“Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!” Patrick Henry, although dead before Frederick Douglass was ever born, used his words and poetically described Douglass’ life. Originally known as Frederick Bailey, he was born into slavery but lived to become Frederick Douglass and accomplish an impressive legacy. His childhood was filled with only awful memories of cruelty and inhumanity. When Frederick had learned of the significance of literacy, he educated himself and immediately planned an escape to success. He became one of the most prominent African American of the nineteenth century who represented the black minority as a successful orator, journalist, and anti-slavery leader. As a young man, he deviously escaped slavery and headed north toward freedom, or at least the closest thing to freedom for men of color at that time. He spoke to many people in this area, instilling the importance of eradicating human bondage. While living in the New England area, he became a great author, writing many articles for local newspapers and even composing three versions of his autobiography. During this time in his life, Mr. Douglass also campaigned for the elimination of slavery and civil rights for minorities. He became an inspiration to all and held governmental positions as he persistently worked for constitutional rights throughout his entire life. Frederick Douglass’s arduous past led to his successful influence on the abolition of slavery and effort to end racial discrimination.
Frederick Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Bailey in Tuckahoe, Maryland (3, 15). He was unaware of his exact age, for he never saw any authentic records containing it (6). Supposedly his birth was around February 1818, but since many of the slaves and other siblings he grew up with had no accurate knowledge of their own age, the fact was left a mystery for his entire life (6). Several slave masters prevented the distribution of slaves’ birth dates and obstructed the ability to visit their parents as an effort to keep them ignorant and stripped from individuality (3, 25). Even if he tried, Frederick would not have been able to visit his father because he had no idea who he was (3, 26). It was known that his father was white and many rumors led Douglass to believe that he was his mother’s master, but nothing was ever certain (3, 26). However, Frederick was fully aware of who his mother was, but, unfortunately they were separated when he was an infant and were only able to see each other approximately five times during his childhood (3, 25). Due to this occurrence, Frederick strongly felt that “slavery made his mother a myth and his father a mystery” (6). Douglass, therefore, lived with his grandmother, Betsey Bailey until he was old enough to work (6). During this time Douglass was raised to believe that he was a special individual and was completely naпve to the fact that he was born a slave. Ms. Bailey repeatedly tried to instill a feeling of self-worth into her grandson by verbally reinforcing his strengths.
Frederick Douglass finally reached the age when he could no longer be sheltered from the future that he was destined. At the age of six, Frederick’s grandmother had told him that they were taking a long journey, when in actuality she was bringing him into the world of slavery (8, 1). After many days of traveling westward, they approached an enormous elegant home, the Lloyd Plantation, where several children were playing on the front grounds. Ms. Bailey pointed out three of the children whom were Frederick’s brother and sisters and instructed Douglass to join his siblings (8, 1). Within five minutes of this command, his grandmother was gone along with his freedom; he now belonged to Aaron Anthony (6). At this time, Mr. Anthony was not considered a rich slaveholder, he owned only two or three farms, but still needed the help of an overseer, Mr. Plummer, to manage his plantations (2, 151). Plummer was most notable for his inhumane treatment of Anthony’s slaves (2, 151). Douglass recalls being awaked in the middle of the night by the high pitched shrieks of his own aunt, whom Plummer used to tie up to a pole, and whip her naked back until she was literally drenched in her own blood (2, 152). “No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped the longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood-clotted cow skin.”(2, 152) It was at this point Frederick reassessed his position in life and realized he could no longer work under this cruel individual and decided he would do whatever he could to get out of this terrible situation.
Douglass used his natural charm and tactfulness, which many people found engaging, to become noticed and stand out from the rest of the slaves. Aaron Anthony’s daughter, Lucretia Auld, was immediately drawn to these unique characteristics and took a liking to Frederick, doing whatever was within her power to protect him (8, 2). In 1826, she informed him that he was being sent to live with her brother-in-law, Hugh Auld, to run errands and care for his infant son, Tommy (2, 168). Frederick enjoyed this easy work and grew to love the young boy (8, 2). Sophia Auld, Tommy’s mother, would frequently read aloud from the Bible and Douglass would often listen, extremely intrigued. One day, when Frederick was about ten-years-old, he asked his mistress to teach him to read and she readily consented (6). Sophia became so excited about how well the young slave was doing, she told her husband what she had done (8, 2). Hugh became enraged. It was prohibited by the state to teach a slave to read and felt a slave was considered “unfit” if he was competent and literate (8, 2). Mr. Auld instructed Sophia to cease the lessons immediately, but this restriction failed to hinder Frederick by any means. It was from this outburst of disapproval from his master that Frederick discovered that learning how to read and write was his pathway to freedom.
Douglass adopted a plan to make friends with poor white children he met on errands and use them as teachers (2, 206). He would pay for these “lessons” with pieces of bread taken from the Auld household (8, 2). This strategy was proved to be successful by its positive results; Mr. Douglass gradually obtained the knowledge to read (2, 208). At the age of twelve, he used the little money he had earned from doing tedious errands and bought a copy of The Columbian Orator (6). This piece of literature contained a collection of speeches and essays dealing with liberty, democracy, and courage (6). Frederick was greatly affected by the speeches on freedom and began reading local newspapers to learn more about abolitionism (8, 2). His dreams of emancipation were encouraged by the example of other blacks in Baltimore, most of who were free (8, 2). However, Douglass’s imaginings were delayed because of new laws passed by southern state legislatures that made it extremely difficult for owners to free their slaves (8, 2). Frederick’s dreams of his own freedom and civil rights for all seemed to be put on hold.
Nevertheless, Frederick would not let these new regulations impede his primary goal of attaining independence. He began to organize a Sunday religious service for slaves, which met near Saint Michael’s church every week (8, 3). It was at these congregations that blacks were schooled and plans were made for an escape to the North (6). The group planned to steal a boat, row to the northern tip of the Chesapeake Bay and flee on foot to the free state of Pennsylvania (8, 3). Unfortunately, one of Frederick’s associates had exposed the plot and a group of armed white men captured the slaves and put them in jail (8, 3). Douglass was imprisoned for about a week, when surprisingly, Thomas Auld came and released him (6). Auld promised Frederick that if he worked hard, he would be freed when he turned twenty-five, but Douglass knew better than to trust any slaveholder (8, 4). While working for Thomas, Douglass met a group of free sophisticated blacks and became a member of an educational association called the East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society (8, 4). It was within this party that Frederick learned his debating skills and met his future wife, Anna Murray (8, 4). After spending so much time with this assembly of free individuals, Douglass’s need for freedom was enhanced.
Frederick Douglass needed money to pay for traveling expenses, so he finally made a proposition to Mr. Auld, whom eventually accepted reluctantly. Mr. Douglass was given the privilege of being able to work for extra money during his free time in addition to his obligations to Mr. Auld. Frederick was to take care of his own room and board and pay his master a set amount each week, keeping any extra money for himself (2, 212). Sadly, he forgot to pay Thomas Auld on time and, as a result, Auld was furious and revoked his hiring-out privilege (8, 4). Frederick, enraged, refused to work for a week and during this time he decided that on September 2, 1838, he would be on a train heading to the North (8, 4). A friend gave him “sailor’s protection”, a document that certified that the person named on it was a free seaman (8, 4). Also, he borrowed money from Anna and bought a ticked to Philadelphia; he was on his way to freedom (8, 4). On September 4, Frederick arrived in New York City and officially left his life of slavery. However, Douglass was not considered completely emancipated by the many slave catchers residing in the North (6). Douglass’s decision to become pro-active and leave Auld was extremely important and served as a colossal turning point in Douglass’s life.
“A new world had opened upon me.” (6) Within this new world, Frederick Bailey became Frederick Douglass (8, 6). He borrowed this name from a character in a book he was reading at the time as an effort to avoid being captured (5). One of the first actions Frederick took with his newfound identity was to subscribe to the Liberator, a newspaper edited by William Lloyd Garrison, a famous outspoken leader of the American Anti- Slavery Society (5). Inspired by Garrison’s paper, Douglass became involved in the abolitionist movement and regularly attended lectures for the AASS (5). He also served as a preacher at the black Zion Methodist Church where Mr. Douglass became involved in a battle against white southerners who forced blacks to move to Africa (8, 6). In 1839, he encountered one of his first experiences as a writer when a collection of his anti-colonization statements was published in the Liberator (8, 6). Although these beginning accomplishments may seem minor, they opened the doors to his future greatness.
In August 1841, he saw his hero, William Garrison for the first time (8, 7). A few days later, Garrison was attending a speech that Douglass was giving before a small crowd, immediately saw his potential as a speaker and hired him to be an agent for AASS (8, 7). His job entailed talking about his past and selling subscriptions to the Liberator and the Anti-Slavery Standard (8, 7). His first speeches were about his personal encounters with slavery and descriptions of the slave masters’ brutality (5). Pro-slavery propaganda circulated from the South to the North, giving false impressions of what slavery was truly like; Frederick’s experiences were exactly what the people wanted and needed to hear at the time (5). Prior to his recounts of his own life as a slave, many people in the North believed fictitious stories that slaves lived better lives than poor whites and that slaveholders were harassed by mobs led by abolitionists (8, 7). Frederick’s lectures were circulated throughout Massachusetts and immediately became a success (6). The Herald of Freedom a local newspaper in Concord, Massachusetts declared, “As a speaker, he has few equals.” (8, 7) After a few months of his local lectures, he became so popular that he was in demand to spread his words throughout the entire New England area.
Traveling throughout the northern region made Frederick Douglass evolve as a speaker as well as a writer. In 1842 he was asked to continue his work and voyage throughout Massachusetts and New York with William Lloyd Garrison in addition to other prominent speakers (8, 8). A year later, Douglass decided to participate in the Hundred Conventions project, the AASS six-month lecture tour of speakers traveling to meeting halls throughout the west (8, 8). Although Frederick enjoyed this work thoroughly, he found it very demanding and time consuming. He was forced to live in poor segregated accommodations while traveling and was roughly handled when he refused to sit in the “Negro” sections of trains and steamships (8, 8). In addition, many of the meetings in the western states were often disrupted by pro-slavery mobs (6). While on tour, Frederick Douglass had reached opposition from many abolitionists who thought his ability as an orator was growing too fast and audiences were no longer sympathetic towards him (8, 8). They felt he should keep talking about his life as a slave rather than the goals of the anti-slavery movement (5). Douglass refused and much of his audience began to believe that his stories were false (5). The Liberator even printed “How a man, only six years out of bondage and who had never gone to school could speak with such eloquence- with such precision of language and power of thought- they were utterly at a loss to devise.” Despite these hardships, Douglass continued his writing and was sure he found his purpose in life; he was to make everyone aware of the importance of equality and an individual’s civil rights.
It was all the animosity towards Frederick Douglass that motivated him to ignore what people thought and persevere with what he felt was right. With this thought in mind, Douglass spent the winter of 1844 to 1845 writing and publishing his life story (6). Despite the risk, he took the chances of using actual names of people and places connected with his years in slavery (8, 8). Wendell Philips, friend and fellow abolitionist leader, suggested that Frederick dispose of the manuscript and warned him that people from the past would attempt to return him to a life of bondage (8, 8). However, Frederick was determined to have his stories printed, despite the possibility of slave catchers pursuing; the world needed to hear his story (8, 8). By May 1845, over 5,000 copies of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave were sold (6). The book immediately became a best seller due to its moral force; it was the story of a man’s dignity, courage, independence, and path self-discovery. Despite his instantaneous fame, federal laws still gave Thomas Auld the right to seize his property- Frederick Bailey (8, 8). To protect his freedom, Douglass rightly felt the need to leave the United States for some time.
During the summer of 1845, Douglass decided to fulfill a dream he had long held, to travel throughout England (5). Even though he was forced to stay in the steerage, second-class, during his trip overseas he was extremely excited to finally go to Britain (8, 9). While on board, he had made many friends and was even asked by the captain to give lectures on slavery (8, 9). When he finally reached Europe, Frederick felt free from prejudice. He was treated as a man, as opposed to a second-class citizen, and was welcomed into homes, hotels, and restaurants (8, 9). Fleeing America during this time not only saved him from slave catchers, the expedition also gave him the opportunity to speak to English audiences and gain their support for the American anti-slavery movement. Douglass wrote Garrison to inform him how he had encountered such little racial prejudices among the British and invited Lloyd to join him in the beautiful nation (8, 9). Garrison accepted and the two men traveled around England as a powerful team of anti-slavery lecturers (5). Both became involved in campaigns against the discrimination of minorities and promoted constitutional rights (8, 9). In August of 1846, Douglass gave the most controversial speech of his career at the World Temperance Convention held in London (1, 65). Within this oration, he attacked the American temperance movement because it failed to criticize slave owners who used alcohol to pacify their workers and because temperance activists were hostile to free blacks (1, 65). Douglass was tremendously satisfied with the outcome of his trip to England and was soon ready to go home. Even though he was ready return to America, recapture still remained a possibility for him if and when he came back. Fortunately, this problem was resolved when unknowingly; two English friends raised enough money to buy his freedom (6). $710.96 was sent to the Auld family and on December 5, 1846; Hugh Auld signed the papers that declared Frederick Bailey a free man (5). In the spring of 1847, Douglass returned to America, where his work remained to free his people in bondage.
Frederick Douglass had left the United States, a national success as a writer and lecturer, but returned as a sensation worldwide. Alas, upon his homecoming, many abolitionists felt that Hugh Auld’s payment for Douglass’s freedom supported Auld’s right to own him (8, 10). Douglass argued that his freedom was the gift of friends and that he saw Hugh as his kidnapper, not his master. The ransom had been paid; he could now fight the battle against slavery with a free mind (8, 10). His chains were broken and the opportunity to help others was finally in sight. With additional funds raised by his supporters in Britain, Douglass decided to create a new abolitionist newspaper (1, 80). Garrison was opposed to this idea because he felt the people needed Douglass as a lecturer rather than the creator of another anti-slavery newspaper (8, 10). Due to Frederick’s high regard and respect for Garrison, he took this suggestion in consideration and in August 1847, joined Lloyd on a lecture tour throughout the North (8, 10). Sadly, Garrison became seriously ill and Douglass was forced to continue the tour without him.
Upon completion of the tour, he continued with his aspirations of creating the abolitionist paper. Frederick decided to publish it in Rochester New York, further west than the home of the Liberator. On December 3, 1847 his weekly newspaper, the North Star was finally born (1, 80). At first, habitants of Rochester were upset to see another anti-slavery paper, but eventually the city took pride in being the home of the North Star. Unfortunately, the glowing reviews were not equal to the money needed for the production of the paper and Douglass had to depend on his own savings and contributions from friends to keep the paper going (5). He was driven back to the world of lecturing in an attempt to raise efficient funds for the North Star. The cash earned continued the publication of the newspaper as a weekly until 1860 and as a monthly for three more years (5). After 1851, the paper was referred to as Frederick Douglass’s Paper and served as a symbol of the potential for blacks to achieve whatever goals they may set for themselves (1, 82). The newspaper changed its focus from promoting the elimination of slavery to highlighting the success by prominent black figures in American society (1, 82). Frederick Douglass’s Paper had a much more significant personal effect on Frederick himself; the paper marked the end of his dependence on Garrison and other white abolitionists.
By the end of the 1840’s, Frederick Douglass was well on his way to becoming the most famous and respected black leader in the country. He had proved himself to be an independent thinker and courageous spokesman for black liberty and equality. Douglass tried to establish a black vocational school by asking many famous people for financial aid, but was unsuccessful because he was unable to raise sufficient funds to start the school (1, 97). Rochester, his hometown, contained public schools that would not admit black students and Frederick was forced to send his eldest daughter to a private school, which promoted segregation (1, 97). The separation motivated Douglass to campaign against segregation in Rochester’s school system, and in 1857 his efforts to integrate the schools succeeded (6). Frederick also became an active partisan in the Underground Railroad as the superintendent of the entire system in his area (8, 12). His home became an important station on the railroad and a shelter to hundreds of fugitives (7, 12). His participation in the school systems and the Underground Railroad led to the involvement in many other events that would not only affect the present, but the entire future of the country.
The next major proceedings that would serve as challenges to Douglass and his followers involved the civil war and the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Douglass was a crucial supporter of Abraham Lincoln as he was running, and won, the presidency (3, 110). Lincoln’s inaugural speech however, was somewhat disappointing to Frederick. Contained in the address, the President promised to uphold the fugitive slave laws and not interfere with slavery in the states where it was already established (5). Soon after, the Civil War began. For Douglass and the abolitionists, the war had a different and more significant meaning; it was a battle to end slavery (3, 119). They had the two following major goals in mind: emancipation for all slaves in the Confederacy and the Union Border States, and the right for blacks to enlist in the armies of the North (3, 121). As the war went on, more and more people in the North became influenced by Frederick’s speeches and were able to empathize with his point of view. He used his words powerfully until, not only the northerners, but the President as well came to agreement with his goals. On December 31, 1862, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, a speech that freed all slaves in areas not held by the Union troops (6). Simultaneously, there were many other changes taking place.
During this time in history, the black man was still not allowed to defend himself within the military. Douglass began to instill the importance of belonging to the United States army to blacks and promoted their inclusion among the whites. He had gained the support of enough of the population to make an impact. Finally, in 1863, as a result of Frederick Douglass’s actions, Congress had authorized black enlistment in the Union army (8, 15). Frederick was asked to help recruit black soldiers, including his two sons, into the Massachusetts 54th Regime, the first group ever to contain black militia (6). He immediately agreed and began promoting through speeches and newspaper advertisements (5). Frederick promised equality in the Union army, but this soon proved to be false. Blacks were paid half of what the white soldiers earned, received inferior weapons, inadequate training and were not allowed to become officers (8, 15). When he heard of this maltreatment, Douglass immediately ceased his recruitment efforts, but when Lincoln promised changes, he began again. The war continued, a difficult struggle for both those fighting to unite the United States and those battling to end slavery.
Finally, both wars had concluded. On April 9, 1865 the war to abolish slavery in all areas of the United States had been won (8, 16). Yet, Douglass still remained dissatisfied. He argued, “Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot.” (8, 17) A group of radical Republicans joined with the abolitionists in a campaign for voting rights for black men. Frederick did not have the support of president Johnson; instead, the two had opposing views. Johnson intended to support the interest of southern whites and block voting rights for blacks while Douglass felt need for changes in the southern state governments (8, 17). Both leaders took their cases to the American people and Douglass won (8, 17). The result of his long fought battle was the adoption of the fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed all citizens the right to vote, regardless of their race (5).
Instantaneously, the role of the black citizen became a pivoting force throughout the nation.
Taking advantage of the new opportunities offered to them, a large number of blacks were elected to the state legislatures and won seats in Congress between 1868 and 1870 (8, 18). Frederick Douglass was also given a high political position as US Marshall in the District of Columbia (5). Everyone appreciated his work, up until his death on February 20, 1895 (6). His bereavement saddened the world; all black public schools closed for the day and parents took their children for a last look at the famed leader (8, 19). His life was spent battling the prejudice he, along with all other minorities, faced because of skin color, sex, or heritage.
Although one would like to think Frederick Douglass’s many efforts ended discrimination, this is not the case. The Ku Klux Klan is a perfect example of how bigotry still exists today. The KKK is a secret terrorist organization that originated in the southern states during the period of Reconstruction following the American Civil War (7, 1). The group uses violence and intimidation to keep blacks segregated and to prevent them from voting and holding office (7, 1). The assembly believes in the innate inferiority of blacks and therefore mistrusted and resented the rise of former slaves to a status of civil equality and often to positions of political power (7, 1). Neo-nazism is another bias group that is present in today’s society. The main purpose of this group is to promote the idea of racial superiority by distributing propaganda and seeking support for their cause (4, 1). As minorities start to come in to their own, the amount of paranoia grows regarding the idea that the position of the white person is threatened (4, 1). White Supremacist organizations are found in the United States as well as abroad. Although racism still existed after Frederick Douglass’s death, he was extremely successful in giving blacks more freedom in America than they had ever possessed.
Frederick Douglass’s beliefs have had a profound impact on the history, as well as the present, civil liberties for all. He promoted of the addition of the fourteenth and fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. Within these ratifications, slavery was abolished and blacks were given the right to vote and the opportunity to enlist in the army. Frederick’s speeches gave hope and faith to many blacks not only within the country, but worldwide. He served as a prime example of an individual who climbed the social ladder from the very bottom, to the peak. Through his words and actions, he was able to influence future leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, and Booker T. Washington, to fight for equality. Most importantly, Frederick Douglass made the black population worth more than just three fifths of a person.
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