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In this lesson, we will learn about Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who became one of the most powerful voices in the abolitionist movement in the United States. In addition, we will examine his written work, most notably his first autobiography – ”Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.”

The Voice of a Slave

Frederick Douglass was one of the most powerful voices in the anti-slavery movement in the 19th century. After spending much of his early years in slavery, Douglass was able to escape north where he created a life for himself by sharing his experiences with those anti-slavery groups that would listen.

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The fact that Douglass was intelligent and eloquent amazed his audiences – remember, it was expected that most slaves did not know how to read at the time. But Douglass, who saw his audiences grow, understood that he was in a position of power. He could work to make change.

A former slave, Douglass became a powerful abolitionist voice.
Andrew Johnson) to find an end to slavery altogether and champion the rights of free minorities. Douglass was, without a doubt, one of the most politically influential, inspiring and recognizable figures of the anti-slavery movement.

The Slave Life

Frederick Douglass was born around February of 1818, although, sadly, he never knew his exact birth date.

Raised by his grandparents in Maryland, Douglass was the son of a black mother and a white father. He saw his mother infrequently before she died when he was around seven. Sadly, his father he never knew. Douglass became a part of plantation life early on and was eventually sent to work for a shipbuilder named Hugh Auld in Baltimore.It was here with the Aulds that Douglass would learn the most important of skills – he learned to read.

Despite it being illegal, Hugh’s wife, Sophia, began to teach Douglass the alphabet. After Hugh discouraged it, Douglass found that he could learn from kids in the neighborhood. He read whatever he could get his hands on, including newspapers. This is where he learned about abolitionism and the anti-slavery movement.A few years later, Douglass was sent to a man named Edward Covey – a notorious slave-breaker, which was as bad as it sounds. Covey worked hard to break Douglass of physical, psychological and emotional strength through whippings and withholding food. It was a life he couldn’t bear.

Ultimately, feeling that it was worth the risk, Douglass decided to try to find his way north.

Douglass worked with presidents Johnson and Lincoln on finding a way to end slavery.
Presidents Johnson Lincoln

At the age of 20, after two failed attempts, Douglass escaped successfully by donning a sailor’s uniform and using an ID from a free black man, all thanks to a free black woman named Anna Murray, a woman with whom he’d fallen in love. Once he arrived, Douglass met up with Murray in New York, and the two were married. They eventually settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where they adopted the last name Douglass (Frederick was born with the last name Bailey but knew he needed to change it once he escaped slavery).

They immersed themselves in the thriving black religious and activist communities.

An Abolitionist’s Voice

Now this is where the limelight found Douglass. Because he became so connected in the community, he was often asked to speak at local anti-slavery meetings and tell his story. People were in awe of his speaking ability. His story was one that left many very emotional.

William Lloyd Garrison, the very famous abolitionist writer, took note.In one very pivotal situation, Douglass was asked to give a speech at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society’s Annual Convention. The audience was moved by Douglass. He was asked to become a lecturer for the society for a number of years.

He traveled the country, stood before audiences both friendly and hostile and told his story to support the anti-slavery movement.It was during this time that Douglass wrote his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. What made the work so incredible was the author’s writing – it was well-written, incredibly moving and read by many. Douglass knew that this would draw attention to himself, risking his freedom and his life. He worried about it and attempted to evade recapture. But he continued to work, producing several anti-slavery newspapers, the most famous of which was The North Star.

Murray became the wife of Douglass following his escape from slavery.

Anna Murray

He published two more autobiographies in his lifetime, covering different periods in his life and expanding on previous publications. He continued to travel and lecture, expanding his focus to women’s rights, minority suffrage rights and also treatment of blacks in the armed forces.

He used his clout and political power to influence lawmakers and to work to end slavery and create positive change.

The Narrative

Frederick Douglass wrote and published three slave narratives: A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881). The slave narrative is, essentially, a form of writing that grew out of a written recreation of the personal accounts and events of a slave over their lifetime. Much like a memoir, these narratives served to inform the public and often sway public opinion. Abolitionists helped to edit these and get them published.A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave was by far his most notable work and arguably the most recognizable and politically-influential slave account ever written. While the accounts of his life are recreated in a factual manner, a few other things made this such an extraordinary work.

Douglass wrote in elevated diction that was also straightforward and simple. This means that the vocabulary was one of a literary man, but his recollection of events did not include overly-descriptive passages. This garnered him the most attention – the fact that a slave not only knew how to read and write but had the ability to express himself with such eloquence. Consider this passage from A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave:I suffered more anxiety than most of my fellow-slaves.

I had known what it was to be kindly treated; they had known nothing of the kind. They had seen little or nothing of the world. They were in very deed men and women of sorrow, and acquainted with grief. Their backs had been made familiar with the bloody lash, so that they had become callous; mine was yet tender…His was the first personal account that was used as a powerful treatise against slavery.

Here was a man who was, for the most part, self-taught. A slave who was intelligent and was able to write as well as an educated white man – his audiences were amazed. So, he told the story of his life as a timeline of events that was underscored by an obvious brutality, unjustness and hypocrisy.In terms of realism, Douglass’ work was one of the first that used factual events and reality to reach readers in order to sway public opinion and eventually, political opinion. Again, this was a break from the hopeful optimism and sense of opportunity that the Romantic era brought.

With the growth of realism and the desire to create literature that reflected the real lives of the working class, so grew a desire to create works that reflected the dark realities of slavery and what the country had become. There were many who criticized the work as unrealistic or perhaps too harsh. Others thought that there was no way this could have been written by a slave. Eventually, the critics were silenced when Douglass received support and affirmation from his audiences (and also when all of the facts checked out to be true).

Lesson Summary

It is important to remember Frederick Douglass as a self-taught man, an escaped slave and an abolitionist orator and writer. He influenced the masses through his stories that were moving and eloquently written and told. It was precisely these facts that silenced so many. He wasn’t supposed to have escaped. He wasn’t supposed to be able to recount his stories to an audience.

He wasn’t supposed to be so intelligent. But he was, which is why he became the slave voice of the abolitionist movement. Remember that he risked his freedom, and his life, in doing so.His written works were widely published and read both in the U.

S. and abroad. They were written in a style that drew in the typical reader – a recounting of events that was simple in detail and elevated in diction but that also revealed the horrors that he experienced as a slave. Many saw an intelligent man that was beaten and deprived of his rights – a true story that revealed the realities of slavery.

His work became a first in the realism movement in literature – it was all true, and it was about more than just the realities of the working-class Joe. It was about an entire social, economic and political framework that existed within this nation, and it was written by someone who experienced it all.In all of these ways and for all of these reasons, there has been no figure in the U.S. who has compared in literary voice or social or political influence to Frederick Douglass.

Learning Outcomes

After watching this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Describe Frederick Douglass’ life as a slave and his escape to freedom
  • Summarize his work for the abolitionist movement
  • Explain the significance of A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

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