Frederick Douglass

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:

 In memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid. They are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Black men prefer white women over their own, just as orangutans prefer black women over their own. They secrete less by the kidnies, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour. In imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.

   I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race,  or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind… This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people.

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:

     I consider a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man of the farm…What she produces is an addition to the capital, while his labors disappear in mere consumption.

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:

    We colored people are the most degraded, wretched, and abject set of beings that ever lived…We are destined to dig (the white man’s) mines and work their farms, and thus go on enriching them from one generation to another with our blood and our tears!!!! An observer may see there, a son take his mother…by the command of a tyrant, strip her Naked…and apply the cow- hide to her, until she falls a victim to death in the road! He may see a husband take his dear wife, not infrequently in a pregnant state, and beat her for an  unmerciful wretch, until his infant falls a lifeless lump at her feet!  Can the Americans escape God Almighty? If they do, can he be to us a God of Justice? I would suffer my life to be taken before I would submit. Oh! my God, I appeal to every man of feeling – is not this insupportable? Oh pity us, we pray thee, Lord Jesus.

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.

My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!

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.

        A beloved friend from New Bedford prevailed on Mr. DOUGLASS to address the convention: He came forward to the platform with a hesitancy and embarrassment, necessarily the attendants of a sensitive mind in such a novel position. After apologizing for his ignorance,  and reminding the audience that slavery was a poor school for the human intellect and heart, he proceeded to narrate some of the facts in his own history.  I shall never forget his first speech at the convention-the extraordinary emotion it excited in  my own mind -the powerful impression it created upon a crowded auditory, completely taken by surprise- the applause which followed from the beginning to the end of his felicitous remarks.

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.

       I think I never hated slavery so intensely as at that moment… There stood one, in physical proportion and stature commanding and exact-in intellect richly endowed-in natural eloquence a prodigy-in soul manifestly “created but a little lower than the angels”-yet a fugitive slave,- trembling for his safety… (One) capable of high attainments as an intellectual and moral being-needing nothing but a comparatively small amount of cultivation to make him an ornament to society and a blessing to his race-(yet) by the law of the land, by the voice of the people, by the terms of the slave code, he was only a piece of property, a beast of burden, a chattel personal, nevertheless!  As soon as he had taken his seat, filled with hope and admiration, I rose, and declared that PATRICK HENRY, of revolutionary fame, never made a speech more eloquent in the cause of liberty, than the one we had just listened to from the lips of that hunted fugitive. So I believed at that time–such is my belief nowIt was (also) impressed upon my mind, that, if Mr. DOUGLASS could be persuaded to consecrate his time and talents to the promotion of the anti-slavery enterprise, a powerful impetus would be given to it, and a stunning blow at the same time inflicted on northern prejudice against a colored complexion.

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:

  The Fourth of July…is the birth day of your National Independence, and of your political freedom…The fathers of this republic…preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage. They were quiet men; but they did not shrink from agitating against oppression…With them, justice, liberty and humanity were “final”; not slavery and oppression….Fellow Citizens, your fathers…succeeded; and to-day you reap the fruits of their success…. This day is the anniversary. Our eyes are met with demonstrations of joyous enthusiasm. Banners and pennants wave exultingly on the breeze.

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: 

What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? …Do you mean to mock me, by asking me to speak? I (ask) for I am not included within the pale of this glorious    anniversary!… This Fourth July is yours, not mine. ….Above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered  more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them.
… In the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible which are disregarded and trampled upon, (I) dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery-the great sin and shame of America! “I will not equivocate; I will not excuse”; I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice…shall not confess to be right and just
It is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their masters? Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood, and stained with pollution, is wrong? No! I will not. I have better employment for my time and strength than such arguments would imply.
How can one exposed daily to the shared commonalities between the races played out around them day after day not conclude the “equal manhood of the Negro race.”Once conceding that the Negro is a man, denying his right to “own his own body” becomes “ridiculous.” Would you have me  argue that man is entitled to liberty? that he is the rightful owner of his own body?… To do so, would be …to offer an insult to your understanding.-There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.
  …In the solitude of my spirit I see clouds of dust raised on the highways of the South; I see the bleeding footsteps; I hear the doleful wail of fettered humanity on the way to the slave-markets, where the victims are to be sold like horses, sheep, and swine, knocked off to the highest bidder. There I see the tenderest ties ruthlessly broken, to gratify the lust, caprice and rapacity of the buyers and sellers of men. My soul sickens at the sight.

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:

     Worse yet are the various theologians who teach that slavery is sanctioned in the Bible, a “horrible blasphemy” that serves to perpetuate evil…Many of its most eloquent Divines…have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system. They have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity.
    …The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad: it corrupts your politicians at home. It saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing and a bye-word to a mocking earth.

With the speech nearing its end and the listeners emotionally drained, Douglass closes with a note of hope for the future.

      I have detained my audience entirely too long already… Allow me to say, in conclusion, (despite) the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind… Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe… The fiat of the Almighty, “Let there be Light,” has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light… the fervent aspirations of William Lloyd Garrison, I say, and let every heart join in saying it: God speed the year of jubilee. That year will come… and God speed the day when human blood  Shall cease to flow! In every clime be understood, The claims of human brotherhood, And each return for evil, good, Not blow for blow; That day will come all feuds to end, And change into a faithful friend Each for.

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 was) a scene of elegance such as… I had never before witnessed. Like a mountain pine high above all others, Mr. Lincoln stood, in his grand simplicity, and homelike beauty. Recognizing even before I reached him, he exclaimed, so that all around could hear him, “Here comes my friend Douglass.” He shook my hand and said “I am glad to see you. I saw you in the crowd today, listening to my inaugural address. How did you like it?”
I said, “Mr. Lincoln, I must not detain you with my poor opinion, when there are thousands waiting to shake hands with you.” “No, no,” he said, “you must stop a little, Douglass; there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours. I want to know what you think of it?” I replied, “Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort.”

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.