Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Summary and Analysis of Preface and Letter from Wendell Phillips, Esq.


The Preface to the Narrative was written by William Lloyd Garrison, the famous abolitionist, on May 1st, 1845 in Boston, Massachusetts. He opened by explaining that he had met Douglass for the first time at an anti-slavery convention in August, 1841. Most people, including Garrison, did not know who he was but were prepared to hear some words from an actual former slave.

When Douglass began speaking, however, Garrison was utterly transfixed; his mind was excited with emotion he had never felt before, and the crowd was shocked and moved by Douglass's immense oratory skills and his tale of suffering and woe. Garrison believed that he had never hated slavery more than at that moment, and marveled how this man before him with his high moral and intellectual attainment was actually a slave.

When Douglass first took to the stage he was nervous and unsure, and apologized, saying that slavery was not an institution geared toward perfecting one's intellect and emotions. He began narrating the facts of his early existence. Garrison took the stage and roused the crowd by asking if they would permit Douglass to remain in slavery, to which they responded with resounding "No's" Garrison knew that Douglass would be a great asset to the anti-slavery enterprise, and asked if he would not consider joining it. Garrison was aided by a friend, the General Agent of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, Mr. John A. Collins. Douglass accepted with some apprehension but was a tireless and unrelenting advocate for the cause from the moment he agreed. Garrison admired his "gentleness and meekness" and his speaking skills, which included "pathos, wit, comparison, imitation, strength of reasoning, and fluency of language."

It is unlikely that any other population has endured such a devastating, horrific, and cruel treatment as did the Africans who became enslaved in the Americas; "nothing has been left undone to cripple their intellects, darken their minds, debase their moral nature, obliterate all traces of their relationship to mankind; and yet how wonderfully they have sustained the mighty load of a most frightful bondage..." One abolitionist told a story of a white man captured by the Africans and kept for three years, relating how the man became a gibbering, irrational fool under the yoke. Clearly all men have the propensity to sink so low when enslaved; it is not just Africans.

Garrison continues by asserting that Douglass chose to write his Narrative completely on his own. It was unlikely, in Garrison's opinion, that anyone could peruse it and not shed a tear at the privations and horrors suffered by the young man. He also asserted that he was confident it was completely accurate, that "nothing has been set down in malice, nothing exaggerated, nothing drawn from the imagination..." Douglass's tale reveals what life was like for slaves in a state – Maryland – where slavery was not considered as barbaric as in other states. Nevertheless, Douglass still suffered and groaned under the terrible events of his life in bondage.

Garrison notes that there were many affecting moments in the work, but none more so than the moment where Douglass contemplates the vessels sailing on the Chesapeake Bay and ruminating on whether or not he would ever attain freedom. Garrison excoriates the cruel system of slavery that "entombs the godlike mind of man, defaces the divine image, reduces those who by creation were crowned with glory and honor to a level with four-footed beasts..."

Garrison concludes his preface by relating the two cruelest instances from Douglass's book, including the shooting of a slave by a white man. The murderer was never brought to justice because it was simply not seen as a crime to kill a slave, even if there was evidence of the act. The slave population had no legal protection and any amount of cruelty was inflicted upon them with impunity. Appealing to the reader, Garrison asked if they were with him and what they were prepared to do for the cause. They should remember the motto: "NO COMPROMISE WITH SLAVERY! NO UNION WITH SLAVEHOLDERS!"

In his "Letter," written in Boston on April 22nd, 1845, Wendell Phillips, Esq. addresses his friend Frederick Douglass, encouraging him to remember the old fable of the man and the lion, where the lion complained that he would not be so misrepresented if lions wrote history, not men. Now, Phillips writes, the lions were writing history. He was pleased to read in the Narrative how "early the most neglected of God's children waken to a sense of their rights, and of the injustice done them. Experience is a keen teacher..." Since Douglass came from part of the country where the system of slavery was not the cruelest, it was important to see what it was like in fairer parts.

Phillips upholds Douglass's work as completely truthful, free from bias or prevarication or embellishment. The examples of cruelty are not rare but applicable to all slaves. In Phillips's opinion, Douglass was as valiant as the writers of the Declaration of Independence, who wrote with "the halter about their necks." Douglass was in a similar state of danger and threat from those who desired his silencing. Phillips concludes that he hoped one day the residents of New England would not always be a refuge for the oppressed where all they could do was hide the outcast, but that they would "proclaim our welcome to the slave so loudly that the tones shall reach every hut in the Carolinas..."


William Lloyd Garrison was one of the most prominent abolitionists in the antebellum North. He learned the printer's trade and became a journalist, publishing The Liberator in Boston. It was significant for being one of the strongest and most vociferous voices for immediate and total emancipation. Garrison also worked for temperance, women's rights, and other related causes. He served as the President of the American Anti-Slavery Society and represented the more liberal, radical wing of abolitionism. He first met Douglass at an anti-slavery convention held in Nantucket from August 10th-12th. It was a special summer session hosted by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society.

The John Collins referenced in the letter was a Vermont native who was a lecturer for the M.A.S.S. He actually broke away from the Garrisonian wing to devote himself to the more utopian philosophy of Robert Owen, which led to his brief residence on a communal farm in upstate New York.

Garrison's Letter is important for several reasons. First, it brought Douglass firmly within the abolitionist movement. Indeed, the last words of the Letter, " NO COMPROMISE WITH SLAVERY! NO UNION WITH SLAVEHOLDERS!" appeared on the masthead of the Liberator and alluded to the American Anti-Slavery Society's resolution that declared the U.S. Constitution a pro-slavery document and called for a dissolution of the Union. Douglass's work did not espouse such views, but Garrison was touting the work's significance in spreading abolitionist sentiment. Secondly, it brought legitimacy and attention to a work by an unknown author (and a ex-slave). Garrison's prominence in the world of letters and reform helped Douglass garner more interest and awareness from readers.

Wendell Phillips was born in Boston, educated at Harvard, and was also a well-known abolitionist in the American Anti-Slavery Society in the 1840s and 1850s. Like Garrison, he also championed a variety of other social causes, including women's rights, temperance, penal reform, Indian rights, and legislative protection for workers. The fable to which he alludes to in the opening of his preface was based loosely off of one of Aesop's fables.

Phillips's comment about the "halter about their necks" may have been an allusion to historian Jared Sparks's statement that Benjamin Franklin commented to John Hancock at the signing of the Declaration of Independence that "Yes, we must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately." This invocation of the Declaration of Independence was significant in that it simultaneously referenced the ideals of freedom and autonomy espoused in the document but also the hypocrisy within it, as slaves (and women) were excluded from such lofty visions of the greatness of the soon-to-be nation.