Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, who later became known as Frederick Douglass, was born a slave in Talbot County, Maryland near Hillsboro. He was separated from his mother, Harriet Bailey, when he was still an infant. She died when Douglass was about seven years old. The identity of Douglass' father is obscure; Douglass originally stated that his father was a white man, perhaps his master, Captain Aaron Anthony, but later said that he knew nothing of his father's identity. When Anthony died, Douglass was given to Mrs. Lucretia Auld, wife of Captain Thomas Auld; the young man was sent to Baltimore to serve the Captain's brother, Hugh Auld. When Douglass was about twelve, Hugh Auld's wife, Sophia, broke the law by teaching Douglass some letters of the alphabet. Thereafter, as detailed in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (published in 1845), Douglass succeeded in learning to read from white children in the neighborhood in which he lived, and by observation of writings of the men with whom he worked. Douglass later referred to the lessons he received from Sophia Auld in his first abolitionist speech.
In 1837, Douglass met Anna Murray, a free African-American, in Baltimore while he was still held in slavery. They were married soon after he obtained his freedom; Douglass escaped slavery on September 3, 1838 boarding a train to Havre de Grace, Maryland dressed in a sailor's uniform and carrying identification papers provided by a free black seaman. After crossing the Susquehanna River by ferry boat at Havre de Grace, Douglass continued by train to Wilmington, Delaware. From there Douglass went by steamboat to "Quaker City"-Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His escape to freedom eventually led him to New York, the entire journey taking less than twenty-four hours.
Douglass joined various organizations in New Bedford, Massachusetts, including a black church, and regularly attended Abolitionist meetings. He subscribed to William Lloyd Garrison's weekly journal, The Liberator, and in 1841, he heard Garrison speak at the Bristol Anti-Slavery Society's annual meeting. Douglass was inspired by Garrison, later stating, "no face and form ever impressed me with such sentiments (the hatred of slavery) as did those of William Lloyd Garrison." Garrison was likewise impressed with Douglass, and mentioned him in the 'Liberator'.
Several days later, Douglass gave his first speech at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society's annual convention in Nantucket. Twenty-three years old at the time, Douglass later said that his legs were shaking. He conquered his nervousness and gave an eloquent speech about his life as a slave.
In 1843, Douglass participated in the American Anti-Slavery Society's Hundred Conventions project, a six month tour of meeting halls throughout the east and middle west of the United States. He participated in the Seneca Falls Convention, the birthplace of the American feminist movement, and was a signatory of its Declaration of Sentiments.
Douglass later became the publisher of a series of newspapers: North Star, Frederick Douglass Weekly, Frederick Douglass' Paper, Douglass' Monthly and New National Era. The motto of The North Star was "Right is of no sex--Truth is of no color--God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethren".
Douglass' work spanned the years prior to and during the Civil War. He was acquainted with the radical abolitionist Captain John Brown but did not approve of Brown's plan to start an armed slave revolt. However, Brown visited Douglass' home for several days shortly before the Harpers Ferry incident, in which Brown attacked the federal Arsenal there. After the incident, Douglass fled for a time to Canada, fearing he might be arrested as a co-conspirator. Douglass believed that the attack on federal property would enrage the American public. Douglass would later share a stage in Harpers Ferry with Andrew Hunter, the prosecutor who successfully convicted Brown.
Douglass conferred with President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 on the treatment of black soldiers, and with President Andrew Johnson on the subject of black suffrage. His early collaborators were the white abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips. In the early 1850's, however, Douglass split with the Garrisonians over the issue of the United States Constitution.
Douglass had five children; two of them, Charles and Rossetta, helped produce his newspapers.
Douglass was an ordained minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Douglass' most well-known work is his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which was published in 1845. Critics frequently attacked the book as inauthentic, not believing that a black man could possibly have produced so eloquent a piece of literature. The book was an immediate bestseller and received overwhelmingly positive critical reviews. Within three years of its publication, it had been reprinted nine times with 11,000 copies circulating in the United States; it was also translated into the French and Dutch languages.
The book's success had an unfortunate side effect: his friends and mentors feared that the publicity would draw the attention of his ex-owner, Hugh Auld, who could try to get his "property" back. They encouraged him to go on a tour in Ireland, as many other ex-slaves had done in the past. He set sail on the Cambria for Liverpool on August 16, 1845, and arrived in Ireland when the Irish famine was just beginning.
Travels to Europe
Douglass spent two years in the British Isles and gave several lectures, mainly in Protestant churches. He remarked that there he was treated not "as a color, but as a man." He met and befriended the Irish nationalist Daniel O'Connell. When Douglass visited Scotland, the members of the Free Church of Scotland, whom he had criticized for accepting money from U.S. slave-owners, demonstrated against him with placards that read, "Send back the nigger".
Douglass was able to win back his freedom after British sympathizers paid the slaveholder who legally still owned him.
In 1851, Douglass merged the North Star with Gerrit Smith's Liberty Party Paper to form Frederick Douglass' Paper, which was published until 1860. Douglass came to agree with Smith and Lysander Spooner that the United States Constitution is an anti-slavery document, reversing his earlier belief that it was pro-slavery, a view he had shared with William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison had publicly demonstrated his opinion of the Constitution by burning copies of it. Douglass' change of position on the Constitution was one of the most notable incidents of a division that emerged in the abolitionist movement after the publication of Spooner's book The Unconstitutionality of Slavery in 1846. This shift in opinion, as well as some other political differences, created a rift between Douglass and Garrison. Douglass further angered Garrison by saying that the Constitution could and should be used as an instrument in the fight against slavery. With this, Douglass began to assert his independence from the Garrisonians. Garrison saw the North Star as being in competition with the National Anti-Slavery Standard and Marius Robinson's Anti-slavery Bugle.
In March 1860, Annie, Douglass' youngest daughter, died in Rochester, New York, while he was still in England. Douglass returned from England the following month, taking the route through Canada to avoid detection.
By the time of the Civil War, Douglass was one of the most famous black men
in the country, known for his oratories on the condition of the black race, and
other issues such as women's rights.
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