Frederick Douglass was born on a plantation on the Eastern Shore of Maryland around 1818. He died 77 years later in his home at Cedar Hill, high above Washington, DC. In his journey from captive slave to internationally renowned activist, Douglass changed how Americans thought about race, slavery, and American democracy. Since the early 1800s Douglass' life has been a source of inspiration and hope for millions. He has also been an ever present challenge, demanding that American citizens live up to their highest ideals and make the United States a land of liberty and equality for all.
Slavery and Escape
Douglass began his life on a plantation belonging to Edward Lloyd in February, 1818. He was named Frederick Bailey after his mother (Harriett Bailey), though he only met her three or four times in his life. Around the age of eight he was sent to live with one of his owner's relatives in Baltimore, Maryland. It was while living in Baltimore that he was mistakenly taught the first several letters of the alphabet. Those few letters opened a new world to him and began his lifelong love of language.
At fifteen, the now literate Douglass was returned to the Eastern shore to work as a field hand. Here the increasingly independent teenager educated other slaves, resisted efforts to beat him, and planned a failed escape attempt.
Three years later, on September 3, 1838, Douglass disguised himself as a sailor, and carrying a friend's passport, boarded a northbound train from Baltimore.He arrived in New York City and declared himself a free man.
After escaping from slavery Douglass changed his name to avoid being recaptured and turned his efforts to helping those still held in bondage. Douglass travelled around Massachusetts speaking about his experiences with slavery and the need to destroy it.One of the most prominent abolitionists in America, William Lloyd Garrison heard Douglass and invited him to join the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Douglass was soon touring across the North speaking against slavery and becoming one of the country's finest orators.
Douglass was such an impressive speaker and he broke so many of his audiences' preconceptions that some people began to doubt he was truly a fugitive slave.To prove them wrong Douglass wrote his first autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), in which he revealed his original name, his owner's names, and where he was born. The book was wildly popular, but with his identity known Douglass was in danger of being returned to slavery. Once again he had to flee, this time to England, Scotland, and Ireland.
While in the British Isles Douglass continued speaking against slavery. British supporters were so impressed with Douglass that they purchased his freedom. After more than two years abroad Douglass was able to return to the United States a legally free man. He settled in Rochester New York, a hotbed of the abolitionist and women's rights movements. Using additional money raised in Britain, Douglass bought a printing press and began publishing The North Star newspaper. He now proudly referred to himself as "Mr. Editor."
In 1861 tensions over slavery erupted into civil war. Douglass welcomed the conflict as the cataclysmic event needed to wipe slavery from America. As always, he acted as the nation's conscience, arguing that the war was about more than union and state's rights. It was, he said, about a new birth of freedom, a great step towards the nation promised in the Declaration of Independence.
Douglass knew that this new freedom had to be won both on and off the battlefield. Though he was too old to serve in battle, himself he recruited other African Americans to fight in the Union Army, including two of his sons, who served with the famous 54th Massachusetts. Away from the fighting Douglass continued to write and speak against slavery, arguing for a higher purpose to the war. He met with Abraham Lincoln to advocate for African American troops and to encourage Lincoln to see the war as a chance to transform the country into a more perfect nation. Douglass' influence was crucial to Lincoln's evolution as a thinker over the course of the war. This influence can be seen in the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln's second inaugural speech.
Post Civil War
Following the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery new possibilities opened up for Douglass. He moved from Rochester to Washington, D.C., eventually buying the home at Cedar Hill. During this time he served as the U.S. Marshall for the District of Columbia, the District's Registrar of Deeds, and the U.S. Minister to Haiti and Charge d'Affairs to the Dominican Republic. Despite his victories and successes, Douglass still had many battles to fight. African Americans hold on their newly won civil rights remained tenuous and women were still not allowed to vote. He continued to work to expand civil rights in the country until his death in 1895.
Douglass Related Resources on the Web
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Did You Know?
At the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Washington, D.C. you can see a reconstruction of Frederick Douglass' "Growlery." It was a one room building with a stove, bed, and desk where Douglass could retreat to work and "growl" when he was in the mood.