The North Star

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The North Star

Frederick Douglass began publishing The North Star (1847–1851) after he returned from England in 1847. His freedom purchased by his English friends, he was ready to make a fresh start in Lynn, Massachusetts. Part of this fresh start included establishing his own enterprise, outside of the help he received from the white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and his American Anti-Slavery Society. Douglass moved to Rochester, New York, and founded the newspaper there using money from these same English friends.

Douglass had penned powerful essays for Garrison's Liberator newspaper, including one in which he wrote to Thomas Auld—the white man Douglass had called master—admonishing him to see the evil of slavery. Douglass used the letter as an opportunity to achieve two purposes: The first was to define himself as a free human being—a member of a proud race with hopes and dreams just as whites have. The second was to shine the spotlight on a particular slaveholder, by name, to personalize the horror of slavery. In his writing as in his oratory, Douglass established the dignity and worth of black life while pointing a finger at those who perpetuated injustice, thereby becoming a player in the arena of public opinion.


Frederick Douglass knew that silence—the ability to turn one's head from the unpleasant and the gruesome, so as to not speak out, not to act—kept slavery going. As a master orator, he had to figure out how to make his great voice ring out not only past the limits of geography, but also past the political and social limits imposed by his white abolitionist allies. The Lion needed to assert his own voice, to write his own story, all on his own terms … so he created a newspaper:

"My friends in Boston had been informed of what I was intending, and I expected to find them favorably disposed toward my cherished enterprise. In this I was mistaken. They had many reasons against it. First, no such paper was needed; secondly, it would interfere with my usefulness as a lecturer; thirdly, I was better fitted to speak than to write; fourthly, the paper could not succeed. This opposition from a quarter so highly esteemed, and to which I had been accustomed to look for advice and direction, caused me not only to hesitate, but inclined me to abandon the undertaking. All previous attempts to establish such a journal having failed, I feared lest I should add another to the list, and thus contribute another proof of the mental deficiencies of my race. Very much that was said to me in respect to my imperfect literary attainments I felt to be most painfully true. The unsuccessful projectors of all former attempts had been my superiors in point of education, and if they had failed how could I hope for success? Yet I did hope for success, and persisted in the undertaking, encouraged by my English friends to go forward." (Douglass 1994, p. 703)

SOURCE: Douglass, Frederick. "The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass." In Autobiographies/Frederick Douglass. New York: Penguin, 1994.

Douglass found writing for and editing The North Star both enjoyable and useful, as the endeavor gave him another outlet for his views. He recalled in one of his autobiographies that the newspaper was "devoted to the interests of my enslaved and oppressed people" (1994, p. 386). As Douglass biographer William S. McFeeley notes:

From the days of Benjamin Franklin to those of the politically powerful newspaper editors of Andrew Jackson's America, journalism had been a potent calling. Only a rare black man was a doctor or lawyer; none was a merchant chief. A black man who would be heard became a man of the cloth, but Douglass had firmly turned his back on that correct calling. What he could be was an editor (1991, p. 149).

As Douglass recollected, the paper furthered "the development of my own mental and moral energies, and … the corresponding development of my deeply injured and oppressed people" (1994, p. 391).

Even the most radical of the abolitionist papers, which were controlled by whites, were not prepared to go to the lengths the black press did in urging full citizenship for blacks. Freedom was one thing, but being equal was entirely different. In many instances, blacks found that their agenda were not the agenda of their white supporters. The insistent calls for emancipation and civil rights by the black press were regarded as militant and even ultra-radical. Its singleminded devotion to this case, however, gave the black press the reason for its existence. Douglass's newspaper easily fit into this radical camp. In an editorial called "Colored Papers," published on January 7, 1848, Douglass explained why black newspapers exist: "The white man is only superior to the black man, when he outstrips him in the race of improvement; and the black man is only inferior, when he proves himself incapable of doing just what is done by his white brother. In order to remove this odious distinction, we must do just what white men do."

With The North Star, Douglass had learned that to be truly free was to be free in every sense—not only in flesh, but also in voice and in spirit. Renamed Frederick Douglass' Paper in 1851, the newspaper offered Douglass a rare opportunity to define himself and his views of the black freedom struggle. In the process, he was able to achieve a significant measure of political independence.


Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom [1855]. In Frederick Douglass: Autobiographies, ed. Henry Louis Gates. New York: Library of America, 1994.

Douglass, Frederick. "Colored Papers." The North Star, no. 2 (January 7, 1848).

McFeeley, William S. Frederick Douglass. New York: Norton, 1991.

                                Todd Steven Burroughs

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