Important Americans: Frederick Douglass
Once you learn to read, you will be forever free. —Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass was one of the most prominent abolitionists and social justice advocates of the 19th century.
Douglass was born into slavery in 1818, on a plantation on the eastern coast of Maryland. He was named Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. His mother, Harriet Bailey, was a slave and died when Douglass was still a child. They had only met a few times. His father was white, and is presumed by many historians to be the master of the plantation. Douglass was raised by his maternal grandmother, Betty Bailey.
At the age of eight, he was sent to live as a houseboy for a ship carpenter in Baltimore named Hugh Auld, whose wife Sophia taught Douglass the alphabet. Teaching a slave to read was illegal at the time, so Sophia was forced to stop; Douglass persisted and eventually taught himself to read in secret. It was believed that a literate, educated slave would attempt to better his or her circumstances and would endanger the way of life in the South. As Douglass began to read pamphlets, books, and newspapers, he began to clarify his own beliefs and views on human rights and the institution of slavery.
At about the age of 15, Douglass became a field hand on a farm run by Edward Covey, a brutal man and known “slavebreaker.” Douglass was whipped mercilessly and on one occasion, he fought back. He attempted to escape from slavery and failed twice. On September 3, 1838, at the age of 20, Douglass finally succeeded and boarded a train from Maryland to New York, arriving at the safe house of abolitionist David Ruggles.
Douglass settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts to begin his life as a free man. The former Frederick Bailey changed his name to Frederick Douglass, the hero of Sir Walter Scott’s book, The Lady of the Lake. He married Anna Murray on September 15, 1838, whom he met and fell in love with in Maryland. Douglass attended abolitionist meetings within the free black community and began to tell his story of life as a slave. Many, including prominent white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, were impressed with his persuasive speaking and storytelling ability, and Douglass became a regular presenter at these meetings and conferences. Though their ideas regarding how best to end slavery would come into conflict with each other later on, Garrison was Douglass’ mentor and supporter.
Douglass published his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, in 1845. It became a bestseller in the U.S. and was translated into several languages. His works were also met with criticism. Many people doubted a runaway slave could be capable of such eloquent writing. After his autobiography was published, Douglass went on a two-year speaking tour of Great Britain and Ireland to avoid recapture by his former owner, whose name and location Douglass had specifically mentioned in his writing. Upon his return, he continued writing and speaking out against slavery and also began editing abolitionist newspapers, such as The North Star and Frederick Douglass Weekly.
Douglass also supported the women’s rights movement and suggested that like blacks, women deserved the right to vote:
“In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world.”
He also used his reputation to influence the treatment of freed slaves fighting for the North during the American Civil War. He met with many other influential figures of the time, including President Abraham Lincoln. Slavery was eventually made illegal in the United States through the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was adopted at the end of 1865.
An internationally renowned activist and powerful speaker, Douglass was a great influence on how Americans thought about race, slavery, and democracy in the United States.
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