Frederick Douglass

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3: Frederick Douglass

Excerpt from "The Inhumanity of Slavery"

    Lecture delivered in Rochester, New York, on December 8, 1850.

    Reprinted in Autobiographies, 1994.

The national debate over slavery intensified during the 1840s as the United States added huge new territories that could potentially become new slave states. At that time in the nation's history, the country was becoming sharply divided between free states and slave states. Free states were located primarily in the North. They did not allow slavery and were opposed to its extension into new territories acquired by the Union. The slave states were found mainly in the South. These states wanted to protect their legal right to slavery and to extend that right throughout the nation, especially into new land acquired by the United States. Among the new territories added during the 1840s was the vast region called the Republic of Texas, which was admitted in 1845, becoming the twenty-eighth state in the Union. The sizeable region, which consisted of much of present-day New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah, as well as all of California, was claimed by the United States upon winning the Mexican-American War (1846–48). In addition, present-day Kansas and Nebraska were not yet states.

"[S]lavery is alike the sin and the shame of the American people; it is a blot upon the American name, and the only national reproach which need make an American hang his head in shame, in the presence of monarchical governments."

In 1850 a series of laws were debated in the U.S. Congress that were intended to settle divisive debates about the spread of slavery. Under the proposed legislation, California would be admitted to the Union as a free state; the territories of New Mexico and Utah (encompassing present-day Utah and Nevada) would determine for themselves whether or not to permit slavery; and the Fugitive Slave Act, passed in 1850, would permit slave owners to enter non-slave states to pursue, capture, and return escaped slaves.

Frederick Douglass (c. 1817–1895), an ex-slave, was among the most persuasive and powerful spokespeople for abolition, ending slavery, to emerge on the national scene during the 1840s. Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, he was separated from his mother as a boy and treated poorly by a cruel and violent slave owner. At nine, he was sent to Baltimore, Maryland, to work as a house servant for the daughter of the plantation owner where Douglass was a slave. The daughter often read aloud from the Bible, and Douglass asked her to teach him to read, although the woman's husband did not approve. Douglass had just a few lessons, but he realized that reading and writing was a way to freedom. In the South, slaves were not allowed to go to school or learn how to read and write. Douglass continued his education through interaction with people—by questioning and listening to them—and by reading anything he could find. He sometimes traded food for a newspaper or a book. By age thirteen, Douglass was reading abolitionist newspapers.

Becoming a social activist

At the age of twenty-one, Douglass traveled in disguise by train from Baltimore to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and on to New York City. If discovered, he could have been jailed, sold to plantation owners, or even killed. On September 4, 1838, he safely reached New York City. He married and moved to a safe haven in New Bedford, Massachusetts, living for a time with a prosperous African American family. Douglass quickly became involved with abolitionist groups. He attended a convention of the Massachusetts Antislavery Society in Nantucket, Massachusetts, in 1841 and was invited to speak. His skills as an inspiring and stirring public speaker were so well received that he was invited to become an activist with the group. William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879), publisher of the abolitionist newspaper the Liberator, hired Douglass to speak about his life story and help sell copies of the paper. In 1843 Douglass participated in the Hundred Conventions project, the American Anti-Slavery Society's six-month tour of meeting halls throughout the Midwest.

Meanwhile, Douglass wrote his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), recounting his life experiences in a strong moral tone directed against the evils of slavery for both victim and victimizer. The book was an instant success, widely popular in the North and in Europe. As a fugitive slave, however, Douglass had no legal protection if his former slave owner were to seize him as his "property." Douglass traveled to England for two years, during which time supporters, against his wishes, paid his owner for his freedom.

Returning to the United States in 1847, Douglass and his family (his wife and four children) moved to Rochester, New York. He set up a printing shop and started his own newspaper, the North Star. Featuring articles on abolition and equality, the North Star was published under the motto "Right is of no sex. Truth is of no color. God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethren [brothers]." Meanwhile, Douglass participated in the Underground Railroad, a series of safe sites where escaped slaves could stop as they moved north to freedom in Canada. He helped more than four hundred slaves reach freedom.

From his base in Rochester, Douglass campaigned against labor discrimination and racial segregation (separation of the races) on public transportation, and he supported women's rights. He attended the landmark women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 and signed the "Declaration of Sentiments" at the convention. He made many speeches against the series of bills Congress debated in 1850.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "The Inhumanity of Slavery":

  • Douglass immediately challenges listeners who believe there are respectful relations between slave owners and slaves. His Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, published five years earlier, was among the most powerful writings to date on the brutalities of slave life. In the speech, Douglass cites laws that permit cruel and vicious treatment based on the judgment of slave owners, advertisements that identify and describe runaway slaves, and examples of slaves preferring to escape and take their chances surviving in wilderness and swamps over returning to life on a plantation.
  • Douglass frequently uses biblical references and language associated with religion to emphasize the wickedness and evil in slavery. More than a political or economic issue, he describes slavery as a moral issue. Under those terms, he argues, slavery is not simply an abusive system, slavery itself is an abuse, a moral wrong.
  • In the excerpt, Douglass mentions mobocratic violence in New York and Boston. Racism was rampant in many northern communities, and Douglass is referring to recent swells of group violence directed at African Americans.
  • Douglass does not confine the evils of slavery to the southern states where it is practiced. "[T]he whole American people are responsible for slavery," he declares. He cites several examples of racist violence in the North—in New York City, in Boston, Massachusetts, and Rochester, New York, where the speech is being delivered. He is challenging listeners to act against slavery and racism. Otherwise, through their silence, they are indirectly supporting the existence of slavery.

Excerpt from "The Inhumanity of Slavery"

The relation of master and slave has been called patriarchal, and only second in benignity [safety] and tenderness to that of the parent and child. This representation is doubtless believed by many northern people; and this may account, in part, for the lack of interest which we find among persons whom we are bound to believe to be honest and humane. What, then, are the facts? Here I will not quote my own experience in slavery; for this you might call one-sided testimony. I will not cite the declarations of abolitionists; for these you might pronounce exaggerations. I will not rely upon advertisements cut from newspapers; for these you might call isolated cases. But I will refer you to the laws adopted by the legislatures of the slave states….

Now, if [these laws] be an indication of kindness, what is cruelty? If this be parental affection, what is bittermalignity? A more atrocious [awful] and blood-thirsty string of laws could not well be conceived of. And yet I am bound to say that they fall short of indicating the horrible cruelties constantly practiced in the slave states.

I admit that there are individual slaveholders less cruel and barbarous [harsh] than is allowed by law; but these form the exception. The majority of slaveholders find it necessary, to ensure obedience, at times, to avail themselves of the utmost extent of the law, and many go beyond it. If kindness were the rule, we should not see advertisements filling the columns of almost every southern newspaper, offering large rewards for fugitive slaves, and describing them as being branded with irons, loaded with chains, and scarred by the whip. One of the most telling testimonies against the pretended kindness of slaveholders, is the fact that uncounted numbers of fugitives are now inhabiting the Dismal Swamp, preferring the untamed wilderness to their cultivated homes—choosing rather to encounter hunger and thirst, and to roam with the wild beasts of the forest, running the hazard of being hunted and shot down, than to submit to the authority of kind masters.

I tell you, my friends, humanity is never driven to such an unnatural course of life, without great wrong. The slave finds more of the milk of human kindness in the bosom of the savage Indian, than in the heart of his christian master. He leaves the man of the bible, and takes refuge with the man of the tomahawk. He rushes from the praying slaveholder into the paws of the bear. He quits the homes of men for the haunts of wolves. He prefers to encounter a life of trial, however bitter, or death, however terrible, to dragging out his existence under the dominion [power] of these kind masters.

The apologists for slavery often speak of the abuses of slavery; and they tell us that they are as much opposed to those abuses as we are; and that they would go as far to correct those abuses and to ameliorate [improve] the condition of the slave as anybody. The answer to that view is, that slavery is itself an abuse; that it lives by abuse; and dies by the absence of abuse. Grant that slavery is right; grant that the relation of master and slave may innocently exist; and there is not a single outrage which was ever committed against the slave but what finds an apology in the very necessity of the case. As was said by a slaveholder, (the Rev. A. G. Few,) to the Methodist conference, "If the relation be right, the means to maintain it are also right;" for without those means slavery could not exist. Remove the dreadful scourge [plague]—the plaited thong —the galling [annoying] fetter —the accursed chain—and let the slaveholder rely solely upon moral and religious power, by which to secure obedience to his orders, and how long do you suppose a slave would remain on his plantation? The case only needs to be stated; it carries its own refutation [denial] with it.

Absolute and arbitrary power can never be maintained by one man over the body and soul of another man, without brutal chastisement [punishment] and enormous cruelty.

To talk of kindness entering into a relation in which one party is robbed of wife, of children, of his hard earnings, of home, of friends, of society, of knowledge, and of all that makes this life desirable, is most absurd, wicked, and preposterous [ridiculous].

I have shown that slavery is wicked—wicked, in that it violates the great law of liberty, written on every human heart—wicked, in that it violates the first command of the decalogue —wicked, in that it fosters the most disgusting licentiousness [wastefulness]—wicked, in that it mars and defaces the image of God by cruel and barbarous inflictions—wicked, in that it contravenes [contradicts] the laws of eternal justice, and tramples in the dust all the humane and heavenly precepts [teachings] of the New Testament.

The evils resulting from this huge system of iniquity [wickedness] are not confined to the states south of Mason and Dixon's line. Its noxious (poisonous) influence can easily be traced throughout our northern borders. It comes even as far north as the state of New York. Traces of it may be seen even in Rochester; and travelers have told me it casts its gloomy shadows across the lake, approaching the very shores of Queen Victoria's dominions.

The presence of slavery may be explained by—as it is the explanation of—the mobocratic [mob rule] violence which lately disgraced New York, and which still more recently disgraced the city of Boston [Massachusetts]. These violent demonstrations, these outrageous invasions of human rights, faintly indicate the presence and power of slavery here. It is a significant fact, that while meetings for almost any purpose under heaven may be held unmolested [untouched] in the city of Boston, that in the same city, a meeting cannot be peaceably held for the purpose of preaching the doctrine of the American Declaration of Independence, "that all men are created equal." The pestiferous [diseased] breath of slavery taints the whole moral atmosphere of the north, and enervates [weakens] the moral energies of the whole people.

The moment a foreigner ventures upon our soil, and utters a natural repugnance [extreme dislike] to oppression, that moment he is made to feel that there is little sympathy in this land for him. If he were greeted with smiles before, he meets with frowns now; and it shall go well with him if he be not subjected to that peculiarly fitting method of showing fealty [respect] to slavery, the assaults of a mob.

Now, will any man tell me that such a state of things is natural, and that such conduct on the part of the people of the north, springs from a consciousness of rectitude [decency]? No! every fibre of the human heart unites in detestation [hatred] of tyranny, and it is only when the human mind has become familiarized with slavery, is accustomed to its injustice, and corrupted by its selfishness, that it fails to record its abhorrence [hatred] of slavery, and does not exult in the triumphs of liberty.

The northern people have been long connected with slavery; they have been linked to a decaying corpse, which has destroyed the moral health. The union of the government; the union of the north and south, in the political parties; the union in the religious organizations of the land, have all served to deaden the moral sense of the northern people, and to impregnate [fill] them with sentiments and ideas forever in conflict with what as a nation we call genius of American institutions. Rightly viewed, this is an alarming fact, and ought to rally all that is pure, just, and holy in one determined effort to crush the monster of corruption, and to scatter "its guilty profits" to the winds. In a high moral sense, as well as in a national sense, the whole American people are responsible for slavery, and must share, in its guilt and shame, with the most obdurate men-stealers of the south.

While slavery exists, and the union of these states endures, every American citizen must bear the chagrin [embarrassment] of hearing his country branded before the world as a nation of liars and hypocrites; and behold his cherished national flag pointed at with the utmost scorn and derision [contempt]. Even now an American abroad is pointed out in the crowd, as coming from a land where men gain their fortunes by "the blood of souls," from a land of slave markets, of blood-hounds, and slave-hunters; and, in some circles, such a man is shunned altogether, as a moral pest. Is it not time, then, for every American to awake, and inquire into his duty with respect to this subject?

Wendell Phillips —the eloquent New England orator—on his return from Europe, in 1842, said, "As I stood upon the shores of Genoa [Italy], and saw floating on the placid waters of the Mediterranean, the beautiful American war ship Ohio, with her masts tapering proportionately aloft, and an eastern sun reflecting her noble form upon the sparkling waters, attracting the gaze of the multitude, my first impulse was of pride, to think myself an American; but when I thought that the first time that gallant ship would gird [bind] on her gorgeous apparel, and wake from beneath her sides her dormant thunders, it would be in defense of the African slave trade, I blushed in utter shame for my country."

Let me say again, slavery is alike the sin and the shame of the American people; it is a blot upon the American name, and the only national reproach [disgrace] which need make an American hang his head in shame, in the presence of monarchical governments.

With this gigantic evil in the land, we are constantly told to look at home; if we say ought against crowned heads, we are pointed to our enslaved millions; if we talk of sending missionaries and bibles abroad, we are pointed to three millions now lying in worse than heathen [nonbelievers] darkness; if we express a word of sympathy for Kossuth and his Hungarian fugitive brethren, we are pointed to that horrible and hell-black enactment, "the fugitive slave bill. "

Slavery blunts [dulls] the edge of all our rebukes of tyranny abroad—the criticisms that we make upon other nations, only call forth ridicule, contempt, and scorn. In a word, we are made a reproach and a by-word to a mocking earth, and we must continue to be so made, so long as slavery continues to pollute our soil.

We have heard much of late of the virtue of patriotism, the love of country, etc., and this sentiment, so natural and so strong, has been impiously [without respect] appealed to, by all the powers of human selfishness, to cherish the viper which is stinging our national life away. In its name, we have been called upon to deepen our infamy [bad reputation] before the world, to rivet the fetter more firmly on the limbs of the enslaved, and to become utterly insensible to the voice of human woe that is wafted to us on every southern gale. We have been called upon, in its name, to desecrate our whole land by the footprints of slave-hunters, and even to engage ourselves in the horrible business of kidnapping.

I, too, would invoke [appeal to] the spirit of patriotism; not in a narrow and restricted sense, but, I trust, with a broad and manly signification [significance]; not to cover up our national sins, but to inspire us with sincere repentance [regret]; not to hide our shame from the world's gaze, but utterly to abolish the cause of that shame; not to explain away our gross inconsistencies as a nation, but to remove the hateful, jarring, and incongruous [incompatible] elements from the land; not to sustain an egregious [obvious] wrong, but to unite all our energies in the grand effort to remedy that wrong.

I would invoke the spirit of patriotism, in the name of the law of the living God, natural and revealed, and in the full belief that "righteousness exalteth a nation, while sin is a reproach to any people." "He that walketh righteously, and speaketh uprightly; he that despiseth the gain of oppressions, that shaketh his hands from the holding of bribes, he shall dwell on high, his place of defense shall be the munitions [weapons] of rocks, bread shall be given him, his water shall be sure."

We have not only heard much lately of patriotism, and of its aid being invoked on the side of slavery and injustice, but the very prosperity [wealth] of this people has been called in to deafen them to the voice of duty, and to lead them onward in the pathway of sin. Thus has the blessing of God been converted into a curse. In the spirit of genuine patriotism, I warn the American people, by all that is just and honorable, to BEWARE!

I warn them that, strong, proud, and prosperous though we be, there is a power above us that can "bring down high looks; at the breath of whose mouth our wealth may take wings; and before whom every knee shall bow;" and who can tell how soon the avenging angel may pass over our land, and the sable [black] bondmen now in chains, may become the instruments of our nation's chastisement! Without appealing to any higher feeling, I would warn the American people, and the American government, to be wise in their day and generation. I exhort [strongly urge] them to remember the history of other nations; and I remind them that America cannot always sit "as a queen," in peace and repose; that prouder and stronger governments than this have been shattered by the bolts of a just God; that the time may come when those they now despise and hate, may be needed; when those whom they now compel by oppression to be enemies, may be wanted as friends. What has been, may be again. There is a point beyond which human endurance cannot go. The crushed worm may yet turn under the heel of the oppressor. I warn them, then, with all solemnity [seriousness], and in the name of retributive justice, to look to their ways; for in an evil hour, those sable arms that have, for the last two centuries, been engaged in cultivating and adorning the fair fields of our country, may yet become the instruments of terror, desolation, and death, throughout our borders.

It was the sage of the Old Dominion [territory] that said—while speaking of the possibility of a conflict between the slaves and the slaveholders—"God has no attribute that could take sides with the oppressor in such a contest. I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, and that his justice cannot sleep forever." Such is the warning voice of Thomas Jefferson; and every day's experience since its utterance until now, confirms its wisdom, and commends its truth.

What happened next …

The Compromise of 1850, which included the Fugitive Slave Act, passed the U.S. Congress and was signed into law by President Millard Fillmore (1800–1874; served 1850–53). The Fugitive Slave Act, the threat of slavery expanding into new states, and impassioned pleas by the likes of Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896), whose antislavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin was immediately popular upon publication in 1852, helped further the abolitionist movement.

The dispute over the expansion of slavery into western territories became even more heated in 1854 when a bill was introduced in Congress to organize the country west of Iowa and Missouri as the territory of Nebraska. The territory was to be divided into two parts, Kansas and Nebraska. The bill permitted the people of the territories, acting through their representatives, to decide whether the territory should be slave or free. Abolitionists were outraged, and passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act furthered tension between the North and the South. Wanting to ensure that Kansas would be a slave state, proslavery people from Missouri flooded into the territory, obtained the right to vote, and organized a proslavery legislature. At the same time, abolitionists moved into Kansas, organized their own legislature, and fought for free state status. The tense situation between longtime inhabitants and temporary residents, and pro-slavery people and abolitionists, erupted into a civil war, called "Bloody Kansas," in 1856.

Douglass met on several occasions with John Brown (1800–1859), a fiery abolitionist who preached violence against slave owners. Brown and a small band of followers were captured in 1859 as they assaulted an arsenal, a place where weapons were stockpiled, in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. They hoped to take guns and use them to arm slaves. Douglass was accused by the Governor of Virginia of being a conspirator. Douglass fled to Canada and then returned to Great Britain, where he enjoyed a successful lecture tour.

Douglass returned the following year and supported Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65) in his successful run for president. When the American Civil War (1861–65) began shortly after Lincoln took office, Douglass was disappointed that Lincoln's first priority was to save the Union, even if it did not include the abolition of slavery. Douglass focused on two goals: emancipation of slaves and inclusion of African Americans in the Union army. The Emancipation Proclamation, announced by Lincoln in 1863, abolished slavery in the states fighting against the Union during the Civil War. It was a major step toward ending slavery and opened up military opportunities for African Americans.

Following the end of the Civil War in 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, abolishing slavery, became law. At a meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in May 1865, one month after the end of the war, William Lloyd Garrison had called upon the organization to disband, now that its goal was achieved. Douglass came out against Garrison's proposal, stating that "Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot." In 1868 the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, granting citizenship to all people born in the United States. Before that amendment, ex-slaves were not officially recognized as citizens. In 1870 the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, extending voting rights to African American males. Section 1 of the amendment states: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."

In 1870 Douglass and his sons began publishing a weekly newspaper, the New National Era. He moved to Washington, D.C., in 1872 after his Rochester home was destroyed by fire. In 1877 President Rutherford B. Hayes (1822–1893; served 1877–81) appointed Douglass as U.S. marshal of Washington, D.C., a first for an African American. Douglass enjoyed the position of city administrator and purchased a 15-acre estate in the area. Douglass called it "Cedar Hill" and frequently entertained family members and friends. After giving a speech on February 20, 1895, at the National Council of Women, Douglass suffered a heart attack later that evening and died at the age of seventy-seven.

Meanwhile, a new form of racism had spread, particularly in southern states, during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. After several U.S. Supreme Court rulings struck down federal civil rights legislation in favor of state and community laws, many southern states began enacting what came to be known as "Jim Crow laws," which enforced separate facilities for blacks and whites. Segregation and more violent forms of racism were widespread by the turn of the twentieth century.

Did you know …

  • Douglass was so eloquent in his early speeches in 1841 and 1842 that some people questioned whether he had actually experienced the incidents he related. Those doubts helped motivate Douglass to write his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845).
  • Douglass's sons, Lewis and Charles, were among the first African Americans to enlist in the Union army, and Douglass actively recruited African Americans for the Union cause. He stopped recruiting, however, upon learning that segregation was being practiced in the military.

Consider the following …

  • Research the Compromise of 1850. Consider why some significant politicians believed it would put an end to slavery. For example, three successive presidents—Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce (1804–1869; served 1853–57), and James Buchanan (1791–1868; served 1857–61)—all of whom were from northern states, supported the Compromise of 1850. Write an essay about why the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) increased tension between the North and the South.
  • In the lecture excerpted earlier and in his book Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Douglass personalized the relationship between slave owner and slave to show the brutalities of slavery. Read either or both of those pieces, and focus on passages where examples of relationships between slaves and slave owners are described. Write an essay on how you responded to these passages, considering that many people believed the relationship between slave owner and slave was like a typical boss-worker arrangement.

For More Information


Burchard, Peter. Frederick Douglass: For the Great Family of Man. New York: Atheneum, 2003.

Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies. New York: Library of America, 1994.

Douglass, Frederick. Escape from Slavery. New York: Knopf, 1994.

Douglass, Frederick. "Frederick Douglass's Speech to the Thirty-second Annual Convention of the American Anti-Slavery Society." Crossing the Danger Water: Three Hundred Years of African American Writing, edited by Dierdre Mullane. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. New York: Miller, Orton and Mulligan, 1855. Reprint, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845. Reprint, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1997.

Fleming, Alice Mulcahey. Frederick Douglass: From Slave to Statesman. New York: PowerPlus Books, 2004.

Lawson. Bill E., and Frank M. Kirkland, eds. Frederick Douglass: A Critical Reader. New York: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.

Russell, Sharman. Frederick Douglass. New York: Chelsea House, 1992.


Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. (accessed on June 12, 2006).

Frederick Douglass Museum & Hall of Fame for Caring Americans. (accessed on June 12, 2006).

Frederick Douglass, National Historic Site. (accessed on June 12,2006).

Patriarchal: Father and son

Malignity: Being hateful or cruel.

Branded with irons: Marked with hot irons to identify them as someone's property.

Dismal Swamp: A large area of forested wetlands along the eastern border of Virginia and North Carolina.

Apologists: Those who, through argument, defend an idea, practice, or point of view.

Platited thong: A thick and heavy leather whip.

Fetter: Chains or shackles for the feet.

Decalogue: The Ten Commandments of the bible.

New Testament: The second half of the Christian bible.

Mason and Dixon's line: The southern, border of Pennsylvania, which before the American Civil War marked the border between free states and slave states.

Queen Victoria's dominions: Reference to Canada, which had ties to Great Britain and its Queen Victoria.

Obdurate: Hardened against feeling.

Hypocrites: Faking or only pretending to believe in something.

Wendell Phillips: (1811–1884), a prominent American abolitionist.

Monarchical governments: Monarchy; led by king or queen.

Kossuth: Reference to Lajos (Louis) Kossuth (1802–1894) who led Hungary during its fight for independence and democracy.

Fugitive slave bill: A bill, passed by Congress in 1850, that allowed slave owners to enter non-slave states to pursue, capture, and return escaped slaves.

Rivet: To join with a metal pin or bolt.

Desecrate: Violate the sacredness of.

Avenging: Inflicting punishment in return for an injury or wrongdoing.

Retributive: Punishment that is deserved because of some wrongdoing or evil.

Thomas Jefferson: (1743–1826), third president of the United States (served 1801–09), who wrote the Declaration of Independence.

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5 Frederick Douglass

Excerpt from "Reconstruction" Published in Atlantic Monthly, 1866; reprinted on (Web site)

A leading African American abolitionist fights for intervention from the federal government and Union military to gain equal rights for blacks

"If with the negro was success in war, and without him failure, so in peace it will be found that the nation must fall or flourish with the negro.…"

In many ways, the end of the American Civil War (1861–65) raised more questions than it answered. The North won the bloody struggle to end slavery and keep the South from seceding, or forming its own country. But how would these Southern states rejoin the Union? What changes would be made to their governments and their ways of life? What rights would African Americans have? And what would be their role in shaping a new South? The answers to these questions would define the process known as Reconstruction.

President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875; served 1865–69) developed the first Reconstruction policy during the summer of 1865, without any input from Congress. He appointed governors in each of the Southern states and required them to hold conventions to draft new state constitutions. The conventions were only open to men who were eligible to vote in 1860, effectively barring African Americans from participating in the process. (Johnson later argued that giving African American men the ballot would spark a racial war.) But most whites involved in the "rebellion" against the North could participate, as long as they had taken an oath of allegiance to the Union. The only exceptions were the highest ranking Confederates and Southerners with property worth more than $20,000 who had to apply to the president directly for a pardon.

Not surprisingly, these new Southern governments put prominent Confederates back in power without giving African American men the right to vote. Many Southern towns and states passed "Black Codes," discriminatory laws designed to keep African Americans under the control of whites. The laws in some areas barred African Americans from owning land or meeting after dark. Unemployed African Americans could be arrested and put to work for the white men who bailed them out. In South Carolina, African Americans had to get a special license to do any work besides farming. As noted in Frederick Douglass and the Fight for Freedom, "These so called 'Black Codes' virtually reconstituted [recreated] slavery in everything but name."

It was a devastating outcome for African Americans, particularly the 180,000 African American men who joined the Union army during the war to fight for their freedom. A group of African Americans met in Virginia in August 1865 to draft a message to Congress, reprinted on the "From Revolution to Reconstruction" Web site. They reminded Congress of the African Americans who helped in the war effort, only to see this sad result:

Four fifths of our enemies are paroled or amnestied [freed], and the other fifth are being pardoned, and the President has, in his efforts at the reconstruction of the civil government of these States … left us entirely at the mercy of these subjugated [defeated] but unconverted [unchanged] rebels, in everything save [except] the privilege of bringing us, our wives and little ones, to the auction block.…

Recognizing that Johnson's Reconstruction plan would leave the South largely unchanged, Congress responded with its own plan. The assembly refused to seat the ex-Confederates and other Southerners sent to Congress in December 1865. Instead, Congress created the Joint Committee on Reconstruction to hold hearings on Southern attitudes and offer a plan for rebuilding the region (see Chapter 7). Congress already created the Freedmen's Bureau (see Chapter 4) shortly before the war ended to provide food, lease land, and negotiate labor contracts for the newly freed slaves. It also officially ended slavery with the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (see Chapter 2), which was ratified by the states in 1865. In response to the Black Codes, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (see Chapter 8) and proposed the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (see Chapter 9). Both measures (which passed over Johnson's objections) granted citizenship to African Americans and required they receive the same legal treatment as whites.

But it would take more than a couple of laws to change the way Southern whites treated African Americans. Visiting the South shortly after the war, Union general Carl Schurz (1829–1906) made the following observations, reprinted in A History of Affirmative Action, 1619–2000:

Wherever I go … I hear the people talk in such a way as to indicate that they are yet unable to conceive of the Negro as possessing any rights at all. Men who are honorable in their dealings with white neighbors, will cheat a Negro without feeling a single twinge of their honor.… The reason for all this is simple and manifest [obvious]. The whites esteem [consider] blacks their property by natural right … they still have an ingrained feeling that the blacks at large belong to the whites at large.

Frederick Douglass (1817–1895), a former slave who became a leader in the abolitionist (antislavery) movement, was well aware of the obstacles facing African Americans. Raised on a Maryland farm, Douglass escaped to New York at age twenty after experiencing first-hand the tragedies of slavery: brutal whippings, separation from family members, and the humiliation of belonging to another person. He contributed to antislavery newspapers before writing his life's story, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, in 1845. A couple of years later he created his own antislavery newspaper, North Star, named for the star used by slaves escaping to freedom in the North.

Douglass knew that ending slavery was only half the battle. African Americans needed to be able to rent or buy land so they could work for themselves. They also needed the right to vote and run for office, so they could support officials who would protect their rights. The passage of the Black Codes throughout the South showed how African Americans would be treated as long as Southern whites were in control. Any push for equal rights for blacks must come from the federal government, backed up by Union soldiers, Douglass argued in the following article from Atlantic Monthly magazine.

Things to remember while reading an excerpt from "Reconstruction":

  • President Johnson drafted the first Reconstruction plan to bring the South back into the Union after the Civil War. Under his plan, Southern whites drafted new state constitutions and elected new officials, including many former Confederates. African Americans could not vote, however, and new laws called Black Codes restricted every aspect of their lives. These local laws barred African Americans from owning land, required them to get special permits for certain jobs, and allowed them to be arrested and put to work if they were unemployed.
  • Congress rejected Johnson's Reconstruction plan and passed some measures of its own. It created the Freedmen's Bureau to provide supplies to African Americans and help them negotiate their labor contracts. Congress also passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and proposed the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution to outlaw the Black Codes and ensure equal legal treatment for African Americans.
  • Douglass, a former slave who became a leading abolitionist, believed ending slavery was only half the battle. African Americans needed the right to vote and the ability to work for themselves in order to be free, he said. Knowing many Southern whites would not give African Americans these opportunities, Douglass called for Congress to lead the push for African Americans' rights and use Union troops to enforce those rights.

Excerpt from "Reconstruction"

The assembling of the Second Session of the Thirty-ninth Congress may very properly be made the occasion of a fewearnest words on the already much-worn topic of reconstruction.

Seldom has any legislative body been the subject of asolicitude more intense, or ofaspirations more sincere andardent. There are the best of reasons for thisprofound interest. Questions of vast moment, left undecided by the last session of Congress, must bemanfully grappled with by this. No politicalskirmishing willavail. The occasion demandsstatesmanship.

Whether the tremendous war so heroically fought and so victoriously ended shall pass into history a miserable failure,barren of permanent results,—a scandalous and shocking waste of blood andtreasure, —a strife forempire, … of no value to liberty or civilization,—an attempt to re-establish a Union by force, which must be themerest mockery of a Union,—an effort to bring under Federal authority States into which no loyal man from the North may safely enter, and to bring men into the national councils whodeliberate with daggers and vote with revolvers, and who do not even conceal their deadly hate of the country that conquered them; or whether, on the other hand, we shall, as the rightful reward of victory overtreason, have a solid nation, entirely delivered from all contradictions and socialantagonisms, based upon loyalty, liberty, and equality, must be determined one way or the other by the present session of Congress. The last session really did nothing which can be considered final as to these questions. The Civil Rights Bill and the Freedmen's Bureau Bill and the proposed constitutional amendments, with the amendment already adopted and recognized as the law of the land, do not reach thedifficulty, and cannot, unless the whole structure of the government is changed from a government by States to something like adespotic central government, with power to control even themunicipal regulations of States, and to make them conform to its own despotic will. While there remainssuch an idea as the right of each State to control its own local affairs,—an idea, by the way, more deeply rooted in the minds of men of all sections of the country than perhaps any one other political idea,—no generalassertion of human rights can be of any practical value. To change the character of the government at this point is neither possible nor desirable. All that is necessary to be done is to make the government consistent with itself, andrender the rights of the States compatible with the sacred rights of human nature.

The arm of the Federal government is long, but it is far too short to protect the rights of individuals in theinterior of distant States. They must have the power to protect themselves, or they will go unprotected,spite of all the laws the Federal government can put upon the nationalstatute-book.…

If time was at first needed, Congress has now had time. All therequisite materials from which to form an intelligent judgment are now before it. Whether its members look at the origin, the progress, thetermination of the war, or at the mockery of a peace now existing, they will find only one unbroken chain of argument in favor of a radical policy of reconstruction. For theomissions of the last session, some excuses may be allowed. Atreacherous President stood in the way; and it can be easily seen howreluctant good men might be to admit anapostasy which involved so much ofbaseness andingratitude. It was natural that they should seek to save him by bending to him even when he leaned to the side of error. But all is changed now. Congress knows now that it must go on without his aid, and even against hismachinations. The advantage of the present session over the last is immense. Where that investigated, this has the facts. Where that walked by faith, this may walk by sight. Where thathalted, this must go forward, and where that failed, this must succeed, giving the country whole measures where that gave us half-measures.… In everyconsiderable public meeting, and in almost everyconceivable way, whether at court-house, schoolhouse, or cross-roads, in doors and out, the subject has been discussed, and the people haveemphatically pronounced in favor of aradical policy. Listening to thedoctrines ofexpediency and compromise with pity, impatience, and disgust, they have everywhere broken into demonstrations of the wildest enthusiasm when a brave word has been spoken in favor of equal rights andimpartial suffrage. Radicalism, so far from beingodious, is not the popular passport to power. The men most bitterly charged with it go to Congress with the largest majorities, while the timid and doubtful are sent by lean majorities, or else left at home. The strange controversy betweenthe President and the Congress, at one time so threatening, isdisposed of by the people. The high reconstructive powers which he so confidently,ostentatiously, andhaughtily claimed, have been disallowed,denounced, and utterlyrepudiated; while those claimed by Congress have been confirmed.…

Without attempting to settle here themetaphysical and somewhattheological question (about which so much has already been said and written), whether once in the Union means always in the Union … it is obvious to common sense that the rebellious States stand to-day, in point of law, precisely where they stood when, exhausted, beaten, conquered, they fell powerless at the feet of Federal authority. Their State governments were overthrown, and the lives and property of the leaders of the Rebellion wereforfeited. In reconstructing the institutions of these shattered and overthrown States, Congress should begin with a clean slate, and make clean work of it. Let there be no hesitation. It would be a cowardlydeference to a defeated and treacherous President, if any account were made of theillegitimate, one-sided,sham governments hurried into existence for amalign purpose in the absence of Congress. These pretended governments, which were never submitted to the people, and from participation in which four millions of the loyal [African American] people were excluded by Presidential order, should now be treated according to their true character, as shams andimpositions, andsupplanted by true andlegitimate governments, in the formation of which loyal men, black and white, shall participate.…

The plain, common-sense way of doing this work, asintimated at the beginning, is simply to establish in the South one law, one government, one administration of justice, onecondition to the exercise of the elective franchise, for men of all races and colors alike. This great measure is sought as earnestly by loyal white men as by loyal African Americans, and is needed alike by both. Let sound politicalprescience but take the place of an unreasoning prejudice, and this will be done.…

The policy thatemancipated and armed the negro—now seen to have been wise and proper by thedullest —was not certainly moresternly demanded than is now the policy ofenfranchisement. If with the negro was success in war, and without him failure, so in peace it will be found that the nation must fall or flourish with the negro.…

What happened next …

Congress passed the Reconstruction Act in 1867 setting a drastic new policy for bringing the Southern states back into the Union (see Chapter 10). The act divided the South into five military districts, each one headed by a Union general. Each state was required to draft a new state constitution at a convention open to African American and white delegates alike—except high-ranking ex-Confederates. African American and white men alike would get to vote on the constitution. Once the states approved new constitutions and ratified (formally confirm) the Fourteenth Amendment, they could be readmitted to the Union.

For the first time, these new state constitutions gave Southern African American men the ballot. About 703,400 African American men registered to vote that year, and about 2,000 African American men were elected to various offices during the next decade (see Chapter 12). To further protect the right of African American men to vote, Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified by the states in 1870, guaranteeing African American men the ballot (see Chapter 16). "We certainly hope that the time will come when the colored man in America shall cease to require special efforts to guard their rights and advance their interests as a class," Douglass wrote in an 1870 article supporting the Fifteenth Amendment, reprinted in A History of Affirmative Action, 1619–2000. "But that time has not yet come, and is not even at the door."

Indeed, that time would be decades away. When Reconstruction ended in 1877 with the withdrawal of federal troops (see Chapter 19), the Southern states started chipping away at the hard-won rights for African Americans. They imposed literacy tests (to test for ability to read and write) or poll taxes to discourage African Americans from voting. They created separate schools, railroad cars, and other facilities for African Americans and whites, a practice upheld by the Supreme Court in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling. Nearly a century passed after Reconstruction before the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s resumed the push for racial equality.

Did you know …

  • Two of Douglass's sons, Lewis and Charles, served in the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment, the first African American Union regiment to fight in the Civil War. The regiment was later made famous by the 1989 movie Glory starring Matthew Broderick (1962–) and Denzel Washington (1954–).
  • After the death of his first wife, a former slave named Anna, Douglass caused a stir by marrying a white woman. The new Mrs. Douglass was Helen Pitts, a college-educated woman who had been Douglass's secretary. Interracial marriage was socially forbidden in that era, and even Douglass's children opposed the union. But for a man who spent his life preaching racial equality, the pairing was only natural. "I could never have been at peace with my own soul or held up my head among men had I allowed the fear of popular clamor [uproar] to deter [discourage] me from following my convictions as to this marriage," Douglass wrote in a letter reprinted in Frederick Douglass and the Fight for Freedom.
  • Douglass was a strong supporter of women's rights, including the suffrage movement to grant women the right to vote. He participated in the Seneca Falls convention of 1848, a gathering in New York that started the women's rights movement.

Consider the following …

  • Why did Douglass think Congress needed to create a stronger Reconstruction policy?
  • Why did Douglass describe the Southern state governments formed after the Civil War, under President Johnson's Reconstruction plan, as "shams?"
  • What was life like for African Americans right after the Civil War? How would that change by allowing African Americans the right to vote and own land?

For More Information

"An Address to the Loyal Citizens and Congress of the United States of America Adopted by a Convention of Negroes Held in Alexandria, Virginia, from August 2 to 5, 1865." From Revolution to Reconstruction. (accessed on September 15, 2004).

Cashman, Sean Dennis. America in the Gilded Age. New York: New York University Press, 1984.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Boston: Anti-slavery Office, 1845. Reprint, 150th anniversary ed., New York: Laurel, 1997.

Douglass, Frederick. "Reconstruction." Atlantic Monthly (1866): pp. 761–65. Also available at (accessed on September 15, 2004).

Miller, Douglas T. Frederick Douglass and the Fight for Freedom. New York: Facts on File, 1988.

Rubio, Philip F. A History of Affirmative Action, 1619–2000. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001.

Earnest: Serious.

Solicitude: Concern.

Aspirations: Hopes.

Ardent: Passionate.

Profound: Very deep.

Manfully grappled: Forcefully addressed.

Skirmishing: Minor battling.

Avail: Be of use.

Statesmanship: Wise leadership.

Barren: Empty.

Treasure: Money.

Empire: Territory.

Merest mockery: Smallest joke.

Deliberate: Consider.

Treason: Betrayal of country.

Antagonisms: Hostilities.

Difficulty: Problem.

Despotic: Oppressive.

Municipal: Local.

Assertion: Statement.

Render: Make.

Interior: Inner area.

Spite: Regardless.

Statute-book: Law book.

Requisite: Necessary.

Termination: Ending.

Omissions: Failures.

Treacherous: Untrustworthy.

Reluctant: Hesitant.

Apostasy: Abandoning of belief.

Baseness: Meanness.

Ingratitude: Thanklessness.

Machinations: Schemes.

Halted: Stopped.

Considerable: Important.

Conceivable: Thinkable.

Emphatically: Strongly.

Radical: Drastically different (in this case, for African American rights).

Doctrines: Ideas being preached.

Expediency: Convenience.

Impartial suffrage: Unbiased voting rights.

Odious: Offensive.

Disposed of: Settled.

Ostentatiously: Grandly.

Haughtily: Arrogantly.

Denounced: Condemned.

Repudiated: Rejected.

Metaphysical: Abstract.

Theological: Religious.

Forfeited: Taken away.

Deference: Yielding.

Illegitimate: Unlawful.

Sham: Fake.

Malign: Evil.

Impositions: Forced frauds.

Supplanted: Replaced.

Legitimate: Lawful.

Intimated: Implied.

Condition: Requirement.

Prescience: Foresight.

Emancipated: Freed.

Dullest: Stupidest.

Sternly: Firmly.

Enfranchisement: Voting rights (for African Americans).

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Frederick Douglass

BORN: c. February 1817 • Maryland

DIED: February 20, 1895 • Washington, D.C.

American abolitionist; writer

Frederick Douglass escaped slavery to become one of the most prominent abolitionists of his time and the first nationally known leader of African Americans. Known for fascinating audiences with his stirring, eloquent speeches, the self-taught Douglass was also a masterful writer whose autobiography is considered a classic of nineteenth century literature. In his autobiography, Douglass presents a detailed account of the cruelties of slavery, which stirred a sense of shame among American readers and furthered the abolitionists' cause. His influence even reached as far as the White House, and his arguments helped set the United States on a path toward racial equality.

"There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour."

Life as a slave

Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in a slave cabin on Frederick Douglass. Maryland's Eastern Shore, Douglass was unsure of his birth date, but believed it was around February 1817. His father was probably the white overseer—the supervisor of slave labor—on the Wye River plantation of Edward Lloyd, where Douglass spent his early years. His mother, Harriet Bailey, did not raise him, but occasionally made a twenty-four-mile trip on foot to visit him and his grandmother. His mother died when Douglass was around seven. He was aware that he had brothers and sisters, but had no contact with them nor with the outside world until he was sold to a family named Auld. This occurred when Douglass was around nine years old. At that time, he was sent to live at the Auld home in Baltimore, Maryland. Conditions improved for Douglass while he lived in the city, for most urban dwellers thought it was uncivilized to beat slaves or starve them.

Douglass later wrote in his memoirs that it was during his childhood that he first heard older slaves tell stories about how their parents had been kidnapped from a place called Africa. He also learned that there were two kinds of states in America, free and slave. Auld's wife, Sophia, was originally from one of the free states, where slavery was not practiced. She treated Douglass much differently than other whites did. She regularly read aloud from the Bible, and Douglass listened with interest. When he expressed a desire to read the Bible, Sophia began teaching him the basics of reading and writing. When Auld found out, he ordered his wife to stop immediately. Teaching a slave to read or write was illegal; Douglass was fascinated by this piece of information when he learned it. He managed to continue on his own in secret, though, often by bribing white playmates to give him a lesson. By the time he was thirteen, he had saved enough money to buy an anthology of speeches and writings dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Douglass was sent back to the Eastern Shore around 1833, after some ownership disputes among the Auld family. His new owners were more typically cruel. They felt that "Fred," as he was called, was not as obedient and respectful of whites as they thought he should be, so they sent him to a local "slave-breaker." By this point Douglass was a tall, solidly built sixteen year old, and did not take well to the frequent beatings and starvation that he experienced as part of the slave-breaking. One day, he fought back, and the battle lasted two hours. Douglass called this a turning point in his life. "After resisting him, I felt as I had never felt before," he recalled in My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). "It was a resurrection from the dark and pestiferous [morally and socially harmful] tomb of slavery, to the heaven of comparative freedom. I was no longer a servile [submissive] coward…. I had reached the point, at which I was not afraid to die. This spirit made me a freeman in fact, while I remained a slave in form."

Douglass escapes

After the Aulds had hired Douglass out to the new master, he made his first attempt to escape. Unsuccessful, he was sent back to Baltimore. At this point, as punishment he might have been sold to a new owner in the Deep South, where escape to freedom was almost impossible because it was so far from the free states of the north. However, he was fortunate to learn a trade instead. For two years he worked as a caulker in Baltimore's shipyards, where he made the seams of ships watertight. He would then hand over his wages to Auld. He met a free black woman, Anna Murray, and she sold some of her belongings to help him raise the money necessary to try a more serious escape attempt. On a Monday in September 1838, Douglass put on a sailor's uniform and carried borrowed papers that claimed he was a free black, and simply boarded a train. He eventually made his way to New York City, where Anna soon joined him. An organization that aided fugitive, or escaped, slaves arranged for their marriage ceremony and then for them to travel on to New Bedford, Massachusetts. After this point, he took the surname Douglass.

New Bedford was a thriving seaport and the center of the New England whaling industry. It also had a well-established, even modestly prosperous, community of former slaves and free blacks. Douglass usually hid the fact that he was an escaped slave because he didn't want to be captured and returned to bondage. He later wrote that he nearly gave himself away when his co-workers at the wharf saw that he had difficulty counting money by himself. He began reading the Liberator, the abolitionist newspaper published by William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879) in Massachusetts, and he started attending antislavery meetings.

In summer 1841, at an abolitionist gathering on the nearby island of Nantucket, Douglass described his own personal experiences as a slave. It was the first time he had ever spoken in public. In his memoirs, he recalled that he had been very nervous and did even not remember what he said at the podium. His audience was greatly moved by his story, however, and leaders of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society offered him a regular role as a lecturer. His firsthand account of slavery's cruelties were shocking, and Douglass proved so expressive and well-spoken that a group of Harvard College students urged him to write his autobiography. The 125 pages that became the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave were published in 1845 by the American Anti-Slavery Office. He later revised and expanded it into two other volumes of memoirs.

Breaks with Garrison

His slave narrative was well read among abolitionist circles and caused somewhat of a stir among Americans who had not yet decided how they felt about slavery. Though many Northerners disliked the idea of slavery, some held racial prejudices and thought that blacks were an inferior race and probably best suited for manual labor and nothing more. However, through his forceful yet eloquent writing, Douglass proved that education could transform any person, even someone who came from the poorest of beginnings. The publication of his story attracted much attention and revealed enough details about his past in Maryland to alert the

Sojourner Truth

Like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth was a former slave who rose to prominence as an abolitionist and wrote a well-received memoir of her former life in bondage. Born around 1797 in Ulster, New York, she was originally named Isabella Baumfree or Bomefree. She was bought and sold several times, but spent her earliest years on an estate owned by Dutch immigrants, and so Dutch was her first language. As a young woman, she married another slave, Thomas, and began a family.

Three of Truth's five children were sold away. She learned that slaves in New York State who were under the age of forty were to be freed in 1827, but when her owner told her she had to serve one more year, she simply walked away from his property with her infant daughter. Taken in by a Methodist family, she was swept up by the renewal of religious enthusiasm known as the Second Great Awakening. She converted to Christianity, spent time as an outreach worker in New York City, then lived on a commune in nearby Ossining. A commune is a community where like minded individuals live, work, and share collective resources.

Truth said that she often experienced religious visions and voices. In 1843 one message told her to change her name to Sojourner Truth. "Sojourner" refers to someone who is a temporary resident or just passing through. She began preaching as a traveling minister and spent time at another commune in Massachusetts, where she met abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Her life story was published in 1850 as Narrative of Sojourner Truth, one of the first slave narratives written by a woman. The book was widely read and told of the horrors of slavery. It also spoke of the sorrow felt by slaves and of their hopes for a better life.

In 1851 Truth traveled to Ohio to attend a women's rights convention. When she approached the podium to speak, some people taunted her, but she proceeded anyway. She told her audience, "I could work as much and eat as much as a man … and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?" Truth's speech moved the crowd. At the time, neither free blacks nor American women could vote, and there were dual movements to abolish slavery and grant women suffrage.

After slavery officially ended in 1865 with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the status of blacks remained in question. Some in the women's right movement hoped to push for both women's suffrage (right to vote) and full citizenship rights for blacks, too. More moderate voices on both sides kept the two issues separate, however. For a time, Truth worked with Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902), the most prominent leaders in the suffrage movement, but broke away from them when Stanton stated that she refused to support black suffrage unless women were guaranteed the right to vote first.

Truth spent her later years organizing food and clothing drives for former black Civil War soldiers and freed slaves. An estimated 1,000 mourners attended her 1883 funeral in Battle Creek, Michigan, which was said to have been the largest ever held in the city.

bounty-hunters who searched New Bedford, Boston, New York, and other cities for escaped slaves. As a result, Douglass was forced to flee the country and spent nearly two years touring Great Britain, where he promoted the abolitionist cause. His firsthand tales of the horrors of slavery, and his belief that it was an institution that corrupted everyone and everything involved in it—including the economy—made him somewhat of a celebrity there, too.

Upon learning that Auld would sell Douglass his freedom, two of his supporters paid the fee. Douglass returned to America in 1847 and announced his intention to start his own newspaper. The Massachusetts abolitionists were not pleased, since they had hoped to keep him on as a popular lecturer. Douglass moved his family to Rochester, New York, where his North Star newspaper would not be in competition with Garrison's Liberator. In Rochester, his office also served as a secret station on the Underground Railroad, the system of safe houses that helped escaped slaves travel to freedom in Canada. Douglass spent the next dozen years working with other renowned African Americans of the era, including Harriet Tubman (c. 1820–1913), the most famous leader of the Underground Railroad. He participated in the National Negro Conventions, where questions of race and the future of African Americans were debated.

At the conventions and elsewhere, Douglass began to promote a less radical, or extreme, vision of the future of the abolitionist cause. Some of his change in attitude came through his travels in Great Britain and his talks with other abolitionists there. Garrison, who was America's leading antislavery activist, often stated that the U.S. Constitution was a pro-slavery document. As such, Garrison rejected the idea of voting as a means to bring about change and called for separating the free states of the North entirely from the slave states of the South. Douglass, by contrast, had come to believe that the wording in the Constitution seemed to guarantee the rights of those who lived under it, and therefore could be interpreted as actually favoring the freeing of slaves. Furthermore, Douglass believed that Garrison's idea to dissolve the union of states would forever trap an estimated three million slaves in what would then be considered a foreign country.

When the U.S. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, it set the nation on a course that would end in civil war a decade later. Like other abolitionists, Douglass condemned the provisions of the new law, which allowed slave owners to enter non-slave states to pursue, capture, and return escaped slaves. This meant that it would become much easier for blacks to be taken into custody as suspected runaways, even in tolerant cities of the North. Douglass predicted that if there were attempts to enforce the terms of the act in Boston, that city's streets would run with blood.

Adviser to Lincoln

On July 4, 1852, at a hall in Rochester, New York, Douglass delivered what became one of his best known speeches. In "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?," Douglass condemned the nation which had been founded on the principles of liberty and justice seventy-six years earlier. "I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this Fourth of July," he said. It was a holiday when Americans celebrated the birth of their nation, he pointed out, but for the slaves who could not help but overhear that day's music and parades, it served as "a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim…. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour."

Douglass was a supporter of the Republican Party, which had been founded in 1854 to oppose the political power of the South in Washington. He campaigned for the party's 1860 candidate for president, Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65). Lincoln's win set in motion the final series of events that launched the American Civil War (1861–65), a conflict between the Union (the North) and the Confederacy (the South).

During the war, Douglass continued to publish his newspaper, but Lincoln requested his help in recruiting free blacks and former slaves for the Union Army. This came after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), which freed the slaves in the southern rebel states. One of its provisions also declared that former slaves were eligible for military service. Some 200,000 blacks joined to help the Union Army defeat the South. Douglass traveled throughout the North, speaking to black groups and urging the formation of regiments. Two of his sons joined the 54th Massachusetts, a black regiment led by white officers. Douglass later halted his work when he learned that the army was paying black solders less than their white counterparts.

Lincoln later asked Douglass to serve as an adviser on his 1864 reelection campaign, to which he agreed after some hesitation. Douglass had become worried that despite the Emancipation Proclamation, the final end for slavery was coming too slowly. He thought the Lincoln administration was stalling on some important points, particularly on the question of whether to recognize blacks as full citizens of the United States and grant them the same rights given to whites. The controversy over slavery in America remained a divisive and deadly one, and Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865. His successor, Andrew Johnson (1808–1875; served 1865–69), met with Douglass to discuss black suffrage (the right to vote), which came with the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Ratified on February 3, 1870, it gave all U.S. male citizens the right to vote, regardless of race. In practice, however, many African Americans would be denied the right to vote until the 1960s.

During the next twenty-five years of his life, Douglass remained a prominent and influential figure in African American political life. An entire generation of freed slaves and their children viewed him as the hero who fought for their lives in Washington and overseas, after breaking his own chains of bondage. In the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era (1865–77), he launched another newspaper, this one with his sons. The New National Era, as it was called, began publication in 1870. Douglass also held some historic federal appointments, becoming the first black to become a U.S. marshal as well as the first recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia. His family had relocated to Washington, D.C., in 1872 after their Rochester home was damaged in what appeared to be a case of arson. He also held diplomatic posts in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He died February 20, 1895.

Douglass remained convinced all his life that education was the quickest path to freedom and prosperity. He never forgot how his own first opportunity to learn how to read had been taken away so abruptly. Douglass once wrote a letter to his former owner, on the anniversary of his liberation. Douglass reminded the slave owner that he had at least three sisters and one brother that Auld still owned. Douglass said in his letter that he would like to write to them, too, but because they were unable to read or write, this was impossible. "You have kept them in utter ignorance, and have therefore robbed them of the sweet enjoyments of writing or receiving letters from absent friends and relatives," he told Auld in the letter, which was included in My Bondage and My Freedom. "Your wickedness and cruelty, committed in this respect on your fellow-creatures, are greater than all the stripes [scars from whippings] you have laid upon my back or theirs."

For More Information


Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. New York: Miller, Orton and Mulligan, 1855. Reprint, New York: Penguin Putnam, 2003.

Truth, Sojourner. Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave, Emancipated from Bodily Servitude by the State of New York, in 1828. Boston: Printed for author, 1850.


Clift, Eleanor. "'And Ain't I a Woman?': The Road to Female Suffrage Was Tough, But So Was Sojourner Truth." Newsweek (November 3, 2003): p. 58.

McPherson, James M. "Frederick Douglass." New Republic (March 11, 1991): p. 37.


Douglass, Frederick. "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" Douglass: Archives of American Public Address. (accessed on June 30, 2006).

"The Life of Frederick Douglass." U.S. National Park Service. (accessed on June 30, 2006).

"This Far by Faith: Sojourner Truth." Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). (accessed on June 30, 2006).

Truth, Sojourner. "Ain't I a Woman?" Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). (accessed on June 30, 2006).

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Frederick Douglass

Born c. February 1817
Easton, Maryland

Died February 20, 1895
Washington, D.C.

Writer and activist

"Rebellion has been subdued, slavery abolished, and peace proclaimed, and yet our work is not done.… We are face to face with the same old enemy of liberty and progress."

Frederick Douglass was an eloquent spokesperson for abolition (the end of slavery) and equality. He persevered through an early life of slavery to become a celebrated speaker and writer. Relating his experiences as a victim of cruelty, Douglass maintained a strongly moral conviction in undoing the evil of slavery and establishing equality for people of both sexes and all races. He wrote celebrated autobiographical works, beginning with Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), and founded newspapers, including the North Star in 1847. The masthead of the North Star featured the motto, "Right is of no sex. Truth is of no color. God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethren." During the Reconstruction era (1865–77), Douglass was a leader in supporting passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, which extended voting rights to African American males, and the efforts of Congress to ensure protection of the rights of freedmen.

Born into slavery

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery with the name Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. His birth is generally considered to have occurred in February 1817. He took the surname Douglass (after a character in Sir Walter Scott's poem "Lady of the Lake") following his escape from slavery. Born on a farm near Easton, Maryland, Douglass was the son of a slave, Harriet Bailey, and an unidentified white man. He had a difficult childhood, separated from his mother and victimized by the cruelty of a violent slave master, Captain Anthony. Upon Anthony's death, ownership of Douglass fell to Anthony's daughter and son-in-law, Lucretia and Thomas Auld. When he was nine, Douglass was sent to Baltimore, Maryland, to be a house servant to Thomas Auld's brother, Hugh Auld, and his wife Sophia.

Douglass's main responsibility in the Hugh Auld home was to care for their child, Tommy. Sophia Auld read aloud from the Bible, and Douglass asked her to teach him to read. Sophia was enthused about teaching Douglass, but when Hugh Auld learned what his wife was doing he immediately made her stop. It was unlawful to teach a slave to read, and Auld believed that keeping slaves from reading and writing was a way to maintain power over them. Douglass realized that reading and writing was a way to freedom. He continued his education through interaction with people—by questioning and listening to them—and by reading anything he could. Sometimes he traded his food for a newspaper or a book. By age thirteen, he was reading abolitionist newspapers.

Douglass was returned to the farm at age fifteen, and he was again subjected to cruelty and beatings. At sixteen, he fought back against a whipping and earned a measure of power. He plotted an escape with a group of slaves when he was nineteen, but their plans were exposed and the slaves were jailed. Douglass returned to the Auld household in Baltimore, where he trained as a caulker (one who seals the hull of a boat to keep water from seeping in). After Douglass was beaten by white workers, Auld transferred him to his own shipbuilding business, where Douglass earned regular wages.

In his little spare time from work, Douglass met with a group of free and educated African Americans and was admitted by them to the East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society. During meetings of this organization, Douglass learned how to be a political debater and met a free African American woman named Anna Murray. They were engaged in 1838.

Determined to win his freedom above all else, Douglass risked everything he had by traveling in disguise by train from Baltimore to Philadelphia and on to New York City. If caught, he could be jailed, killed, or sold to slave masters. On September 4, 1838, he reached New York City safely.

Famous speaker and writer

After roaming New York City streets for a few days, Douglass met an African American sailor, who introduced him to a member of the Underground Railroad—a secret group of Northerners who helped runaway slaves escape to safety. Anna Murray joined Douglass in New York and they were married on September 15, 1838. They moved to a safe haven in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and lived for a time in the home of a prosperous African American family. Douglass resumed work as a caulker.

Douglass quickly became involved with abolitionist groups and read the Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper founded by William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879). "The paper became my meat and drink," Douglass once recalled. "My soul was set all on fire." He attended a convention of the Massachusetts Antislavery Society, in Nantucket, Massachusetts, in 1841, and was invited to speak. His skills as an orator were so well received that he was invited to become an activist with the group. He met Garrison, who employed him as a speaker to tell his life story and help sell copies of the Liberator. In 1843, Douglass participated in the Hundred Conventions project, the American Anti-Slavery Society's six-month tour of meeting halls throughout the west. During travels to towns and cities from Maine to Indiana, Douglass suffered mistreatment and inequality, but persevered to get his message across.

Ironically, Douglass was so eloquent that increasing numbers of people began to question whether he had actually experienced the incidents he related. Such responses, in part, motivated Douglass to write his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845). Recounting Douglass's life experiences in a strong moral tone against the evils of slavery on victim and victimizer, the book was an instant sensation. Widely popular in the North and in Europe, the Narrative also put Douglass in danger: As a fugitive slave, he had no legal protection if slave owner Thomas Auld were to seize him as Auld's property. Douglass decided to travel to England, which had emancipated (freed) all slaves within the British Empire.

Douglass enjoyed traveling for nearly two years in Britain. Friends in England collected money to buy him out of slavery from Thomas Auld. Although Douglass did not agree with the action—since he did not believe one man could own another, he should not pay for his freedom—he accepted the offer. He returned to the United States in 1847 to his wife and four children, and the family moved to Rochester, New York, where Douglass bought a house. He set up a printing shop and started his own newspaper, the North Star. Featuring articles on abolition and equality, the North Star was published under the motto, "Right is of no sex. Truth is of no color. God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethren." Meanwhile, as a participant of the Underground Railroad, he helped more than four hundred slaves reach freedom through his printing shop.

Douglass also became politically active in his fight for equality and the abolishment of slavery. He campaigned against labor discrimination and racial segregation on public transportation; attended the landmark Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, and signed the first Declaration of Women's Rights, which was drafted at the convention; and he angrily opposed the Compromise of 1850, a series of bills that included the Fugitive Slave Law, which provided strong legal support for slave owners to pursue runaway slaves in nonslave states. In 1854, Douglass supported the formation of the Republican Party to oppose frequent compromises made by Congress to powerful Southern legislators on issues related to slavery.

Douglass's increasing activism put him at odds with his longtime friend, William Lloyd Garrison, who preferred a more peaceful means for ending slavery. Douglass met on several occasions with John Brown (1800–1859), an abolitionist who preached violence against slave owners. When Brown and a small band of followers were captured in an assault on an arsenal (collection of weapons) in Harper's Ferry, Virginia (now in West Virginia), hoping to take weapons and use them to arm slaves, Douglass was accused by Virginia governor Henry A. Wise (1806–1876) of being a conspirator. Douglass fled to Canada and then returned to Great Britain, where he enjoyed a successful lecture tour.

After returning to the United States, Douglass threw his support in the election of 1860 to Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65). When the Civil War (1861–65) began shortly after Lincoln took office, Douglass was disappointed that Lincoln's first priority in ending the war was to save the Union, not to abolish slavery (though Lincoln was against slavery). Douglass's political activism focused on two goals: emancipation of slaves and inclusion of African Americans in the Union army. The Emancipation Proclamation announced by Lincoln in 1863 was a major step toward ending slavery and it opened up military opportunities for African Americans. Douglass's sons, Lewis and Charles, were among the first African Americans to enlist in the Union army, and Douglass actively recruited African Americans for the Union cause. He stopped recruiting, however, because segregation was being practiced by the military.

More battles after the war

The Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, abolishing slavery, became law in 1865, but Douglass's life work was not complete. "Slavery is not abolished," he said, "until the black man has the ballot." He focused on voting rights and civil rights throughout the Reconstruction era, speaking around the country in late 1865 and then again beginning in the spring of 1866. In February 1866, Douglass met with President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875; served 1865–69; see entry), but Johnson dominated the discussion by insisting he would not use his federal powers to pursue voting rights or interfere with states in civil rights issues. In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, granting citizenship to all people born in the United States.

In 1870, Douglass and his sons began publishing a weekly newspaper, New National Era, that supported President Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; served 1869–77; see entry) and the aggressive protection of African American rights by many Republicans in Congress. That same year, the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, extending voting rights to African American males. Section 1 of the amendment stated, "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."

The following year, Grant appointed Douglass assistant secretary of the commission of inquiry to Santo Domingo (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Douglass toured Santo Domingo from January through March 1871 and defended the president's failed attempt to annex the island. Douglass moved to Washington, D.C., in 1872 after his Rochester home was destroyed by fire. Copies of his newspapers and personal letters were lost in the blaze, and Douglass suspected arson.

Frederick Douglass on Reconstruction

The excerpt below is taken from "Reconstruction," an article written by Frederick Douglass and published in the December 1866 issue of Atlantic Monthly magazine. The article was timed with the return of Congress to session. Douglass wanted Congress to act on Reconstruction in much more forceful ways than President Andrew Johnson. Johnson is mentioned in the final paragraph of the excerpt.

Slavery, like all other great systems of wrong, founded in the depths of human selfishness, and existing for ages, has not neglected its own conservation. It has steadily exerted an influence upon all around it favorable to its own continuance. And to-day it is so strong that it could exist, not only without law, but even against law. Custom, manners, morals, religion, are all on its side everywhere in the South; and when you add the ignorance and servility of the ex-slave to the intelligence and accustomed authority of the master, you have the conditions, not out of which slavery will again grow, but under which it is impossible for the Federal government to wholly destroy it, unless the Federal government be armed with despotic power, to blot out State authority, and to station a Federal officer at every crossroad. This, of course, cannot be done, and ought not even if it could. The true way and the easiest way is to make our government entirely consistent with itself, and give to every loyal citizen the elective franchise,—a right and power which will be ever present, and will form a wall of fire for his protection.…

Spite of the eloquence of the earnest Abolitionists—poured out against slavery during thirty years—even they must confess, that, in all the probabilities of the case, that system of barbarism would have continued its horrors far beyond the limits of the nineteenth century but for the Rebellion, and perhaps only have disappeared at last in a fiery conflict, even more fierce and bloody than that which has now been suppressed.

It is no disparagement to truth, that it can only prevail where reason prevails. War begins where reason ends. The thing worse than rebellion is the thing that causes rebellion. What that thing is, we have been taught to our cost. It remains now to be seen whether we have the needed courage to have that cause entirely removed from the Republic. At any rate, to this grand work of national regeneration and entire purification Congress must now address Itself, with full purpose that the work shall this time be thoroughly done.…

If time was at first needed, Congress has now had time. All the requisite materials from which to form an intelligent judgment are now before it. Whether its members look at the origin, the progress, the termination of the war, or at the mockery of a peace now existing, they will find only one unbroken chain of argument in favor of a radical policy of reconstruction. For the omissions of the last session, some excuses may be allowed. A treacherous President stood in the way; and it can be easily seen how reluctant good men might be to admit an apostasy [defection] which involved so much of baseness and ingratitude. It was natural that they should seek to save him by bending to him even when he leaned to the side of error. But all is changed now. Congress knows now that it must go on without his aid, and even against his machinations.

In March 1874, Douglass assumed the presidency of the Freedman's Savings and Trust Company. He had been offered the position back in July 1867 by President Johnson, but Douglass was concerned about being associated with Johnson, who showed little interest in causes for which Douglass fought. The Freedman's Bureau was founded to help freedmen with their savings and to provide loans. By 1874, the bank was in financial trouble and Douglass, despite infusing some of his own money, was not able to save it. Douglass returned to the lecture circuit, advocating further support and extension of civil rights, campaigning for Republicans, and introducing other topics that interested him, including Scandinavian folklore. He often encountered discrimination in restaurants and while lodging and using mass transportation, and always followed up with a letter of protest to local newspapers describing each incident.

After the Reconstruction era

When Rutherford B. Hayes (1822–1893; served 1877–81; see entry) became president in March 1877, he appointed Douglass as U.S. marshal of Washington, D.C., a first for an African American. He enjoyed working in city administration and purchased a 15-acre estate in the area. Douglass called it Cedar Hill and frequently entertained family members and friends. In 1881, Douglass was appointed recorder of deeds for Washington, D.C., by President James A. Garfield (1831– 1881; served 1881). Later that year, Douglass published The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, an expanded version of his autobiography.

Douglass's wife, Anna, died in 1882. Two years later, he married Helen Pitts, his secretary. Pitts was white, and the interracial marriage was controversial to many whites and African Americans. Douglass countered that his marriage was an example that the races could coexist peacefully. The couple went on a lengthy honeymoon in Europe. Douglass campaigned for the election of Benjamin Harrison (1833–1901; served 1889–93) in 1888 and was appointed minister and counsel general to Haiti when Harrison took office. Douglass left the position in 1891 and lived in semiretirement. He still spoke out on causes he believed in and emphasized the power of voting as a means for effective change. After giving a speech on February 20, 1895, at the National Council of Women, Douglass suffered a heart attack later that evening and died at the age of seventy-seven.

Mourners gathered at a church in Washington, D.C., where he lay in state, and black public schools closed for the day. Douglass's body was taken back to Rochester, where he was laid to rest.

For More Information


Blight, David W. Frederick Douglass' Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

Douglass, Frederick. Escape from Slavery. Edited by Michael McCurdy. New York: Knopf, 1994.

Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Hartford, CT: Park Publishing, 1881. Reprint, Grand Rapids, MI: Candace Press, 1996.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. New York: Miller, Orton and Mulligan, 1855. Reprint, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Boston: Anti-slavery Office, 1845. Reprint, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1997.

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

Russell, Sharman. Frederick Douglass. New York: Chelsea House, 1992.

Web Sites

Douglass, Frederick. "Reconstruction." The Atlantic Online. (accessed on July 19, 2004).

"Frederick Douglass." Afro-American Almanac: Biographies. (accessed on July 19, 2004).

The Frederick Douglass Museum & Cultural Center. (accessed on July 19, 2004).

Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. (accessed on July 19, 2004).

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Douglass, Frederick 1818-1895


Born into chattel slavery on February 14, 1818, in Tuckahoe on the eastern shores of Maryland, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, later known as Frederick Douglass, created in his time and for future generations one of the most remarkable personalities in American history. As a public figure, Douglass rose through the brutalities of slavery to become at the time of his death on February 20, 1895, the most famous black American in the world and black Americas foremost intellectual voice.

Douglasss preeminence in American history is gleaned from his direct contacts with the antebellum abolitionist leadership of William Lloyd Garrison (18051879), the suffragist leadership of Susan B. Anthony (18201906) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (18151902), the militancy of John Brown (18001859) and Martin Delany (18121885), his meetings with U.S. presidents from Abraham Lincoln (18091865) to James Garfield (18311881), and his government assignments as U.S. representative to the Dominican Republic and Haiti. However, there is a private side, of which too little is made, to Douglasss determination to engage the forces of evil, as he saw them, and to form alliances only when it was necessary for him to be heard by more people, read by more citizens, or at times, to present himself to another country, as he did on several occasions on his visits to the British Isles.

Douglass escaped from slavery in 1838. As his biographers have noted, in 1841 the former slave joined the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society under the leadership of Garrison, then leader of the radical wing of abolitionism and editor of the successful abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator. Douglass clearly modeled some of his behavior on Garrison. Both recognized the fiery spirit in each other, and both were orators connected by a passion to eliminate slavery. Through Garrisons group, Douglass earned money as a speaker, widened his circle of abolitionist acquaintances, and traveled to new places. The most compelling event in 1845 from an abolitionists perspective was the publication of Douglasss first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. Garrison, in fact, wrote the preface. Douglass later wrote My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and in 1881 he published Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, his final autobiography.

The Narrative made Douglass famous and started a long and distinguished career for this brave man, prolific writer, and articulate democratic voice. In page after page, he details the painful and violent experiences slaves faced as they were raped, murdered, bought, and sold away from their families. Douglass not only named the murdered, he named the murderers who went unpunished as well, thus providing graphic proof that no law protected slaves against these crimes. Furthermore, his writing critiqued the structure of authority by slicing through the rhetoric of the state to expose slaveholders, especially those professing religious faith, in their role as personal agents in a system of slavery allowed to exist simultaneously with the ideals of a free republic. The Narrative established him as a reliable and serious source for presenting any of the issues of his day requiring instruction and correction, most of them related to slavery.

By 1847, as the editor of the second black-owned newspaper in the United States, the North Star, Douglass had found that the uses of history enabled him to move back and forth between his private and public worlds. Douglasss use of history permitted him to speak about the signs of the times; it served, furthermore, to help him to judge civilizations behaviors for failing to subject the nations moral faults to critical reflection. In this way, Douglass used history to critique reason. For him, the realities of slavery placed the present and the future of the United States in an untenable position: The country could not survive if it remained both slave and free. The purpose of Douglasss legacy to America and to the world is to uphold the principle of freedom as an inalienable human right.

Although supportive of each other, Douglass and Garrison split over the issue of the Constitution as a document that supported the institution of slavery. As early as 1851, the relationship between the two became strained as Douglass, having studied the debate over the Constitution, rejected Garrisons position that the Constitution was proslavery, whereas Douglass gradually saw the document as having the potential to eradicate slavery. Biographers have portrayed the breakup in Freudian terms as Douglasss rejection of Garrison as a father figure and his search for his own identity. It is also important to note that freedom for Douglass encompassed a deep, multilayered view of the self that had more to do with being self-made than with being a collaborator. His understanding of the Constitution, ultimately, had less to do with what Garrison asserted than with what Douglass realized through his own complex social and historical understanding of the place of all humankind, black and white, male and female, in a democratic social order.

Having been a slave, Douglass instinctively understood the political rights of women. Their demand for equal citizenship and the right to vote found him using his considerable oratorical gifts and intellect on their behalf. As one of the few men to attend the 1848 convention on the rights of women in Seneca Falls, New York, the editor of the North Star added to the masthead of the paper his now-famous conviction, formed at this political gathering: Right is of no sex; truth is of no color; God is the father of us all and we are all brethren. He understood that the criticisms leveled against women in their pursuit of freedom against male supremacy were the very same arguments used against the freeing of slaves. While his dedication to womens political rights never wavered, Douglass did not always support the feminist leadership of Anthony and Stanton. They all supported civil war, but differed on other questions; for example, Douglass supported the Fifteenth Amendment giving black men the right to vote. Anthony and Stanton did not support this amendment because it did not offer the same rights to women.

In 1882 Frederick Douglass, now sixty-four-years old and known as the sage of Anacostia after the Washington, D.C., neighborhood where he lived, buried Anna Murray Douglass, his wife of forty-five years, who had long suffered from rheumatism. It was a considerable shock to the world when in 1884 he married Helen Pitts, forty-six, a white woman from a New York abolitionist family with deep roots in radical politics. The interracial marriage eliminated any distinction between private and public worlds: It clashed with social norms. Most whites and blacks, particularly members of the couples own families, looked upon the marriage as a violation, and neither family fully embraced them. Nevertheless, Douglass and Pitts lived happily and traveled to the great cities of Europe and to Egypt. After his death, and in the face of opposition from his children, she lectured and secured donations to preserve Cedar Hill, their home in Anacostia. The couple is buried in the family plot in Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York.

SEE ALSO Slavery


McFeely, William. 1991. Frederick Douglass. New York: Norton.

Quarles, Benjamin. [1948] 1968. Frederick Douglass. New York: Atheneum.

C. James Trotman

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Douglass, Frederick

February 1817?
February 20, 1895

Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey to Harriet Bailey, a slave, and an unacknowledged father (perhaps his master, Aaron Anthony) in Tuckahoe, Maryland, abolitionist, journalist, orator, and social reformer Frederick Douglasshe assumed this name in 1838 when he escaped north to freedomsoon became the most famous African American of the nineteenth century. Separated from his family while young, he was a personal slave to several whites during his formative years. Consequently, at an early age he learned self-reliance and began honing the arts of survival. At the same time, he found a sense of belonging through his relationships with various families and individuals, white and black, who liked and encouraged the bright and precocious youth. Ultimately, the lure of freedom and equality proved irresistible and propelled him on an extraordinary journey of both individual achievement and service to his people and his nation.

Taken in 1826 to Baltimorewhere, as an urban slave, he could expand his horizons greatlyDouglass taught himself how to read and write with the witting and unwitting assistance of many around him. Similarly, this more open urban environment, with its large and expanding free African-American population, further whetted his desire to learn as much as possible about freedom, including runaway slaves and the abolitionist movement.

Around the age of thirteen, Douglass converted to Christianity, but over time he became increasingly disillusioned with a religious establishment that compromised with and supported evil and injustice, especially slavery and racial prejudice and discrimination. Also around that age, he purchased his first book, The Columbian Orator, which deepened not only his understanding of liberty and equality but also the enormous power of rhetoric, as well as literacy. Indeed, throughout his life he firmly believed in the power of the written and spoken word to capture and to change reality.

As a rapidly maturing eighteen-year-old developing spiritually and intellectually as well as physically, he revealed an intensifying longing to be free that led him to plan an unsuccessful runaway scheme with several fellow slaves. Several months previously he had fought and defeated Covey, the "Negro breaker"one versed in subduing unruly slavesanother sign of the depth of that longing. He later portrayed his triumph over Covey as a turning point in his struggle to become a free man. With the aid of Anna Murray, a free African-American woman in Baltimore with whom he had fallen in love, he escaped to freedom. They moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts (1838); Lynn, Massachusetts (1841); Rochester, New York (1847); and Washington, D.C. (1872).

In the North Douglass found it very hard to make a living as a caulker because of racial discrimination, and he often had to resort to menial jobs. Anna worked hard as well, creating a comfortable domestic niche for a family that eventually included five children: Rosetta, Lewis Henry, Frederick Jr., Charles Remond, and Annie. Frederick's speeches within the local black communities brought him to the attention of the mostly white abolitionists allied with William Lloyd Garrison, and in 1841 they asked him to join them as a lecturer. An increasingly powerful lecturer and draw for the Garrisonian Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, Douglass learned a great deal from his work with such people as Garrison and Wendell Phillips. Most importantly, he adopted their pacifism and moral suasionist approach to ending slavery and was deeply influenced by their interrelated perfectionism and social reformism. As a good Garrisonian he argued for disunion and rejected the political approach to ending slavery as a compromise with a proslavery constitution.

Douglass also began to come into his own as an activist and a thinker. Drawing upon his experiences as a slave, he lambasted slavery and its notorious effects, most notably antiblack prejudice and discrimination in both North and South. As the living embodiment of a small measure of success in the enormous struggle against slavery, he spoke eloquently with uncommon authority. In 1845 his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave was published, and its huge success, followed by a successful speaking tour of Great Britain, heightened his celebrity immeasurably. Ever conscious of his public persona and his historical image, he carefully crafted both. My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881; revised 1892), fuller autobiographies, were likewise crucial in this regard.

Douglass's stirring narrative and equally stirring oratory derived much of their power and authenticity from his deep-seated engagement with the plethora of issues confronting blacks north and south, free and slave. His strong involvement in the national Negro convention

movement, as well as with various state and local black conferences, furthered his impact and by 1850 made him the principal spokesman for his race. His fierce commitment to egalitarianism, freedom, and justice similarly led him to embrace the women's-rights movement, notably women's suffrage, and to become one of the most important male feminists of the nineteenth century. He attended the first Women's Rights Convention, in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848; on the day of his death, February 20, 1895, he had earlier attended a meeting of the National Council of Women.

Shortly after his return from Great Britain in 1847, Douglass embarked upon a distinguished career in journalism. He edited the North Star (18471851), Frederick Douglass' Paper (18511860), Douglass' Monthly (18591863), and, for a time, the New National Era (18701874). Complementing the other aspects of his varied public voice and extending its reach and influence, Douglass's work as a journalist furthered his use of the printed word as a tool for agitation and change. Stressing self-reliance, hard work, perseverance, education, and morality, Douglass exemplified the embrace by many African Americans of middle-class values and the American success ethic. Likewise, invoking America's revolutionary tradition, he emphasized the imperative of full black liberation within the confines of the American nation. After 1851, when he formally broke with the Garrisonians and accepted political action against slavery as viable and necessary, he became more politically engaged. By the outbreak of the Civil War, he supported the Republican Party.

The tumultuous events of the 1850s convinced Douglass, like untold numbers of his compatriots, that war was unavoidable, the Union cause just, and slave emancipation inevitable. He urged his audience, most notably President Abraham Lincoln, to further ennoble the Union cause by accepting black troops into the Union army and treating them fairly. He exhorted his people to support fully the Union cause and to struggle ceaselessly to ensure that Union victory would mean emancipation and the necessary conditions for black progress. His often arduous efforts to recruit black Union troops, who braved strong white hostility and mistreatment, showed him grappling intensely with the central and complex issue of African-American identity. African Americans, he cogently argued, honored their group as well as national heritage and mission through vigorous support of an abolitionist Union cause.

Douglass emerged from the war even more widely known and respected. He continued to urge his nation to deal justly and fairly with his people, even after the nation reneged on its insufficient and short-lived efforts to do so during Reconstruction. While many blacks questioned his continuing allegiance to the Republican Party, Douglass valiantlyalbeit unsuccessfullyendeavored to help the party rediscover its humanistic and moral moorings. Appointed to serve as the United States marshal for the District of Columbia (18771881), recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia (18811886), and chargé d'affaires for Santo Domingo and minister to Haiti (18891891), he remained a stalwart Republican.

Frederick Douglass

"This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn, to drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman and sacrilegious irony."

"what to the slave is the fourth of july" speech, rochester, new york, july 5, 1852.

Over the years Douglass's status as a comfortable middle-class elder statesman tended on occasion to blind

him to the harsh conditions confronting rural, impoverished, and migrant blacks. Still, as in his fiery condemnation of the alarming growth in the number of lynchings of black men in the 1880s and 1890s (often upon the false accusation of an attack on a white woman), it was clear that his commitment to justice never wavered. Likewise, while many women's-rights advocates criticized him for supporting the Fifteenth Amendment, which failed to enfranchise women as it enfranchised black men, Douglass contended that the greater urgency of the black male need for the vote and its greater likelihood of passage made support imperative. After its passage he continued his efforts on behalf of women's rights and sought to heal the rift within the movement.

When Douglass married Helen Pitts, his white secretary, in January 1884, a year and a half after the death of his first wife, they endured much criticism from many blacks and whites, including close family members. Nonetheless, Douglass, the quintessential humanist, steadfastly articulated his commitment to a composite American nationality, transcending race, as an integral component of his vision of a democratic and egalitarian country. When others criticized him for a lack of race spirit, Douglass, refusing to be imprisoned within a racialist universe, claimed ultimate allegiance to the human race.

Yet Douglass also fully understood and vividly personified his people's struggle from slavery to freedom, from obscurity and poverty to recognition and respectability. His enduring legacy to his people and all Americans is best captured in his lifelong and profound dedication to the imperative of agitation and concerted action: "If there is no struggle," he declared, "there is no progress."

See also Abolition; Free Blacks, 1619-1860


Andrews, William L., ed. Critical Essays on Frederick Douglass. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991.

Blassingame, John W., et al., eds. The Frederick Douglass Papers. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979.

Blight, David W. Frederick Douglass' Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: Written by Himself (1892). New York: Crowell, 1962.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1845). New York, 1968.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). New York: Arno Press, 1969.

Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. 5 vols. New York, 1975.

Martin, Waldo E., Jr. The Mind of Frederick Douglass. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Martin, Waldo E., Jr. "Frederick Douglass: Humanist as Race Leader." In Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century, edited by Leon Litwack and August Meier, pp. 5984. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass. New York: Norton, 1990.

Preston, Dickson J. Young Frederick Douglass: The Maryland Years. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

Quarles, Benjamin. Frederick Douglass (1948). Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968.

Russell, Sharman Apt. Frederick Douglass: Abolitionist Editor. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1987.

Sundquist, Eric J., ed. Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

waldo e. martin jr. (1996)
Updated bibliography

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Frederick Douglass

Excerpt from "The American Apocalypse"
Speech delivered in Rochester, New York, on June 16, 1861

An abolitionist argues that a Union
with slavery is not worth saving

"For the statesman of this hour to permit any settlement of the present war between slavery and freedom, which will leave untouched and undestroyed the relation of master and slave, would not only be a great crime, but a great mistake, the bitter fruit of which would poison the life blood of unborn generations."

When the Civil War began in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) and many other people in the North claimed that the conflict was not about slavery. Instead, they said that the North was fighting in order to preserve the United States as one nation. "My paramount [primary] aim in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery," Lincoln stated. "If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that."

Lincoln chose preserving the Union as his primary war aim partly for political reasons. He did not want to risk losing the support of the four "border" states—Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri—that allowed slavery but remained loyal to the United States. Another reason that people claimed the war was not about slavery was widespread racism. Even in the North, many white people believed that they were superior to blacks. Therefore, they did not feel strongly about ending slavery.

In reality, the dispute between the North and the South involved a number of different issues, including the question of how much power should be granted to the individual states and how much should be held by the federal government. But slavery was the one issue upon which the two sides could not compromise. When the Southern states seceded from (left) the Union, they made it clear that their main goal was to defend their way of life, which depended on the "peculiar institution" of slavery. For this reason, Northern abolitionists (people who worked to put an end to slavery) and free blacks argued that the real issue behind the war was slavery. They did not believe that Lincoln could preserve the Union without destroying slavery. They wanted Northern political leaders to make abolishing slavery the main purpose of the Civil War.

Frederick Douglass (c. 1818–1895) was one of the leaders in the debate over the North's war aims. Douglass had escaped from slavery in 1838. Over the next few years, he became a prominent member of the abolitionist movement. He wrote many books and articles, and spoke about his experiences as a slave throughout the North and in Europe. "He stood before packed auditoriums and testified [declared] as to what it was like to be a slave in America," Louis P. Masur wrote in The Real War Will Never Get in the Books: Selections from Writers during the Civil War. "He stood before huge congregations and pleaded for equality and justice for the black race."

As soon as the war started, Douglass began criticizing Lincoln's war policies. He pressured the president to make emancipation (granting freedom from slavery or oppression) the North's main priority in the war. In one editorial, Douglass argued that by fighting about secession rather than slavery, "we strike at the effect, and leave the cause unharmed." The following excerpt comes from one of many speeches Douglass made shortly after the start of the Civil War. He outlines some of the negative effects slavery had on the basic principles of the country, and argues that the Union is not worth saving if it allows slavery.

Things to remember while reading Frederick Douglass's "American Apocalypse" speech:

  • • At the time Douglass became famous as a writer and speaker, many white people believed that black people were inferior. They created a stereotype (an overly simplified concept or belief about a group of people) of black people as uneducated and unable to express intelligent thoughts or opinions. But when they were exposed to the speeches and writings of black people like Frederick Douglass, many whites were forced to admit that those beliefs were wrong.
  • • Before the Civil War started, supporters of slavery in the Southern states took many steps to ensure that the institution would continue to exist in the United States. For example, they pushed to extend slavery to new states and territories in the West. In this way, they hoped to gain proslavery representatives in the U.S. Congress so that no new antislavery laws would be passed. Many Southern states also banned (prohibited) the sale of written materials that opposed slavery, such as the famous novel Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896). Douglass mentions some of these Southern tactics (methods) in his speech. He argues that these measures are inconsistent with the values set forth in the Constitution. He claims that the Southerners will erode the basic freedoms of all Americans if they are not stopped. "Freedom of the speech, of the press, of education, of labor, of locomotion, and indeed all kinds of freedom, are felt to be a standing menace [threat] to slavery," he explains. Since Douglass believed that slavery was poisoning the country, he felt that the only way to save the Union was to abolish slavery.

Excerpt from "The American Apocalypse" speech by Frederick Douglass

Slavery, like all other gross and powerful forms of wrong which appear directly to human pride and selfishness, when once admitted into the framework of society, has the ability and tendency to beget a character in the whole network of society surrounding it, favorable to its continuance. The very law of its existence is growth and dominion. Natural and harmonious relations easily repose in their own rectitude, while all such as are false and unnatural are conscious of their own weakness, and must seek strength fromwithout. Hence the explanation of the uneasy, restless, eager anxiety of slaveholders. Our history shows that from the formation of this Government, until the attempt now making to break it up, this class of men have been constantly pushing schemes for the safety and supremacy of their own class system. They have had marvelous success. They have completely destroyed freedom in the slave States, and were doing their best to accomplish the same in the free States. He is a very imperfect reasoner who attributes the steady rise and ascendancy of slavery to anything else than the nature of slavery itself. Truth may repose upon its inherent strength, but a falsehood rests for support upon external props. Slavery is the most stupendous of all lies, and depends for existence upon a favorable adjustment of all its surroundings. Freedom of the speech, of the press, of education, of labor, of locomotion, and indeed all kinds of freedom, are felt to be a standing menace to slavery. Hence, the friends of slavery are bounded by the necessity of their system to do just what the history of the country shows they have done—that is, to seek to subvert all liberty, and to prevent all the safeguards of human rights. They could not do otherwise. It was the controlling law of their situation.

Now, if these views be sound, and are borne out by the whole history of American slavery, then for the statesman of this hour to permit any settlement of the present war between slavery and freedom, which will leave untouched and undestroyed the relation of master and slave, would not only be a great crime, but a great mistake, the bitter fruit of which would poison the life blood of unborn generations. No grander opportunity was ever given to any nation to signalize, either its justice and humanity, or its intelligence and statesmanship, than is now given to the loyal American people. We are brought to a point in our National career where two roads meet and divert. It is the critical moment for us. The destiny of the mightiest Republic in the modern world hangs upon the decision of that hour. If our Government shall have the wisdom to see, and the nerve to act, we are safe. If it fails, we perish, and go to our own place with those nations of antiquity long blotted from the maps of the world. I have only one voice, and that is neither loud nor strong. I speak to but few, and have little influence; but whatever I am or may be, I may, at such a time as this, in the name of justice, liberty and humanity, and in that of the permanent security and welfare of the whole nation, urge all men, and especially the Government, to the abolition of slavery. Not a slave should be left a slave in the returning footprints of the American army gone to put down thisslaveholding rebellion. Sound policy, not less than humanity, demands the instant liberation of every slave in the rebel States.

What happened next . . .

The North's war aims gradually changed to include freeing the slaves as well as restoring the Union. Although the arguments made by Douglass and other abolitionists helped make this change possible, other factors were probably more important. For example, Lincoln and other Northern leaders came to see the practical, military benefits that they could gain through emancipation. The Confederate Army used slaves to perform hard labor during the war. The slaves built forts and dug trenches, transported artillery and unloaded shipments of arms, and set up army camps and acted as cooks and servants for the soldiers. Slave labor gave the South an advantage by enabling more white men to join the fight. Northern leaders began to realize that freeing the slaves would help the Union win the war.

Once the Civil War began, thousands of slaves took the opportunity to escape from the South. They came into Union Army camps and served as laborers, scouts, and spies for the Northern war effort. Union officials developed a policy that allowed the army to take away any Southern property that was used in the Confederate war effort as "contraband of war." Since slaves were considered property in the South, escaped slaves were allowed to remain in the North. In August 1861, the U.S. Congress passed the first of two Confiscation Acts, which made the contraband policy into law. President Lincoln finally freed the slaves on January 1, 1863, with his Emancipation Proclamation.

Frederick Douglass remained outspoken during the remainder of the Civil War. Once freeing the slaves became a Northern war aim, he argued that black men should be allowed to join the Union Army and fight for the liberation of their race. After the Union Army accepted black soldiers in 1862, Douglass took a leading role in convincing free blacks in the North to volunteer. In fact, two of his sons served in the famous Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts regiment. When black soldiers faced discrimination in the army, Douglass helped them get paid the same wages as white soldiers of the same rank. After the war ended, he continued fighting for blacks to receive equal rights in American society. "In many ways [Douglass] was the conscience of the nation," according to William C. Davis, Brian C. Pohanka, and Don Troiani in Civil War Journal: The Leaders. "He kept before the country the idea that this was a war, not just to bring the nation back together, but it was a war to end slavery, to bring equality to black people, and to make them part of American society."

Did you know . . .

  • • Learning to read and write gave Douglass the means to escape slavery. As a boy, he lived on a Maryland plantation owned by Hugh Auld. Auld's wife taught Douglass to read from the Bible. "From that moment I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom," he recalled. "It was just what I wanted and I got it at a time when I least expected it." Later, Douglass tricked the white children of the plantation into sharing their books and homework assignments with him. Most Southern whites made every effort to prevent slaves from obtaining an education. They believed that uneducated slaves would calmly accept their condition. They worried that slaves who learned to read would gain a greater awareness of the world around them and become dissatisfied with their lives. Douglass eventually turned his writing and speaking ability into a career as a prominent abolitionist. Throughout his life, he always maintained that other black men and women could achieve great things if they were given education and opportunity.
  • • After escaping from slavery in 1838, Douglass became interested in the growing abolitionist movement. In 1841, he went to hear famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879) speak in Nantucket, Massachusetts. When Garrison learned that there was a fugitive slave in the audience, he asked Douglass to say a few words. Douglass kept the audience on the edge of their seats for two hours telling stories about his life as a slave. He became an overnight sensation in the antislavery movement. "The public had itching ears to hear a colored man speak and particularly a slave," one abolitionist stated.
  • • As Douglass became famous as an abolitionist writer and speaker, his life became more dangerous. He was still a fugitive slave. His former master knew where he was and could send a slave catcher after him at any time. To avoid returning to slavery, Douglass went to England—where slavery was outlawed—in 1845. While he was there, his friends in the United States arranged to purchase him from his owner. He thus returned to the United States two years later as a free man.

For Further Reading

Blight, David W. Frederick Douglass' Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

Friedheim, William. Freedom's Unfinished Revolution: An Inquiry into theCivil War and Reconstruction. New York: New Press, 1996.

Harding, Vincent. There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America. New York: Harcourt, 1981.

Huggins, Nathan. Slave and Citizen: The Life of Frederick Douglass. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980.

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

McPherson, James M. The Negro's Civil War: How American Negroes Felt and Acted During the War for the Union. New York: Pantheon, 1965. Reprint, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.

Harriet Tubman: The Nation Must Kill Slavery before Slavery Kills the Nation

Harriet Tubman (1820–1913) was a fugitive slave who helped other slaves gain their freedom through the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad was not actually a railroad. It was a secret network of abolitionists who helped slaves escape from their masters and settle in the Northern United States and Canada. The Underground Railroad system consisted of a chain of homes and barns known as "safe houses" or "depots." The people who helped the runaway slaves go from one safe house to the next were known as "conductors." Tubman made nineteen dangerous trips into slave territory as a conductor and helped more than three hundred slaves gain their freedom.

Like Frederick Douglass, Tubman believed that slavery harmed the entire United States. She thought that the only way for the North to win the war and preserve the Union was to abolish slavery. In the following passage, Tubman uses an animal story to express her feelings about President Lincoln's war policies. The snake represents slavery, and the person bitten by the snake represents the Union. Through the story, Tubman shows that slavery has caused dangerous problems for the nation in the past, and will continue to do so unless it is wiped out.

God won't let Master Lincoln beat the South until he does the right thing. Master Lincoln, he's a great man, and I'm a poor Negro, but this Negro can tell Master Lincoln how to save money and young men. He can do it by setting the Negroes free. Suppose there was an awful big snake down there on the floor. He bites you. Folks all scared, because you may die. You send for the doctor to cut the bite; but the snake is rolled up there, and while doctor is doing it, he bites you again. The doctor cuts out that bite; but while he's doing it, the snake springs up and bites you again, and so he keeps doing it, till you kill him. That's what Master Lincoln ought to know.

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Frederick Douglass

Born February 1818?
Tolbert County, Maryland
Died February 20, 1895
Washington, D.C.

Abolitionist, writer, and speaker
Escaped from slavery to become one of the most
prominent activists in the antislavery movement

Frederick Douglass began his life as a slave. After escaping to the North in 1838, Douglass became a leading figure in the fight to abolish (put an end to) slavery in the United States and gain equal rights for black Americans. He was an accomplished writer and speaker who used the power of words to convince people that slavery was wrong. He was one of the country's first great black leaders.

Born a slave

Frederick Douglass was born in Tolbert County, in eastern Maryland, around 1818. He never knew the exact date of his birth because he was born a slave. Black people were taken from Africa and brought to North America to serve as slaves for white people beginning in the 1600s. The basic belief behind slavery was that black people were inferior to whites. Under slavery, white slaveholders treated black people as property, forced them to perform hard labor, and controlled every aspect of their lives. States in the Northern half of the United States began outlawing slavery in the late 1700s. But slavery continued to exist in the Southern half of the country because it played an important role in the South's economy and culture.

Most slave owners tried to prevent their slaves from learning much about themselves or the world around them. They believed that educated slaves would be more likely to become dissatisfied with their lives. For this reason, Douglass received no information about his birth. "By far the larger part of slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs," he explained, "and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant." Douglass knew who his mother was, but she lived on a different plantation (a large farming estate). He did not know the identity of his father, but he suspected that it was Aaron Anthony, the white master of the plantation where he lived. His last name was originally Bailey, but he changed it to Douglass after he escaped from slavery.

Douglass spent his early years under the care of his grandmother. He had a relatively pleasant childhood—often playing with other children along the banks of nearby Tuckahoe Creek—until he was six years old. At that time, he was assigned to be the personal slave of the plantation owner's child. He was required to perform certain duties each day. Whenever he misbehaved or failed to perform his duties, he was punished severely. He also saw other slaves treated cruelly, including his Aunt Hester, who was tied up and beaten for disobedience. "Her arms were stretched up at their full length so that she stood upon the ends of her toes," he recalled. "[The master] then said to her, 'Now you damned bitch, I'll learn you how to disobey my orders.' And soon the warm, red blood came dripping to the floor."

Learns to read

A few years later, Douglass was sold to a new owner, Hugh Auld, and went to live on a different plantation. Auld's wife taught him to read the Bible, even though educating slaves was frowned upon in the South. Douglass soon realized that education would provide him with a means to escape slavery. He continued learning by tricking the white children of the plantation into sharing their books and homework assignments with him. At the age of fifteen, Douglass was sent to the city of Baltimore to become a laborer. He learned a trade in the shipbuilding industry—how to use a gooey substance called caulk to seal the parts of a boat together and make them watertight. His owner rented him out to shipbuilding companies and received payment for the work he did. During his time working on the docks in Baltimore, Douglass saw boatloads of slaves being transported around the country. "I've seen men and women chained and put on a ship to go to New Orleans and I still hear their cries," he noted.

Escapes to freedom

Douglass managed to save some money over the next few years and bought his first book, a collection of famous speeches. He memorized all of the speeches in the book and practiced reciting them. He also came into contact with a network of free black people during this time. Not all black people in the United States were slaves in the early 1800s. Some former slaves were set free when their white owners died or no longer needed their services. Other former slaves saved money and purchased their freedom from their owners. When free blacks had children, the children were also free. In contrast, slaves who escaped from their owners were not legally free. Although some fugitive slaves lived on their own in places where slavery was not allowed, they risked being captured and returned to slavery at any time.

One of the free blacks Douglass met in Baltimore was Anna Murray. They fell in love, and she encouraged him to try to escape from slavery. In 1838, Murray sold a poster bed and gave Douglass the money so that he could travel to a Northern state where slavery was not allowed. The journey would be dangerous, since Southern states placed restrictions on black people's travel in order to prevent slaves from escaping. Douglass obtained papers that enabled him to pass as a sailor. Many slaves were hired out as sailors in those days, and they frequently traveled from port to port. Posing as a sailor, Douglass took a train north to Delaware, then caught a ship to Pennsylvania (a free state). Once he had reached the North, he continued on to New York, where he met and married Murray. The couple then moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Douglass worked several jobs as a laborer.

Joins the abolitionist movement

Shortly after he escaped to the North, Douglass learned about the abolitionist movement. Abolitionists were people who dedicated themselves to fighting against slavery. One of the most vocal abolitionists was William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879), who published a newspaper called The Liberator. "The Liberator became my meat and my drink," Douglass recalled. "My soul was set all on fire. Its sympathy for my brethren [brothers] in bonds, its faithful exposures of slavery, and its powerful attacks on the institution sent a thrill of joy through my soul such as I had never felt before."

In 1841, Douglass attended a meeting of Garrison's abolitionist group, the American Anti-Slavery Society, in Nantucket, Massachusetts. Upon hearing that there was an escaped slave in the audience, Garrison asked him to say a few words. Douglass kept the audience on the edge of their seats for two hours with stories about what it was like to be a slave. "I stand before you this night as a thief and a robber," he told them. "I stole this head, these limbs, this body from my master and ran off with them." Before long, Douglass began touring the country speaking at abolitionist meetings.

In 1845, Douglass wrote a book about his experiences as a slave, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. It was popular among people who opposed slavery and sold thirty thousand copies over the next five years. Since the book was so well written, some people doubted that a former slave could have written it. But these people became convinced as soon as they heard Douglass speak. Douglass's success as an antislavery writer and speaker helped him bring his message to large numbers of people. But as he grew more famous, his life also became more dangerous. After all, Douglass was still a fugitive slave. His master knew where he was and could send a slave catcher to capture him and return him to the South at any time.

To protect himself from returning to slavery, Douglass went to England (where slavery was not allowed) in 1845. While he was there, his abolitionist friends collected money to buy his freedom from his owner. Douglass returned to the United States in 1847 as a free man. He then settled in Rochester, New York, and began publishing a newspaper called The North Star. He chose the title because fugitive slaves often used The North Star to guide them as they escaped to the North.

Black spokesman during the Civil War

Douglass and his family—which grew to include five children—lived a comfortable life during the 1850s. But this was a time of great political tension in the United States. For years, the North and the South had been arguing over several issues, including slavery. Thanks to the efforts of Douglass and other abolitionists, growing numbers of Northerners believed that slavery was wrong. Some people wanted to outlaw it, while others wanted to prevent it from spreading beyond the Southern states where it was already allowed. But slavery played a big role in the Southern economy and culture. As a result, many Southerners felt threatened by Northern efforts to contain slavery. They believed that each state should decide for itself whether to allow slavery. They did not want the national government to pass laws that would interfere with their traditional way of life.

By 1861, this ongoing dispute had convinced several Southern states to secede from (leave) the United States and attempt to form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America. But Northern political leaders were determined to keep the Southern states in the Union. The two sides soon went to war. Douglass was glad to see the Civil War begin because he believed it would result in the abolition of slavery. From the start of the war, he pressured President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; see entry) to make emancipation (granting freedom from slavery or oppression) the North's main priority. "This war with the slave-holders can never be brought to a desirable termination [end] until slavery, the guilty cause of all our national troubles, has been totally and forever abolished," he stated.

Douglass also argued that black men should be allowed to serve as soldiers in the Union Army. When the government finally accepted this idea in late 1862, Douglass became an active and effective recruiter of black soldiers. He spoke to crowds of free black men across the North to convince them to join the fight for freedom of their race. "I urge you to fly to arms and smite [strike] with death the power that would bury the government and your liberty in the same hopeless grave," he said. "He who would be free, themselves must strike the blow." Two of his first recruits were his own sons, Charles and Lewis, who joined the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts regiment. By the end of the Civil War, two hundred thousand black men had served the Union. They made up about 10 percent of the Union forces, fought in every major battle in the last two years of the conflict, and helped ensure victory for the North.

Holds government posts after the war

Douglass was recognized as one of the most important black leaders in the United States by the time the Civil War ended in 1865. His speaking and publishing ventures had made him quite wealthy. He bought a nice home outside of Washington, D.C., overlooking the Anacostia River. He accepted several high-profile government jobs during the postwar years, including marshal of the District of Columbia and U.S. minister to the Caribbean nation of Haiti.

In 1882, Douglass published the third and final volume of his life story, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. In 1883, his wife of forty-four years passed away. Douglass took his wife's death very hard and seemed to have a nervous breakdown. But he managed to overcome his grief and dedicated himself once again to gaining equal rights for Americans. He wrote and spoke about the importance of helping freed slaves and the value of granting women the right to vote.

In 1884, Douglass created a stir by remarrying. His new wife, Helen Pitts, was a white woman, twenty years younger than him, who had worked as a secretary in his office. The controversy surrounding his marriage troubled Douglass. He felt that by marrying a white woman, he helped prove that whites and blacks could live together as equals. But some people, including his children, resented it. The episode showed that America still held racial prejudices, and that Douglass still refused to be bound by them.

Douglass suffered a stroke on February 20, 1895, and died at the age of seventy-eight. He rose from slavery to become one of the greatest speakers and activists of his time. He committed his life to attaining freedom and equality for all people. He never stopped trying to make the United States live up to the values of liberty and justice outlined in the Constitution. "He had an enormous ability to capture in words the meaning of what America is about—freedom," William C. Davis, Brian C. Pohanka, and Don Troiani concluded in Civil War Journal: The Leaders.

Where to Learn More

Blight, David W. Frederick Douglass' Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

Davis, William C., Brian C. Pohanka, and Don Troiani. Civil War Journal: The Leaders. Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 1997.

Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Hartford, CT, Park Publishing, 1881. Reprint, Grand Rapids, MI: Candace Press, 1996.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. New York: Miller, Orton and Mulligan, 1855. Reprint, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Boston: Anti-slavery Office, 1845. Reprint, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1997.

Frederick Douglass Museum & Cultural Center. [Online] (accessed on October 9, 1999).

Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. [Online] (accessed on October 9, 1999).

Frederick Douglass Papers. [Online] (accessed on October 9, 1999).

Huggins, Nathan. Slave and Citizen: The Life of Frederick Douglass. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980.

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

Russell, Sharman. Frederick Douglass. New York: Chelsea House, 1992.

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A very influential African American leader of the nineteenth century, Frederick Douglass used his exceptional skills as an orator, writer, journalist, and politician to fight for the abolition of slavery and for an end to racial discrimination. He helped to shape the climate of public opinion that led to the ratification of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which were created in large measure to protect, respectively, the freedom, citizenship, and voting rights of ex-slaves. His Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) is a classic account of the dehumanizing effects of slavery for slave and slaveholder alike.

According to his own calculations, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born in February 1817, on a plantation west of the Tuckahoe River in Talbot County, Maryland. (As an adult, he celebrated his birthday on February 14.) His mother was a black slave, and his father most likely her white owner. Douglass was separated from his mother at an early age, and at age 7 he was sent to Baltimore to work for a family. He later regarded this change from the plantation to the city as a great stroke of fortune because in Baltimore he was able to begin educating himself. His master's wife taught him the alphabet, and Douglass, under the tutelage of young boys on the streets and docks, proceeded to teach himself how to read and write. Even when he was very young, his limited reading convinced him of the evils of slavery and the need to seek his freedom.

Douglass continued to suffer under slavery. At times during the 1830s, he was sent back to the plantation to endure its scourges, including beatings and whippings. He briefly attempted to teach fellow slaves to read and write, but his efforts were quickly put to an end by whites.

In 1838, living again in Baltimore and caulking ships, Douglass escaped north and won his freedom. He married a free African American woman, Anna Murray, and settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts. By then a fugitive slave, he changed his name to Frederick Douglass in order to avoid capture. Douglass quickly became a respected member of the community in New Bedford. However, he was disappointed to find that racism was prevalent in the North as well as in the South.

Shortly after his arrival in the North, Douglass became an avid reader of the Liberator, a newspaper published by a leading abolitionist, william lloyd garrison. He became involved in abolitionist campaigns and soon earned a reputation as an eloquent speaker for the cause. In 1841, he met Garrison and was recruited to speak for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Throughout his life, he would travel all over the United States on speaking engagements, becoming a famous and sought-after orator.

"No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck."
—Frederick Douglass

In part to refute those who did not believe that someone as eloquent as he had once been a slave, Douglass published Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 1845. The book became a bestseller and made Douglass into a celebrity. It also made known his status as a fugitive slave, and he was forced to flee to the British Isles for safety in 1845. During his travels, he was greatly impressed by the relative lack of racism in Ireland, England, and Scotland. English friends purchased his legal freedom in 1846, paying his old master $711.66.

Upon his return to the States in 1847, Douglass settled in Rochester, New York, and founded his own abolitionist newspaper, the North Star. In its pages, he published writers and focused on achievements. He also wrote highly influential editorials for the paper. Douglass published a series of newspapers, including Frederick Douglass' Weekly, until 1863.

Douglass continued to lecture widely and became sympathetic to other reformist causes of the day, including the temperance, peace, and feminist movements. By the 1850s and 1860s, he increasingly came to doubt that slavery could be ended by peaceful means. He became friends with the militant abolitionist john brown, although he did not join Brown in his ill-fated 1859 military campaign against slavery at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

During the Civil War (1861–65), Douglass fought hard to make the abolition of slavery a Union goal, and he also lobbied for the enlistment of blacks into the Union armed forces. In public speeches and even in private meetings with President abraham lincoln, Douglass made his case forcefully. Aided by rising sentiment against slavery in the North, both of Douglass's goals became a reality. Lincoln's 1863 emancipation proclamation sent a strong signal that the North would seek the abolition of slavery in the South, and in 1865, the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution formally ended the institution of slavery in the United States. By the end of the war, nearly 200,000 African Americans had enlisted in the Union armed forces. Douglass personally helped to enlist men for the Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Colored Regiments and served as a leading advocate for the equal treatment of African Americans in the military.

After the Thirteenth Amendment had been ratified in 1865, some abolitionists pronounced their work finished. Douglass argued that much more remained to be done, and he continued to struggle for the rights of blacks. He called for voting rights for blacks, the repeal of racially discriminatory laws, and the redistribution of land in the South. Although disappointed that land redistribution was never achieved, he was encouraged by the passage of the Fourteenth (1868) and Fifteenth (1870) Amendments, which, respectively, protected against the infringement of constitutional rights by the states and established the right of all citizens to vote.

Although these constitutional amendments appeared to guarantee the civil rights of blacks, the actual laws and practices of states and localities continued to discriminate against blacks. Blacks were also harassed by violence from private groups. The ku klux klan waged a campaign of terror against those who sought to exercise their civil rights, and white lynch mobs killed hundreds of men each year. Douglass spoke out against these forms of terrorism and called for federal laws against lynching.

Douglass was a loyal spokesman for the republican party and vigorously campaigned for its candidates. His support helped to gain hundreds of thousands of black votes for

Republicans. As a result of such work, several Republican presidents rewarded him with political offices. In 1871, President ulysses s. grant named him assistant secretary to the Santo Domingo Commission. Later, Republican presidents appointed him marshal (1877–81) and recorder of deeds (1881–86) for the District of Columbia. In 1888, President benjamin harrison appointed Douglass minister resident and consul general to Haiti, the first free black republic in the Western Hemisphere. He resigned the position in 1891 over policy differences with the Harrison administration. Although such positions did not afford Douglass great political power in themselves, they provided a comfortable living as well as some recognition for his significant contributions to the public life of the country.

Douglass was also the first African American ever to be nominated for the vice presidency. He declined the nomination, which had come from the little known Equal Rights Party in 1872.

Until the end of his life, Douglass continued to lecture and write for the cause of freedom. He died on February 20, 1895, in Washington, D.C., after attending a meeting of the National Council of Women.

further readings

Chesnutt, Charles. 2002. Frederick Douglass. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover.

Douglass, Frederick. 2003. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: His Early Life as a Slave, his Escape from Bondage, and his Complete History. New rev. ed. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover.

McKivigan, John R., ed. 2004. Frederick Douglass. San Diego, Calif.: Greenhaven Press.

Mieder, Wolfgang. 2001. "No Struggle, No Progress": Frederick Douglass and His Proverbial Rhetoric for Civil Rights. New York: P. Lang.

Miller, Douglas T. 1988. Frederick Douglass and the Fight for Freedom. New York: Facts on File.

Moses, Wilson Jeremiah. 2004. Creative Conflict in African American Thought: Frederick Douglass, Alexander Crummell, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Marcus Garvey. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.


Celia, a Slave; Civil Rights Acts; Civil Rights Cases; Dred Scott v. Sandford; Jim Crow Laws; Prigg v. Pennsylvania.

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Frederick Douglass

Born: February 1817 Maryland
Died: February 20, 1895
Washington, D.C.

African American abolitionist and publisher

The most important African American abolitionist (opponent of slavery) in preCivil War America, Frederick Douglass was the first nationally known African American leader in U.S. history.

Growing up without freedom

Frederick Douglass was born in February 1817 on the eastern shore of Maryland. His exact date of birth remains unknown. His mother, from whom he was separated at an early age, was a slave named Harriet Bailey. She named her son Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. He never knew or saw his father. Frederick took the name Douglass much later. As a slave, Douglass was not allowed to have much of a childhood. He was separated from his parents, and he was forced to work hard and suffered cruel treatment while working on the property of Captain Aaron Anthony. In 1825 Anthony, who often hired his slaves out to others, decided to send Douglass to Baltimore, Maryland, to live with a man named Hugh Auld and his family.

Douglass's life improved somewhat while working for the Aulds. Mrs. Auld was a northerner, and northern slaveholders generally did not treat their slaves as badly as people in the South did. She even taught young Douglass the basics of reading and writing until her husband stopped her. Even though things were a little better than they had been, Douglass was still unhappy with his situation and began to think of ways to change it.

Escape from slavery

After the death of Captain Anthony, Douglass became the property of Anthony's son-in-law. He was then hired out to a professional slave breaker, a man who would beat and mistreat slaves until they gave up and did whatever they were told. After weeks of being whipped, Douglass finally fought back; after that the whippings stopped. The Aulds then brought him back to Baltimore and put him to work in the shipyards. There in 1838 he borrowed the identification papers of an African American sailor. By passing himself off as the sailor, he was able to escape to New York. He adopted the name Douglass and married a free African American woman from the South. They settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where several of their children were born.

Douglass tried to make a living doing manual labor, and he quickly became involved in the antislavery movement that was gaining strength in the North. In 1841, at an abolitionist meeting in Nantucket, Massachusetts, he delivered a moving speech about his experiences as a slave and was immediately hired by the Massachusetts Antislavery Society to give lectures. Douglass was an eloquent speaker; that is, his speeches were well thought out and forceful, and he was able to inspire those who heard him. Some Harvard students who had heard him speak were so impressed that they persuaded him to write an autobiography (the story of his life). The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was published in 1845. (Ten years later an enlarged autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, appeared. His third autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, was published in 1881 and enlarged in 1892.) Publishing the book was a dangerous move for Douglass, since it called attention to him and placed him in danger of being recaptured and returned to slavery.

Fearing capture, Douglass fled to Britain, staying from 1845 to 1847 to speak on behalf of abolition and to earn enough money to purchase his freedom once he returned to America. Upon his return Douglass settled in Rochester, New York, and started a newspaper, North Star, which called for an end to slavery. The paper would continue to be published under various names until 1863. In 1858, as a result of his fame and position as the voice of African Americans, Douglass was sought out by abolitionist John Brown (18001859). Brown asked Douglass to help him in an attack on an arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, which he thought would help the antislavery cause. Douglass, however, could see no benefit from Brown's plan and refused to lend his support.

Civil War and Reconstruction

With the beginning of the Civil War (18611865), a war between Northern and Southern states in which the main issues were slavery and the Southern states' decision to leave the Union and form an independent nation, Douglass insisted that African Americans should be allowed to fight. After all, they would be fighting for their own freedom. In 1863, as a result of Douglass's continued urging, President Abraham Lincoln (18091865) asked him to recruit African American soldiers for the Union (Northern) army. As the war proceeded, Douglass had several meetings with Lincoln to discuss the use and treatment of African American soldiers by the Union forces. As a result, the role of African American soldiers was upgraded each time, making them a more effective force in the fight.

The end of the Civil War and the freeing of the slaves did not mean that Douglass was able to rest. The Reconstruction period, as the years after the Civil War came to be known, presented a new set of challenges for the country. While slavery had ended, the racism (unequal treatment based on race) that went along with slavery was still in place. Some Southerners even went to court to try to overturn the slaves' emancipation (freedom). In 1870 Douglass and his sons began publishing the New National Era newspaper in Washington, D.C. He used the newspaper to make statements on these issues.

Later years

In 1877 Douglass was appointed by President Rutherford B. Hayes (18221893) to the post of U.S. marshal for the District of Columbia. From this time until approximately two years before his death Douglass held a succession of offices, including that of recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia and minister to the Republic of Haiti. He resigned his assignment in Haiti when he discovered that American businessmen were taking advantage of his position in their dealings with the Haitian government.

Frederick Douglass died in Washington, D.C., on February 20, 1895. He had played a major role in changing history. After reaching his goal of escaping slavery, he could have lived out his days as a free man. Instead he risked it all by speaking out in favor of freedom and improved treatment for all African Americans.

For More Information

Blight, David W. Frederick Douglass' Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

Douglass, Frederick. Escape From Slavery. Edited by Michael McCurdy. New York: Knopf, 1994.

Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Hartford, CT, Park Publishing, 1881. Reprint, Grand Rapids, MI: Candace Press, 1996.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. New York: Miller, Orton and Mulligan, 1855. Reprint, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Boston: Anti-slavery Office, 1845. Reprint, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1997.

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

Russell, Sharman. Frederick Douglass. New York: Chelsea House, 1992.

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