Bio of Frederick Douglass

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02.03.2011 | Your Cart

Condensed Biography of Frederick Douglass

The Quintessential Conservative Republican

Born into slavery in 1818, Frederick Douglass overcame insurmountable obstacles, becoming one of the most influential men in history.  He is often remembered as an abolitionist, editor and orator, but little is known of his political ideology and advocacy.

His early years… Like many slave children, Douglass grew up  fatherless, having limited contact with his mother before she died.   His meager existence consisted of feeling the pangs of hunger and exposure to the elements-  sleeping on dirt floors and barely clothed.  In his very early and formative years, he witnessed the barbarity of slavery as his Aunt Hester was beaten bloody for daring to love a neighboring slave.

He understood the injustice of slavery and challenged its mystery.  He questioned the necessity of separating mother and child as early as one year after birth.  He wanted to know why white children knew their own age and birthday while slave children did not.  He struggled to understand why his aunt was beaten so mercilessly for pursuing love.

Self- education… Upon entrance into the Auld household, Sophia Auld demanded two things of Douglass: 1) abandon his cowering posture and 2) look her in the eye when he speaks or is spoken to. That was a defining moment-Frederick Douglass was, for the first time, treated like a human being not unlike his mistress or her own son. She quickly began teaching him the alphabet and to read, which was abruptly ended by Master Hugh Auld. His conviction was, “Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world…”.  He went further to say that Douglass would no longer be content to be a slave. From that moment, Douglass understood learning to be his road to freedom, making it his mission.

Cleverly, he began to devise a method to continue learning to read without being discovered. He created games to challenge neighborhood boys’ ability to read, employing them to become his unwitting teachers. He often rushed to complete errands, allowing himself time for a quick lesson- bribing the less fortunate children with bread!

Upon achieving the goal of learning to read, Douglass found Master Hugh’s words to be haunting. Auld’s assessment of an educated slave was accurate. Nothing short of Liberty would be enough for Douglass. Therefore, he set his sights on learning to write, patiently delaying his plan for escape; intuitively recognizing the ability to both read and write as useful tools for a successful escape. That success has immortalized him through his published writings and movements fueled by his story.

From slavery to freedom… With patience and tenacity, Douglass devised a plan of escape that took years in the making. That did not, however, render him immune to the mental anguish his education, perception of slavery and desire to be free brought upon him. Every privilege or attempt at appeasing him, by his Master, only strengthened the conviction that he deserved to be free, further igniting his passion for liberty. 

As he grew nearer to freedom’s light, Frederick Douglass accepted a hard bargain, “… he granted me the privilege, and proposed the following terms… I was to pay three dollars… find myself in calking tools… My board was two dollars and a half per week… But as hard as it was… it was a step towards freedom…”. The bargain Douglass agreed to was in his Master’s favor; room and board, tools and privilege fee- all leaving very little to store. Making the bargain nearly impossible was the condition that should he miss one payment, work or no work, the privilege would be revoked. Frederick Douglass met this challenge with the ultimate reward being his successful escape.

Fugitive… Frederick Douglass was a fugitive slave when he wrote his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.  In his book, he exposed the atrocities of slavery through his personal life experiences and observations. From that point, he became a well sought-after speaker, catapulting the Abolitionist Movement, becoming its face. What impressed many was the great courage he displayed by publishing his story and the eloquence of his speeches, while the possibility of recapture was a constant threat.

During this time, Douglass went on a speaking tour of Europe with his mentor, Abolitionist Willian Lloyd Garrison, shedding light on the evils of the American Slave System.  He made endearing friendships, through which, his freedom was purchased and he was able to return to America a free man.

Republican Party and the Civil War… The Republican Party was formed in 1854, born of the desire to end the expansion of slavery. Douglass was the mouthpiece and to many, the heartbeat of the Abolitionist Movement, propelling him as a statesman within the party.

President Abraham Lincoln, our nation’s sixteenth President, was the first Republican to hold office. During that time, he sought Douglass’ support and influence, particularly during the Civil War. In fact Douglass was instrumental in recruiting blacks into the Massachussettes 54th Infantry Regiment of the Union Army- two of his own sons enlisted as well.

After the Civil War and the emancipation of slavery, Douglass weighed in on the treatment of newly freed blacks just as he had for the fair treatment of blacks within the Union Army.  He said, “…What I ask for the Negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice.” Frederick Douglass, believer in the Constitution, felt that blacks needed a level playing field, “to bear the responsibility of freedmen”.

Contribution to the Republican Party and Women’s Rights… In addition to serving as an advisor to Lincoln, Frederick Douglass was appointed by four other Republican Presidents:

  • Appointed by President Grant to the commission for possible annexation of the Dominican Republic, 1871
  • Appointed as US Marshall by President Hayes, 1877
  • Made Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia by President Garfield,1881
  • Appointed by President Harrison as the US Minister and Consul General Republic of Haiti, 1889

Frederick Douglass was not limited to the plight of slaves. He was a passionate advocate for women’s rights as well:

  • Met Susan B. Anthony, becoming champion of women’s rights, 1845
  • Lectures on reconstruction and women’s rights, 1865
  • Nominated VP running mate for Equal Rights Party candidate, Victoria C. Woodhull, 1872
  • Speaks at National Council of Women, February 20, 1895

Quintessential Conservative Republican… Initially, Frederick Douglass perceived the Constitution as a proslavery document, siding with his friend and mentor, William Lloyd Garrison.  However, after careful examination he discovered the Constitution to be an anti-slavery document.  It is on that principle that he built his political philosophy, upholding the following Life-Empowering values:

“What, then, is the Constitution?  I will tell you.  It is no vague, indefinite, floating, unsubstantial, ideal something; colored according to any man’s fancy, now a weasel, now a whale, and now nothing . . . The American Constitution is a written instrument full and complete in itself.  No Court in America, no Congress, no President, can add a single word thereto, or take a single word therefrom.  It is a great national enactment done by the people, and can only be altered, amended, or added to by the people.” —Frederick Douglass, March 26, 1860

…I expose slavery in this country, because to expose it is to kill it.  Slavery is one of those monsters of darkness to whom the light of truth is death.
 —Frederick Douglass

…What I ask for the Negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice. —Frederick Douglass

…And if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also.  All I ask is give him a chance to stand on his own legs!  Let him alone…your interference is doing him positive injury. … I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.  Man’s greatness consists in his ability to do and the proper application of his powers to things needed to be done. —Frederick Douglass

Life’s End… Frederick Douglass began his life as an illiterate slave.  After a small start from Sophia Auld, he continued to educate himself, learning to read and write- his road to freedom.

He made a name for himself by boldly illuminating the atrocities of slavery, passionately impacting the movement to have it abolished. Douglass used his platform to champion women’s rights as well.

During the course of his life, he held the attention of five US Presidents, serving in various positions of significance. During that time he continued his activism through public speaking and writing.

Frederick Douglass- author, orator, political activist, Republican- saw life’s end on the very day he delivered his last speech. That speech was given to the National Council of Women on February 20,1895.

You have read a brief summary of Douglass’ life and a brief overview of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.  For more information on Frederick Douglass, including a timeline of his life, visit:

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