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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

Preface by William Lloyd Garrison & Letter from Wendell Phillips

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Preface by William Lloyd Garrison & Letter from Wendell Phillips, page 2

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Summary: Preface by William Lloyd Garrison

William Lloyd Garrison, founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, describes his first encounter with Frederick Douglass at an antislavery convention in Nantucket, Massachusetts, in 1841. This encounter led to a long partnership between Douglass and the Anti-Slavery Society. At the convention, Douglass spoke to the audience about his life under slavery, and the audience responded powerfully to Douglass’s impressive physical presence and intellectual de-meanor. Garrison recalls rising after Douglass’s speech and declaring it a better piece of oration, even, than the speech of the Patrick Henry during the time of the American Revolution. Garrison describes the audience’s resounding positive response after Garrison asked them for a commitment to protect Douglass from slave owners.

Garrison recalls immediately recruiting Douglass as an anti--slavery promoter to aid the abolitionist cause and to make American audiences question their prejudice against blacks. Since Garrison recruited him, Douglass has been a successful and persuasive speaker. Douglass’s prestige is due to his perfect union of head and heart, which helps him capture the hearts and convince the minds of others. Douglass’s career proves wrong those who insist that the Negro race is naturally inferior. Garrison argues that any race would have become as degraded as the Negro race, had they been subjected to slavery. He relates the case of a shipwrecked white man who was kept in slavery in Africa for three years. When the man was found, he was unable to remember his native language and his powers of reason. Thus mental deterioration is a result of slavery, not a preexisting quality of the slave population.

Garrison attests that the Narrative is entirely Douglass’s own work and is entirely truthful. Garrison compliments the Narrative’s literary merit, specifically its power to emotionally affect readers. He points specifically to the passage of Douglass’s -soliloquy on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay as evidence of Douglass’s sublime mind. Garrison points out that as bad as Douglass’s experiences have been, many slaves suffer even more. Garrison asks rhetorically how the practice of slavery, revealed to be evil, can be allowed to continue. He deplores the skeptics who refuse to believe in the brutality of the institution of slavery even when faced with evidence of its deprivation, physical cruelty, and sexual abuse. He anticipates that such skeptics will attempt to discredit Douglass, but will inevitably fail in the face of the candid truthfulness of the Narrative.

Garrison discusses the troubling issue of white men killing slaves and suffering no consequences. Douglass cites two cases of this in his Narrative, and Garrison points to another recent case in Maryland. Garrison reminds readers that this kind of murder happens frequently and goes unpunished, as black men and women are not allowed to testify against whites. Finally, he addresses and supports Douglass’s particular rejection of the false Christianity of slaveholders. Garrison exhorts readers to repudiate slaveholders and join in support of the victims of slavery, as this is the side of God and faith.

Summary: Letter from Wendell Phillips

Wendell Phillips, abolitionist and president of the American Anti‑Slavery Society, writes to Douglass as a friend. Phillips is relieved that factual accounts of the experiences of slaves are now being published so that the history of slavery can be fully revealed. Previously the histories of slavery consisted only of the selective information released by slaveholders. Phillips values Douglass’s Narrative as an example of a slave awakening to his rights and as a description of slavery’s particular campaign against the souls of slaves. Phillips considers it remarkable that Douglass’s account originates in an area of the United States where slavery is said to be less harsh, thus attesting to unthinkable cruelty that must be experienced by those slaves in the Deep South.

Phillips attests that Douglass’s Narrative is neither exaggerated nor unjust. The particular instances of cruelty that Douglass experienced and witnessed are not anomalies, but fundamental parts of the institution of slavery. Phillips fears for Douglass, who has written the true names of himself and his masters and has thus put himself in danger of recapture. Phillips draws a parallel between Douglass and the fathers of the Declaration of Independence who jeopardized their lives by signing their names. Phillips knows that Douglass will be shielded by those abolitionists in the North who deliberately scorn the Fugitive Slave Laws, but this gesture is not enough. Massachusetts must soon explicitly declare itself an asylum for fugitive slaves.

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Common Core State Standards (CCSS)

by Mr_Cafaro, April 04, 2013

The title Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is suggested by the CCSS Initiative as an Exemplar Text for middle school.


9 out of 16 people found this helpful

Book Review for teens

by MirandaP97, August 19, 2013

Yes, I am a teen myself, and if you HAVE to read this, then do so, but if you don't have to, then don't read is incredibly boring...I had to read it for my English class...horrible book...unless you like narratives...then to you...ENJOY!!! It is hard to understand in some parts, but if you have ever read Fahrenheit 451, then it's about that bad...


8 out of 71 people found this helpful

Actually a good book

by BellaTheGod, November 20, 2013

No doubt, I thought it was gonna be super boring and I was gonna hate it, but to the contrary, I actually REALLY liked it. It's something I can read, and it doesn't take too long to read either. If you actually like history, and like to read about the stuff you won't find in a textbook, then this narrative is worthwhile.


such Douglass

much history


7 out of 10 people found this helpful

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