Frederick Douglass sits in the pantheon of Black history figures: Born into slavery, he made a daring escape north, wrote best-selling autobiographies and went on to become one of the nation’s most powerful voices against human bondage. He stands as the most influential civil and human rights advocate of the 19th century.
Perhaps his greatest legacy? He never shied away from hard truths.
Because even as he wowed 19th-century audiences in the U.S. and England with his soaring eloquence and patrician demeanor, even as he riveted readers with his published autobiographies, Douglass kept them focused on the horrors he and millions of others endured as enslaved Americans: the relentless indignities, the physical violence, the families ripped apart. And he blasted the hypocrisy of a slave-holding nation touting liberty and justice for all.
He wanted to rouse the nation's conscience—and expose its hypocrisy
Douglass’s voluminous writings and speeches reveal a man who believed fiercely in the ideals on which America was founded, but understood—with the scars to prove it—that democracy would never be a destination of comfort and repose, but a journey of ongoing self-criticism and struggle. He knew it when he lobbied relentlessly to abolish slavery. And he knew it after Emancipation, when he continued to battle for equal rights under the law.
Indeed, Douglass knew, as he argued so ardently in his famed 1852 July Fourth speech, that for democracy to thrive, the nation’s conscience must be roused, its propriety startled and its hypocrisy exposed. Not once, but continually and for the good of the nation, he argued, we must bring the “thunder.”
Douglass’s extraordinary life and legacy can be understood best through his autobiographies and his countless articles and speeches. But they weren't his only activities. He also published an abolitionist newspaper for 16 years...supported the Underground Railroad by which enslaved people escaped north...became the first African American to receive a vote for President of the United States during roll call at the 1888 Republican National Convention...and even was known to play America’s national anthem on the violin.
Underpinning it all was his relentless process of self-education—a theme that runs throughout Douglass’s life story.
READ MORE: Frederick Douglass's Emotional Meeting with the Man Who Enslaved Him
Education, abuse and escape
Born in Maryland in 1818, Douglass, like many enslaved children, was separated from his mother at birth; he resided with his loving maternal grandmother until he turned seven.
At the age of eight, he became a servant in the home of Hugh Auld in Baltimore. In defiance of the codes that explicitly forbade teaching enslaved people how to read, Mrs. Auld taught Douglass the alphabet, unlocking the gateway to education—which he would extol the rest of his life. Over time Douglass surreptitiously continued to teach himself to read and write, all the while strengthening his resolve to escape the confines of slavery. He defied the law in not only learning to read and write, but in teaching other enslaved people to do so. As he observed: “Some know the value of education by having it. I know its value by not having it.”
In the early 1830s, Douglass was shipped to the plantation of Hugh’s brother Thomas. In an effort to break his spirit, Thomas loaned Douglass to Edward Covey, a sadistic local slave master with a reputation for cruelty. Covey mercilessly beat and abused the teenager until one day Douglass decided to fight back, knocking Covey to the ground. Covey, tempered, never mentioned the encounter, but he also never laid hands on him again.
As for Douglass, he called the battle with Covey “the turning point” in his life as an enslaved person: “It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me my own sense of manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free.”
In September of 1838 Douglass, disguised as a sailor and with borrowed free papers, managed to board a train to Havre de Grace, Maryland. He continued on to New York and ultimately, New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he settled, a free man. He married Anna Murray, a free woman of color who he had met and fallen in love with while in bondage in Baltimore. The couple had five children. The Douglasses made a commitment to eradicating the evil of slavery.
READ MORE: How Frederick Douglass Escaped Slavery
The authoritative voice of Abolition
After speaking at an anti-slavery meeting in 1841, Douglass met William Lloyd Garrison, one of the leading proponents calling for an immediate end to slavery. The two became friends and with Garrison’s support, Douglass became one of the most sought-after speakers on the abolitionist circuit, not only for his searing testimony but his powerful oratory. In time, he lent his voice to the emerging women’s-rights movement as well. He once reflected: “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”
In 1845, Douglass committed his story to print, publishing the first of three autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, with the support of Garrison and other abolitionists. The book gained international acclaim, confounding critics who argued that such fluid writing and penetrating thought could not be the product of a Black mind. Nevertheless, the Narrative catapulted Douglass to success outside the ranks of reformers, stoking fears that his celebrity might result in attempts by Auld to reclaim the man he had enslaved. To avoid this fate, Douglass traveled to England, where he remained for two years until a group of supporters there successfully negotiated payment for his freedom.
READ MORE: What Frederick Douglass Revealed—and Omitted—in His Famous Autobiographies
Back in the United States, Douglass navigated the tumultuous decade of the 1850s, steering a course between extremists like John Brown, who believed the only way to abolish slavery was through armed insurrection, and old friends like Garrison. Douglass published his own newspaper, The North Star. On the masthead, he inserted the motto “Right is of no sex—Truth is of no color—God is the Father of us all, and we are brethren,” incorporating both Douglass’s anti-slavery and pro-women’s rights views.
On the eve of the Civil War, Douglass used his fame and influence to petition the Lincoln Administration to press for emancipation. As he remarked: “The thing worse than the rebellion is the thing that causes the rebellion.” He further demanded that the Union allow Black men to enlist and aided the war effort by promoting recruitment.
Without struggle, he learned, there is no progress
Despite the hope engendered by the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery following the war, Douglass remained cautious, observing: “Verily, the work does not end with the abolition of slavery, but only begins.” Over the course of the next few years, he remained a strong voice advocating for the passage of additional legislation to ensure absolute equality for Black people. By the end of the decade, however, he was also painfully aware of the mounting efforts to suspend Reconstruction and return Black people to a state of quasi-slavery—measures he continued to fight. His experience had taught him: “Without a struggle, there can be no progress.”
Douglass died on February 20, 1895. While his life mapped the triumphant journey from slavery to freedom, the seeds of division had already been sown on the eve of his death. Three years earlier, Homer Plessy challenged Louisiana’s law that required “all railway companies [to] provide equal but separate accommodations for the white, and colored races,” leading to the landmark 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision upholding racial segregation. In spite of the failure of Reconstruction and the assault on Black equality, Douglass had still remained hopeful of a different outcome.
Of all the inspiring things to be recovered in Douglass life, his work in pursuit of social justice remains the most compelling. An uncompromising critic of American hypocrisy rather than American democracy, his critique was anchored much more in what could be.
Far from “slandering Americans” as he called it, Douglass appealed to them to remember the oppression that led to revolution, the desire for liberty that fueled its leaders and the vigilance necessary to maintain freedom. He warned against the denial of the most basic of human rights and the betrayal of revolutionary values in thoughts and actions.
That, today, is perhaps the most important lesson to be gleaned from Douglass’s life. We would do well to acknowledge his daring escape from slavery, powerful oratory, leadership on civil and women’s rights. But we shouldn't separate that from his ultimate message, which compelled us to be better—and more vocal—in the messy, ongoing process of pursuing social justice and perfecting our democracy. That, he believed, is what would make America great.
Yohuru Williams, an American academic, author and activist, serves as Distinguished University Chair, Professor and Founding Director of the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas.
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