A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

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A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, first published in 1845, is an important antislavery document. It was not the first fugitive slave narrative published in the United States, but it was the first to be written—not dictated—by an escaped slave. Douglass had been born into slavery, partially educated by a sympathetic female slave owner, and then sold to a slave-breaker whose job it was to intimidate slaves into submission. His 1845 narrative, as well as My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881), describe his and other slaves' harsh treatment, his heroic struggle against the slave-breaker, and his escape to freedom in the North after laboring as a caulker in the Baltimore shipyards. In the post-Civil War versions of his autobiography, Douglass expanded on the events of his life before, during, and after the war and also discussed more freely his experiences of racism in the North.

As an abolitionist work, A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was potent in terms not only of its content but its very existence: the fact that a fugitive slave had the intelligence and skill to pen such a narrative took many by surprise. Contemporary reviewers in the North praised Douglass for his courage in writing such a work and deemed his portrayal of slavery in the Middle Atlantic states accurate. In the preface to the book, William Lloyd Garrison, a nationally recognized aboli-tionist leader, praised Douglass for writing "in his own style, and according to the best of his ability, rather than to employ some one else. It is, therefore, entirely his own production; and considering how long and dark was the career he had to run as a slave,… it is in my judgment, highly creditable to his head and heart" (Douglass 1845, preface). Although different from those of slaves in the Deep South, still, Garrison noted, "the experience of Frederick Douglass, as a slave, was not a peculiar one: his lot was not especially a hard one…. Many have suffered incomparably more, while very few on the plantations have suffered less, than himself" (Douglass 1845, preface).

The publisher, the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, sold over 30,000 copies of the book in the first five years. Not only was the book read by Northerners, but some Southerners as well; in several instances owners of copies of Narrative were arrested or run out of town. In the May 10, 1849, edition of the Boston newspaper Emancipator & Republican, a writer noted: "Jarvis C. Bacon has been indicted and arrested in Grayson, Va., charged with circulating Abolition documents. The documents were a sermon preached in Philadelphia, and the Life of Frederick Douglas." In September 1856 another Boston publication, The Congregationalist, reported that a company was driven out of Mobile, Alabama, "by the law and the public wrath," for selling copies of A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, considered an "inflammatory publication."


As a young slave, Frederick Douglass was moved to work for the Auld family in Baltimore. Upon arrival, Mrs. Auld took very kindly to young Douglass, but her initial benevolence soon proved false. Enraged that his wife would deign to teach a slave to read, Mr. Auld, her husband, interceded and terminated their reading lessons. Before she turned her back on Douglass, she did impart on him the most valuable of all gifts: the building blocks for full-fledged literacy. He describes his first exposure to reading in the following excerpt:

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further … Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read. The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible to the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both. (Douglass 1999, pp.31-32).

Ironically, it was with the help of his masters that young Douglass was able to emancipate himself from ignorance. With this knowledge, he eventually freed himself from both physical and spiritual bondage.

SOURCE: Douglass, Frederick. The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series 2, ed. J. W. Blassingame, J. R. McKivigan, and P. P. Hinks. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.

By publishing his account Douglass made himself the target of fugitive slave catchers. The reformist orator Wendell Phillips wrote to Douglass, "I shall read your book with trembling for you…. There is no single spot,—however narrow or desolate,—where a fugitive slave can plant himself and say, 'I am safe.' The whole armory of Northern Law has no shield for you…. in your place, I should throw the MS. into the fire." Thus for his own safety Douglass traveled to England in late 1845. He lived there for two years, and when he returned he bought his freedom.

During the twentieth century historians and literary scholars studied Narrative both for its detailed account of slave life and the artfulness of its composition. Many scholars consider it the most successful version of Douglass's autobiography in literary terms because of the simplicity of its style, in contrast to later versions in which the author adopted the more embellished style typical of his era. In his 1939 study, J. Saunders Redding observed that, "in utter contrast to the tortured style of most of the slave biographies, Douglass's style is calm and modest…. His sense of discrimination in the selection of details is fine and sure. The certainty of the book's emotional power is due in part to the stringent simplicity of style and in part to the ingenuous revelation of the writer's character." In the twenty-first century scholarly and popular editions of the book continue to emerge.


Andrews, William L., ed. The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Brown, William Wells. "Representative Men and Women." In A. G. Brown, 1874.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, ed. Benjamin Quarles. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1960.

Loggins, Vernon. The Negro Author: His Development in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1931.

Redding, J. Saunders. To Make a Poet Black [1939]. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, [1988].

                              Jeanne M. Lesinski

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