Frederick Douglass Biography



Frederick Douglass will forever remain one of the most important figures in America's struggle for civil rights and racial equality. His influence can be seen in the politics and writings of almost all major African-American writers, from Richard Wright to Maya Angelou. Douglass, however, is an inspiration to more than just African Americans. He spoke out against oppression throughout America and abroad, and his struggle for freedom, self-discovery, and identity stands as a testament for all time, for all people. Born into slavery around 1818, he eventually escaped and became a respected American diplomat, a counselor to four presidents, a highly regarded orator, and an influential writer. He accomplished all of these feats without any formal education.

His Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is a moving account of the courage of one man's struggle against the injustice of antebellum slavery. Published in 1845, sixteen years before the Civil War began, the Narrative describes Douglass' life from early childhood until his escape from slavery in 1838. Douglass uses a matter-of-fact voice, logical analysis, and a dignified tone, but no one can read his account without feeling emotionally sickened by the horrors of slavery. Produced in an era before visual and audio electronic recordings were possible, Douglass' Narrative is an important testimony. Had there not been literate slaves who wrote about their sufferings, our knowledge and understanding of this shameful period of America's past might well be different.

Early Life

Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in Tuckahoe, Maryland, the child of Harriet Bailey, a literate slave. He didn't know who his father was, but, near the beginning of the Narrative, Douglass suggests that his white master may have been his father. He recalls meeting his mother only four or five times. She was assigned to work in a field many miles away and was not allowed to stay with her son, seeing him only furtively during rare visits at night. Frederick was initially raised by his grandparents, Betsey and Isaac Bailey, and later by Captain Anthony, who owned two or three farms and about thirty slaves; he was a clerk and superintendent for Colonel Lloyd's plantation. In one of the most poignant episodes at the beginning of the Narrative, Douglass recalls being treated like an animal and having to live in the same breeding pens as the plantation's dogs and pigs.

Learning to Read

When he was about eight years old, Frederick was sent to Baltimore to work for Hugh Auld, Captain Anthony's relative by marriage. At first, he was treated with great kindness by Sophia Auld; her husband, Hugh, however, eventually disapproved of Sophia's attempts to teach Frederick how to read and write. Such skills, he reasoned, would make Frederick "unfit . . . to be a slave." But Frederick was determined to have an education, and he convinced the neighborhood children to help him learn. At the shipyard where he worked, he copied the scribbles of other workers to practice writing. He purchased the Columbian Orator, as well as the Baltimore American. From newspapers, he not only improved his reading ability but discovered for the first time the existence of anti-slavery movements in the North. The activists in these movements were known as abolitionists, and there were different camps within the abolitionist movement. Some of them were led by religious leaders and were closely connected with Northern Protestant churches.


Upon Captain Anthony's death in 1833, Frederick was returned to rural Maryland and eventually became the property of Thomas Auld. Considered too "independent" by his new owner, teenage Frederick was placed in the care of Edward Covey, a man who had a reputation as a fierce slave-breaker. Covey beat him mercilessly and without justification. Douglass considered the turning point in his life to be the moment when he resisted Covey's beating. Covey couldn't break his spirit, and, for the first time in Frederick's life, a white man backed down.

Escape from Slavery

After Covey, Frederick was hired out to William Freeland and attempted an unsuccessful escape with five other slaves. Eventually he was returned to Baltimore, and Hugh Auld rented him out to work in the shipyards. On September 3, 1838, with the help of a freedwoman, Anna Murray (who later became his wife), he escaped to New York City, disguised as a free sailor. In the Narrative, Douglass is not forthcoming about his exact escape route. Slavery still existed, and he didn't want to prevent other slaves from escaping in a similar way.

In New York, Douglass soon discovered that living as a refugee and hiding from slave hunters was not easy, so he accepted help from abolitionists who provided shelter and passage to New Bedford, Massachusetts. It was then that he changed his last name to "Douglass" in order to take possession of his own life and fate. On arriving in New Bedford, Frederick and Anna lived with Nathan Johnson, and it was Johnson who suggested that Frederick change his name. "Bailey" was too dangerous and could lead to his capture. Johnson suggested "Douglass" because he admired the heroic Scottish hero of Sir Walter Scott's Lady of the Lake.


The enterprising Douglass found himself many jobs, including working as a day laborer in a brass foundry, as well as unloading ships. In 1841, Douglass attended an anti-slavery meeting in Nantucket and befriended two well-known abolitionists, John A. Collins and William Lloyd Garrison. Meeting these men proved to be yet another turning point in his life. Collins invited him to be a salaried lecturer, and Douglass agreed to the arrangement for three months. He was such a popular speaker that three months of lectures and tours became four years. In 1845, he decided to put the speeches he gave about his life as a slave into writing. These speeches became the basis for his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.

The work became an instant bestseller in America as well as in Europe, where it was translated into French and German. Despite its critical and popular acclaim, however, it was met with skepticism by pro-slavery Americans, who simply could not believe that such a brilliant account could be produced by a slave with no formal education. Some thought that the text was a clever counterfeit document produced by abolitionists and passed off as Douglass' writing. In fact, Douglass was so frequently confronted by such skeptics in the North that he had to finally demonstrate his oratory skills in order to prove his intellectual capacity.

Because of the fame created by his Narrative, Douglass risked capture by slave hunters in the North, so he sailed for England. For two years, he lectured on the evils of slavery. He found the British sympathetic to the abolitionists' cause but ignorant of the horrific conditions of slavery in America. Through some British friends, Douglass discovered that Thomas Auld was willing to sell Douglass' freedom for $711.16, and two of his English friends paid the price and bought his freedom. In 1847, Douglass returned to America as a free man.

The Years Preceding and During the Civil War

Not long afterward, Douglass began to break with his former abolitionist protectors. Although still a fervent anti-slavery advocate, he didn't want to be the mouthpiece of white abolitionists who sometimes told him to "dumb down" his speeches in order to sound more like an authentic slave. He felt excluded from major political decisions made by those who ran the abolitionist societies. In addition, the Garrisonian wing of the abolitionist movement was simply not aggressive enough for Douglass.

In 1855, Douglass updated his autobiography and called it My Bondage and My Freedom. In it, he presented more of his views and also included some of his ideas about the anti-slavery crusade. Douglass believed that physical resistance and slave uprisings should remain viable options. Accordingly, he was a supporter of John Brown, who raided the arsenal at Harper's Ferry in 1859 as part of a plan to incite a general slave uprising in the South. Brown and his associates were defeated by U.S. troops, led by Colonel Robert E. Lee (who later became the commanding general of the Confederate forces). Brown and the surviving conspirators were executed in Virginia after a sham trial. While Douglass was not directly involved in John Brown's raid, he nevertheless fled to Canada and, soon afterward, to England in November 1859.

Six months later, Douglass learned of the death of his daughter and returned to America, where he worked for the election campaign of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, calling Lincoln a man "destined to do greater service to his country and to mankind than any man who [has] gone before him in the presidential office."

When the Civil War erupted, Douglass worked hard to persuade the Union to accept blacks in the military. Governor Andrew of Massachusetts was allowed by President Lincoln to organize two black regiments, the famed 54th and 55th. (Their heroism is depicted in the movie Glory.) Two of Douglass' sons, Charles and Lewis, joined the black regiments, knowing full well that captured black Union soldiers were not treated well by Southerners; they were either shot or sold into slavery. Douglass pressured Lincoln to obtain assurance from Jefferson Davis of the Confederacy that this practice would be reversed, but Lincoln never received it. In October 1864, Douglass met with other blacks at a convention in Syracuse, New York, to discuss the future of African Americans in a post-Civil War America. Douglass pushed for universal suffrage for black Americans but faced opposition from ambivalent racist whites and even from the Garrisonian wing of the abolitionist movement.

After the North defeated Southern forces in Atlanta, Georgia, and in Richmond, Virginia, Lincoln won at the polls, and on April 9, 1865, General Lee of the Confederate Army surrendered to General Grant, the Union commander. Although sporadic fighting continued, the Civil War was effectively over.

On April 14, 1865, Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, and the assassination ironically gave a boost to the civil rights movement. The ideals of the martyred president became a rallying force for pro-Union Americans. In the heady days of victory over the South, Congress passed the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. For the first time, citizenship was defined by the Constitution and was extended to all people born within the United States — including blacks — but excluding Native Americans.

The Post-Civil War Years

Following the Civil War, Douglass worked to elect Republican party candidates and also worked for black suffrage. He returned to the lecture circuit in 1874 after his newspaper, The New National Era, and a bank for freed slaves failed. The bank, of which Douglass had been appointed president three months earlier, had a deficit of $200,000. The trustees thought Douglass' appointment would bring prestige and inspire confidence in black depositors, but that didn't happen. (Douglass was unaware of the bank's perilous financial situation when he accepted the job.) Shortly after the bank failed, he began lecturing again to make ends meet. His oratory skills gained him a new reputation, and he was in demand again, earning as much as $100 to $200 per lecture, considerable sums in those days.

Douglass remained close to many Republican politicians, including President Grant, who offered him a short-term commission in January 1871 to investigate whether the United States should annex the Caribbean country of Santo Domingo. Douglass believed in the American dream of personal success. He believed that the people of Santo Domingo could benefit from American institutions, values, capitalism, and know-how, and he supported American annexation. Some scholars, particularly those belonging to the school of new historicism, believe that this philosophy, on a national level, became an American ideology of political, economical, and geographical expansion, an expansionist ideology referred to in the nineteenth century as the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Ultimately, Grant's ambition to annex Santo Domingo was opposed by his political enemies and his plan never took effect. After returning from the Caribbean, Douglass labored for Grant's reelection. He expected to be appointed to an office, but no appointment was forthcoming. He was, however, appointed U.S. Marshal of the District of Columbia in 1877 by Rutherford B. Hayes, and, in 1878, he was financially secure enough to buy a fifteen-acre estate and a large house in Washington, D.C. In 1881, he updated his autobiography again, calling it The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.

In August 1882, Douglass' wife, Anna, died after forty-four years of marriage. Douglass was consoled by a number of their female friends, including many white women in the suffrage and abolitionist movements. The suffragettes were activists who fought for women's rights, including the right for women to vote, and, as civil rights activists, they shared many of the goals of the anti-slavery movement. Susan B. Anthony, possibly the most famous of the nineteenth-century suffragettes, was a good friend of Douglass' and would give his funeral oration.

Douglass enjoyed flaunting his friendships with white women and explained that such relationships confronted racism head-on.

Historians now believe that Douglass had an affair for over twenty years, from 1856 to 1881, with Ottilie Assing, a German journalist and political radical. But Assing was more than a lover; she was Douglass' intellectual partner. The two spent much time together, reading everything from Shakespeare to Marx. Assing's letters, discovered in Poland in the late 1980s, have helped historians understand their sexual relationship. As someone who was overtly Christian, as well as a leader in the African-American community, Douglass was naturally very secretive about his affairs. None of his three autobiographies reveal much about his wife or his liaisons with other women. A year and a half after his wife died, he married Helen Pitts, his white secretary, who worked for the Recorder of Deeds. Assing committed suicide soon afterward but left a trust fund for Douglass. Many blacks and whites were shocked by his second marriage, but Douglass argued that black and white sexual relations had always existed in the United States; he had merely legitimized it with marriage.

In 1888, Douglass worked for Benjamin Harrison's campaign for the presidency. Upon becoming president, Harrison rewarded Douglass with the post of Ambassador to Haiti. Returning from Haiti, Douglass spent his remaining years writing and lecturing about the lynching of blacks, their deprivation of civil rights in the South, and the growing use of Jim Crow laws. These laws prevented blacks from voting by requiring a literacy test, the payment of property taxes, and other unconstitutional measures. They also prevented blacks from participating in government and, in general, stripped them of their constitutional rights.

Douglass died of heart failure on February 20, 1895, at the age of approximately seventy-seven. He had lived a long life by nineteenth-century standards — particularly, for a black man. More significantly, however, he had lived an extraordinary life, overcoming all odds to become one of the greatest figures in American history.