Eyewitness Testimony: Frederick Douglass
Born into slavery, Frederick Douglass became a prominent abolitionist and advocate of women’s rights.
Frederick Douglass made himself the most compelling witness to the evils of slavery and prejudice.
He suffered as his master broke up his family. He endured whippings and beatings. Down South, it was illegal to teach slaves how to read and write, but Douglass learned anyway, and he secretly educated other slaves. After he escaped to freedom, he tirelessly addressed anti-slavery meetings throughout the North and the British Isles for more than two decades. When it became clear that the Civil War was only a bloody benchmark in the struggle, he spearheaded the protest against Northern prejudice and Southern states which subverted the newly-won civil liberties of blacks.
Douglass embraced the ideal of equal freedom. He supported women’s suffrage, saying “we hold woman to be justly entitled to all we claim for man.” He urged toleration for persecuted Chinese immigrants — “I know of no rights of race superior to the rights of humanity.” Overseas, he joined the great Daniel O’Connell in demanding Irish freedom, and he shared lecture platforms with Richard Cobden and John Bright, speaking out for free trade.
Douglass believed that private property, competitive enterprise and self-help are essential for human progress. “Property,” he wrote, “will produce for us the only condition upon which any people can rise to the dignity of genuine manhood…Knowledge, wisdom, culture, refinement, manners, are all founded on work and the wealth which work brings…Without money, there’s no leisure, without leisure no thought, without thought no progress.”
Critics considered Douglass stubborn, arrogant and overly sensitive to slights, but he earned respect from friends of freedom. For years he appeared on lecture platforms with William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, leading lights of the antislavery movement. Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe praised Douglass. He impressed essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson who declared: “Here is Man; and if you have man, black or white is an insignificance.” Mark Twain was proud to count Douglass as a friend. John Bright contributed money to help buy his freedom. “He saw it all, lived it all, and overcame it all,” exulted black self-help pioneer Booker T. Washington.
The personal costs of Douglass’ anti-slavery campaign were high. He spent hardly any time at home. He missed seeing his five children growing up. His wife Anna resented being left alone to tend the children and earn extra money.
Ottilia Assing, a German friend, described Douglass as a “rather light mulatto of unusually large, slender and powerful build. His features were marked by a distinctly vaulted forehead and with a singularly deep indentation at the base of the nose. The nose itself is arched, the lips are small and nicely formed, revealing more the influence of the white man than of his black origins. His thick hair is mixed here and there with grey and is curly though not woolly.”
An American observer recalled Douglass’ presence as a speaker: “He was more than six feet in height, and his majestic form, as he rose to speak, straight as an arrow, muscular, yet lithe and graceful, his flashing eye, and more than all, his voice, that rivaled Webster’s in its richness, and in the depth and sonorousness of its cadences, made up such an ideal of an orator as the listeners never forgot.”
Individualist feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton saw how, at a Boston anti-slavery meeting, “with wit, satire, and indignation [Douglass] graphically described the bitterness of slavery and the humiliation of subjection to those who, in all human virtues and powers, were inferior to himself…Around him sat the great anti-slavery orators of the day, earnestly watching the effect of his eloquence on that immense audience, that laughed and wept by turns, completely carried away by the wondrous gifts of his pathos and humor…all the other speakers seemed tame after Frederick Douglass…[he] stood there like an African prince, majestic in his wrath.”
Frederick Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey sometime in February 1818 — slave births weren’t recorded — on a plantation along Maryland’s Eastern Shore, near Easton. He didn’t know who his father was. His mother Harriet Bailey was a slave, and consequently all her children were condemned to be slaves. “I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four or five times in my life,” he recalled, “and each of these times was very short in duration, and at night.” She died when he was seven.
Bailey was brought to the mansion of Edward Lloyd who was former Maryland governor and U.S. senator and among the richest men in the South. Lloyd owned a number of farms, and Bailey remembered how one overseer, Austin Gore, was whipping a slave named Denby. When Denby tried to escape into a stream, Gore shot him dead — and got away with it. “Killing a slave, or any colored person, in Talbot County, Maryland,” Bailey explained, “is not treated as a crime.”
In November 1826, Bailey was assigned to Thomas Auld who sent him to his brother Hugh in Baltimore. Hugh’s wife Sophia read to him from the Bible, and he noticed the connection between marks on the page and the words she spoke. She began teaching him the alphabet. Bailey recalled, Hugh Auld snarled that “If you learn him how to read, he’ll want to know how to write; and this accomplished, he’ll be running away with himself.”
Bailey learned more on the streets of Baltimore: “when I met with any boy who I knew could write, I would tell him I could write as well as he. The next word would be, ‘I don’t believe you. Let me see you try it.’ I would then make the letters which I had been so fortunate as to learn, and ask him to beat that. In this way I got a good many lessons in writing, which it is quite possible I should never have gotten in any other way.”
When Bailey was 12, he heard his friends read from a collection of great speeches, assigned in school. He took 50 cents that he had hoarded, went to Knight’s Bookstore and bought his own copy of The Columbian Orator. Compiled by Caleb Bingham, it first appeared in 1797 and went through many editions. “Alone, behind the shipyard wall,” reported biographer William McFeely, “Frederick Bailey read aloud. Laboriously, studiously, at first, then fluently, melodically, he recited great speeches. With The Columbian Orator in his hand, with the words of great speakers coming from his mouth, he was rehearsing. He was readying the sounds—and meanings—of words of his own that he would one day write. He had the whole world before him. He was Cato before the Roman senate, [William] Pitt [the Elder] before Parliament defending American liberty, [Richard Brinsley] Sheridan arguing for Catholic emancipation, Washington bidding his officers farewell.” The book included a “Dialogue between Master and Slave” in which the Slave tells the Master he wants not kindness but liberty. There was also a short play, “Slave in Barbary,” where the ruler Hamet declares: “Let it be remembered, there is no luxury so exquisite as the exercise of humanity, and no post so honourable as his, who defends THE RIGHTS OF MAN.”
Bailey recalled, “The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness. Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more…It was heard in every sound, and seen in every thing. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.”
In March 1832, Thomas Auld decided he needed Bailey, and he returned to Auld’s place in St. Michaels, Maryland. Auld discovered that the taste of freedom in Baltimore had a pernicious effect on Bailey and that harsh discipline was called for. Accordingly, in January 1833, he was hired out as a field hand to Edward Covey, a small tenant farmer known as a “nigger-breaker.” Bailey was brutally whipped once, but when Covey tried again, Bailey successfully defended himself with his powerful arms and indomitable spirit. “I was nothing before,” Bailey wrote later. “I WAS A MAN NOW.”
He resolved to be free, and he did what he could to nourish the spirit of freedom in others. At the house of a free black man, he educated some 40 slaves with his Columbian Orator and a copy of Webster’s Spelling Book which he apparently had acquired from a friend. “These dear souls came not to Sabbath school because it was popular to do so, nor did I teach them because it was reputable to be thus engaged,” he wrote. “Every moment they spent in that school, they were liable to be taken up, and given thirty-nine lashes. They came because they wished to learn. Their minds had been starved by their cruel masters…The work of instructing my dear fellow-slaves was the sweetest engagement with which I was ever blessed.”
In April 1836, Bailey and four other slaves plotted their escape, but they were betrayed. They were dragged behind horses some 15 miles to the Easton jail. Bailey was considered a dangerous influence on a plantation, and Thomas Auld decided that he should be returned to his brother Hugh in Baltimore. Bailey got a job in Gardiner’s shipyard as an apprentice caulker. In the spring of 1838, Bailey proposed a deal to Hugh Auld: let him be free to hire himself out, he would buy his own tools, he would pay his own room and board, and he would remit $3 per week. Auld figured that if he said no, Bailey would probably run away. During his spare time, Bailey joined the East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society, an association of free black caulkers who gathered to debate issues and learn more living on one’s own.
Meanwhile, he met Anna Murray, a free black woman whose parents reportedly had been freed before her birth. She was about five years older than he and worked as a domestic servant in Baltimore. Although she was illiterate, she was probably the one who encouraged him to play the violin. This became a favorite pastime, and he especially loved Handel, Haydn, and Mozart.
Anna reportedly raised money for Bailey’s escape by selling her featherbed. Since he had worked around the Baltimore docks, he could talk like a sailor, and he decided to escape dressed like a sailor — a red shirt, a flat-topped sailor’s hat and a handkerchief around his neck. On September 3, 1838, he boarded a crowded northbound train, and when the conductor asked for his “free papers,” certifying that he wasn’t a slave, he presented seaman’s papers (used by American sailors when traveling overseas), borrowed from a retired free black sailor. The conductor didn’t notice that the papers described somebody else. He eluded several people who recognized him and made his way to New York where he joined Anna and got married. Then they headed for New Bedford, Massachusetts, a shipbuilding boom town where they could be safer from slave hunters and probably find a job as a caulker. New Bedford had some 12,000 people, a black community and a significant contingent of antislavery Quakers.
Bailey marveled at the prosperity in New Bedford. “I had very strangely supposed, while in slavery, that few of the comforts, and scarcely any of the luxuries, of life were enjoyed at the north, compared with what were enjoyed by slaveholders of the south. I probably came to this conclusion from the fact that northern people owned no slaves. I supposed that they were about upon a level with the non-slaveholding population of the south. I knew they were exceedingly poor, and I had been accustomed to regard their poverty as the necessary consequence of their being non-slaveholders. I had somehow imbibed the opinion that, in the absence of slaves, there could be no wealth, and very little refinement…
“Here I found myself surrounded with the strongest proofs of wealth. Lying at the wharves, and riding in the stream, I saw many ships of the finest model, in the best order, and of the largest size. Upon the right and left, I was walled in by granite warehouses of the widest dimensions, stowed to their utmost capacity with the necessaries and comforts of life. Added to this, almost every body seemed to be at work, but noiselessly so, compared with what I had been accustomed to in Baltimore…I heard no deep oaths or horrid curses on the laborer. I saw no whipping of men; but all seemed to go smoothly on. Every man appeared to understand his work, and went at it with a sober yet cheerful earnestness, which betokened the deep interest which he felt in what he was doing, as well as a sense of his own dignity as a man. To me this looked exceedingly strange. From the wharves I strolled around and over the town, gazing with wonder and admiration at the splendid churches, beautiful dwellings, and finely-cultivated gardens; evincing an amount of wealth, comfort, taste, and refinement, such as I had never seen in any part of slave-holding Maryland.”
Until the couple found their own lodgings, they stayed with black caterers Mary and Nathan Johnson. Bailey reported that Nathan read “more newspapers, better understood the moral, religious, and political character of the nation—than nine tenths of the slaveholders in Talbot county, Maryland. Yet, Mr. Johnson was a working man. His hands were hardened by toil, and not his alone, but those also of Mrs. Johnson. I found the colored people much more spirited than I had supposed they would be. I found among them a determination to protect each other from the blood-thirsty kidnapper, at all hazards.” Nathan suggested that Bailey adopt a distinctive free name—like Douglas, the name of a Scottish lord in Walter Scott’s poem The Lady of the Lake. He did, adding an extra “s” for more individuality.
He landed a steady job at a Quaker-owned whale oil refinery, and he and Anna attended the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. The minister, Thomas James, was active in the antislavery movement and editor of a twice-monthly publication called The Rights of Man. On March 12, 1839, Douglass rose at a church meeting and delivered a speech denouncing proposals that blacks be shipped back to Africa. He wanted to stay in America. His remarks were stirring enough to be mentioned in The Liberator, the radical anti-slavery newspaper which William Lloyd Garrison had published weekly since January 1831. He was invited to speak at an August 10th Nantucket gathering of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Garrison and his compatriot Wendell Phillips would be there.
In Nantucket, Garrison recalled, Douglass “came forward to the platform with a hesitancy and embarrassment. After apologizing for his ignorance, and reminding the audience that slavery was a poor school for the human intellect and heart, he proceeded to narrate some of the facts in his own history as a slave, and in the course of his speech gave utterance to many noble thoughts and thrilling reflections. As soon as he had taken his seat, filled with hope and admiration, I rose, and declared that PATRICK HENRY, of revolutionary fame, never made a speech more eloquent in the cause of liberty…”
Douglass was asked to become a salaried speaker for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. He joined Garrison, Phillips, Stephen S. Foster and Charles Lenox Remond, speaking wherever a couple dozen people could be gathered. Douglass delivered over a hundred speeches a year in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, and he became a valued contributor to the Liberator. He was heckled and beaten a number of times.
His first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (June 1845) helped secure his fame. It was written as an antislavery tract, with details of his escape left out to protect others. Published by the Anti-Slavery Office, Boston, the book included a letter by Phillips and a preface by Garrison. There were three European editions, and total sales reportedly reached 30,000 within five years.
Douglass seemed like a natural to help turn Europeans against the South and isolate it in the international community. In the fall of 1845, he and Garrison addressed audiences in Scotland, England and Wales. They dramatized the evils of American slavery, attacked clergymen who supported slavery, called on people to cut off ties with the slave-holding South and asked for contributions. In Ireland, Douglass was horrified to see worse poverty than anything he had experienced. At a gathering of some 20,000 people, he shared the lecture platform with six foot, red-haired Daniel O’Connell. He was moved when the Irishman dubbed him the “Black O’Connell of the United States.” After the failure of the potato crop and the resulting famine devastated Ireland, Douglass joined the lean, dark-haired, cool-headed free trade agitator Richard Cobden and his stockier compatriot John Bright, a passionate orator. The threesome traveled from town to town, urging immediate repeal of the corn laws (grain tariffs), so hungry people could buy cheap food. Douglass was welcomed at London’s Free-Trade Club, and he cherished his times as “a welcome guest at the house of Mr. Bright in Rochdale…treated as a friend and brother among his brothers and sisters.”
Meanwhile, he learned that Hugh Auld was determined to have him captured when he returned to the United States. Since he had become a key player in the abolitionist movement, Douglass’ friends thought it best to purchase his freedom. The agreed-on price was L150. John Bright kicked off the fund-raising with a L50 check. Hugh Auld received $711.60, and Douglass was legally free on December 12, 1845. He sailed for the United States on April 4, 1847.
Douglass played a role in the Underground Railroad. Reportedly a slave could travel from a border state to Canada within 48 hours. Many a runaway slave showed up at Douglass’ three-story Rochester, New York home, and his family took care of them until they could go the seven miles to Charlotte and catch a steamer across Lake Ontario to Canada. Most escapes occurred during the winter when there was less supervision on plantations, and Douglass tirelessly raised money to provide the destitute runaway slaves with warm clothing and food.
Douglass cherished his independence. He believed in pursuing all peaceful methods against slavery, including political action, while Garrison opposed political action. Douglass started his own anti-slavery newspaper, an idea opposed by Garrison’s people who noted that the Liberator lost money. On December 3, 1847, with $4,000 raised from a speaking tour, Douglass published the first issue of *North Star. He was to keep it going for 17 years.
On July 19 and 20, 1848, he spoke at the Seneca Falls convention which the five-foot, three-inch housewife Elizabeth Cady Stanton had organized to promote women’s rights. Douglass was the only man who supported Stanton’s proposal for woman suffrage. He agreed that wives should be able to earn their own money; that widows, like widowers, should be able to serve as legal guardians of their children; that women, like men, should be able to own property, inherit property and administer estates.
Then came the notorious Dred Scott decision, March 6, 1857, in which Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney ruled that neither a slave, nor a former slave or nor a descendent of slaves could become a U.S. citizen. Outraged, Douglass was willing to hear any ideas that might help the fight against slavery. In 1858, abolitionist John Brown was at Douglass’ Rochester home, working on his idea for stirring a slave insurrection and forming a black state in the Appalachian mountains. Police sought Douglass after Brown’s October 16, 1859 raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and he fled to England for several months.
After the April 1861 firing on Fort Sumter which marked the beginning of the Civil War, Lincoln made clear this was a struggle to preserve the Union, not abolish slavery. Lincoln’s policy was that runaway slaves must be returned to their masters. Douglass demanded “the unrestricted and complete Emancipation of every slave in the United States whether claimed by loyal or disloyal masters.” On January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued an Emancipation Proclamation saying that slaves were liberated in rebellious states — which he obviously didn’t control. The Proclamation didn’t free slaves in the North, but it did make the abolition of slavery a war aim.
While Douglass certainly admired Lincoln, he was mindful of all the ways Lincoln was willing to compromise with slavery.
After slavery was abolished, Douglass set his sights on getting blacks the vote, so they could establish a political presence—blacks were denied the vote in Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and several Western states. But it became politically impossible to push for giving both blacks and women the vote at the same time. Immediately after the March 30, 1870 adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment, granting blacks the right to vote, Douglass supported the campaign for woman suffrage.
Douglass hitched himself to the Republican Party during the long sunset of his career, but his political connections did little good. Terrorist groups like the Pale Faces, Knights of the White Camelia and, of course, the Ku Klux Klan murdered blacks and burned black homes, schools and churches, and neither state nor federal governments did much.
Douglass encouraged self-help. He encouraged black parents: “Educate your sons and daughters, send them to school…Wherever a man may be thrown by misfortune, if he have in his hands a useful trade, he is useful to his fellow-men, and will be esteemed accordingly…”
In 1881, he published The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. He provided more details about his experience as a slave, revealed (for the first time) how he escaped and discussed subsequent struggles. An expanded edition came eleven years later.
Douglass’ wife Anna died on August 4, 1882. When he married a white abolitionist, Helen Pitts, both blacks and whites were horrified. Arsonists torched his beloved Rochester home, and the couple moved to a 20-room white frame house on 23 acres across the Anacostia River from Washington, D.C. The place had once been owned by Robert E. Lee. Called Cedar Hill, it included a library and a music room where Douglass could play his violin.
On February 20, 1895, he attended a Washington, D.C. rally for women’s rights. When he finished dinner that night, he rose from his chair, then collapsed and died. There was a private funeral service at his home, and the casket was moved to the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church where tremendous crowds paid their respects. After another service at Rochester’s Central Church, he was buried in Mount Hope Cemetary near his wife and daughter.
More than anyone else, Douglass put a human face on the horrors of American slavery. He helped convince millions that it must be abolished. He courageously spoke out against the subversion of civil rights. He expressed generous sympathy for all who were oppressed. He urged people to help themselves and fulfill their destiny. He longed for the day when men and women, blacks, whites and everyone else could live in peace.
Reprinted from The Triumph of Liberty by Jim Powell.