Frederick Douglass: From Slavery To American Icon
It seems fair to say that Frederick Douglass does more than any other individual in his era to alter the negative stereotypes of black people in America.
For over 200 years prior to his arrival on the national stage the enslaved Africans are perceived as a “different species of being” from their white counterparts. A leading proponent of this theory is Thomas Jefferson, surrounded daily by over one hundred slaves on his Monticello plantation, who characterizes them in his 1785 Notes on the State of Virginia:
These views will be enshrined at the 1787 Constitutional Convention when the Founders declare slaves as equal to “three-fifths of a human,” to be treated on par with one’s farm animals; housed in run-down shacks; deprived of education; starved of nutritional food;
worked to exhaustion; whipped on a whim; sexually abused; and forcefully “bred” to provide future generations of highly valued offspring for sale.
It is Jefferson — who perpetually auctions off his excess “inventory” to pay overdue bills – that announces the superior economic value of female slaves capable of ten or more profitable pregnancies:
One other widely shared prejudice among whites is fear that, if given the chance, blacks will attempt to harm or even kill them. The response lies in rigid control over the daily lives not only of those enslaved, but also the 13% who are freedmen by way of birth or manumission.
In the North, for example, blacks are typically penned up in segregated “Darktowns,” and subject to various legal “codes” requiring them to carry identification passes, post indemnity bonds, and obey curfews. They are not allowed to serve on juries or even appear in court.
Freedmen are also kept at the bottom of the economic ladder, with men likely serving as day laborers and women as house servants. In addition they bear the brunt of crushing disrespect, required to step aside in the presence of whites, and mocked openly on America’s stages in blackface minstrel shows such as “Jump Jim Crow.”
The plight of black people is summed up in an 1829 published pamphlet titled: David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, But in Particular To Those of the United States of America. Here are Walker’s words:
Walker’s despair is echoed in chants drifting across the cotton fields that become known as Negro Spirituals. They give voice to the suffering endured by the enslaved people, along with their hope for a better future, to be reunited with lost kin, and to be transported to a better place. That place is most typically a metaphorical “home.”
Oh yes, I want to go home…where dere’s no whips a crackin…I want to go home. Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home…to carry me home
The man who will win fame as Fred Douglass is born into this hostile environment in 1818 as the slave, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey.
His initial home is a large plantation in Talbot County, Maryland owned by a Colonel Edward Lloyd, and dedicated to growing tobacco, wheat and corn. His master is named Aaron Anthony, a vicious man, who terrifies the small boy by humiliating and whipping his Aunt Hester in his presence. Anthony soon passes ownership of Douglass on to his daughter, Lucretia, who is married to Thomas Auld, also employed on Lloyd’s plantation. From there, at age seven, he is sent to Baltimore to live with Thomas Auld’s brother, Hugh, and his wife, Sophia.
Douglass views this “escape” from plantation to city life as the beginning of his search for eventual freedom.
At first, Sophia Auld, who has never owned slaves, treats the boy with kindness, even agreeing to teach him the alphabet when Douglass shows curiosity about words. Her warmth, however, vanishes after Hugh warns her that educating slaves makes them rebellious and is strictly forbidden. But Sophia’s slip has opened the door to literacy for Douglass, and he is on his way to becoming a voracious, albeit clandestine, reader. Douglass says that his time with Sophia Auld teaches him two things: the necessity of education to set blacks free; and the moral damage that institutionalized slavery can do, even to well-meaning whites like Mrs. Auld.
He remains in Baltimore for roughly seven years, eventually working in a shipyard, and experiencing the urban world around him. The local newspapers inform him about John Quincy Adams and the early calls for abolition. He buys and devours a popular anthology called The Colombian Orator, which includes essays and speeches arguing for and against slavery. With help from dockworkers, he begins to learn how to form letters and to write words and sentences. Like Lincoln as a boy, he is educating himself.
In 1833 Hugh Auld has a falling out with his brother, Thomas, who in turn reclaims Douglass and makes him a kitchen servant in his house. When Thomas senses his independent spirit, he rents him out to a farmer named Edward Covey, known locally as a “slave breaker.” A thoroughly despicable man, he invites neighbors to sleep with his women slaves for “breeding” purposes. Covey converts Douglass into a “field hand” for the first time, and vows to “tame” his 16 year old charge. After six months of being starved and beaten, Douglass almost gives up.
But when Covey comes again to beat him, Douglass meets violence with violence and fights him off. While he risks execution in raising a hand to his master, Covey does not want the word of this resistance to leak out, so he backs off and never tries to whip Douglass again. In his autobiography he refers to this fight as the “turning point in my life — how a man was made a slave; and how a slave was made a man.” He also comes to regard Covey and the Aulds – all ardent churchgoers – as symbols of the failure of the white Christian ministry to speak out against the evil of slavery.
In 1835, Douglass is rented out to another farmer, the more lenient William Freeland, who is rebuffed by locals for allowing him to teach slaves to read at Sunday school services. At this point, Douglass ponders an escape, but his plans are foiled. He returns to Baltimore where Hugh Auld puts him to work as a caulker in a shipyard. Again, Douglass makes the most of his chances here in a broader external world. He joins the East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society, where free blacks hold debates. Through the Society he meets and falls in love with Anna Murray, a housekeeper. He is now 19 years old and on the brink of his escape to freedom.
His break occurs on September 3, 1838. With help from Anna, Douglass dons a red shirt, tarpaulin hat and black scarf posing as a free black sailor and moves by boat and train from Maryland to Delaware to Philadelphia and finally New York City, where he is housed by the African abolitionist, David Ruggles. Anna Murray follows him there and they are married two weeks later.
He is given a new last name by a friend, Nathan Johnson, to help conceal his runaway status. The name is Douglass, after a hero in Sir Walter Scott’s epic poem, Lady of the Lake. Douglass and Anna settle down in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he takes on a series of menial jobs while searching for his new identity in free society. He joins the local African Methodist Episcopalian Zion Church. He subscribes to Garrison’s paper, The Liberator, and begins to sense his calling. In April 1839 he hears Garrison lecture in New Bedford, and decides to attend a convention of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, held on Nantucket Island. This event changes the arc of his future life.
On August 11, 1841, the Quaker abolitionist David Joy is hosting an Anti-Slavery Convention at Athenaeum Hall on Nantucket Island. This is a rare mixed race event, with speakers including Lloyd Garrison and Charles Ray, the free black editor of The Coloured American newspaper. After the formal speeches are concluded, Douglass is invited to say a few words to the crowd about his life as a slave. As Garrison recalls in a letter written five years later, his demeanor and narration prove captivating to his audience.
What Garrison sees in Douglass at that moment is what other audiences will witness over the next fifty years — confirmation of the belief that Africans possess all the natural capacities of whites, if only given some needed support.
The Nantucket event starts up a relationship between the two men who will most heavily shape the abolitionist movement up to and beyond the Civil War. While it will be strained over time, in the end both will see their emancipation goals met.
In 1843 Douglass joins Garrison’s “One Hundred Conventions” tour as a lecturer. This is a grueling affair which takes him from upstate New York through Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. Danger accompanies him at all stops. In Pendleton, Indiana, he is beaten by a mob and ends up with a broken right hand that is never again fully functional. Speaking mostly to white audiences, he recounts his own life experiences to establish his main themes:
- Blacks who are given a fair chance in America will succeed and become good citizens;
- But slavery shuts off that opportunity by reducing Men to the status of Brutes;
- In debasing blacks, whites commit atrocities that tarnish their immortal souls;
- They are often reinforced here by white churches that fail to live up to Christ’s teachings.
- The “slavery problem” can be solved if blacks are educated and given their freedom.
Douglass offers himself as living proof of what is possible for America’s slave population. As such, he becomes a crucial threat to the South’s narrative that Africans are a separate species from whites, universally and irretrievably inferior, potentially violent, and best kept in captivity.
After he publishes the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave in 1845, fear that he will be captured as a run-away drives him to flee to Britain, where slavery has been abolished since 1833. He is openly welcomed in society and spends the next two years lecturing to packed houses in England and Ireland. In 1846 his supporters there send $711 to Hugh Auld to officially buy his freedom. This allows him to return to America in 1847.
Along with his wife and four children Douglass settles for good in Rochester, New York. His home becomes a “station” on the Underground Railroad, and to the chagrin of Lloyd Garrison, he starts up his own newspaper, titled North Star, a 4-page weekly modeled on The Liberator. Its first issue is published on December 3, 1847, around the same time that Douglass encounters the New York abolitionist, Gerrit Smith.
Smith is fabulously wealthiest having inherited the estate of his father, Peter, a long-time partner to the tycoon, John Jacob Astor. His philanthropic efforts begin with temperance, but shift by 1835 to opposing slavery.
Like many others – including Henry Clay and even Abraham Lincoln – he initially favors “colonization,” buying slaves from their owners and shipping them back their homelands in Africa. But that proves impractical and he shifts to abolition and assimilation. Smith concludes, however, that Garrison’s reliance on lecturers and “moral suasion” will never accomplish the goal, and decides that political activism is required. This produces a lasting schism within the abolitionist ranks between Garrison’s Boston branch and Smith’s New York branch.
In 1840 Smith becomes a principal founder of the Liberty Party which cites “natural law” as the basis for universal freedom. The Party nominates James Birney, a reformed slave-holder, for President in 1840 and again in 1844 where he receives 2.3% of the popular vote. Smith himself becomes the candidate in 1848, but receives only 2500 votes.
Despite the electoral failures, Smith is able to draw Fred Douglass away from Garrison and into the New York circle. In 1851, Douglass merges his North Star with Smith’s publication and names this Fred Douglass’ Paper. By then he has become a national celebrity, speaking regularly at anti-slavery events across the North. One such address occurs at the Corinthian Hall in Rochester on July 5, 1851, before 500 attendees who each pay 12 and 1/2 cents to enter.
The title of the speech is The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro, and it begins with a reprise of the events leading to the celebration:
But then Douglass startles the mixed audience by asking why he, as a black man, was chosen to speak about the occasion. He proceeds with bitter fury to answer the question himself:
Midway through the speech Douglass asks another question: who is to blame for these abominations? He first points the finger at Congress which has recently passed an even harsher version of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act. Then comes America’s churches and clergy:
With the speech nearing its end and the listeners emotionally drained, Douglass closes with a note of hope for the future.
Douglass’ “Fourth of July Address” will place him alongside David Walker and Henry Highland Garnet as the leading black orators on behalf of abolition.
Those who later examine the speech believe that the reference to “forces in operation to work the downfall of slavery” reveal Douglass’ relationship with the notorious John Brown, another member of Gerrit Smith’s abolitionist circle. Indeed the two men are connected going forward from their first meeting in 1847 in Springfield, Massachusetts.
In 1858 Brown stays at Douglass’ home in Rochester where he first shares his ideas for a raid into Virginia to recruit an “army” of local slaves at Harpers Ferry, Virginia to slaughter their plantation masters. Douglass argues that the plan has no chance of succeeding, but fails to persuade Brown to give it up. After various delays, Brown visits again in August 1859, where he drafts his proposal for a Provisional Government, reveals his assault plan and begs Douglass to participate in the raid. Douglass refuses to join – a move that surely saves his life — and again urges Brown to stop.
After the attack fails in October 1859, Brown is captured, tried and hanged, and southerners in Congress carry out an investigation to uncover co-conspirators. Among them are Gerrit Smith’s “Secret Six” cabal, but all escape punishment. Orders to arrest Douglass are issued, and he escapes to Canada and then on to Britain, where he resumes his lectures before coming home in 1860 as the nation lurches toward war.
Douglass plays a significant role in the conflict with his call for the enlistment of black men into the Union army. A remarkable event occurs in August 1863 when Douglass risks a trip to Washington to plead his case at the White House. By chance he encounters a friend in Congress and is immediately ushered in to see the president. Before he can introduce himself, Lincoln rises, says “I know who you are Mr. Douglass” and holds out his hand in greeting.
Although black enlistment is delayed, some freedmen unofficially join the ranks in July 1862 and, over time, their number reaches roughly 180,000 or 10% of the army.
Subsequent to his first meeting, Lincoln invites Douglass to visit on three additional occasions. One occurs on March 4, 1864 where Douglass attends the president’s second inauguration and then joins the parade of people arriving at the East Room for greetings. He is stopped at the door by two policemen because of his color, but insists that he has been invited by Lincoln himself. His perseverance pays off and he describes what follows:
It’s unknowable to what extent Lincoln’s perceptions of black people is altered by his visits with Douglass, but evidence of a warm and respectful bond between the two men is clear cut. Even Mary Lincoln recognizes this, and after the assassination she sends the president’s favorite walking stick to Douglass.
For another thirty years after the war Douglass remains one of America’s famous figures. He backs Grant in the 1872 election and runs for Vice-President alongside Victoria Woodhall on the Equal Rights Party ticket in 1872. He is appointed a federal marshal in DC in 1877; takes a second wife, a white woman, in 1884; travels across Europe and is named counsel general to Haiti in 1889.
Up to his 1895 death from a heart attack at age seventy-seven, he continues to speak and write on behalf of equal rights both for black people and for women.
To learn more about the life and times of Fred Douglass read Chapters: 10, 11, 37, 43, 58, 92, 96, 100, 110, 229 and 232.