Douglass, Frederick

Born: 1818-02-XX Talbot County, Maryland

Died: 1895-02-20 Washington, DC

Frederick Douglass was an abolitionist, author, editor, orator, and social reformer. Born into slavery as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, Frederick Douglass learned to read and escaped to freedom in 1838. He initially settled in New York City, where he married Anna Murray, with whom he had five children. Douglass then settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he found employment as a ship maker and took the name Douglass. He also became a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church. His involvement in the church and his immersion into Massachusetts culture increasingly brought him into the abolitionist movement. He began speaking at meetings and made his name for an address he gave at the August 1841 Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society Convention. He thereafter became primarily engaged as an anti-slavery speaker and moved his family to Lynn. Between 1844 and 1845, Douglass wrote his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which detailed his life as an enslaved person and subsequent escape to freedom and remains a classic. The book’s popularity made Douglass extremely famous and the leading African American spokesman of the nineteenth century.

Fearing his newfound fame would lead to his recapture as a fugitive slave, Douglass traveled to the United Kingdom in 1845 and remained there until his supporters purchased his freedom in 1847. He relocated to Rochester, New York and began publishing the abolitionist periodical, the North Star. It too became very popular inside and outside of the United States and further increased Douglass’ profile. Unlike William Lloyd Garrison and other Garrisonian abolitionists, Douglass viewed politics as a possible path to emancipation, and endorsed the Free Soil Party and, later, the Republicans. During the 1850s, Douglass became active in the Underground Railroad and openly encouraged enslaved people to violently resist their masters. To that end, he helped organize John Brown’s Raid in 1859 and fled the country following its failure.

Douglass returned to the United States in 1860 and immediately interpreted the Civil War as an opportunity for emancipation. He immediately began pressuring Abraham Lincoln to attack slavery and arm African Americans. He frequently criticized the President in his new publication, Douglass’ Monthly but threw his support behind Lincoln after the Emancipation Proclamation. He also actively recruited black soldiers but grew frustrated with the government’s lack of effort and the inherent inequality in pay and other aspects of soldier life. Douglass met with Lincoln to voice these complaints and the War Department responded by offering him a commission to organize black regiments. The commission was never issued, and Douglass spent the rest of the war lecturing in the North.

Roy E. Finkenbine, “Douglass, Frederick,” American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999), 6:816-19; James Oakes, The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2007); John Stauffer, Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass & Abraham Lincoln (New York, NY: Twelve, 2008); William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 1991); Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (Boston, MA: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845); Gravestone, Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester, NY.