Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born into the lowest station in nineteenth-century American society; however, over the course of a lifetime, he would transcend his origins and become one of the towering figures in U.S. history. After escaping from slavery, adopting his now-famous surname, and establishing himself in the free North, Frederick Douglass embarked on a remarkable career in which he held positions in the federal government and became a passionate advocate for African Americans and women. In February 1895, after waging sustained, occasionally successful, and often frustrating fights against slavery, racism, black disfranchisement, lynching, and the oppression of women, Douglass passed away, leaving the mantle of race leadership to a new generation of African Americans.
Douglass's childhood and adolescence was indicative of the myriad experiences of African Americans enslaved throughout the antebellum South. In February 1818, he was born on Maryland's Eastern Shore, the son of an enslaved mother and a white father who, Douglass later insisted, was also his owner. Douglass's mother was absent during his childhood, and Douglass lived in his grandmother's cabin until he was separated from her and brought to the plantation of a prominent local planter. After several years of working as a field hand, Douglass lived in Baltimore, where he hired himself out as a caulker in that city's shipyards. There, primarily through his own clandestine efforts, Douglass learned to read, an accomplishment that he later credited with helping clarify his views on slavery and freedom. Douglass's growing impulse for physical liberation surfaced in a fight with an overseer, an unsuccessful attempt to run away from a farm where he was sent to work, and, finally, his successful escape from Baltimore and bondage.
At the age of 20, Douglass, along with his new bride, established himself in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he soon invested himself in the burgeoning abolitionist movement. Douglass became a regular attendee at local antislavery meetings, sometimes speaking out from the audience to share his firsthand account of the so-called peculiar institution. On August 16, 1841, Douglass gave his first public speech at a Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society convention held in Nantucket. Attendees, including the famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, hailed the powerful speech, and
shortly thereafter Douglass joined Garrison as an agent of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society.
During the next two decades, Douglass became a devout abolitionist, unrivaled in his commitment to the cause of emancipation and African American progress. Douglass traveled the free states of the North and Midwest sharing his experiences of slavery and championing the abolitionist cause. He often did so at considerable personal risk: while Douglass officially purchased his freedom in 1846 and alleviated the prospect of a return to slavery, incensed proslavery mobs remained a potent threat throughout his career. Despite these difficulties, Douglass persevered in his activism, eventually augmenting his speaking engagements with attempts to spread abolitionism through the written word.
Like hundreds of other formerly enslaved African Americans during the nineteenth century, Douglass found particular power within the autobiographical medium. In 1845, he published the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, a chronicle of his journey from slavery to freedom that he would later update in My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, revised 1892). Douglass's autobiographical writings, particularly the first, contain many tropes common to the slave narrative; yet amid recollections of familial separation, physical punishment, and eventual escape, they also evince an increasingly self-confident and self-reliant intellectual who rose above the simple label of fugitive slave.
As the sectional crisis intensified and the Civil War approached, Douglass entertained more radical ideas to help the United States fulfill its democratic promise. Although he briefly considered Haiti as a permanent refuge for African Americans, Douglass, unlike his Black Nationalist contemporaries, never fully committed himself to the idea of emigration. Instead, he excoriated white Americans for their country's hypocritical inequality—one of his most famous orations asked “What, to the Slave, Is the Fourth of July?”—and advocated for African Americans to seize their freedom and equitable inclusion in national life by any means necessary. Douglass even befriended John Brown, supported some of his ideas to emancipate enslaved blacks, and, ultimately, lamented not doing more to aid Brown's failed raid on Harper's Ferry.
In 1861, with the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter and the outbreak of war, Douglass saw the opportunity for the United States to realize his martyred friend's vision and eradicate slavery and racial inequality. Douglass encouraged African Americans to join the Union Army, and he became a recruiter for the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment—a unit that two of his sons would join. He urged President Abraham Lincoln to come to the aid of his sons and other black troops who faced discrimination within the Union Army and potential retribution if captured by Confederate forces.
After the defeat of the Confederacy and the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution effectively ended slavery, Douglass turned his attention to the plight of the South's freedmen and women. Douglass traveled throughout the country, drumming up support for the enfranchisement of African Americans, and he subsequently served an unsuccessful stint as president of the Freedman's Savings and Trust Company. While his commitment to black progress momentarily diverted his attention from women's rights, Douglass did call for an amendment enfranchising women following the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
African Americans’ political gains were fleeting, but Douglass managed to receive some of the political posts that the Republican Party conceded to its African American constituents during Reconstruction and its aftermath. In 1877, Douglass became the U.S. marshal of the District of Columbia, and, following his removal from that position, Douglass gained an appointment as recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia. After a period of public controversy and private strife—he married a white woman after the death of his first wife—Douglass assumed the post of U.S. minister resident and consul general to the Republic of Haiti. Although his service there from 1889 to 1891 garnered the disdain of the white press, Douglass received plaudits from Haitians for his fair handling of diplomatic matters. Indeed, two years after leaving Haiti, Douglass represented that country as the commissioner of the Haitian exhibit at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Douglass remained a powerful presence in American society even after his death. His legacy is seen in the numerous prizes still given in his honor, the monuments erected in his memory, the public buildings named after him, and his continued representation in American popular culture. Yet Douglass's permanent imprint is perhaps best found in the civil rights activists who succeeded him. Individuals like W. E. B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells-Barnett—whom Douglass befriended and joined in the antilynching crusade—acknowledged Douglass's influence and adapted his ideas of morality and social justice to the era of Jim Crow. While Douglass may have delivered his final, great speech on the “Lessons of the Hour,” he truly provided an enduring vision of freedom and equality that transcended his time.
Brandon Ronald Byrd
See also: Abolitionism ; African Americans and Populism ; Wells, Ida B. (1862–1931)
Foner, Philip S. Frederick Douglass: A Biography. New York: Citadel Press, 1964.
McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991.
Quarles, Benjamin. Frederick Douglass. New York: Athenaeum Press, 1968.