An eloquent writer and an inspiring orator, Frederick Douglass (1818-95) remains the most influential African American of the nineteenth century. Respected by whites and blacks, his understanding of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution led to his persuasive argument against privilege.
Born a slave on Maryland's eastern shore of African, Native American, and European ancestry, his owner likely fathered him. After becoming literate, as a young teenager he taught dozens of fellow slaves to read and write before their masters intervened. Despite repeated beatings he never lost hope, and with the help of a free black woman a few years his senior he escaped to Philadelphia, married her, and set up housekeeping in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
As Douglass began speaking and writing against slavery he attracted the attention and support of William Lloyd Garrison, though they parted company over disagreements on constitutional interpretation. Douglass made an impassioned speech at the 1848 Seneca Falls womens rights convention, which helped ensure the passage of the Declaration of Sentiments, though later he and Elizabeth Cady Stanton could not agree on the wording of the Fifteenth Amendment, which extended the franchise to African American males. Beyond his work in the United States, he made two Atlantic crossings to lecture in Ireland and England as a potent force at anti-slavery meetings there. Later he held diplomatic positions representing the United States in the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
Douglass continued to lecture and write after emancipation, arguing that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution mandated equality for all, regardless of race or gender. The most photographed American of the nineteenth century, in 1872 Douglass ran for vice president with Victoria Woodhull on the Equal Rights Party ticket. Sixteen years later he became the first African American to receive a vote for president at the 1888 Republican National Convention. His last public appearance came on February 20, 1895, when the delegates to the National Council of Women meeting in Washington, DC, invited him to the podium, where he received a standing ovation. Later that day he died at home from a massive heart attack.
Primary Source Collections
Frederick Douglass produced three autobiographies; mountains of speeches, letters, and notes; and one novella called The Heroic Slave, in which Douglass presents a fictional account of the most successful slave revolt in American history.
Over the course of his life Douglass wrote three autobiographies. The first, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, appeared in 1845, seven years after his successful escape. The most famous of slave narratives, it fanned the abolitionist fires, selling over 30,000 copies before 1860. It went out of print until Harvard University brought it back in 1960. His second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, appeared in 1855. In 1881 he wrote The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Each autobiography expanded the information he shared about his life, escape, and commitment to freedom and equality for all. The best collection of these autobiographies is The Frederick Douglass Papers: Series 2, Autobiographical Writings,...