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Understanding the American Revolution and its People
The life of the famous abolitionist and journalist, who
emerged as a major anti-slavery force,
and a supporter of women's rights.
By John T. Marck
Frederick Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in February
1818. He was born on a farm on Lewiston Road, Tuckahoe, near Easton, in Talbot
County, Maryland. Frederick was the son of an unknown white father, and Harriet
Bailey, a slave who was a part African and Native American. Frederick was born a
slave on the great plantation owned by the Lloyd family. At times, they referred
to him as Frederick Lloyd. When he was eight years old, he was separated from
his mother and never saw her again.
As a child, Frederick was legally classified as real estate
or property rather than as a human being. He experienced much neglect and cruel
treatment, and hard work brought on by the tyranny toward slaves. Resistance by
slaves usually resulted in even more cruel treatment. However, in Frederick’s
case it paid off. By fighting back toward his cruel master, Colonel Lloyd, and
following a failed escape attempt, he was sent to Baltimore as a house servant
at the age of eight. In Baltimore he learned to read and write with the
assistance of his mistress, although was mostly self-taught. Having now learned
to read and write he soon began to conceive of his freedom. Frederick was
fortunate in that the Lloyd family often would severely whip slaves who were
hard to manage or who tried to escape, then sent them to Baltimore, only to be
sold to a slave trader, as a warning to all other slaves.
Upon the death of his master, Frederick was returned to the
country as a field hand. Here, he conspired with six other fellow slaves to
escape. Their plan a failure, and betrayed by another, he was placed in jail.
His new master, being a tolerant sort, arranged for his release from jail and
returned him to Baltimore. Again, in Baltimore, Frederick learned the trade of a
ship carpenter, and in time, was permitted to hire his own men.
On September 3, 1838, Frederick made another escape attempt,
and this time was successful. He traveled to New York, changed his last name to
Douglass, and married a free black woman named Anne Murray, whom he had met in
Baltimore earlier. Together they moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where
Frederick worked as a laborer.
In search of a new career, Frederick read Garrison’s
Liberator, and in 1841 attended a convention of the Massachusetts
Anti-Slavery Society in Nantucket. One of the attending abolitionists overheard
Douglass speaking with some of his black friends. Impressed, this man asked
Douglass to speak at the convention. Although reluctant, he did so, and although
he stammered, his speech had a remarkable effect. As a result, and to his
surprise, they immediately employed him as an agent to the Massachusetts
Anti-Slavery Society, and a new career was born.
In his new position, he participated in the Rhode Island
campaign against the new constitution that proposed the disfranchisement of
blacks, which denied them the right of citizenship and the vote. He was the main
figure in the famous "One-Hundred Conventions," of the New England Anti-Slavery
Society. Here he was mobbed and beaten and forced to ride in "Jim Crow" cars and
denied overnight accommodations. ("Jim Crow" refers to the "legal" repression of
slavery or segregation). Yet through this all, he remained and saw the planned
program to the end.
Douglass possessed a strong physique, being more than six
feet tall, with a strong constitution and an excellent speaking voice. Because
of this, those who heard him speak, began to doubt his story of having ever been
a slave, and that he was basically self-taught. Because of these doubts,
Frederick wrote his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. However,
a friend, Wendell Phillips, advised Douglass to burn the book because he
recounted his life as a slave, and Phillips believed releasing it would re
enslave Douglass. Douglass refused and published the book in 1845. However, to
avoid any possible consequences, he traveled to Great Britain and Ireland. He
remained there for about two years where he had the opportunity to meet and get
to know the English Liberals. In this environment, they treated him as a man and
an equal for the first time in this life. This resulted in improving his
character and self-esteem. From this experience, he truly started to believe
that freedom, not only physical, but social equality and economic and spiritual
opportunities were possible.
In 1847, he returned to the United States, and having enough
money, he bought his freedom and established a newspaper dedicated to his race.
Many of his white abolitionist friends disagreed with his views in this
newspaper, and others believed that the ability to purchase his freedom was in
fact condoning slavery. However, Douglass, upon learning these criticisms,
handled them in a practical manner.
Douglass went on to establish his newspaper, the North
Star, and published it for seventeen years. Furthermore, he lectured, was a
supporter of woman suffrage, took an active part in politics, and helped Harriet
Beecher Stowe establish an industrial school for black youth. He also met with
John Brown, and counseled him. Upon Brown’s arrest, the Governor of Virginia
attempted to arrest Douglass as a conspirator. To avoid arrest, Douglass fled to
Canada, then England and Scotland, where he again lectured.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, additional opportunities
came his way, by which he passionately fought against slavery as its major
cause. He assisted in convincing black men to join the Union army, and he helped
in recruiting for the 54th Massachusetts colored regiment, offering his own sons
as the first recruits. Twice during the war, President Lincoln invited him to
the White House to discuss important matters concerning the black soldiers in
the Union Army.
Following the Civil War in 1877, Douglass was appointed as
United States Marshall for the District of Columbia by President Hayes, and in
1881, President Garfield appointed him Recorder of Deeds for the District of
In 1884, Douglass married again. His second wife was Helen
Pitts, a white woman, which brought about much criticism. Concerning this, he
maintained his sense of humor by saying, "my first wife was the color of my
mother, and my second wife, the color of my father." In 1891, President Harrison
appointed Douglass as Minister-Resident and Consul-General to the Republic of
Haiti, and as Charge d’affaires for Santo Domingo.
On June 22, 1894, Douglass gave an address at the Sixth
Annual Commencement of a Colored High School in Baltimore, Maryland. In his
address, Douglass said: "The colored people of this country have, I think,
made a great mistake, of late, in saying so much of race and color as a basis of
their claims to justice, and as the chief motive of their efforts and action. I
have always attached more importance to manhood than to mere identity with any
variety of the human family..." "We should never forget that the ablest and most
eloquent voices ever raised in behalf of the black man’s cause were the voices
of white men. Not for race, not for color, but for men and for manhood they
labored, fought, and died. Away, then, with the nonsense that a man must be
black to be true to the rights of black men."
Frederick Douglass died on February 20, 1895. Active to the
end, on the day he died, he attended a woman-suffrage convention.
Copyright © 1993-2022 by John T. Marck. All Rights Reserved. This article
and their accompanying pictures, photographs, and line art, may not be resold,
reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written
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