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Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland as Frederick Bailey circa 1818. Douglass was enslaved on farms on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and in Baltimore throughout his youth. In Baltimore, especially, Douglas enjoyed relatively more freedom than enslaved people usually did in the South. In the city, Douglass first learned how to read and began making contacts with educated free Black people.
Douglass eventually escaped north to New York at the age of about twenty. Here he reunited with and married his fiancée, a free Black woman from Baltimore named Anna Murray. Uneasy about Douglass’s fugitive status, the two finally settled further north in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and Frederick changed his last name from Bailey to Douglass. Douglass worked for the next three years as a laborer and continued his self‑education.
In the early 1840s, the abolitionist, or anti‑slavery, movement was gaining momentum, especially in the far Northeast. When Douglass first arrived in Massachusetts, he began reading the Liberator, the abolitionist newspaper edited by William Lloyd Garrison. In 1841, Douglass attended an abolitionist meeting in Nantucket, Massachusetts, where he met Garrison and was encouraged to tell the crowd about his experiences of slavery. Douglass’s spoken account was so well‑received that Garrison offered to employ him as an abolitionist speaker for the American Anti‑Slavery Society.
From 1841 to 1845, Douglass traveled extensively with Garrison and others through the Northern states, speaking nearly every day on the injustice and brutality of slavery. Douglass encountered hostile opposition and, most often, the charge that he was lying. Many Americans did not believe that such an eloquent and intelligent Negro had so recently been enslaved.
Douglass encountered a different brand of opposition within the ranks of the Anti‑Slavery Society itself. He was one of only a few Black men employed by the mostly white society, and the society’s leaders, including Garrison, would often condescendingly insist that Douglass merely relate the “facts” of his experience, and leave the philosophy, rhetoric, and persuasive argument to others. Douglass’s 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself can be seen as a response to both of these types of opposition. The Narrative pointedly states that Douglass is its sole author, and it contains two prefaces from Garrison and another abolitionist, Wendell Phillips, to attest to this fact. Douglass’s use of the true names of people and places further silenced his detractors who questioned the truthfulness of his story and status as formerly enslaved. Additionally, the Narrative undertook to be not only a personal account of Douglass’s experiences while enslaved, but also an eloquent anti-slavery treatise. With the Narrative, Douglass demonstrated his ability to be not only the teller of his story, but its interpreter as well.
Because Douglass did use real names in his Narrative, he had to flee the United States for a time, as his Maryland “owner” was legally entitled to track him down in Massachusetts and reclaim him. Dou-glass spent the next two years traveling in the British Isles, where he was warmly received. He returned to the United States only after two English friends purchased his freedom. His reputation at home had grown during his absence. The Narrative was an instant bestseller in 1845 and went through five print runs to accommodate demand. Despite opposition from Garrison, Douglass started his own abolitionist newspaper in 1847 in Rochester, New York, under the name North Star.
Douglass continued to write and lecture against slavery and also devoted attention to the women’s rights movement. He became involved in politics, to the disapproval of other abolitionists who avoided politics for ideological reasons. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Douglass campaigned first to make it the aim of the war to abolish slavery and then to allow Black men to fight for the Union. He was successful on both fronts: Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on December 31, 1862, and Congress authorized the enlistment of Black men in 1863, though they were paid only half what white soldiers made. The Union won the Civil War on April 9, 1865.
During the 1860s and beyond, Douglass continued to campaign, now for the right of Black people to vote and receive equal treatment in public places. Douglass served in government positions under several administrations in the 1870s and 1880s. He also found time to publish the third volume of his autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, in 1881 (the second volume, My Bondage and My Freedom, was published in 1855). In 1882, Douglass’s wife, Anna, died. He remarried, to Helen Pitts, a white advocate of the women’s movement, in 1884. Douglass died of a heart attack in 1895.
Until the 1960s, Douglass’s Narrative was largely ignored by critics and historians, who focused instead on the speeches for which Douglass was primarily known. Yet Douglass’s talent clearly extended to the written word. His Narrative emerged in a popular tradition of narratives and slavery fictions that includes Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Douglass’s work is read today as one of the finest examples of the autobiography. Douglass co‑opted narrative styles and forms from the spiritual conversion narrative, the sentimental novel, oratorical rhetoric, and heroic fiction. Finally, in its somewhat unique depiction of slavery as an assault on selfhood and in its attention to the tensions of becoming an individual, Douglass’s Narrative can be read as a contribution to the literary tradition of American Romantic individualism.
Read about the theme of individual identity in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, a classic example of American Romanticism.