A human rights activist, Frederick Douglass encountered nineteenth century dichotomies that defined him as ‘other’ both in himself and his work. The dominant white hegemony into which Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born enslaved him because he was the black son of a black slave, though his father was probably her white master. The dominant white hegemony prospered in a land founded ostensibly on the principles of equality and freedom for all, but which in practice refused to accept the American populous as it then already was: multiracial. Douglass worked throughout his life to bring these principles of equality and freedom to all men and women in America.
Image 4.20. Frederick Douglass. (Public Domain; George Kendall Warren via Wikipedia)
Born a slave to Aaron Anthony (c. 1766–1826) at Holme Hill Farm in Talbot County, Maryland, Frederick Douglass was left to the care of his grandmother, Betsey Bailey, who was given the charge of all the enslaved children at Holme Hill Farm. His mother, Harriet Bailey, was hired out to labor off the plantation along with her four sisters. Douglass later expressed the importance of these women—especially his grandmother—to his life and sense of self. At the age of seven, Anthony moved Douglass to the main residence, thus permanently separating him from his grandmother.
After Anthony died, Douglass became the property of Thomas Auld (d. 1880). Auld sent him to Baltimore to live with his brother, Hugh. Hugh’s wife, unbeknownst to herself, made the first step leading to Douglass’s life’s vocation in freedom by teaching him to read. She was soon stopped by her husband, who understood the power of knowledge. Douglass nevertheless worked at teaching himself to read and write. He learned humanist principles from such texts as The Columbian Orator (1797), learned of Abolitionist efforts from the Baltimore American, and learned through Charles Lawson, a free black preacher, to take up the “great work” for which Douglass was destined.
In 1833, Douglass was returned to Thomas Auld to work on the plantation; Auld hired Douglass out to Edward Covey (1805–1875), a notorious slavebreaker, to fit Douglass for his enforced work. From Covey, Douglass learned violence; for months, Douglass was whipped daily. He then defended himself in a two-hour combat with Covey. The beatings ceased. Douglass’s work to escape slavery began. A failed escape attempt with five other slaves caused Douglass to be arrested and jailed in Easton. He then was returned to Hugh Auld, who hired Douglass out to the Baltimore shipyards where he learned the caulking trade. Douglass managed to save for himself some money from what he earned for Hugh Auld. With it, and with the aid of the free black Anna Murray (1813–1882), Douglass boarded a train for New York, wearing the clothes and bearing the legal papers of a free black sailor.
Murray joined him in New York, and the two married. They moved to New Bedford to avoid Douglass’s being recaptured as a fugitive slave. He also changed his last name and dropped his middle names, henceforth becoming known as Frederick Douglass. At New Bedford, he encountered a racism that prevented his earning a fair living through his trade. Despite his poverty, and the demands of his growing family, Douglass subscribed to William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper The Liberator. After hearing Douglass give an antislavery speech, Garrison hired him as an abolitionist lecturer.
Despite the dangers he faced as an escaped slave and from anti-abolitionists, Douglass lectured throughout the North. He also wrote his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass which was published by Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society in Boston. Through its use of his own voice and words to give a first-hand description of slavery’s brutality and the hypocrisy of self-degrading, immoral white slave-holders, Douglass’s Narrative achieved remarkable success, selling around 30,000 copies in five years. He continued lecturing as a recognized leader of the Abolitionist movement. In 1845 and 1846, he traveled to Great Britain on a speaking tour. Anti-slavery British friends purchased Douglass’s freedom in 1846. Between 1851 and 1863, he founded three African American newspapers, starting with The North Star (1847–1851).
Douglass followed his Narrative with two other versions, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, revised 1892), describing his continuing experiences and contributing to the ongoing national discourse on slavery among abolitionists like Garrison and Stowe. Because he supported John Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry, Douglass was forced to escape to safety to Canada and then Great Britain. After his return to America, he supported the Civil War, advocating enlisting blacks and himself recruiting black soldiers.
After the Civil war, he continued publishing and editing newspapers, served as a United States marshal, a recorder of deeds in Washington, D.C., and consulgeneral to the Republic of Haiti. He also criticized the Reconstruction policy, and supported women’s rights, giving his last speech at a women’s rights rally.