Frederick Douglass: Formerly Enslaved Man and Abolitionist Leader

Engraved portrait of Frederick Douglass

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The biography of Frederick Douglass is emblematic of the lives of enslaved and formerly enslaved Americans. His struggle for freedom, devotion to the abolitionist cause, and lifetime battle for equality in America established him as one of the most important Black American leaders of the 19th century.

Early Life

Frederick Douglass was born in February 1818 on a plantation on the eastern shore of Maryland. He was not sure of his exact birth date, and he also did not know the identity of his father, who was assumed to be a White man and likely a member of the family who enslaved his mother.

He was originally named Frederick Bailey by his mother, Harriet Bailey. He was separated from his mother when he was young and raised by other enslaved people on the plantation.

Emancipation From Enslavement

When he was eight years old, Douglass was sent to live with a family in Baltimore, where his new enslaver, Sophia Auld, taught him to read and write. Young Frederick demonstrated considerable intelligence, and in his teens, he was hired out to work in the shipyards of Baltimore as a caulker, a skilled position. His salary was paid to his enslavers, the Auld family.

Frederick became determined to emancipate himself from enslavement. After one failed attempt, he was able to secure identification papers in 1838 stating he was a seaman. Dressed as a sailor, he boarded a train northward and successfully made it to New York City at the age of 21, where he was considered a free man as long as his enslavers did not find him.

A Brilliant Speaker for the Abolitionist Cause

Anna Murray, a free Black woman, followed Douglass northward, and they were married in New York City. The newlyweds moved onward to Massachusetts (adopting the last name Douglass). Douglass found work as a laborer in New Bedford.

In 1841 Douglass attended a meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in Nantucket. He got on stage and gave a speech that riveted the crowd. His story of life as an enslaved man was delivered with passion, and he was encouraged to dedicate himself to speaking out against slavery in America.

He began touring the northern states, to mixed reactions. In 1843 he was nearly killed by a mob in Indiana.

Publication of Autobiography

Frederick Douglass was so impressive in his new career as a public speaker that rumors circulated that he was somehow a fraud and had never actually been enslaved. Partly to contradict such attacks, Douglass began writing an account of his life, which he published in 1845 as The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. The book became a sensation.

As he became prominent, he feared enslavers would apprehend him and enslave him once again. To escape that fate, and also to promote the abolitionist cause overseas, Douglass left for an extended visit to England and Ireland, where he was befriended by Daniel O'Connell, who was leading the crusade for Irish freedom.

Douglass Purchased His Own Freedom

While overseas, Douglass made enough money from his speaking engagements that he could have lawyers affiliated with the abolitionist movement approach his former enslavers in Maryland and officially purchase his freedom.

At the time, Douglass was actually criticized by some abolitionists for this. They felt that buying his own freedom only gave credibility to the institution of slavery. But Douglass, sensing danger if he returned to America, arranged for lawyers to pay $1,250 to Thomas Auld in Maryland anyway.

Douglass returned to the United States in 1848, confident he could live in freedom.

Activities In the 1850s

Throughout the 1850s, when the country was being torn apart by the issue of practicing enslavement, Douglass was at the forefront of abolitionist activity.

He had met John Brown, the anti-slavery fanatic, years earlier. And Brown approached Douglass and tried to recruit him for his raid on Harper's Ferry. Douglass thought the plan was suicidal and refused to participate.

When Brown was captured and hanged, Douglass feared he might be implicated in the plot, and fled to Canada briefly from his home in Rochester, New York.

Relationship With Abraham Lincoln

During the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, Stephen Douglas taunted Abraham Lincoln with crude race-baiting, at times mentioning that Lincoln was a close friend of Frederick Douglass. In fact, at that time they had never met.

When Lincoln became president, Frederick Douglass did visit him twice at the White House. At Lincoln's urging, Douglass helped recruit Black Americans into the Union army. The two had a mutual respect.

Douglass was in the crowd at Lincoln's second inaugural and was devastated when Lincoln was assassinated six weeks later.

Frederick Douglass Following the Civil War

Following the abolishment of slavery in America, Frederick Douglass continued to be an advocate for equality. He spoke out on issues related to Reconstruction and the problems faced by newly emancipated people.

In the late 1870s, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Douglass to a federal job, and he held several government posts including a diplomatic posting in Haiti.

Douglass died in Washington, D.C. in 1895.