Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was one of the prominent African American figures of the nineteenth century. Born into slavery, his tale of escape caught the interest of many in the North. Douglass spent much of his life campaigning for the immediate abolition (end) of slavery, and lived to see the Civil War and Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. When he died in 1895, a struggled ensued between Booker T. Washington and WEB Du Bois to claim themselves as his intellectual heir. 

Frederick Douglass Frederick Douglass

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Table of contents

    Frederick Douglass Biography

    Frederick Douglass was born into slavery around 1818 in Talbot Country, Maryland. He was originally called Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey.

    He was enslaved by Captain Anthony, a plantation overseer, who disciplined slaves and ensured agriculture targets were met. Like many enslaved people, Douglass did not grow up with his whole family: he was separated from his mother but was raised by his grandparents.

    Frederick Douglass Portrait of  Douglass StudySmarterA young Frederick Douglass. Wikimedia Commons.

    When Douglass was around eight years old, he was sent to live with a relative of Captain Aaron Anthony, a man named Hugh Auld. Auld's wife, Sophia, was kind to Douglass and began teaching him how to read. However, when Hugh Auld discovered her actions, he forbade it. He told his wife that literacy would ‘spoil a slave'.

    Did you know? Teaching enslaved people to read was illegal in Maryland. This was often the case in Southern states.

    In 1833, Douglass' was loaned to a farmer called Edward Covey who was known as a ‘slave breaker.’ This meant that he abused enslaved people so harshly that they were broken into being compliant. On one occasion, Douglass retaliated when Covey attacked him. He won the fight and Covey never attacked him again.

    In 1834, he was sent to work on William Freeland’s farm, where conditions were better. Douglass became increasingly involved in the community and formed a school where he taught other Black people how to read and write. He was also involved in a plot to escape which was discovered. For that reason, he spent some time in prison after which he was sent back to Hugh and Sophia Auld.

    Douglass was trained as a ship caulker and became skilled at his trade. He was hired out by Hugh Auld, who demanded a weekly fee. Once, Douglass did not pay Auld on time, who threatened Douglass in response. It was at this point that Douglass decided he had to escape slavery.

    Ship caulker

    Someone who works to make a ship watertight.

    Frederick Douglass Escape

    Douglass escaped in September 1838 to New York by disguising himself as a sailor. New York was a dangerous place to travel to as many slave catchers also travelled there in order to track down escaped enslaved people. Despite this, he was helped by abolitionist David Ruggles and was also able to marry Anna Murray in New York, a free Black woman he had met in Baltimore.

    Frederick Douglass Anna Murray StudySmarterAnna Murray, Wikimedia Commons.

    On Ruggles’ suggestion, the two moved to New Bedford in Massachusetts, where Douglass would be able to find work as a ship caulker. However, racial prejudice meant Black caulkers were not allowed to work with white caulkers and Douglass spent five years working as a common labourer.

    Frederick Douglass Activism

    In New Bedford, Douglass first discovered the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, run by William Lloyd Garrison. Inspired by this, in 1841 he attended a Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Convention in Nantucket. After giving an unexpected speech, Douglass was recruited as an agent for the group.

    He travelled around the country promoting abolition as an agent not only for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society but also for the American Anti-Slavery Society. The latter promoted moral suasion - the belief which placed Douglass at odds with many Black abolitionists throughout his career.

    Moral suasion

    The belief that slavery was a moral wrong that should be resisted through non-violence.

    Frederick Douglass Book

    In 1845, Douglass published his first autobiography titled Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. Douglass tells the story of his life and reveals several epiphanies throughout the book.

    Frederick Douglass Title page of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass StudySmarterTitle page of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, New York Public Library.

    In the book, Douglass talked about how enslavers were not better than enslaved people, as people believed in the nineteenth century. He emphasised that slaves were kept deliberately ignorant through laws banning literacy. He, therefore, began to see education as the key to ending slavery.

    Douglass wrote about how he would rather have died than kept being a slave - hence, his escape. But slavery was not just a personal issue for Douglass. He would not rest until slavery was abolished for all African Americans.

    Impact of the Book

    The Narrative became very popular, particularly in Europe. However, Hugh Auld heard the news of its success and became determined to capture Douglass. To avoid this, Douglass left the country and lectured throughout the United Kingdom for two years. His English supporters arranged to purchase him from Hugh Auld so that when Douglass returned to the US in 1847, he was a free man.

    Frederick Douglass Slavery

    On his return to the US, Douglass published his own abolitionist newspaper called The North Star.

    In 1851, he split with William Lloyd Garrison’s philosophy - that which had first motivated him to become involved in activism. Garrison’s philosophy was made up of the following points:

    • Moral suasion was the key to abolition.

    • The US Constitution was a pro-slavery document.

    • Political participation should be discouraged as the system was corrupted by slavery.

    Douglass came to believe that the Constitution was a valid document and that it could be used to achieve emancipation.

    Frederick Douglass Speech

    One of Douglass’ most famous speeches was his 1852 July Fourth speech in which he said:

    What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. […] The... conscience of the nation must be roused... the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be denounced."

    - Frederick Douglass, July Fourth Speech, 18521

    Douglass highlighted how America's celebration of its founding - the fourth of July - was not a celebration for enslaved people.

    Frederick Douglass and the American Civil War

    The American Civil War broke out in 1861 when the Southern States broke off and declared themselves the Confederacy - a rival nation that proudly allowed slavery. Douglass became a consultant to President Abraham Lincoln. He helped to convince Lincoln that abolition should be a goal of the war and strongly advocated for the recruitment of Black soldiers to the Union army. Douglass himself became the recruiter for an all-Black regiment called the 54th Massachusetts Regiment.

    Frederick Douglass 54th Massachusetts Regiment mural StudySmarterA 1943 mural of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment at the attack of Fort Wagner in 1863. Library of Congress via Picryl.

    The Emancipation Proclamation that came into effect on 1 January 1863 effectively freed all enslaved people and was followed by the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 which officially abolished slavery after the triumph of the Union. Douglass turned his efforts to the cause of civil rights.

    What else did Frederick Douglass campaign for?

    As well as rights for African-Americans, Douglass also strongly supported rights for women. He was the only Black man to attend the 1848 Seneca Falls convention, and after the Civil War argued for suffrage for all men and women. However, this proved too ambitious, and Douglass supported Black male suffrage in the hopes that Black men could help women gain suffrage too. The Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 prohibited states from restricting voting rights based on race.

    Even after the abolition of slavery, Douglass continued to fight for civil rights. Although Reconstruction (1865-1877) seemed promising, granting voting and legal rights to African Americans, it was soon followed by a white backlash. This white backlash resulted in voting restrictions and segregation in public spaces. This was known as Jim Crow. Douglass fought against this backlash.

    Frederick Douglass Portrait of Douglass around 1879 StudySmarterFrederick Douglass towards the end of his life. Wikimedia Commons.

    Rising leaders in the African American community included WEB Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. These two figures represented a divide on how African Americans should fight against Jim Crow. Du Bois argued that active resistance was necessary to change laws and attitudes. By contrast, Washington believed that accommodation was the answer. Accommodation argued that resisting racism would only alienate white people further. Both Du Bois and Washington styled themselves as the heir to Frederick Douglass' legacy.

    In actual fact, neither had worked with Douglass much or were ever much acknowledged by Douglass. Who Douglass did admire greatly was a woman named Ida B. Wells - an African American journalist and activist who fought to raise awareness against lynching, the brutal murder of African Americans. It would be more accurate to call Wells Douglass' political heir, and towards the end of his life Douglass acted as a mentor to Wells.

    Frederick Douglass - Key takeaways

    • Frederick Douglass was born into slavery but escaped.
    • He was taught the alphabet by Sophia Auld, and after this was forbidden, he taught himself how to read and write, later teaching other enslaved people how to do the same.
    • His first autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass detailed his enslavement and became very popular.
    • He was a consultant for Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and helped to make abolition a goal of the War and recruit Black soldiers to the Union army.
    • He worked closely with Ida B Wells towards the end of his life, campaigning with her against lynching and acting as a mentor to her.


    1. Frederick Douglass, 'What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?', Rochester, New York (5 July 1852).
    Frequently Asked Questions about Frederick Douglass

    What is Frederick Douglass most famous for?

    Frederick Douglass is famous for many things. He accomplished a great deal during his lifetime. The most well-known of these, however, are his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and his roles as a consultant to President Lincoln and military recruiter during the American Civil War.

    How did Frederick Douglass help African-Americans?

    Frederick Douglass was an influential abolitionist, who argued for and influenced the end of slavery. After slavery ended, Douglass devoted the rest of his life to fighting for civil rights.

    What did Frederick Douglass do to end slavery?

    Frederick Douglass promoted the abolition of slavery and inspired others through his writings and speeches. As a consultant to President Lincoln during the civil war, Frederick Douglass helped to make abolition a goal of the war.

    What are three facts about Frederick Douglass?

    • Frederick Douglass escaped slavery in September 1838 after being born into it in around 1818.

    • He is famous for his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

    • He became the first African-American US Marshal in 1877.

    When did Frederick Douglass escape slavery?

    Frederick Douglass escaped slavery in September 1838.

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