Biography of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was one of the greatest writers, orators, abolitionists, reformers, and polemicists of the 19th century. Born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland around 1818, Douglass eventually escaped to freedom in 1838. He did not know the identity of his father and did not have a close relationship with his mother. The earliest years of his life were spent with his first master, Captain Anthony, a moderately wealthy slaveholder. Douglass lived on the main plantation of Colonel Lloyd, one of Maryland's wealthiest men. In a fortuitous turn of events, Douglass was sent to Baltimore to live with Anthony's son-in-law's brother and his wife. There Douglass taught himself how to read and write and began to yearn for freedom from bondage.

After a short stint with Thomas Auld, Anthony's son-in-law, Douglass was hired out to Edward Covey, famed for his ability to "break" slaves. On Covey's farm Douglass felt broken in body, mind, and spirit. He finally resolved to resist Covey's frequent beatings by engaging in battle and refusing to allow Covey to beat him. This was a major climactic moment in Douglass's life, and one he described as facilitating his transition from slave to man.

Following his year with Covey, Douglass was hired to William Freeland, a slaveholder with a great deal more kindness and rationality than most he had encountered. His time there ended when his plot to escape by river was discovered and he was sent back to Baltimore. There he learned how to calk and worked on the shipyards. He chafed at his continued bondage and finally escaped to New York. He married Anna and the two moved to New Bedford.

Douglass was hired by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society to travel throughout the North and give speeches on abolitionism and about his life as a slave. He also embarked on a twenty-one month tour of England, Ireland, and Scotland to promote the first of three autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

When he returned in 1847, Douglass began his own newspaper, The North Star, published out of Rochester, NY. He was both editor and writer and eventually began two more papers, Frederick Douglass's Paper and Frederick Douglass Monthly. They ran until 1863. While in Rochester Douglass aided slaves fleeing North on the Underground Railroad. Douglass attended the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 to support women's rights; he was the only man in attendance.

When Douglass broke with his mentor and friend William Lloyd Garrison over ways in which to promote abolition, Douglass published his second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), in which he detailed his position on abolitionism. As the Civil War loomed, Douglass declined John Brown's invitation to participate in the raid on Harper's Ferry. He organized two regiments of African Americans in Massachusetts to fight in the war. At the war's end he requested President Johnson pass a voting rights act securing suffrage for the newly-freed slaves.

During Reconstruction Douglass advocated on behalf of prison reform, education for blacks, an end to white supremacy organizations, temperance, and sexual and racial equality in jobs and public office. Following the Civil War he was appointed: a U.S. Marshal and recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia; the president of the Freedmen's Bureau bank; the consul to Haiti; and the charge d'affaires (diplomatic agent) to the Dominican Republic. He and his family lived outside of the Capital for the rest of his life. His third autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, was published in 1881 and expanded in 1892.

Frederick Douglass died of cardiac arrest on February 20th, 1895 after delivering a speech at a women's suffrage rally. He was married twice and had five children. He is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York.

Douglass has been named one of the 100 Greatest African Americans, was honored with a stamp in the "Prominent Americans" series by the United States Postal Service, was given the only posthumous honorary membership in the African-American Alpha Phi fraternity, and was honored with a feast day on the Episcopal liturgical calendar on February 20th, among many other awards and accolades. Washington, DC honored him by naming the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge after him, numerous American public schools carry his name, and many statues have been built to honor his achievements.


Study Guides on Works by Frederick Douglass