Frederick Douglass was an abolitionist, a reformer, a statesman, and the author of the American classic Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Born into slavery in Maryland, Douglass was never certain of his exact birth date or the identity of his father, although some have speculated that his father was his first master, Aaron Anthony. Douglass, whose birth name was Frederick Bailey, moved at the age of 10 to the Baltimore household of Hugh Auld, where at an early age he learned rudimentary reading and writing thanks to Auld’s wife and to the white children in the neighborhood, whom Douglass bribed for lessons in spelling. When he found a copy of the Columbia Orator, a schoolbook incorporating several antislavery passages as reading and writing exercises, Douglass devoured the idea of abolitionism. This concept made him rebel against his condition as a slave, and at 16 he was sent to Edward Covey, a “slave‐​breaker,” whose job was to beat obstreperous slaves into submissiveness. Covey failed, and Douglass returned to Auld’s household determined to escape. In September 1838, he finally managed to sneak out of Maryland disguised as a Navy seaman with forged papers obtained through the Underground Railroad. He moved to Rochester, New York, which with some interruptions was his home for the rest of his life. He took the name Douglass as a disguise to prevent recapture.

Shortly after moving to New York, Douglass attended a speech by William Lloyd Garrison, whose Liberator was the most notorious of abolitionist newspapers. Garrison called on Douglass to speak, and Douglass described slavery in such moving terms that Garrison asked him to join the Massachusetts Anti‐​Slavery Society. Douglass worked hard on his speaking and writing skills, but his eloquence and power caused some to doubt that he was actually an escaped slave. Douglass responded to this charge by writing his memoir, the Narrative, which he would revise twice during his life, first as My Bondage and My Freedom and, finally, as The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.

Douglass broke with Garrison in 1851, when he rejected Garrison’s views that the U.S. Constitution was an inherently proslavery document (“a pact with the devil,” in Garrison’s words) and that the North should secede from the South over slavery. Douglass objected that northerners, who had profited from and abetted slavery, owed slaves the duty of working to emancipate them, and must not “leave the slave to free himself.” Moreover, Douglass was persuaded by such writers as Lysander Spooner and Gerrit Smith that the Constitution was actually an antislavery document. In one of his best‐​known speeches, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Douglass declared that “interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT,” and he insisted that slavery was already unconstitutional even before the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Douglass’s constitutional philosophy would today be described as “liberal originalism.” He admired Justice John Harlan, whose dissents in The Civil Rights Cases and Plessy v. Ferguson led him to call on Harlan to run for president.

Douglass also repudiated Garrison’s pacifism and enthusiastically recruited blacks to join the Union Army during the Civil War. Two of his own sons served in the 54th Massachusetts volunteers, the famous black regiment that suffered heavy casualties in a brave attack on Fort Wagner at Charleston, South Carolina. (Douglass’s sons survived.)

Although early feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton had long been friendly to the abolitionist cause, they split with Douglass over his support of the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed the right to vote regardless of race but explicitly limited the right to men. Douglass supported female suffrage, but believed that holding out for a gender‐​neutral amendment would doom the chances of black suffrage.

In 1884, Douglass married a white woman, Helen Pitts, and 5 years later was appointed ambassador to Haiti by President Benjamin Harrison. The end of Reconstruction, however, brought on a national withdrawal from efforts at establishing racial equality, and Douglass would never again hold such a high office. He became increasingly embittered as the nation turned away from the cause of racial equality.

Douglass was a strong supporter of private property rights and free markets, although he did make some exceptions. He insisted that former slaves learn trades and become self‐​reliant, and he opposed Charles Sumner’s plan to confiscate southern plantation lands for redistribution to former slaves. He fervently opposed labor unions that barred blacks from admission, and he denounced many proposals for government aid to former slaves because the aid would constitute a badge of inferiority. “The black man is said to be unfortunate,” Douglass explained.

He is so … but I affirm that the broadest and bitterest of the black man’s misfortunes is the fact that he is everywhere regarded and treated as an exception to the principles and maxims which apply to other men.… Necessity is said to be the plea of tyrants. The alleged inferiority of the oppressed is also the plea of tyrants.… Under its paralyzing touch all manly aspirations and self‐​reliance die out and the smitten race comes almost to assent to the justice of their own degradation.

Blacks were “not only confronted by open foes, but [also] assailed in the guise of sympathy and friendship and presented as objects of pity.” Government paternalism would undermine the self‐​respect blacks needed to break free of their second‐​class status. “No People that has solely depended upon foreign aid, or rather, upon the efforts of those, in any way identified with the oppressor … ever stood forth in the attitude of freedom.” But Douglass did endorse some aid programs, including the Freedman’s Bureau, and he objected to sharecropping arrangements and the payment of wages through certificates redeemable only in company stores. These, he complained, perpetuated a system worse than slavery, in which the rights of blacks were respected de jure, but ignored de facto. Late in his life, he complained that “so‐​called emancipation” was a fraud and that black sharecroppers were paid low wages, legally prohibited from moving away in search of higher pay, and frequently lynched with impunity.

In old age, Douglass took on a number of protégés, including anti‐​lynching crusader Ida Wells and educational reformer Booker T. Washington, who wrote one of the first biographies of Douglass. A story tells of Douglass being approached by a young man who asked what he should do with his life. “Agitate, agitate, agitate,” Douglass replied.

Further Readings

Foner, Philip, and Yuval Taylor, eds. Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1999.

Gates, Henry Louis, ed. Douglass: Autobiographies. New York: Library of America, 1994.

Martin, Waldo E. The Mind of Frederick Douglass. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Mayer, Henry. All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery. New York: St. Martin’s, 1998.

McFeely, William. Frederick Douglass. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.

Quarles, Benjamin. Frederick Douglass. New York: Da Capo, 1997.

Timothy Sandefur
Originally published