Trinity College

In the Heath Anthology
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave ( 1845)
What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July? ( 1852)

Other Works

Cultural Objects
text file"Am I not a Man and a Brother?"

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American Visionaries
A good overview of Douglass's place in American culture.

Frederick Douglass -- "Abolitionist/Editor"
Extensive biography and chronology.

Selected Bibliography
List of secondary materials.

The Frederick Douglass Museum and Cultural Center
Collection of photos of Douglass and scans of newspapers and letters.

Secondary Sources

William L. Andrews, To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865, 1986

Critical Essays on Frederick Douglass, William L. Andrews, ed., 1991

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, 1984

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