Frederick Douglas “Abolitionist/Editor” A biography of the life of Frederick Douglas by Sandra Thomas Frederick Douglas was one of the foremost leaders of the abolitionist movement, which fought to end slavery within the United States in the decades prior to the Civil War. A brilliant speaker, Douglas was asked by the American Anti-Slavery Society to engage in a tour of lectures, and so became recognized as one of America’s first great black speakers. He won world fame when his autobiography was publicized in 1845.
Two years later he began publishing an antislavery paper called the North Star. Douglas served as an adviser to President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and fought for the adoption of constitutional amendments that guaranteed voting rights and other civil liberties for blacks. Douglas provided a powerful voice for human rights during this period of American history and is still revered today for his contributions against racial injustice. The Slave Years Frederick Bialy was born a slave in February 1818 on Holmes Hill Farm, near the town of Easton on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
The farm was part of an estate owned by Aaron Anthony, who also managed the plantations of Edward Lloyd V, one of the wealthiest men in Maryland. The main Lloyd Plantation was near the eastern side of Chesapeake Bay, 12 miles from Holmes Hill Farm, in a home Anthony had built near the Lloyd mansion, was where Frederick’s first master lived. Frederick’s mother, Harriet Baily, worked the cornfields surrounding Holmes Hill. He knew little of his father except that the man was white. As a child, he had heard rumors that the master, Aaron Anthony, had sired him.
Because Harriet Baily was required to work long hours in the fields, Frederick had been sent to live with his grandmother, Betsey Baily. Betsy Baily lived in a cabin a short distance from Holmes Hill Farm. Her job was to look after Harriet’s children until they were old enough to work. Frederick’s mother visited him when she could, but he had only a hazy memory of her. He spent his childhood playing in the woods near his grandmother’s cabin. He did not think of himself as a slave during these years.
Only gradually did Frederick learn about a person his grandmother would refer to as Old Master and when she spoke of Old Master it was with certain fear. At age 6, Frederick’s grandmother had told him that they were taking a long journey. They set out westward, with Frederick clinging to his grandmother’s skirt with fear and uncertainty They had approached a large elegant home, the Lloyd Plantation, where several children were playing on the grounds. Betsy Baily had pointed out 3 children who were his brother Perry, and his sisters Sara and Eliza.
His grandmother had told him to join his siblings and he did so reluctantly. After a while one of the children yelled out to Frederick that his grandmother was gone. Frederick fell to the ground and wept, he was about to learn the harsh realities of the slave system. The slave children of Aaron Anthony’s were fed cornmeal mush that was placed in a trough, to which they were called. Frederick later wrote “like so many pigs. ” The children made homemade spoons from oyster shells to eat with and competed with each other for every last bite of food.
The only clothing that they were provided with was one linen shirt, which hung to their knees. The children were provided no beds or warm blankets. On cold winter nights they would huddle together in the kitchen of the Anthony house to keep each other warm. One night Frederick was awakened by a woman’s screams. He peered through a crack in the wall of the kitchen only to see Aaron Anthony lashing the bare back of a woman, who was his aunt, Hester Baily. Frederick was terrified, but forced himself to watch the entire ordeal.
This would not be the first whipping he would see; occasionally he himself would be the victim. He would learn that Aaron Anthony would brutally beat his slaves if they did not obey orders quickly enough. Frederick’s mother was rarely able to visit her children due to the distance between Holmes Hill Farm and the Lloyd plantation. Frederick last saw his mother when he was seven years old. He remembered his mother giving a severe scolding to the household cook who disliked Frederick and gave him very little food. A few months after this visit, Harriet Baily died, but Frederick did not learn of this until much later.
Because Frederick had a natural charm that many people found engaging, he was chosen to be the companion of Daniel Lloyd, the youngest son of the plantation’s owner. Frederick’s chief friend and protector was Lucretia Auld, Aaron Anthony’s daughter, who was recently married to a ship’s captain named Thomas Auld. One day in 1826 Lucretia told Frederick that he was being sent to live with her brother-in-law, Hugh Auld, who managed a ship building firm in Baltimore, Maryland. She told him that if he scrubbed himself clean, she would give him a pair of pants to wear to Baltimore.
Frederick was elated at this chance to escape the life of a field hand. He cleaned himself up and received his first pair of pants. Within three days he was on his way to Baltimore. Upon Frederick’s arrival at the Auld Home, his only duties were to run errands and care for the Auld’s infant son, Tommy. Frederick enjoyed the work and grew to love the child. Sophia Auld was a religious woman and frequently read aloud from the Bible. Frederick asked his mistress to teach him to read and she readily consented. He soon learned the alphabet and a few simple words.
Sophia Auld was very excited about Fredericks progress and told her husband what she had done. Hugh Auld became furious at this because it was unlawful to teach a slave to read. Hugh Auld believed that if a slave knew how to read and write that it would make him unfit for a slave. A slave that could read and write would no longer obey his master without question or thought, or even worse could forge papers that said he was free and thus escape to a northern state where slavery was outlawed. Hugh Auld then instructed Sophia to stop the lessons at once!
Frederick learned from Hugh Auld’s outburst that if learning how to read and write was his pathway to freedom, then gaining this knowledge was to become his goal. Frederick gained command of the alphabet on his own and made friends with poor white children he met on errands and used them as teachers. He paid for his reading lessons with pieces of bread. At home Frederick read parts of books and newspapers when he could, but he had to constantly be on guard against his mistress. Sophia Auld screamed whenever she caught Frederick reading.
Sophia Auld’s attitude toward Frederick had changed, she no longer regarded him as any other child, but as a piece of property. However, Frederick gradually learned to read and write. With a little money he had earned doing errands, he bought a copy of The Columbian Orator, a collection of speeches and essays dealing with liberty, democracy, and courage. Frederick was greatly affected by the speeches on freedom in The Columbian Orator, and so began reading local newspapers and began to learn about abolitionists. Not quite 13 years old but enlightened with new ideas that both tormented and inspired him.
Frederick began to detest slavery. His dreams of emancipation were encouraged by the example of other blacks in Baltimore, most of whom were free. But new laws passed by southern state legislators made it increasingly difficult for owners to free their slaves. During this time, Aaron Anthony died, and his property went to his two sons and his daughter, Lucretia Auld. Frederick remained a part of the Anthony estate and was sent back to the Lloyd plantation to be a part of the division of property. Frederick was chosen by Thomas and Lucretia Auld and was sent back to Hugh and Sophia Auld in Baltimore.
Seeing his family being devided up increased his hatred of slavery, however, he was hurt the most that his grandmother, considered too old for any work, was evicted from her cabin and sent into the woods to die. Within a year of Frederick’s return to Baltimore, Lucretia Auld died. The two Auld brothers then got into a dispute, and Thomas wrote to Hugh and demanded the return of his late wife’s property, which included Frederick. Frederick was sorry to leave Baltimore because he had recently become a teacher to a group of other young blacks.
In addition, a black preacher named Charles Lawson had taken Frederick under his wing and adopted him as his spiritual son. In March of 1833, the 15 year old Frederick was sent to live at Thomas Auld’s new farm near the town of Saint Michaels, a few miles from the Lloyd plantation. Frederick was again put to work as a field hand and was extremely unhappy about his situation. Thomas Auld starved his slaves, and they had to steal food from neighboring farms to survive. Frederick received many beatings and saw worse ones given to others.
He then organized a Sunday religious service for the slaves which met in near by Saint Michaels. The services were soon stopped by a mob led by Thomas Auld. Thomas Auld had found Frederick especially difficult to control so he decided to have someone tame his unruly slave. In January 1834, Frederick was sent to work for Edward Covey, a poor farmer who had gained a reputation around Saint Michaels for being and expert “slave breaker”. Frederick was not too displeased with this arrangement because Covey fed his slaves better than Auld did.
The slaves on Covey’s farm worked from dawn until after nightfall, plowing, hoeing, and picking corn. Although the men were given plenty of food, they had very little time allotted to eat before they were sent back to work. Covey hid in bushes and spied on the slaves as they worked, if he caught one of them resting he would beat him with thick branches. After being on the farm for one week, Frederick was given a serious beating for letting an oxen team run wild. During the months to follow, he was continually whipped until he began to feel that he was “broken”.
On one hot August afternoon his strength failed him and he collapsed in the field. Covey kicked and beat Frederick to no avail and finally walked away in disgust. Frederick mustered the strength to get up and walk to the Auld farm, where he pleaded with his master to let him stay. Auld had little sympathy for him and sent him back to Covey. Beaten down as Frederick was, he found the strength to rebel when Covey began tying him to a post in preparation for a whipping. “At that moment – from whence came the spirit I don’t know – I resolved to fight,” Frederick wrote.
I seized Covey hard by the throat, and as I did so, I rose. ” Covey and Frederick fought for almost two hours until Covey finally gave up telling Frederick that his beating would have been less severe had he not resisted. “The truth was,” said Frederick, “that he had not whipped me at all. ” Frederick had discovered an important truth: “Men are whipped oftenist who are whipped easiest. ” He was lucky, legally, a slave could be killed for resisting his master. But Covey had a reputation to protect and did not want it known that he could not control a 16 year old boy.
After working for Covey for a year, Frederick was sent to work for a farmer named William Freeland, who was a relatively kind master. But by now, Frederick did not care about having a kind master. All Frederick wanted was his freedom. He started an illegal school for blacks in the area that secretly met at night and on Sundays, and with five other slaves he began to plan his escape to the North. A year had passed since Frederick began working for William Freeland and his plan of escape had been completed. His group planned to steal a boat, row to the northern tip of Chesapeake Bay, and then flee on foot to the free state of Pennsylvania.
The escape was supposed to take place just before the Easter holiday in 1836, but one of Frederick’s associates had exposed the plot and a group of armed white men captured the slaves and put them in jail. Frederick was in jail for about a week. While imprisoned, he was inspected by slave traders, and he fully expected that he would be sold to “a life of living death” in the Deep South. To his surprise, Thomas Auld came and released him. Then Frederick’s master sent him back to Hugh Auld in Baltimore. The two brothers had finally settled their dispute.
Frederick was now 18 years old, 6 feet tall and very strong from his work in the fields. Hugh Auld decided that Frederick should work as a caulker (a man who forced sealing matter into the seams in a boat’s hull to make it water tight) to earn his keep. He was hired out to a local shipbuilder so that he could learn the trade. While apprenticing at the shipyard, Frederick was harassed by white workers who did not want blacks, slaves or free, competing with them for jobs. One afternoon, a group of white apprentices beat up Frederick and nearly took out one of his eyes.
Hugh Auld was angry when he saw what had happened and attempted to press charges against the assailants. However, none of the shipyard’s white employees would step forward to testify about the beating. Free blacks had little hope of obtaining justice through the southern court system, which refused to accept a black person’s testimony against a white person. Therefore, the case had to be dropped. After Frederick recovered from his injuries, he began apprenticing at the shipyard where Hugh Auld worked. Within a year, he was an experienced caulker and was being paid the highest wages possible for a tradesman at his level.
He was allowed to seek his own employment and collect his own pay, and at the end of each week he gave all his earnings to Hugh Auld. Sometimes he was allowed to keep a little money for himself. But as time passed, he became resentful of having to give up his hard earned pay. In Frederick’s spare time he met with a group of educated free blacks and indulged in the luxury of being a student again. Some of the free blacks formed an educational association called the East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society, which Frederick had been admitted to. This is where Frederick learned his debating skills.
At one of the society’s meetings, Frederick met a free black woman named Anna Murray. Anna was a few years older than Frederick and was a servant for a wealthy Baltimore family. Although Anna was a plain, uneducated woman, Frederick admired her qualities of thriftiness, industriousness and religiousness. Anna and Frederick were soon in love and in 1838 they were engaged. Love and courtship increased Frederick’s discontent with his status. After Frederick’s escape attempt, Thomas Auld had promised him that if he worked hard he would be freed when he turned 25. But Frederick did not trust his master, and he resolved to escape.
However, escaping would be very difficult due to professional slave catchers patrolling the boarders between slave states and free states, and free blacks traveling by train or steamboat had to carry official papers listing their name, age, height, skin color, and other distinguishing features. In order to escape, Frederick needed money to pay for traveling expenses. Frederick arranged with Hugh Auld to hire out his time, that is, Frederick would take care of his own room and board and pay his master a set amount each week, keeping any extra money for himself.
This also gave him the opportunity to see what it was like living on his own. This arrangement had been working out quite well until Frederick returned home late one night and failed to pay Hugh Auld on time. Auld was furious and revoked his hiring-out privilege. Frederick was so enraged over this that he refused to work for a week. He finally gave in to Auld’s threats, but he also made a resolution that in three weeks, on September 3, 1838, he would be on a northbound train. Escaping was a difficult decision for Frederick.
He would be leaving his friends and his fairly comfortable life in Baltimore forever. he did not know when and if he would see Anna Murray again. Furthermore, if he was caught during his escape, he was sure that he would be either killed or sold to slave traders. Taking all of this into consideration, Frederick was resolved to escape to freedom. With money that he borrowed from Anna, Frederick bought a ticket to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He also had a friend’s “sailor’s protection,” a document that certified that the person named on it was a free seaman.
Dressed in a sailor’s red shirt and black cravat, Frederick boarded the train. Frederick reached northern Maryland before the conductor made it to the “Negro car” to collect tickets and examine papers. Frederick became very tense when the conductor approached him to look at his papers because he did not fit the description on them. But with only a quick glance, the conductor walked on, and the relieved Frederick sank back in his seat. On a couple of occasions, he thought that he had been recognized by other passengers from Baltimore, but if so they did not turn him in to the authorities.
Upon arriving in Wilmington, Delaware, Frederick then boarded a steamboat to Philadelphia. Even after stepping on Pennsylvania’s free soil, he knew he was not yet safe from slave catchers. He immediately asked directions to New York City, and that night he took another train north. On September 4, 1838, Frederick arrived in New York City. Frederick could not find the words to express his feelings of leaving behind his life in slavery. He later wrote, “A new world had opened upon me. ”Anguish and grief, like darkness and rain, may be depicted, but gladness and joy, like the rainbow, defy the skill of pen or pencil.
From Slave to Abolitionist/Editor Alone in New York, Frederick soon realized that although he was free, he was not free of cares. Through word of mouth on the street, Frederick learned that southern slave catchers were roaming the city looking for fugitives in boarding houses that accepted blacks. He learned that no one, black or white, could be trusted. After finding out this news, Frederick wandered around the city for days, afraid to look for employment or a place to live. Finally, he told an honest-looking black sailor about his predicament.
The man took him to David Ruggles, an officer in the New York Vigilance Committee. Ruggles and his associates were the City’s link in the underground railroad, a network of people who harbored runaway slaves and helped transport them to safe areas in the United States and Canada. Secure for the moment in Ruggle’s home, Frederick sent for his fiancee, Anna Murray. The two were married on September 15, 1838. Ruggles told Frederick that in the port of New Bedford, Massachusetts, he would be safe from slave catchers and he could find work as a caulker.
Upon arriving in New Bedford, Anna and Frederick stayed in the home of the well-to-do black family of Nathan Johnson. To go along with his new life, Frederick decided to change his name so as to make it more difficult for slave catchers to trace him. Nathan Johnson was at the time reading The Lady of the Lake, a novel by Scottish author Sir Walter Scott, and he suggested that Frederick name himself after a character in the book. Frederick Baily thus became Frederick Douglass. Once settled, Douglass was amazed to find that his neighbors in the North were wealthier than most slave owners in Maryland.
He had expected that northerners would be as poor as the people in the South who could not afford slaves. Many free blacks lived better than Thomas Auld or Edward Covey. On the New Bedford wharves, he saw how industry made extensive use of labor saving mechanical devices. In loading a ship, 5 men and an ox did what it took 20 men to do in a southern port. To Douglass’s eye, men who neither held a whip nor submitted to it worked more quietly and efficiently than those who did. Still, New Bedford was not a paradise. Although black and white children attended the same schools, some public lecture halls were closed to blacks.
Churches welcomed black worshipers but forced them to sit in separate sections. Worst of all, white shipyard employees would not allow skilled black tradesmen, such as Douglass, to work beside them. Unable to find work as a caulker, Douglass had to work as a common laborer. He sawed wood, shoveled coal, dug cellars, and loaded and unloaded ships. Anna Douglass worked too as a household servant and laundress. In June 1839, Anna gave birth to their first child, a daughter which they named Rosetta. A son, Lewis was born the following year.
After living in New Bedford for only a few months, a young man approached Douglass and asked him if he wanted to subscribe to the Liberator, a newspaper edited by the outspoken leader of the American Anti-Slavery Society, William Lloyd Garrison. Douglass immediately became caught up in the Liberator’s attacks on southern slaveholders. “The paper became my meat and drink,” wrote Douglass. “My soul was set all on fire. ” Inevitably, Douglass became involved in the abolitionist movement, regularly attending lectures in New Bedford. The American Anti-Slavery Society, of which he was a member, had been formed in 1833.
Like Garrison, most of the leaders in the society were white, and black abolitionists sometimes had a difficult time making their voices heard within the movement. Nonetheless, the black leaders kept up a constant battle to reduce racial prejudice in the North. Douglass also became very involved with the local black community, and he served as a preacher at the black Zion Methodist Church. One of the many issues he became involved in was the battle against attempts by white southerners to force blacks to move to Africa. Some free blacks had moved to Liberia, a settlement area established for them in West Africa in 1822.
Douglass, along with others in the abolitionist movement were opposed to African colonization schemes, believing that the United States was the true home of black Americans. In March 1839 some of Douglass’s anticolonization statements were published in the Liberator. In August 1841, at an abolitionist meeting in New Bedford, the 23 year old Douglass saw his hero, William Lloyd Garrison, for the first time. A few days later, Douglass spoke before the crowd attending the annual meeting of the Massachusetts branch of the American Anti-Slavery Society.
Garrison immediately recognized Douglass’s potential as a speaker, and hired him to be an agent for the society. As a traveling lecturer accompanying other abolitionist agents on tours of the northern states, his job was to talk about his life and to sell subscriptions to the Liberator and another newspaper, the Anti-Slavery Standard. For most of the next 10 years, Douglass was associated with the Garrisonian school of the antislavery movement. Garrison was a pacifist who believed that only through moral persuasion could slavery end, he attempted through his writings to educate slaveholders about the evils of the system they supported.
He was opposed to slave uprisings and other violent resistance, but he was firm in his belief that slavery must be totally abolished. In the first issue of the Liberator in 1831, he had written: “On this subject I do not wish to think, or speak, or write with moderation ….. Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of a ravisher….. but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present….. I will not retreat a single inch AND I WILL BE HEARD. ” Ever controversial, Garrison made many enemies throughout the country.
He made sweeping attacks on organized religion because the churches refused to take a stand against slavery. He also believed that the U. S. Constitution upheld slavery, for it stated that nonfree individuals (slaves) should be counted as three-fifths of a person in the census figures used for determining a state’s share of the national taxes and its number of seats in the House of Representatives. Garrison said that abolitionists should refuse to vote or run for political office because our government was so ill founded.
He also called for the Union to be dissolved, demanding that it be split between a free nation in the North and a slavehold confederacy in the South. Garrison also supported political equality for women and he fought to make it part of the abolitionist program. Some men were entirely against him on this issue, while others thought that it distracted attention from the struggle against slavery. In 1840, when he insisted that women be allowed to serve as delegates to abolitionist conventions, much of the membership of the American Anti-Slavery Society split off and formed a separate organization.