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Frederick Douglass (February 14, 1818 – February 20, 1895) was an American abolitionist, editor, orator, author, statesman and reformer. Called "The Sage of Anacostia" and "The Lion of Anacostia," Douglass was one of the most prominent figures of African American history during his time, and one of the most influential lecturers and authors in American history.
Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, who later became known as Frederick Douglass, was born a slave in Talbot County, Maryland near Hillsboro. He was separated from his mother, Harriet Bailey, when he was still an infant. She died when Douglass was about seven years old. The identity of Douglass' father is obscure; Douglass originally stated that his father was a white man, perhaps his master, Captain Aaron Anthony, but later said that he knew nothing of his father's identity. When Anthony died, Douglass was given to Mrs. Lucretia Auld, wife of Captain Thomas Auld. Mrs. Auld then sent Douglass to Baltimore to serve the Captain's brother, Hugh Auld. When Douglass was about twelve, Hugh Auld's wife, Sophia, broke the law by teaching Douglass some letters of the alphabet. Thereafter, as detailed in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (published in 1845), Douglass succeeded in learning to read from white children in the neighborhood in which he lived, and by observation of writings of the men with whom he worked. Douglass later referred to the lessons he received from Sophia Auld in his first abolitionist speech. In 1833, Auld sent him to work for Edward Covey, a poor farmer who had a reputation as a "slave-breaker," where he was whipped regularly.
In 1837, Douglass met Anna Murray, a free African-American, in Baltimore while he was still held in slavery. They were married soon after he obtained his freedom; Douglass escaped slavery on September 3, 1838 boarding a train to Havre de Grace, Maryland dressed in a sailor's uniform and carrying identification papers provided by a free black seaman. After crossing the Susquehanna River by ferry boat at Havre de Grace, Douglass continued by train to Wilmington, Delaware. From there Douglass went by steamboat to "Quaker City"—Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His escape to freedom eventually led him to New York, the entire journey taking less than twenty-four hours.
Douglass joined various organizations in New Bedford, Massachusetts, including a black church, and regularly attended Abolitionist meetings. He subscribed to William Lloyd Garrison's weekly journal, The Liberator, and in 1841, he heard Garrison speak at the Bristol Anti-Slavery Society's annual meeting. Douglass was inspired by Garrison, later stating, "no face and form ever impressed me with such sentiments (the hatred of slavery) as did those of William Lloyd Garrison." Garrison was likewise impressed with Douglass, and mentioned him in the 'Liberator'.
Several days later, Douglass gave his first speech at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society's annual convention in Nantucket. Twenty-three years old at the time, Douglass later said that his legs were shaking. He conquered his nervousness and gave an eloquent speech about his life as a slave and his rough life.
In 1843, Douglass participated in the American Anti-Slavery Society's Hundred Conventions project, a six month tour of meeting halls throughout the east and middle west of the United States. He participated in the Seneca Falls Convention, the birthplace of the American feminist movement, and was a signatory of its Declaration of Sentiments.
Douglass later became the publisher of a series of newspapers: North Star, Frederick Douglass Weekly, Frederick Douglass' Paper, Douglass' Monthly and New National Era. The motto of The North Star was "Right is of no sex--Truth is of no color--God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethren".
Douglass' work spanned the years prior to and during the Civil War. He was acquainted with the radical abolitionist Captain John Brown but did not approve of Brown's plan to start an armed slave revolt. However, Brown visited Douglass' home for several days shortly before the Harpers Ferry incident, in which Brown attacked the federal Arsenal there. After the incident, Douglass fled for a time to Canada, fearing he might be arrested as a co-conspirator. Douglass believed that the attack on federal property would enrage the American public. Douglass would later share a stage in Harpers Ferry with Andrew Hunter, the prosecutor who successfully convicted Brown.
Douglass conferred with President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 on the treatment of black soldiers, and with President Andrew Johnson on the subject of black suffrage. His early collaborators were the white abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips. In the early 1850's, however, Douglass split with the Garrisonians over the issue of the United States Constitution.
Douglass had five children; two of them, Charles and Rossetta, helped produce his newspapers.
Douglass was an ordained minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Douglass' most well-known work is his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which was published in 1845. Critics frequently attacked the book as inauthentic, not believing that a black man could possibly have produced so eloquent a piece of literature. The book was an immediate bestseller and received overwhelmingly positive critical reviews. Within three years of its publication, it had been reprinted nine times with 11,000 copies circulating in the United States; it was also translated into the French and Dutch languages.
The book's success had an unfortunate side effect: his friends and mentors feared that the publicity would draw the attention of his ex-owner, Hugh Auld, who could try to get his "property" back. They encouraged him to go on a tour in Ireland, as many other ex-slaves had done in the past. He set sail on the Cambria for Liverpool on August 16, 1845, and arrived in Ireland when the Irish famine was just beginning.
Douglass spent two years in the British Isles and gave several lectures, mainly in Protestant churches. He remarked that there he was treated not "as a color, but as a man." He met and befriended the Irish nationalist Daniel O'Connell. When Douglass visited Scotland, the members of the Free Church of Scotland, whom he had criticized for accepting money from U.S. slave-owners, demonstrated against him with placards that read, "Send back the nigger".
Douglass was able to win back his freedom after British sympathizers paid the slaveholder who legally still owned him.
In 1851, Douglass merged the North Star with Gerrit Smith's Liberty Party Paper to form Frederick Douglass' Paper, which was published until 1860. Douglass came to agree with Smith and Lysander Spooner that the United States Constitution is an anti-slavery document, reversing his earlier belief that it was pro-slavery, a view he had shared with William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison had publicly demonstrated his opinion of the Constitution by burning copies of it. Douglass' change of position on the Constitution was one of the most notable incidents of a division that emerged in the abolitionist movement after the publication of Spooner's book The Unconstitutionality of Slavery in 1846. This shift in opinion, as well as some other political differences, created a rift between Douglass and Garrison. Douglass further angered Garrison by saying that the Constitution could and should be used as an instrument in the fight against slavery. With this, Douglass began to assert his independence from the Garrisonians. Garrison saw the North Star as being in competition with the National Anti-Slavery Standard and Marius Robinson's Anti-slavery Bugle.
In March 1860, Annie, Douglass' youngest daughter, died in Rochester, New York, while he was still in England. Douglass returned from England the following month, taking the route through Canada to avoid detection.
By the time of the Civil War, Douglass was one of the most famous black men in the country, known for his oratories on the condition of the black race, and other issues such as women's rights.
At Abraham Lincoln's memorial, Douglass was in the audience as a tribute to Lincoln was being given by a prominent lawyer at the time. The tribute was not as successful as some of the audience there would have hoped. Reluctantly, Douglass was goaded by the people to stand up and speak. At first out of respect for the speaker he declined but eventually he gave into the pressure and with no preparation he gave a fantastic tribute to the President for which he had so much respect. The crowd, roused by his speech, gave him a standing ovation. A witness later said: "I have heard Clay speak and many fantastic men, but never have I heard a speech as impressive as that." Whilst this is anecdotal, it is a commonly accepted fact that Lincoln's wife gave Douglass Lincoln's favorite walking stick which to this day resides in Cedar Lodge. This is both a testimony to the success of Douglass' tribute to Lincoln and also to the effect and influence of his powerful oratory.
After the Civil War, Douglass held a number of important political positions. He served as President of the Reconstruction-era Freedman's Savings Bank; as marshal of the District of Columbia; as minister-resident and consul-general to the Republic of Haiti (1889–1891); and as chargé d'affaires for Saint Domingue. After two years, he resigned from his ambassadorship due to disagreements with U.S. government policy. In 1872, he moved to Washington, D.C. after his house on South Avenue in Rochester, New York burned down — arson was suspected. Also lost was a complete issue of The North Star.
In 1868, Douglass supported the presidential campaign of Ulysses S. Grant. The Klan Act and the Enforcement Act were signed into law by President Grant. Grant used their provisions vigorously, suspending habeas corpus in South Carolina and sending troops there and into other states; under his leadership, over 5,000 arrests were made and the Ku Klux Klan was dealt a serious blow.
Grant's vigor in disrupting the Klan made him unpopular among many whites, but Frederick Douglass praised him. An associate of Douglass wrote of Grant that African Americans "will ever cherish a grateful remembrance of his name, fame and great services."
In 1872, he became the first African American to receive a nomination for Vice President of the United States, having been nominated to be Victoria Woodhull's running mate on the Equal Rights Party ticket without his knowledge. During the campaign, he neither campaigned for the ticket nor even acknowledged that he had been nominated.
Douglass spoke at many schools around the country in the Reconstruction era, including Bates College in Lewiston, Maine in 1873
In 1877, Frederick Douglass purchased his final home in Washington D.C., on the banks of the Anacostia River. He named it Cedar Hill (also spelled CedarHill). He expanded the house from 14 to 21 rooms and included a china closet. One year later, Douglass expanded his property to 15 acres (61,000 m²), with the purchase of adjoining lots. The home is now the location of the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.
After the disappointments of Reconstruction, many African Americans called Exodusters moved to Kansas to form all-black towns. Douglass spoke out against the movement, urging blacks to stick it out. He was condemned and booed by black audiences.
In 1877, Douglass was appointed a United States Marshal. In 1881, he was appointed Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia. His wife (Anna Murray Douglas) died in 1882, leaving him in a state of depression. His association with the activist Ida B. Wells brought meaning back into his life. In 1884, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white feminist from Honeoye, New York. Pitts was the daughter of Gideon Pitts, Jr., an abolitionist colleague and friend of Douglass. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College (at that time Mount Holyoke Female Seminary), Pitts had worked on a radical feminist publication named Alpha while living in Washington, D.C..
Frederick and Helen Pitts Douglass faced a storm of controversy as a result of their marriage, since she was a white woman and nearly 20 years younger than he. Both families recoiled; hers stopped speaking to her; his was bruised, as they felt his marriage was a repudiation of their mother. But individualist feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton congratulated the two.
The new couple traveled to England, France, Italy, Egypt and Greece from 1886 to 1887.
In later life, Douglass was determined to ascertain his birthday. He was born in February of 1816 by his own calculations, but historians have found a record indicating his birth in February of 1818.
In 1892 the Haitian government appointed Douglass as its commissioner to the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition. He spoke for Irish Home Rule and on the efforts of Charles Stewart Parnell. He briefly revisited Ireland in 1886.
On February 20, 1895, Douglass attended a meeting of the National Council of Women in Washington, D.C. During that meeting, he was brought to the platform and given a standing ovation by the audience.
Shortly after he returned home, Frederick Douglass died of a massive heart attack or stroke in his adopted hometown of Washington D.C. He is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, NY.
"I am a Republican, a black, dyed in the wool Republican, and I never intend to belong to any other party than the party of freedom and progress."
"Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the roar of its many waters."
"To make a contented slave it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken the moral and mental vision and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason."
"I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the South is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes - a justifier of the most appalling barbarity, a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds, and a dark shelter under which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection."
"Without struggle, there is no progress."
"[ Lincoln was] the first great man that I talked with in the United States freely who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself, of the difference of color." - On Abraham Lincoln
For Young Readers
Editions of Douglass' work