History Stories

The former slave, whose brilliant prose and soaring oratory pricked the conscience of a nation, carefully shaped his own myth. Details like a white second wife didn't fit.

Frederick Douglass, the most influential black man in 19th-century America, wrote 1,200 pages of autobiography, one of the most impressive performances of memoir in the nation’s history. The three texts included Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (published in 1845); his long-form masterpiece My Bondage and My Freedom, (1855); and finally, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, revised in 1892). During his lifetime, they launched him to national prominence; since then, they have become essential texts of U.S. history.

In them, Douglass tells his extraordinary personal story—of the slave who endured and witnessed untold acts of brutality, then audaciously willed his own freedom. He describes the young slave who mastered the master’s language, and who saw to the core of the meaning of slavery, both for individuals and for the nation. And then he captures the multiple meanings of freedom—as idea and reality, of mind and body—as no one else ever did in America.

But as in so many autobiographies, there is also much Douglass holds back, details that don’t fit his carefully constructed narrative. He says little, for instance, of his complex family relationships—including his second marriage to a white woman—or his important female friends. Nor does he ever really reveal his true feelings about his improbable odyssey from a fugitive slave and radical outsider, a black man who gained fame for eloquently trumpeting the nation’s harshest truths, to a political insider warmly welcomed by Abraham Lincoln in the White House.

From orphaned slave to conscience of a nation

Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, on the Holme Hill Farm, in Talbot County, Maryland in February, 1818. He was the son of Harriet Bailey, who he saw for the last time in 1824, at age six. Douglass never knew the accurate identity of his father, although some evidence indicates that it was either his first owner, Aaron Anthony, or his second owner, Thomas Auld, to whom he was bequeathed on Anthony’s death. Douglass was, therefore, in the fullest sense an orphan long in search of father and mother figures as well as any semblance of a secure “home.” He lived 20 years as a slave and nearly nine years as a fugitive slave subject to recapture. From the 1840s to his death in 1895, he attained international fame as an abolitionist, reformer, editor, orator of almost unparalleled stature and author. The three autobiographies, along with his endless lecturing tours, formed the basis of his fame.

Click here to read more about why Frederick Douglass matters.

As a public man of affairs, he began his abolitionist career two decades before America would divide and fight a civil war over slavery. He lived to see black emancipation, to work actively for women’s suffrage long before it was achieved, to realize the civil rights triumphs and tragedies of Reconstruction. As a public figure, holding federal appointive offices, he witnessed America’s economic and international expansion in the Gilded Age. He lived to the eve of the age of Jim Crow, dying in 1895, when America collapsed into retreat from the very victories and revolutions in race relations he had helped to win. He had seen and played a pivotal role in America’s second founding out of the apocalypse of the Civil War, and he very much saw himself as a founder of the Second American Republic.

Walking the cruel shores of Douglass’s youth

In 1981, when I was a struggling graduate student and launching an unformed dissertation on Douglass, I had the good fortune to meet the late Dickson Preston, journalist, historian and resident of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where Douglass had grown up. Preston had just published Young Frederick Douglass: The Maryland Years, and I drove out to Easton, Maryland, where he took me on an extraordinary trek along the back roads of the Eastern Shore, a landscape Douglass himself had described, in part, as having a “worn-out, sandy, desert like appearance… a dull, flat, and unthrifty district… bordered by the Choptank River, among the laziest and muddiest of streams.”

Dick took me out to the bend in Tuckahoe River, the site of Douglass’s grandmother, Betsy Bailey’s cabin, where Frederick Bailey was born and reared until the age of six. I can still recall the walk along the edge of a cornfield down to the river, and the feeling of how moving such a simple, rustic place can be when we can know and feel its history. I saw the Auld house in St. Michaels, the home of one of Douglass’s owners. Dick traced the route Douglass’s mother, Harriet, took on her few journeys to see her son at the Wye plantation, what Douglass would call the “Great House farm” in the narratives. At the Wye plantation, still there today, I saw the old kitchen house where little Frederick had lived and witnessed the savage beating of his aunt Hester.

At some point Dick asked, would you like to see Covey’s farm? At the age of 16-17, Douglass was hired out to an overseer-farmer who disciplined unruly slaves. Douglass immortalized his savage beatings at the hands of Covey, and especially his resistance in a fight with the vicious slave master. I remember getting out of Dick’s car, stepping over a fence and walking up a ridge, as Dick said “turn around and look.” And there it was, Chesapeake Bay on a glorious summer day, full of white sailing ships—the same view that helped set afire Douglass’s dream of freedom.

To a lonely, despondent, brutalized but literate 16-year-old slave who had seen the city of Baltimore—and read of an even wider, wondrous world—Covey embodied the “system” that now imprisoned Fred Bailey (as Douglass was then called) in a desolate corner of the Eastern Shore, a wilderness of unseen, untold violence from which he might never have returned. By midsummer, in this daily hell, Covey achieved what Douglass claimed was his motive: “I was broken in body, soul and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed… behold a man transformed into a brute.”

They cried. They reminisced. Click here to read about Frederick Douglass's emotional reunion with his former master. 

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass, circa 1850.

Dreaming of freedom

Sundays provided Frederick his only down time. Lonely, with no one to confide in, he tells us he would lie down under a shade tree, and spend many hours in “a sort of beast-like stupor, between sleep and wake.” Sometimes he would stroll over toward the Chesapeake Bay, a short distance from Covey’s farmstead, where he would allow himself an occasional burst of imagination, a daydream he would 10 years later capture in a beautiful and haunting metaphor of freedom. Sitting in a small room at a spare desk in Lynn, Massachusetts, in the winter of 1844-45, while crafting his first autobiography, Douglass peered back into his memory and wrote a passage for the ages.

“Our house stood within a few rods of the Chesapeake Bay,” he remembered, “whose broad bosom was ever white with sails from every quarter of the habitable globe.” Douglass then captured slavery and freedom with unparalleled artistry in the genre of slave narratives:

Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition. I have often, in the deep stillness of a summer’s Sabbath, stood all alone upon the lofty banks of that noble bay, and traced, with saddened heart and tearful eye, the countless number of sails moving off to the mighty ocean. The sight of these always affected me powerfully. My thoughts would compel utterance; and there, with no audience but the Almighty, I would pour out my soul’s complaint… with an apostrophe to the moving multitude of ships.

Then, perhaps gazing through the wintry window in his Lynn office, Douglass shifts and speaks directly to the ships, trying to re-enter a teenager’s voice:

You are loosed from your moorings and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip! You are freedom’s swift-winged angels, that fly around the world; I am confined in bands of iron! O that I were free! O that I were on one of your gallant decks and under your protecting wing! Alas, betwixt me and you, the turbid waters roll. Go on, go on. O! that I could also go! If I could fly! O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute! The glad ship is gone; she hides in the dim distance. I am left in the hottest hell of unending slavery!

In such a prose poem, Douglass wrote a psalm-like prayer of deliverance in his Narrative, rendering in the music of words the meaning of slavery’s potential to destroy the human spirit. Before ending this unforgettable meditation, as though bracing his face and body to a sudden wind off the Bay, he declared that he would one day “take to the water,” and bravely steer “a north-east course.” He would indeed one day toss his tears upon that sea, traveling back to and out of Baltimore. And in the decade before the Civil War, as today, his readers could—and still can—stand with Douglass in the dark night of his soul and sense the deepest of human yearnings in their own souls.

That whole experience with Preston put me into the mysterious and real worlds of Douglass’s slave youth, within some of the sights and scenes of the three famous autobiographies. And while to that point I had not taken those texts very seriously (I was then imagining a work on Douglass as a thinker), Preston left me with this advice: “Whatever sources you use, go back and read those autobiographies—Douglass really does reveal himself there.”

Well, yes, and no.

Illustrations depicting Frederick Douglass’s life from slavery to abolitionist.

Illustrations depicting Frederick Douglass’s life from slavery to abolitionist.

The things Douglass didn’t reveal

The three narratives are infinitely rich as sources of Douglass’s public life and his heroic rise to liberty, activism and fame. But they leave a great deal unsaid, consciously or unconsciously hidden from his readers and from us biographers. Douglass invited us into his life over and over; but he seems to slip out of the room right when we want to push him to elaborate about his wives (the first black, second white), his five children and his complex and troubled extended family. He remains silent about his likely German lover, Ottilie Assing, of perhaps two decades and his crucial friendship with Julia Griffiths, an English woman who helped him survive professionally and emotionally in the early 1850s. He keeps close to the vest his many leadership rivalries with other black men and what he really thought of William Lloyd Garrison or Abraham Lincoln. And he leaves readers wondering what it had really felt like on emancipation night in 1863, along with his thoughts and feelings about any one of dozens of crossroads in an epic public life.

I want to ask: Mr. Douglass, what did you really read before crafting that rhetorical masterpiece of abolitionism, the 4 of July speech of 1852 that questioned what “independence” meant to America’s slaves, or the Freedmen’s Memorial address of 1876? Why did you keep an interpreter’s guide to the Bible almost always on or next your desk? Tell us, sir, the depth with which you read the book of Isaiah, Robert Burns and your favorite, Shakespeare. What was your writing process when you escaped into your little stone hut that you called your “growlery,” back behind your big house in the 1880s? How did you really, deep down, process that rage and hatred you forever seemed to harbor for slaveholders and their protectors? What did you actually say to your two young sons, Lewis and Charles, when you recruited them to go risk their lives for freedom in the Union army in 1863? What was it really like in your household when all your famous literary-intellectual friends came to visit and your illiterate wife left the room? What did you go through when five of your six grandchildren died so suddenly in 1886-87, most from typhoid fever? And how, sir, did you sustain hope in the 1880s and ’90s when black folk were being terrorized with lynchings and the triumphs of your life were so endangered as you reached the end of your mortal journey?

Alas, we cannot do that. We are left with the dilemma that in this self-made hero’s autobiographical life, the story of becoming free is better or more dramatic than being free.

Crafting his life’s narrative arc—and historical reputation

At the end of Douglass’s third autobiography, he declares that he had “lived several lives in one: first, the life of slavery; secondly, the life of a fugitive from slavery; thirdly, the life of comparative freedom; fourthly, the life of conflict and battle; and fifthly, the life of victory, if not complete, at least assured.” With a memoirist’s concentration on the self, Douglass wanted to demonstrate the struggle and achievement in his life. He has suffered and overcome, we are told. He had persevered through hopelessness, led his people through the fiery trial, and in the end reached at least a personal triumph. These are the images of an aging man summing up his life and attempting to control his historical reputation.

In Douglass’s categories, we see his self-image as a fugitive slave risen to racial and national leader, the person and the nation regenerated and redeemed. Like all talented autobiographers, Douglass was trying to order, even control, the passage of time, and thereby make sense of his own past. In 1884, Douglass, this man who never seemed to stop probing into his past to tell his story, wrote this revealing line about memory: “Memory was given to man for some wise purpose. The past is…the mirror in which we may discern the dim outlines of the future and by which we may make it more symmetrical.” Oh, how dearly we wish for that, but almost always meet defeat.

American culture has always had a fascination for autobiography, especially in the service of the idea, or at least our need to believe in the idea, that we can recreate ourselves, that we can make and re-make our lives, that our futures are not wholly determined. How precious was that faith to an American slave in the 1830s and 1840s? In a passage in Bondage and Freedom, Douglass said as much poignantly:

“The thought of being a creature of the present and the past, troubled me, and I longed to have a future—a future with hope in it. To be shut up entirely to the past and present is abhorrent to the human mind; it is to the soul—whose life and happiness is unceasing progress—what the prison is to the body.”

As a source of historical truth, of course, autobiography must be interpreted with caution. No simple chronology can convey the deeper meanings in such an eventful life. Douglass the autobiographer endures for many reasons, but not least because his writing represents both the brilliant complaint and the audacious hope of the slave who stole the master’s language and reimagined himself in prose poetry. We should read Douglass’s autobiographies not for their “accuracy,” but for their truths.

David Blight is a teacher, scholar and public historian. A professor of American history at Yale University and director of the school's Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition, he is author of many books including American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era and the New York Times-bestselling biography Frederick Douglass: Prophet of FreedomHe has worked on Douglass much of his professional life and been awarded the Bancroft Prize, the Abraham Lincoln Prize and the Frederick Douglass Prize, among others.

History Reads is an occasional series featuring work from Team History, a group of experts and influencers, exploring history’s most fascinating questions.

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