Birth and Early Life
Acclaimed abolitionist and women’s rights supporter Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland, near the Chesapeake Bay. His birth name was Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. As with many slaves, Douglass did not know the exact date of his birth, but he celebrated it on February 14. Douglass was of mixed ancestry. His mother, Harriet Bailey, was an African American whose lineage may have included some Native American forebears. Douglass’ father was an unknown white man, possibly his mother’s owner.
Separated from his mother as an infant, Douglass lived the first years of his life with his maternal grandmother, Betty Bailey, on another plantation. Douglass’ mother died when the boy was about seven years old. Later, writing in his autobiography, Douglass recalled that his master refused to allow him:
to be present during her illness, at her death, or burial. She was gone long before I knew anything about it. Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, I received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger.
About the time his mother died, Douglass became the property of Lucretia Auld, wife of Thomas Auld. The Aulds subsequently sent Douglass to Baltimore to serve Thomas’ brother Hugh Auld. When Douglass arrived in Baltimore, Hugh Auld’s wife, Sophia, began teaching him the alphabet, a clear violation of statutes against educating slaves. When Auld’s husband learned of his wife’s activities, he forbade her from continuing the lessons. Afterward, Douglass learned to read by trading scraps of food for lessons from poor white boys he met on the streets of Baltimore.
Douglass lived in Baltimore for about seven years. In March 1832, when he was fourteen years old, Douglass returned to Thomas Auld’s custody at St. Michael’s plantation in eastern Maryland. On January 1, 1833, Auld sent Douglass to toil as a field hand on the small farm of Edward Covey. Covey had a notorious reputation for breaking young slaves, and it took him only a week to inflict the first of many severe whippings to his new rented laborer. Douglass later recorded that “During the first six months, of that year, scarce a week passed without his whipping me.” The abuse went on until August when Douglass resolved to take no more and “seized Covey hard by the throat” as he attempted to administer another whipping. The two then engaged in a fiery brawl that eventually brought Covey to his knees. Douglass recalled that “The whole six months afterwards, that I spent with Mr. Covey, he never laid the weight of his finger upon me in anger.” Afterward, Douglass suggested that the reason Covey never reported him for committing the criminal act of laying his hands on a white man was that it would have tarnished his reputation as “a first-rate overseer and negro-breaker” if people learned that a fourteen-year-old boy bested him>
Douglass’ term of service to Covey ended on Christmas Day, 1833. Thomas Auld next hired out Douglas to William Freeland. Douglass found Freeland to be more lenient than Covey. While toiling on Freeland’s farm about three miles from St. Michael’s, Douglass secretly began teaching other slaves in the area to read during “Sabbath school” at “the house of a free colored man.” When Freeland did nothing to stop the meetings after learning of them, armed whites, enraged that Douglass was educating slaves, stormed into a session and permanently dispersed the congregation.
In 1835, Thomas Auld indentured Douglass to Freeland for another year. When authorities arrested Douglass for plotting an escape with two other slaves, he expected Auld to end his indenture and sell him into the Deep South. It elated Douglass to learn that Auld planned to send him back to live with his brother in Baltimore under the watch of Hugh Auld.
Upon Douglass’ return to Baltimore, Hugh Auld hired him out to William Gardner. Working as a caulker for Gardner’s shipbuilding company, Douglass earned a dollar and a half a day, all of which went to Auld. Understandably, Douglass “could see no reason why . . . at the end of each week” he should “pour the reward of (his) toil into the purse of my master.” Gradually, his resentment renewed his longing to escape to the North.
Escape from Slavery
While living in Baltimore, Douglass began a love affair with Anna Murray, a free black woman. When Douglass shared his desire to escape from bondage, the two conspired to secure his freedom. On September 3, 1838, dressed as a sailor, Douglass used funds provided by Murray to board a train under an assumed identity in Baltimore bound for Wilmington, Delaware. From Wilmington, the fugitive sailed by steamboat to Philadelphia, where he caught a train to New York. Upon his arrival in New York, Douglass continued on to the home of noted abolitionist David Ruggles, a free black man who reportedly helped over 600 African Americans escape bondage. Douglass’ uneventful journey to freedom spanned fewer than twenty-four hours.
Days after Douglass’ arrival in New York, Murray joined him. On September 15, 1838, the Reverend James Pennington, who was also a fugitive slave from Maryland, married the couple at Ruggles’ home. To avoid discovery by bounty hunters, the newlyweds assumed the surname of Johnson and heeded Ruggles’ advice and moved farther north to New Bedford, Massachusetts.
Upon his arrival in New Bedford, Nathan Johnson befriended Douglass. Douglass also changed his surname. Johnson was reading Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake at the time and suggested the name of the poem’s heroine, Ellen Douglas. From that time forward, Frederick Bailey became Frederick Douglass.
Although Douglass escaped slavery in New Bedford, he did not escape prejudice. When white caulkers refused to work beside him, Douglass had to abandon his craft and toil as a common laborer at any job he could secure for the next three years.
While living in New Bedford, Douglass began reading The Liberator, a weekly newspaper published by William Lloyd Garrison and Isaac Knapp in Boston. During its thirty-one years in publication, the weekly championed abolishing slavery and expanding women’s rights in the United States. Inspired by the paper’s message, Douglass began attending anti-slavery meetings and became active in the abolitionist movement. After rising to speak at an anti-slavery convention at Nantucket, on August 11, 1841, Douglass recalled that:
I spoke but a few moments, when I felt a degree of freedom, and said what I desired with considerable ease. From that time until now, I have been engaged in pleading the cause of my brethren . . . .
John A. Collins, the general agent for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, attended the meeting that evening. Upon hearing the former slave’s stirring speech, Collins met with Douglass and hired him as a speaker on the spot. Douglass soon began traveling throughout New England speaking before large audiences. He also delivered speeches on behalf of the American Anti-Slavery Society.
In 1843, the New England Anti-Slavery Society resolved to host 100 meetings across the North. At the urging of William Lloyd Garrison, the group hired Douglass to join its corps of speakers. The escaped slave drew large audiences, but the possibility of being apprehended by bounty hunters prevented him from providing specific details that might reveal his true identity. When detractors began challenging the veracity of Douglass’ recollections of his life in bondage, he countered by publishing the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, in 1845, the first of several autobiographical works he penned during his life. Receiving positive reviews, the book quickly became a bestseller.
Life in Europe
On August 16, 1845, following the successful debut of his book, Douglass set sail for Europe where he spent the next two years lecturing, primarily in England and Ireland. During his stay, Douglass legally escaped the clutches of slavery when British supporters purchased his freedom from Hugh Auld at a cost of 150 pounds sterling ($711.66 in American currency) on December 5, 1846.
When Douglass returned to Boston in April 1847, determined to publish his own abolitionist newspaper, William Lloyd Garrison disapproved. Hoping to avoid competing with Garrison in Boston, the home of Garrison’s The Liberator, Douglass moved to the progressive city of Rochester, in western New York. There, on December 3, 1847, he issued the first edition of the North Star, under the masthead “Right is of no Sex—Truth is of no Color—God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren.” The weekly publication remained in circulation until June 1851 when it merged with Gerrit Smith’s Liberty Party Paper (based in Syracuse, New York) to form Frederick Douglass’ Paper.
During the same month that Douglass published the first issue of the North Star, he also had his first meeting with the radical abolitionist John Brown in Springfield, Massachusetts. Over the course of their discussions, Brown revealed his plan to invade the South secretly with a small band of insurgents and encourage slaves to escape their bondage. Douglass did not endorse Brown’s scheme because he believed that it had little chance to succeed. Still, Douglass left the meeting convinced of the dwindling chances of ending slavery in the United States without bloodshed.
Women’s Rights Activist
Douglass did not limit his progressive views to the abolition of slavery. In July 1848, he was the only African American to attend the Seneca Falls Convention. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martha Coffin Wright, Mary Ann M’Clintock, Lucretia Mott, and Jane Hunt organized the event. They advertised it as “a convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman.” Historians often credit the two-day gathering, as the catalyst for the women’s rights movement in the United States.
The organizers invited men to attend the convention on the second day, and roughly forty did. Many of them joined with the first day’s participants in adopting twelve resolutions endorsing specific equal rights for women. Only the ninth resolution, which stated that “it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise,” did not pass unanimously. When it seemed that the ninth resolution might not pass at all, Douglass delivered an impassioned speech in favor of enfranchising women. Following Douglass’ powerful address, a small majority of the delegates approved the resolution.
During the 1850s, Douglass became increasingly active in the anti-slavery Liberty Party and later with the fledgling Republican Party. In 1851, he openly split with William Lloyd Garrison. The more-radical Garrison believed that the U.S. Constitution sanctioned slavery, and he publicly condemned it. Douglass, however, defended the document, arguing that its lofty rhetoric aspiring to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty” confirmed the “unconstitutionality of slavery.” The two friends afterward became bitter enemies.
On July 5, 1852, during a holiday celebration sponsored by the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, Douglass delivered what many consider his most famous speech. Over 500 enrapt abolitionists packed Corinthian Hall and listened to Douglass pose the question, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” He praised the vision of the Founding Fathers for a nation based upon “justice, liberty and humanity.” However, he also noted that “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me.” Finally, Douglass declared that Independence Day to the slave is:
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. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
Predictably, after publication Douglass’ provocative words kindled mixed but strong reactions, ranging from anger to empathy. Despite the discord they may have evoked, however, his stinging, yet accurate, observations have withstood the test of time. They remain a powerful reminder that the pursuit of “liberty and justice for all” is still a work in progress.
John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry
As the specter of slavery further divided the United States following the Compromise of 1850 and the Dred Scott decision in 1857, Douglass began to accept the inevitability of impending bloodshed. During the latter half of the decade, Douglass met with John Brown, spoke on his behalf, and solicited funds for the zealous abolitionist’s militant exploits to end slavery. When the two men secretly met at a stone quarry near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, on August 20, 1859, to discuss Brown’s plan to take up arms against the U.S. government and attack the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, Douglass disapproved of the scheme and refused to get involved.
When Brown followed through with his plot on October 16, 1859, Douglass was addressing a crowd in Philadelphia. Upon learning of Brown’s raid and subsequent arrest, Douglass quickly made his way home to Rochester and then fled to Canada for fear of being falsely implicated in the conspiracy. His concerns were not unfounded. On November 13, 1859, Virginia Governor Richard Wise requested President James Buchanan‘s help in apprehending Douglass who officials charged with “murder, robbery, and inciting servile insurrection in the State of Virginia.” On November 12, 1859, Douglass left Canada for the distant shores of England where he remained for six months, far from the reach of southern kidnappers.
In 1860, Douglass returned to the United States, passing through Canada to avoid detection. Not surprisingly, he supported President Abraham Lincoln‘s call to arms after the Southern attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. However, when Lincoln proclaimed his goals were to quell the Southern insurrection and preserve the Union, he disappointed Douglass who viewed the ensuing conflict as a struggle to end slavery.
Despite his frustration, Douglass supported the war, especially after Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Two months later, on February 24, Douglass signed on as an agent for the government to recruit black soldiers for the volunteer army. Douglass was largely responsible for the successful recruitment of the Massachusetts 54th and 55th regiments, the former of which included his sons Lewis and Charles. As the war progressed, Douglass became one of Lincoln’s trusted advisors, and he endorsed the president’s reelection in 1864.
Following the Civil War, Douglass actively crusaded for the enactment of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery, conferred citizenship on African Americans, and granted black Americans the right to vote. Douglass’ support of the 14th and 15th amendments led to a rift with leading members of the American Equal Rights Association, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, because the proposed reforms granted voting rights to African American men, but did not enfranchise women. Douglass had been a vocal supporter of women’s rights for two decades, but he feared that linking the causes of black suffrage with female suffrage could doom the attainment either.
Return to Newspaper Publishing
Douglass had retired from journalism in 1863 when he ceased publication of Douglass’ Monthly, the successor of The North Star and Frederick Douglass’ Papers. In January 1870, Douglas re-entered the profession when he joined the staff of the New National Era as a corresponding editor. In December, he purchased the weekly publication and became editor-in-chief. Published until 1874, the newspaper provided a voice for black perspectives on national and local events in the Washington, DC. area.
During his stint as owner-editor of the New National Era, Douglass achieved a measure of political fame in 1872 when the Equal Rights Party nominated him as the vice-presidential running-mate of their U.S. presidential candidate Victoria Claflin Woodhull. Douglass did not seek the position, nor, in fact, was he aware that he had become the first African American nominated for Vice-President of the United States until after the party’s delegates selected him. Apparently unimpressed, Douglass did not acknowledge the nomination, and he actively campaigned for President Ulysses S. Grant‘s re-election.
Post-Civil War Private Life
Also in 1872, on a more somber note, Douglass’ home in Rochester burned to ruins on June 2. Officials suspected arson but could never prove it. Following the fire, Douglass moved to the Washington, DC. area where he lived for the rest of his life.
In March 1874, trustees of the Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Company (also known as Freedmen’s Bank) appointed Douglass as president of the institution. Incorporated by an act of Congress on March 3, 1865, the privately chartered bank’s purpose was to assist newly emancipated African-Americans deal with their personal financial matters. During its short existence, the bank suffered from a series of fraudulent financial decisions by its managers, which imperiled the savings of thousands of freedmen. The Panic of 1873, which triggered a worldwide economic depression, left the bank nearly in ruins.
Desperate to forestall a run against the bank’s assets, the institution’s trustees persuaded Douglass to assume oversight. Hoping to restore confidence among depositors, Douglass selflessly deposited thousands of dollars of his own money with the troubled institution. Unfortunately, neither Douglass’ personal sacrifice, nor his name and leadership were enough to avert disaster. On June 29, 1874, the Freedmen’s Bank collapsed, financially ruining tens of thousands of African Americans who had entrusted their savings to it.
Shortly after Rutherford B. Hayes took the oath of office as President of the United States on March 4, 1877, he nominated Douglass for the position of United States Marshal for the District of Columbia. When the U.S. Senate approved the nomination on March 18, Douglass became the first African American confirmed for a presidential appointment in U.S. history. Douglass held the office throughout the four years of Hayes’ presidency.
Six months after his confirmation, Douglass purchased an estate of nearly ten acres overlooking the Anacostia River, which he and his wife, Anna, named Cedar Hill. A year later he bought an adjacent tract of land that expanded the area of his holdings to over ten acres. The National Park Service now preserves the home at 1411 W Street SE, Washington, D.C., as the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.
After President Hayes left office, his successor James A. Garfield installed Douglass as the Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia in 1881. During the same year, Douglass published his third autobiography, entitled Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Sales of the book and a revised edition, published the following year, were disappointing.
Overshadowing the disappointment of his books’ sales, Douglass suffered a much larger personal tragedy in 1882 when his wife died unexpectedly of a stroke on August 4. Married for nearly forty-four years, the couple raised five children.
Two years after Anna’s death, Douglass married his former secretary and notable feminist, Helen Pitts, on January 24, 1884. Because Helen was white and nearly twenty years younger than Douglass, many people (including his family) did not approve of the marriage.
On January 5, 1886, Douglass resigned from his position as Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia and embarked on an extended tour of Europe, visiting England, Ireland, France, Switzerland, Italy, Egypt, and Greece. After Douglass returned home in 1887, President Benjamin Harrison appointed him as Minister Resident and Consul General to Haiti on July 1, 1889. Two months later, Harrison also named Douglass as Chargé d’affaires for Santo Domingo and Minister to Haiti. 1891, Douglass resigned from his appointments following a dispute with the state department. In 1893, Haiti named Douglass a co-commissioner of its pavilion at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Death and Burial
On February 20, 1895, Douglass attended a meeting of the National Council of Women in Washington, D.C. During that meeting, he received a standing ovation after being welcomed to the speaker’s platform. When Douglass returned home that evening, he suffered a massive heart attack and died at age seventy-seven. Following funeral services at Cedar Hill, on February 25, thousands of mourners viewed Douglass’ body as it lay in state at Metropolitan African Methodist Church in Washington. Douglass’ remains were transported to Rochester where they were interred at Mount Hope Cemetery after additional memorial services.