Critical Essays Douglass' Other Autobiographies


Frederick Douglass wrote two more memoirs about his life: My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881). Both of these autobiographies are much longer than the Narrative and provide more of Douglass' views about racism and civil rights in the South, as well as in the North. However, the Narrative is more often taught in classes today than the other two books. Recent historical scholarship has focused attention on the minor discrepancies in the three versions. For example, in the last version (1881), Douglass denies having any knowledge of who his father was. Yet in the Narrative (1845), Douglass strongly implies that a white man, perhaps his master, was his father. Such inconsistencies have led scholars to argue that Douglass modified his autobiographies in order to suit changing politics. It is true that in the later part of his life, Douglass was more concerned with racial pride and seemed eager to suggest that his black heritage alone contributed to his success.

My Bondage and My Freedom is basically a continuation of the Narrative. In an early chapter, he gives more information about his mother, who "was the only one of all the slaves and colored people in Tuckahoe" who could read. Douglass admits that he doesn't know how a field hand could have gained this knowledge. Nevertheless, he thinks his thirst for knowledge came from his mother and not from his unknown white father. The underlying rationale for this assertion is to rebuke claims by racists who say that blacks are unintelligent and "uneducatable," or those who argue that Douglass must have inherited his intelligence from his white father. Douglass confirms that even the most abused field slave could learn to read; therefore, his capacity for intellect and love of learning could well have been inherited from his mother.

In My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass reports gaining fame because of his abolitionist lectures and the publication of the Narrative. Accordingly, as his reputation grew, Douglass fled to England to prevent the possibility of arrest and a return to slavery. He tells the reader that onboard ship to England, he was not allowed to occupy a first class cabin because of his race. Nevertheless, because of his fame, many of the passengers came to see him in the steerage compartment, and they invited him to present his lectures to all the passengers of the ship. In this book, Douglass doesn't dwell much on the twenty-one months he spent in Great Britain, where he met many supporters of abolitionism. He does, however, voice his opinion about segregation on public transportation. Evidently, the British considered the American practice of segregation on public trains and ships outrageous. Editorials in The London Times and other papers condemned this practice, creating so much publicity that the Cunard line, which Douglass took to and from England, ended racial segregation on its steamships.

In the final chapter of My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass tells stories about his endeavors to end segregation on trains in New England. On one occasion, he refused to give up his seat and move to the "Jim Crow car" (italics his). He fought physically with many conductors and passengers, disrupting many train schedules before the state of Massachusetts was finally compelled to forbid racial segregation on trains. Douglass ends his book by promising to use his voice and pen to "promote the moral, social, religious, and intellectual elevation of the free colored people . . . [and] advocate the great and primary work of the universal and unconditional emancipation of my entire race."

My Bondage and My Freedom was written when slavery was still in effect, and Douglass still refused to divulge his means of escaping from Baltimore to New York. He did not want to jeopardize those friends who helped him escape.

In The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881), published sixteen years after the Civil War, when slavery was no longer a legal matter, Douglass reveals how he escaped. He borrowed identification papers from a friend, a free black sailor, and simply took the train to New York City.

My Bondage and My Freedom ends Douglass' story in 1855, when he was still a member of the Garrisonian wing of the abolitionist movement. In Life and Times, he describes how he became a close friend of John Brown, the leader of a movement dedicated to ending slavery through armed resistance and slave uprisings. Douglass then tells the reader that Brown originally planned to raid Harper's Ferry in 1858 but had to postpone the raid for a year when plans for the attack were leaked by a traitor. Douglass knew about the 1859 raid well in advance; in fact, he provided financial and spiritual support for Brown's venture even though he never felt fit enough to be a part of a military operation. Brown was arrested while Douglass was lecturing in Philadelphia, and, learning about Brown's arrest, he telegraphed his own son Lewis in Rochester, New York, and asked him to secure and hide Brown's letters. Predictably, U.S. marshals soon arrived to question and search Douglass' household in Rochester. Douglass returned to Rochester and pretended that he was heading for Michigan. Instead, he left for Canada, and, on November 12, 1859, he left Quebec for England.

When the Civil War began, Douglass began working to recruit freed blacks into the Union army. He had an audience with President Lincoln and urged him to persuade President Davis of the Confederate States to forbid the South from executing black prisoners of war. He also asked Lincoln to mandate that black soldiers be paid the same wages as white soldiers. Lincoln didn't offer such guarantees. Instead, he told Douglass that black soldiers had more to gain from this war than whites and should therefore accept lower wages, at least for the time being. In his memoirs, Douglass expresses great admiration for Lincoln's compassion and humanity, but he disagrees with Lincoln on several points. For Douglass, Lincoln was more concerned about the preservation of the Union than he was with the issue of slavery. He suggests that Lincoln was even ready to allow slavery to continue — if the South would abandon the war and pledge loyalty to the Union. Following his meeting with the president, Douglass met with Secretary of War Stanton, who promised him a commission as assistant adjutant to the army's General Thomas. The army commission never arrived, and Douglass tells us that Stanton, after due consideration, probably changed his mind and felt that the Union was not ready for a high-ranking black officer. Interestingly, a small number of black soldiers were commissioned as officers during the Civil War, with a select few even reaching the rank of major.

Lincoln made public his intention to free all slaves in a speech on September 22, 1862. The Emancipation Proclamation took effect a few months later, on January 1, 1863. In Life and Times, Douglass says that this New Year's day will probably remain "a memorable day in the progress of American liberty and civilization." After the defeat of the South, Douglass lobbied hard to have Congress grant freed slaves citizenship. In the emotional period after Lincoln's death and the defeat of the South, Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment (abolishing slavery), the Fourteenth Amendment (defining citizenship), and the Fifteenth Amendment (granting suffrage, voting rights, to blacks — a right denied American women until 1920).

After the Civil War, Douglass worked unceasingly to have women's rights recognized. In his memoirs, he expresses gratitude for the help the suffragettes gave to the abolitionist movement, and he reports that some people have characterized him as a "woman's-rights man," a title he is not ashamed of. It must be remembered that Douglass was very progressive for his era in believing in a woman's right to vote. Douglass proclaims in Life and Times, "Recognizing not sex, nor physical strength, but moral intelligence and the ability to discern right from wrong, good from evil, and the power to choose between them, as the true basis of Republican government, to which all are alike subject, and bound alike to obey, I was not long in reaching the conclusion that there was no foundation in reason or justice for woman's exclusion from the right of choice in the selection of the persons who should frame the laws, and thus shape the destiny of all the people, irrespective of sex." His use of the term "Republican government" here refers not to the party but to a non-monarchical, democratically elected government.

In the remainder of his memoirs, Douglass recounts some of the more interesting (and sometimes unexpected) episodes which occurred in the latter part of his life. For a time after the Civil War, Douglass earned a comfortable living by giving lectures. After one particular lecture, Douglass was given a note, stating that Mrs. Amanda Sears, the daughter of Thomas and Lucretia Auld and granddaughter of Captain Anthony, his former master, was in the audience. After speaking with Amanda's husband, John, Douglass was invited to visit their home. Although there were many women in that house, Douglass immediately recognized Amanda Auld despite not having seen her for several decades. Afterward, Amanda and Douglass began a long-lasting friendship, developing mutual respect and admiration for each other.

Amanda's father, Thomas Auld, was still alive in 1877, and on his deathbed he requested to see Douglass. The reader may remember that in the Narrative, Douglass presents Auld as an uncaring, cruel, and hypocritical slaveholder. Douglass recalls: "But now that slavery was destroyed, and the slave and the master stood upon equal ground, I was not only willing to meet him, but was very glad to do so." The sight of the incapacitated and bedridden Auld brought tears to Douglass' eyes. It was an emotional meeting because both men were at first too choked with emotion to speak. Thomas Auld had read Douglass' Narrative and wanted to correct a point made in it about Douglass' grandmother. Auld assured Douglass that he had taken good care of Douglass' grandmother in her old age and that he certainly did not abandon her to die in her cabin. Douglass then told Auld that he had indeed incorrectly reported the incident in the Narrative, and he regarded both Auld and himself to be victims of a cruel system.

On this trip to St. Michael's, Maryland, Douglass also met the former sheriff who had locked him up when he attempted his first escape. Now, the former sheriff was among many who warmly welcomed his visit. Clearly, in Life and Times, Douglass wants to forgive the sins of a previous generation and move on to a new and brighter era of American civilization. He reports that the descendants of his former oppressors now treat him as an equal: "The abolition of slavery has not merely emancipated the negro, but liberated the whites." (Note: In the Narrative, Douglass spells St. Michael's with an apostrophe; today, the name of the town is spelled without an apostrophe.)

Douglass cautions, however, that prejudice continues to exist in American society. He describes his problems with public transportation on occasion because of his race.

Sadly, in the years preceding and following Douglass' death, the increasing use of segregation denied blacks the rights accorded by the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. A year after Douglass' death, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation was legal under the Constitution; the "separate but equal" doctrine was not fully overturned until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Douglass ends his Life and Times with a warning about the rise of Jim Crow laws and the imposition of near-slavery status on blacks in the South. The North "did not deprive the old master class of the power of life and death which was the soul of the relation of master and slave. They [whites] could not of course sell them [former slaves], but retained the power to starve them to death, and wherever this power is held, there is the power of slavery." In effect, Douglass says, economic slavery can be just as devastating as legal bondage. But Douglass remained a believer in enterprise and capitalism. For him, money and success lead to civil and political rights. Douglass' parting advice is compelling but simplistic; he urges blacks to save their money: "Every dollar you lay up, represents one day's independence, one day of rest and security in the future. If the time shall ever come when we shall possess in the colored people of the United States, a class of men noted for enterprise, industry, economy, and success, we shall no longer have any trouble in the matter of civil and political rights."