Frederick Douglass was a well known abolitionist, orator, and statesman in the 19th century United States. His antislavery writings made him famous. He believed in equal rights for all peoples. Check out Frederick Douglass- Early Life, Slavery and his Escape, also!
After Douglass escaped slavery, he became involved with the abolitionist movement.
Douglass and his wife, Anna, moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, after he escaped slavery. While there, Douglass involved himself in the abolitionist movement. New Bedford had a large population of former slaves and was a strongly abolitionist city. He attended meetings there, and it was at one such meeting where he was asked to speak.
His story compelled the people attending to listen, and he was encouraged to use it to speak out against slavery. This led to him attending and speaking at the meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-slave Society.
Newspapers influenced Frederick Douglass in his fight against slavery.
“…no face and form ever impressed me with such sentiments [of the hatred of slavery] as did those of William Lloyd Garrison.” (Stauffer, 2008)
The Liberator held such influence over Douglass that in his last biography he stated “his paper took a place in my heart second only to The Bible.” For a very religious man, who had become a licensed lay preacher in 1839, this was a very profound statement. The appreciation was mutual, and Garrison wrote about Douglass in 1839, soon after he moved to New Bedford. In 1841 at Liberty Hall, New Bedford, Douglass heard Garrison lecture for the first time. This experience both influenced his own speaking appearances and his later ownership of his own newspaper.
In 1841, Douglass and his wife Anna moved to Lynn, Massachusetts. Around this time he truly began his campaign against slavery. His activism was spurred on by being kicked off a train, in 1841, because he refused to sit in the black section of the segregated train. Afterwards he began to avidly protest transportation segregation. He traveled all over the East and Midwest of the United States– from Nantucket, Massachusetts, to Pendleton, Indiana.
During his travels, Douglass participated in the Hundred Conventions Project.
This six month tour in 1843, hosted by the American Anti-Slavery Society, took him to meeting halls and churches throughout the Midwest and East Coast. During this tour, many assaulted Douglass for his anti-slavery views. While in Pendleton, Indiana, an angry mob beat Douglass. Luckily, he was rescued by a Quaker family, the Hardys.
In 1845, at the age of 27, Frederick Douglass Published his first autobiography.
Encouraged to write by Wm. Loyd Garrison, he put his life of slavery into eloquent words. His Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave was a memoir and treatise on abolition. The preface included letters by Wm. Loyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips. Both gentleman entreat the reader to take the book seriously as an accurate and important account of slavery. Published on 1 May 1845, it had sold 5000 copies within 4 months. By 1860, it has sold 30,000 copies.
Douglass fled to Britain and Ireland after publication, fearing his former owner would look for him.
His growing popularity put Douglass in a precarious position. He had named his former owner in the autobiography, and his friends feared for his life. So he left for Liverpool, England on 16 August 1845 and spent two years there. His drive to end slavery did not end with his trip across seas, however. While there, he spoke in chapels all over the region. These talks were very popular and drew large crowds.
In fact, while in England, Frederick Douglass gave one of his most famous speeches, now called his “London Reception Speech.”
“What is to be thought of a nation boasting of its liberty, boasting of its humanity, boasting of its Christianity, boasting of its love of justice and purity, and yet having within its own borders three millions of persons denied by law the right of marriage?… I need not lift up the veil by giving you any experience of my own. Everyone that can put two ideas together, must see the most fearful results from such a state of things…”From his “London Reception Speech” May 1846 at Alexander Fletcher’s Finsbury Chapel.
His trip to Britain and Ireland introduced him to a great number of prominent activists. These people included the likes of Daniel O’Connell, an Irish nationlist, Thomas Clarkson, a British abolitionist, and Anna Richardson and her sister-in-law Ellen of Newcastle upon Tyne.
Anna and Ellen actually helped raise funds to legally buy Douglass’ freedom, a task at which they were successful. At the age of 28, Frederick Douglass became a legally free man. And while many of his new friends attempted to get him to stay in the United Kingdom permanently, he declined. His wife was still in Massachusetts, and he had work to do to try to help other black Americans escape slavery. He returned to the United States in 1847.
When Frederick Douglass returned to the US, he established a newspaper and worked the Underground Railroad.
Approximately 500 British pounds were given to him when he left England. Douglass used this money to start his own newspaper, the North Star. The publication began in 1847 and ceased production in 1851. This anti-slavery newspaper’s slogan was “Right is of no Sex—Truth is of no Color—God is the Father of us all, and all we are Brethren.” The title “North Star” refers to the directions given to slaves who used the Underground Railroad to flee to Northern America. They were often told to ‘follow the North Star’.
By being able to own the paper, Douglass found the ability to speak and write openly about his anti-slavery beliefs. In 1851, Douglass and Garret Smith merged their two publications into what became the Frederick Douglass Paper.
During this same time, Douglass and his wife assisted with the Underground Railroad. They helped more than 400 escaped slaves reach freedom. They put forth lodging and resources for the runaway slaves.
Ten years after his escape from slavery, Frederick Douglass published a letter to his former owner.
On 3 September 1848, Douglass wrote an open letter to his former owner Thomas Auld. In the letter, he condemned Auld for his actions as a slave owner. He also inquired about the family that Auld still owned. The tone of the letter begins formally, eloquently, and restrained. But it transitions as he continues, and he becomes familiar and impassioned.
“Oh! sir, a slaveholder never appears to me so completely an agent of hell, as when I think of and look upon my dear children. It is then that my feelings rise above my control. I meant to have said more with respect to my own prosperity and happiness, but thoughts and feelings which this recital has quickened unfits me to proceed further in that direction. The grim horrors of slavery rise in all their ghastly terror before me, the wails of millions pierce my heart, and chill my blood. I remember the chain, the gag, the bloody whip, the deathlike gloom overshadowing the broken spirit of the fettered bondman, the appalling liability of his being torn away from wife and children, and sold like a beast in the market. Say not that this is a picture of fancy.”— Frederick Douglass in Letter to Thomas Auld, The Liberator, 3 September 1848
Interestingly, as impassioned and blunt as Douglass was in the letter, he ended it with compassion and magnanimity.
“There is no roof under which you would be more safe than mine, and there is nothing in my house which you might need for your comfort, which I would not readily grant. Indeed, I should esteem it a privilege, to set you an example as to how mankind ought to treat each other. I am your fellow man, but not your slave,Frederick Douglass” – The Liberator, 22 September 1848
Notable events in the life of Frederick Douglass prior to the Civil War
- 1848 – Douglass attended the Seneca Falls Convention, the first woman’s rights convention.
- 1848 – Douglass was chosen to be the President of the National Negro Convention.
- 1845 – He published his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.
- 1850s -, He began to advocate desegregating education, because he could see how unequal segregated education was He viewed education as essential for improving the life of black Americans.
- 1852 – Douglass gave one of his most famous speeches, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”, to the Rochester Anti-Slavery Sewing Society.
<<insert YouTube reading of speech https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wnoq2OPJgHg >>
- He wrote his first two autobiographies (listed below). His first one in particular became a best seller and helped provide the funds to buy his legal freedome.
- 1853 – He published “The Heroic Slave”, a short story about life as a black American.
- 1855 – He published My Bondage and My Freedom, his second autobiography.
Photo Citation: Stauffer, J. (2008). Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. United States: Grand Central Publishing.