Frederick Douglass, a self-taught escaped slave, published Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave in 1845 to launch an activist writing career that would make him the dominant African American for the next half century. He wrote two subsequent autobiographies (1855 and 1881) and excelled as statesman, orator, and journalist. He left more than 500 speeches and published abolitionist newspapers for nearly 16 years, and a postwar weekly for nearly four. His commentaries were published in Atlantic Monthly, the London Times, and the New York Herald.
Douglass’ fluency with rhythm and imagery is in evidence in his Narrative. Critics note, however, that the narrative owes less to the autobiography genre than to the slave narrative tradition. It is a chronological testimony delivered in understated language, whose shape was determined by abolitionist printers and editors. Its purpose was to document for whites the horrors of slavery and to persuade them to abolish slavery. But the restrained approach of the slave narrative, juxtaposed with Douglass’ rhythmic portrayals of anguish, fear, and pathos, creates a tension generally associated with literature. The narrative is hailed as an artistic masterpiece. Its II chapters—essays of sorts—chronicle Douglass’ birth in Maryland to a mother he would see only a few times and a father rumored to be a white slave owner. It follows his bestial existence across plantations, his abuse by seven different owners or overseers, his introduction to reading and writing by a kind mistress, and his clever schemes as a shipyard worker to get others to help with his education.
The Narrative was an immediate success, with editions published in England, Ireland, and France, but its publication in the U.S. in May 1845, replete with specific names and places (excluding details of his means of escape) put Douglass in danger of being returned to slavery. He left for Europe in August 1845 to lecture in England, Scotland, and Ireland. After British friends purchased his freedom for 150 pounds (750 dollars) in 1846, he returned to the U.S. in 1847 and settled in Rochester, New York, where he published his first newspaper, the North Star.
Douglass’ decision to publish, against the wishes of his abolitionist mentor William Lloyd Garrison, marked the beginning of his re-creation—as a writer, as an independent person of color, as an intellectual. African American newspapers had been published since 1827, but none for more than a few years. Douglass was determined that the North Star would survive, and prove that a man of color could sustain a quality newspaper over a long period of time. “Our race must be vindicated from the embarrassing imputations resulting from former non-success,” he wrote in the inaugural issue. Most of its readers were white. The North Star also provided Douglass the forum he needed for an independent exploration of questions regarding slavery. By early 1848, a North Star article (“The Constitution and Slavery”) confirmed that his break with the Garrisonians was complete. Now he rejected Garrison’s notion that the U.S. Constitution was by nature a pro-slavery document that should not be honored, and that, consequently, abolitionists, through the sheer weight of logic and persuasion, would convince good men to effect radical change.
For nearly 13 years the newspaper—changed in name in 1851 to Frederick Douglass’s Paper—was the vehicle for hundreds of articles, editorials, and reprinted speeches by Douglass. His best writing is infused with elements of his oratorical delivery: long, sermonesque sentences, filled with anguish, anger, or ridicule, sometimes drawing wry analogies from Old Testament imagery. He railed against colonization, supported women’s suffrage, and recorded the resolutions of African American conventions. When the weekly failed in 1860, Douglass relied on Frederick Douglass’s Monthly—founded in 1858 as a monthly compendium primarily for foreign distribution—to carry his views.
After Abraham Lincoln’s election as president, Douglass held him to be “the most dangerous advocate of slave-hunting and slave-catching in the land” (“The Inaugural Address,” April 1861). After the outbreak of the Civil War, Douglass remained critical, lambasting Lincoln and Congress for not outlawing slavery (“The Slave Power Still Omnipotent at Washington,” January 1862) and agitating for the enlistment of African American volunteers in the Union Army (“Services of Colored Men,” July 1862). Not until Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation did Douglass relent, somewhat.
Even then he was not completely satisfied: there was still work to be done (“The Work of the Future,” November 1862) and there were still profound questions to be answered (“What Shall Be Done with the Freed Slaves?,” November 1862). In the last issue of the monthly, marking the end of almost 16 years of continuous publication in some form or another, Douglass took one last broadside at Lincoln for not speaking out against Confederate abuse of captured African American troops (“Black Soldiers,” August 1863).
Douglass returned to writing full-time in 1870 when he took control of the New Era, renaming it the New National Era. Here he examined the problems of the newly freed slave, the need for federal commitment to Reconstruction, the evils of Chinese worker exploitation, and the urgency of women’s suffrage. The Era folded in 1874, and Douglass wrote for mainstream publications.
In 1892, Douglass, journalist Ida B. Wells, newspaper historian I. Garland Penn, and attorney Ferdinand L.Barnett published The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition, 1892; Douglass’ introduction to the pamphlet devoted a few pages to lynchings. He returned to this topic in the North American Review (“Lynch Law in the South,” June 1894), and later in 1894, less than a year before his death, he published a pamphlet addressing the issue fully (Why Is the Negro Lynched?
The Lesson of the Hour). In the pamphlet, he notes that at the root of lynchings is the accusation that black men have assaulted white women and, in some cases, white children. Douglass defends, as if before a court of law, the integrity of the Negro “as a class” against this accusation. “Throughout the war,” Douglass writes, “while the slavemasters of the South were absent… in the field of rebellion, with bullets in their pockets, treason in their hearts, broad blades in their bloody hands, seeking the life of the nation… their wives, their daughters, their sisters and their mothers were left in the absolute custody of these same Negroes…and there was never a single instance of such crime reported.” Douglass also notes that slavery “was a system of unmitigated, legalized outrage upon black women of the South, and no white man was ever shot, burned or hanged for availing himself of all the power that slavery gave him.”
When he died in 1895, Douglass left behind an enormous collection of writing, which has yet to be fully evaluated. Clearly his legacy as an intellectual, politically motivated African American has had a marked effect on African American politics and on American political writing in general. His use of the essay form is a good example of the effectiveness of the genre as a tool for political discussion and change, underpinning Douglass’ stature as a man of conscience.
Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, probably 1818 in Tuckahoe, Talbot County, Maryland; changed his name to Douglass when he escaped slavery. Worked on a plantation, until 1825; house servant, Baltimore, 1825–33; field hand, St. Michael’s, Maryland, 1833–36; ship’s caulker, 1837–38; escaped from slavery to New York, 1838.
Married Anna Murray, 1838: one daughter and three sons. Worked in shipyards in Massachusetts, 1838–42. Worked on various anti-slavery campaigns, from 1841, and later on women’s rights campaigns. Published the first of three autobiographical volumes, 1845; lectured in Britain and Ireland, 1845–47. Friends bought his freedom and he returned to the U.S., 1847. Founder, editor, and main contributor, North Star abolitionist paper, 1847–60 (name changed to Frederick Douglass’s Paper, 1851), and Frederick Douglass’s Monthly, 1858–63; owner, New National Era newspaper, 1870–74. President, Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company, 1873–74; U.S. marshal, 1877–81; recorder of deeds, after 1881. Married Helen Pitts, 1884. U.S. minister to Haiti, 1889–91. Died in Washington, D.C., 2.0 February 1895.
Essays and Related Prose
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, 1845; edited by Benjamin Quarles, 1960, Houston A. Baker, Jr., 1982, and David W.Blight, 1993
My Bondage and My Freedom, 1855; edited by William L. Andrews, 1987
Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, 1881; revised edition, 1892
On Women’s Rights, edited by Philip S.Foner, 1976
The Narrative and Selected Writings, edited by Michael Meyer, 1984
The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader, edited by William L. Andrews, 1996
Collected works editions: Life and Writings, edited by Philip S. Foner, 4 vols., 1950– 55; The Frederick Douglass Papers, edited by John W.Blassingame and John R.McKivigan, 5 vols., 1979–92 (in progress).
Andrews, William L., Critical Essays on Frederick Douglass, Boston: Hall, 1991
Baker, Houston A., Jr., “Autobiographical Acts and the Voice of the Southern Slave,” in his The Journey Back: Issues in Black Literature and Criticism, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980
Castronovo, Russ, “‘As to nation, I belong to none:’ Ambivalence, Diaspora, and Frederick Douglass,” American Transcendental Quarterly 9, no. 3 (September 1995)
Foner, Philip S., Introduction to Frederick Douglass on Women’s Rights, edited by Foner, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1976
Garvey, Gregory T., “Frederick Douglass’s Change of Opinion on the U.S. Constitution: Abolitionism and the ‘elements of moral power’,” American Transcendental Quarterly 9, no. 3 (September 1995)
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr.,“Binary Oppositions in Chapter One of the Narrative,” in Afro- American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruction, edited by Dexter Fisher and Robert B.Stepto, New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1979
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., “A Dangerous Literacy: The Legacy of Frederick Douglass,” New York Times Book Review, 28 May 1995: 3
McFeely, William S., Frederick Douglass, New York: Norton, 1991
Royer, Daniel J., “The Process of Literacy as Communal Involvement in the Narratives of Frederick Douglass,” African American Review 28, no. 3 (Fall 1994)
Sekora, John, “Comprehending Slavery: Language and Personal History in the Narrative,” CLA Journal 29, no. 2 (December 1985)
Sekora, John, “‘Mr. Editor, if you please’: Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, and the End of the Abolitionist Imprint,” Callaloo 17, no. 2 (Spring 1994)
Stone, Albert E., “Identity and Art in Frederick Douglass’s Narrative” CLA Journal 17, no. 2 (December 1973)
Sundquist, Eric J., editor, Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990
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