Augustus Washington Bailey
, (born circa 1818 February 20,
1895) was an American abolitionist
. Called "The Sage of Anacostia" and "The Lion of Anacostia", Douglass is one of
the most prominent figures in African
American and United States
He was a firm believer in the equality
of all people, whether black
, Native American
He was fond of saying, "I would unite with anybody to do right and
with nobody to do wrong."
Life as a slave
Augustus Washington Bailey, who later became known as Frederick
Douglass, was born a slave in Talbot County,
Maryland, between Hillsboro and Cordova, in a shack
east of Tappers Corner and west of Tuckahoe Creek.
He was separated from
his mother, Harriet Bailey, when he was still an infant. She died
when Douglass was about seven and Douglass lived with his maternal
grandmother Betty Bailey. His mother's ancestors likely had Native
The identity of his father is obscure. Douglass originally stated
that he was told his father was a white man, perhaps his owner
Aaron Anthony. Later he said he knew nothing of his father's
identity. At age seven, Douglass was separated from his
grandmother and moved to the Wye House plantation, where Anthony worked as
When Anthony died, Douglass was given to Lucretia
Auld, wife of Thomas Auld. She sent Douglass to serve Thomas' brother
Hugh Auld in Baltimore.
When Douglass was about twelve, Hugh Auld's wife Sophia started
teaching him the alphabet. She was breaking the law against
teaching slaves to read. When Hugh Auld discovered this, he
strongly disapproved, saying that if a slave learned to read, he
would become dissatisfied with his condition and desire freedom.
Douglass later referred to this statement as the "first decidedly
antislavery lecture" he had ever heard. As detailed in his
of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
(1845), Douglass succeeded in learning to read from white children
in the neighborhood and by observing the writings of men with whom
As Douglass learned and began to read newspapers, political
materials, and books of every description, he was exposed to a new
realm of thought that led him to question and then condemn the
institution of slavery. In later years, Douglass credited
The Columbian Orator
which he discovered at about age twelve, with clarifying and
defining his views on freedom and human rights.
When Douglass was hired out to a Mr. Freeman, he taught other
slaves on the plantation how to read the New Testament
at a weekly Sabbath school
. As word spread, the interest
among slaves in learning to read was so great that in any week more
than 40 slaves would attend lessons. For about six months, their
study went relatively unnoticed. While Freeman was complacent about
their activities, other plantation owners became incensed that
their slaves were being educated. One Sunday they burst in on the
gathering, armed with clubs and stones to disperse the congregation
In 1833, Thomas Auld took Douglass back from Hugh after a dispute
("[A]s a means of punishing Hugh," Douglass wrote). Dissatisfied
with Douglass, Thomas Auld then sent him to work for Edward Covey
, a poor farmer who had a
reputation as a "slave-breaker." There Douglass was whipped
regularly. The sixteen-year-old Douglass was indeed nearly broken
psychologically by his ordeal under Covey, but he finally rebelled
against the beatings and fought back. After losing a confrontation
with Douglass, Covey never tried to beat him again.
In 1837, Douglass met Anna Murray, a free black
in Baltimore. They married
soon after he obtained his freedom.
From slavery to freedom
Douglass first unsuccessfully tried to escape from Mr. Freeman, who
had hired him out from his owner Colonel Lloyd. In 1836, he tried
to escape from his new owner Covey, but failed again.
September 3, 1838, Douglass successfully escaped by boarding a
train to Havre de Grace, Maryland.
He was dressed in a sailor
identification papers provided by a free black seaman. He crossed the
Susquehanna River by ferry at Havre de Grace, then continued by train to
he went by steamboat to "Quaker City" — Philadelphia, Pennsylvania — and eventually reached New York; the whole journey took less than 24
continued traveling up to Massachusetts. There he joined various organizations in
Bedford, including a black
church, and regularly attended abolitionist meetings.
subscribed to William Lloyd
's weekly journal The
, and in 1841 heard Garrison speak at a meeting
of the Bristol Anti-Slavery Society. At one of these meetings,
Douglass was unexpectedly asked to speak.
After he told his story, he was encouraged to become an
anti-slavery lecturer. Douglass was inspired by Garrison and later
stated that "no face and form ever impressed me with such
sentiments [of the hatred of slavery] as did those of William Lloyd
Garrison." Garrison was likewise impressed with Douglass and wrote
of him in The Liberator
. Several days later, Douglass delivered
his first speech at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society's annual
convention in Nantucket.
Then 23 years old, Douglass said later that
his legs were shaking but he conquered his nervousness and gave an
eloquent speech about his rough life as a slave.
Douglass participated in the American Anti-Slavery
Society's Hundred Conventions project, a six-month tour of
meeting halls throughout the Eastern and Midwestern
He participated in the Seneca Falls Convention
birthplace of the American feminist
, and signed its Declaration of Sentiments
Frederick Douglass as a young
Douglass' best-known work is his first autobiography Narrative of the Life of
Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
, published in 1845. At
the time, some skeptics attacked the book and questioned whether a
black man could have produced such an eloquent piece of literature.
The book received generally positive reviews and it became an
. Within three years
of its publication, the autobiography had been reprinted nine times
with 11,000 copies circulating in the United States; it was also
translated into French
and published in Europe.
The book's success had an unfortunate side effect: Douglass'
friends and mentors feared that the publicity would draw the
attention of his ex-owner, Hugh Auld, who might try to get his
"property" back. They encouraged Douglass to tour Ireland, as many other former slaves had done.
set sail on the Cambria for Liverpool on August 16, 1845, and arrived in Ireland as the
Irish Potato Famine was
Douglass published three versions of his autobiography during his
lifetime (and revised the third of these), each time expanding on
the previous one. The 1845 Narrative
, which was his
biggest seller, was followed by My Bondage and My Freedom
1855. In 1881, after the Civil
, Douglass published Life and Times of Frederick
, which he revised in 1892.
Travels to the United Kingdom
in August 1845, Douglass spent two years in the United Kingdom, where he gave many lectures, mainly in Protestant churches or chapels.
draw was such that some facilities were "crowded to suffocation";
an example was his hugely popular London Reception Speech, which
Douglass delivered at Alexander Fletcher's Finsbury Chapel
in May 1846. Douglass
remarked that in England he was treated not "as a color, but as a
man." He met and befriended the Irish
It was during this trip that Douglass became officially free, when
his freedom was purchased from his owner by British supporters.
sympathizers led by Ellen Richardson of Newcastle
upon Tyne collected the money needed to purchase his
Douglass roused tumultuous crowds with his speeches
about slavery and his experiences, and he met with acclaim. In 1846
Douglass was able to meet with Thomas
, one of the last survivors of the abolitionists who
had persuaded Parliament to abolish slavery in Great Britain and
After his return to the US, Douglass produced some regular
abolitionist newspapers: The
, Frederick Douglass Weekly
Frederick Douglass' Paper
, Douglass' Monthly
New National Era
. The motto
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
Douglass believed that education was key for African Americans to
improve their lives. For this reason, he was an early advocate for
desegregation of schools. In the 1850s, he was especially outspoken
in New York. While the ratio of African American to white students
there was 1 to 40, African Americans received education funding at
a ratio of only 1 to 1,600. This meant that the facilities and
instruction for African-American children were vastly inferior.
Douglass criticized the situation and called for court action to
open all schools to all children. He stated that inclusion within
the educational system was a more pressing need for African
Americans than political issues such as suffrage.
Douglass' work spanned the years prior to and during the Civil War
. He was acquainted with the
radical abolitionist John
but disapproved of Brown's plan to start an armed
in the South
. Brown visited
Douglass' home two months before he led the raid on the federal
armory in Harpers
After the raid, Douglass fled for a time to
Canada, fearing guilt by association and arrest as a
co-conspirator. Douglass believed that the attack on federal
property would enrage the American public. Douglass later shared a
stage at a speaking engagement 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
on the subject of black suffrage
. His early collaborators were the white
abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips
. In the early 1850s,
however, Douglass split with those who supported Garrison over the
issue of interpretation of the United States Constitution
believed it provided all that was necessary to gain the freedom of
African Americans and guarantee their rights.
Civil War years
Before the Civil War
In 1851, Douglass merged the North Star
with Gerrit Smith
's Liberty Party Paper
, which was published until 1860. Douglass came to
agree with Smith and Lysander
that the United
was an anti-slavery document. This reversed
his earlier belief that it was pro-slavery.
At one time he had shared the views of William Lloyd Garrison
, who was
concerned that support for slavery was part of the fabric of the
Constitution. Garrison had publicly expressed his opinion by
burning copies of the document. Further contributing to their
growing separation, Garrison was worried that the North
competed with his own National Anti-Slavery
Douglass' change of position on the Constitution was one of the
most notable incidents of the division in the abolitionist movement
after the publication of Spooner's book The Unconstitutionality of
in 1846. This shift in opinion, and 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 Garrison and his supporters.
In 1848, Douglass attended the first women's rights
convention, the Seneca Falls Convention
, as the only
African American. Elizabeth Cady
asked the assembly to pass a resolution asking for
. Many of those
present opposed the idea, including influential Quakers James
. Douglass stood and spoke eloquently in favor; he said
that he could not accept the right to vote himself as a black man
if woman could not also claim that right. Douglass projected that
the world would be a better place if women were involved in the
political sphere. "In this denial of the right to participate in
government, not merely the degradation of woman and the
perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and
repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the
government of the world." Douglass's powerful words rang true with
enough attendees that the resolution passed.
1860, Douglass' youngest daughter Annie died in Rochester,
New York, while he was still in England.
returned from England the following month. He took a 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 orations on the condition of the black race and on other
issues such as women's rights
eloquence gathered crowds at every location. His reception by
leaders in England and Ireland added to his stature.
Fight for emancipation
Douglass and the abolitionists argued that because the aim of the
war was to end slavery, African Americans should be allowed to
engage in the fight for their freedom. Douglass publicized this
view in his newspapers and several speeches.
's Emancipation Proclamation
took effect on January 1, 1863, declared the freedom of all slaves
in Confederate-held territory. Douglass described the spirit of
those awaiting the proclamation: "We were waiting and listening as
for a bolt from the sky...we were watching...by the dim light of
the stars for the dawn of a new day...we were longing for the
answer to the agonizing prayers of centuries."
With the North no longer obliged to return slaves to their owners
in the South, Douglass fought for equality for his people. He made
plans with Lincoln to move the liberated slaves out of the South.
During the war, Douglass helped the Union by serving as a recruiter
for the 54th Massachusetts
. His son Frederick Douglass Jr. also served
as a recruiter and his other son, Lewis Douglass, fought for the
54th Massachusetts Regiment at the Battle of Fort Wagner.
Slavery everywhere in the United States was outlawed by the
post-war (1865) ratification of the 13th
. The 14th
provided for citizenship and equal protection under
the law. The 15th
protected all citizens from being discriminated
against in voting because of race.
unveiling of the Emancipation Memorial in Washington's Lincoln Park, Douglass was in the
audience while a tribute to Lincoln was being given by a prominent
Some of the audience felt it did not do him justice
and asked Douglass to speak. Reluctantly, Douglass stood up and
spoke. With no preparation, he gave an eloquent tribute to the
assassinated President, a speech for which he received much
In the speech, Douglass spoke frankly about Lincoln, balancing the
good and the bad in his account. He called Lincoln "the white man's
president" and cited his tardiness in joining the cause of
emancipation. He noted that Lincoln initially opposed the expansion
of slavery but did not support its elimination. But Douglass also
stated, "Can any colored man, or any white man friendly to the
freedom of all men, ever forget the night which followed the first
day of January 1863, when the world was to see if Abraham Lincoln
would prove to be as good as his word?"
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." A long-told anecdote claims that the widow
Lincoln's favorite walking stick in appreciation. Lincoln's walking
stick still rests in Douglass' house known as Cedar
It is both a testimony and a tribute to the
effect of Douglass' powerful oratory.
After the Civil War, Douglass was appointed to several 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 the Dominican Republic.
After two years, he resigned from his
ambassadorship because of 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.
was a complete issue of The North Star
Douglass supported the presidential campaign of Ulysses S. Grant
. President Grant signed into law the
and the second and
third Enforcement Acts
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
received 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, Douglass became the first African American nominated for
Vice President of
the United States
, as Victoria
's running mate on the Equal Rights Party
ticket. He was nominated without his knowledge. During the
campaign, he neither campaigned for the ticket nor acknowledged
that he had been nominated.
Douglass continued his speaking engagements. On the lecture
circuit, he spoke at many colleges around the country during the
Reconstruction era, including Bates College in Lewiston, Maine in 1873.
He continued to emphasize the
importance of voting rights and exercise of suffrage.
White insurgents had quickly arisen in the South after the war,
organizing first as secret vigilante
groups like the Ku Klux Klan
the years, armed insurgency took different forms, the last as
groups such as
the White League
and the Red Shirts
1870s in the Deep South. They operated as "the military arm of the
Democratic Party", turning out Republican officeholders and
disrupting elections. Their power continued to grow in the South;
more than 10 years after the end of the war, white Democrats
regained political power in every state of the former Confederacy
and began to reassert white supremacy. They enforced this by a
combination of violence, late 19th c. laws imposing segregation
and a concerted effort to
African Americans. From 1890-1908, white Democrats passed new
constitutions and statutes in the South that created requirements
for voter registration and voting that effectively disfranchised
most blacks and tens of thousands of poor whites. This
disfranchisement and segregation were enforced for more than six
decades into the 20th century.
Douglass and Anna had five children: Charles Remond Douglass,
Rosetta Douglass, Lewis Henry Douglass, Frederick Douglass Jr., and
Annie Douglass (died at the age of ten). The two oldest, Charles
and Rossetta, helped produce his newspapers.
Douglass was an ordained minister of the African Methodist Episcopal
Douglass bought his final home in Washington D.C., on a hill above the Anacostia River. He named it
Cedar Hill (also spelled CedarHill).
expanded the house from 14 to 21 rooms, and included a china
closet. One year later, he expanded his property to 15 acres
(61,000 m²) by buying adjoining lots. The home has been
designated the Frederick Douglass National Historic
disappointments of whites' regaining power in the South after
African Americans, called Exodusters,
moved to Kansas to form
all-black towns where they could be free.
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
His wife, Anna Murray Douglas
, died in 1882,
leaving him depressed. His association with the activist Ida B. Wells
brought meaning back into his life.
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. Pitts was a graduate of Mount
Holyoke College (then called Mount Holyoke Female Seminary).
She had worked on a radical feminist publication named
while living in Washington, D.C. The couple faced a
storm of controversy with their marriage, since she was both white
and nearly 20 years younger than he. Her family stopped speaking to
her; his was bruised, as his children felt his marriage was a
repudiation of their mother. But feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton
the couple. The new couple traveled to England, France,
Italy, Egypt and
Greece from 1886
At the 1888
Republican National Convention
, Douglass became the first
African American to receive a vote for President of the United
States in a major party
's roll call
the Haitian government appointed Douglass as its commissioner to
the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition.
He spoke for Irish Home Rule
and the efforts of leader
Charles Stewart Parnell
Ireland. He briefly revisited Ireland in 1886. Also in 1892, he
constructed rental housing for blacks in the Fells Point area of Baltimore. Now known as Douglass
Place, it was listed on the National Register of
Historic Places in 2003.
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
in his adopted hometown of Washington,
is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York.
In 1921, members of the Alpha Phi
Fraternity designated Frederick Douglass as an honorary
member. Theirs was the first African-American intercollegiate
fraternity. Douglass was the only man to receive an honorary
, scholar Molefi Kete Asante
Douglass to his list of 100 Greatest African
Establishing date of birth
In successive autobiographies, Douglass gave more precise estimates
of when he was born, his final estimate being 1817. He adopted
February 14 as his birthday because his mother Harriet Bailey used
to call him her "little valentine
Douglass was born at on the Eastern Shore of Maryland
slaves were punished for learning to read or write and so could not
keep records. Historian Dickson Preston examined the records of
Douglass' former owner Aaron Anthony and determined that February
1818 was when Douglass was born.
- Parts of this article are drawn from Houston A. Baker, Jr.,
introduction to the 1986 Penguin edition of Narrative of the
Life of Frederick Douglass.
- Gates, Jr., Henry Louis,
ed. Frederick Douglass, Autobiography (Library of America, 1994) ISBN
- Foner, Philip Sheldon. The Life
and Writings of Frederick Douglass. New York: International
- Huggins, Nathan Irvin, and Oscar
Handlin. Slave and Citizen: The Life of Frederick
Douglass. Library of American Biography. Boston: Little,
Brown, 1980; Longman (1997). ISBN 0673393429
- Lampe, Gregory P. Frederick Douglass: Freedom's
Voice,. Rhetoric and Public Affairs Series. East Lansing:
Michigan State University Press, 1998. ISBN-X (alk. paper) ISBN
(pbk. alk. paper) (on his oratory)
- Levine, Robert S. Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, and
the Politics of Representative Identity. Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 1997. ISBN (alk. paper). ISBN
(pbk.: alk. paper) (cultural history)
- McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass. New York: Norton, 1991.
- McMillen, Sally Gregory. Seneca Falls and the origins of the women's rights
movement. Oxford University Press, 2008. ISBN
- Oakes, James. The Radical and the Republican: Frederick
Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery
Politics. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2007. ISBN
- Quarles, Benjamin. Frederick Douglass. Washington:
Associated Publishers, 1948.
- Stanton, Elizabeth Cady; edited by Theodore Stanton and Harriot
Stanton Blatch. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, As Revealed in Her Letters,
Diary and Reminiscences, Harper & Brothers, 1922.
- Webber, Thomas, Deep Like Rivers: Education in the Slave
Quarter Community 1831-1865. New York: W.W. Norton &
Company, Inc. (1978).
- Woodson, C.G., The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861: A
History of the Education of the Colored People of the United States
from the Beginning of Slavery to the Civil War. New York: G.P.
Putnam’s Sons, (1915); Indy Publ. (2005) ISBN 1421926709
- For young readers
- Miller, William. Frederick Douglass: The Last Day of
Slavery. Illus. by Cedric Lucas. Lee & Low Books, 1995.
- Weidt, Maryann N. Voice of Freedom: a Story about Frederick
Douglass. Illus. by Jeni Reeves. Lerner Publications, (2001).
- Documentary films
- Frederick Douglass and the White Negro
[videorecording] / Writer/Director John J Doherty, produced by
Camel Productions, Ireland. Irish Film Board/TG4/BCI.; 2008
- Frederick Douglass [videorecording] / produced by
Greystone Communications, Inc. for A&E Network ; executive
producers, Craig Haffner and Donna E. Lusitana.; 1997
- Frederick Douglass: When the Lion Wrote History
[videorecording] / a co-production of ROJA Productions and
- Frederick Douglass, Abolitionist Editor
[videorecording]/a production of Schlessinger Video
- Race to Freedom [videorecording] : the story of the
underground railroad / an Atlantis
Douglass' sources online
Memorials to Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass Papers Edition : A Critical Edition of
Douglass' Complete Works, including speeches, autobiographies,
letters, and other writings.
- Works by Frederick Douglass at Internet
Archive (scanned books original editions
- Works by Frederick Douglass at Online Books Page
- Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an
American Slave. Written by Himself. Boston: Anti-Slavery Office,
- The Heroic Slave. From Autographs for Freedom, Ed. Julia Griffiths. Boston: John P. Jewett and Company.
Cleveland, Ohio: Jewett, Proctor, and Worthington. London: Low and
- My Bondage and My Freedom. Part I. Life as a Slave. Part II. Life as a Freeman. New York: Miller, Orton &
- Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: His Early
Life as a Slave, His Escape from Bondage, and His Complete History
to the Present Time. Hartford, Conn.: Park Publishing Co.,
- Frederick Douglass lecture on Haiti - Given at
the World's Fair in Chicago, January 1893.
- Fourth of July Speech