A significant proponent of the immediate push for abolition and a chief leader of the movement for political, economic, and social equality for emancipated African Americans, Frederick Douglass, a staunch advocate of democratic principles, embodied northern abolitionist fervor as he rose to political prominence in the nineteenth century despite his black ancestry. Born into slavery on a Maryland plantation, Douglass illegally achieved literacy through self-education while still a slave, and he successfully managed to escape his captivity with assistance from white abolitionists in the North and abroad.
To elude recapture, Douglass purchased his freedom from slavery shortly before employing his education as his chief political weapon in a crusade against the moral evils of slavery and its astrous effects on antebellum American society. Through his compelling spoken and written word, he utilized his political influence to work towards the realization of the peaceful coexistence between black and white Americans.
With the nationwide eradication of slavery at the termination of the Civil War, Douglass, by means of his various government appointments, continued to fulfill the radical egalitarian philosophy inspired by his past personal struggles with slavery and discrimination. Frederick Douglass played a crucial role in securing freedom and civil rights for African Americans through his antislavery oratory and autobiographical slave narratives, his influential publications in the North Star, and his political activity throughout the nineteenth century.
Douglass’s birth into slavery and his experiences as a slave laborer critically influenced his perspective of the unique American institution deeply rooted in prejudice and inequality. Born circa February 14, 1817 to Harriet Bailey and, most likely, Aaron Anthony, the white owner of the plantation on which Bailey worked, Douglass lived and worked in bondage in Maryland in his early life. During his eight years of work in Baltimore in the 1820s, Douglass became literate through his own efforts at education and assistance from the wife of his owner before resuming work on Anthony’s farm.
Following a failed escape plan in 1836, Douglass spent two years as a caulker before fleeing by way of railroad to New York. There, he encountered a black abolitionist named David Ruggles, who protected Douglass and his first wife, Anna Murray, and insisted that they relocate to Massachusetts. The security Ruggles offered Douglass proved invaluable to his future career as a free, black writer and abolitionist in the North: “Douglass later referred to David Ruggles as the only ‘officer of the underground railroad he encountered during his escape. Douglass and Ruggles’s close relationship, rooted in trust and empathy, served as a strong influence in the development of Douglass’s personal abolitionist ideology that would guide him in his public career in the decades to follow. Douglass’s participation in the burgeoning Underground Railroad demonstrated his radical belief in promoting the immediate push for equality between blacks and whites. In addition, Douglass’s education and the assistance he received from other northern abolitionists would vitally impact his success in the public eye in a predominantly white American society.
Because Douglass’s origins as a slave inspired his avid support of the abolitionist crusade, Douglass’s escape from captivity signaled the beginning of a journey by which he was to become one of the nation’s leading figures against slavery and discrimination. Although Douglass possessed the necessary knowledge and mettle to realize the success of his escape plan, historian Tyrone Tillery doubts that Douglass was sufficiently prepared for life as a free black: “Yet, while Douglass may have been psychologically ready to become his own master, in 1838 he had neither the ways nor means to accomplish it. Despite the vigilance of southern farmers who carefully sought to recapture fugitive slaves, the security that early Underground Railroad leaders offered Douglass safeguarded him temporarily from slaveowners, and such spearheads of the Underground Railroad as Ruggles provided valuable advice regarding further safe escape routes for Douglass and Murray. Douglass also proved his readiness for freedom by utilizing his secretly earned literacy to publish compelling slave narratives and deliver enthralling speeches that detailed the harrowing effects of life in bondage on the African American population.
The nationwide recognition of his antislavery literature validated the effectiveness of his largely self-taught education. Most importantly, Douglass’s eventual purchase of his own freedom symbolized his adequate preparedness for freedom and eagerness to eliminate the nation’s political and economic reliance slavery and racially bigoted laws. Free from the manual labor and harsh discriminatory policies of the southern slave labor system, Douglass’s life in Massachusetts led him to meet William Lloyd Garrison, author of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator.
With help from Garrison and abolitionist Wendell Phillips, Douglass developed his writing and speech talents as he wrote essays in The Liberator and began his first personal slave narrative. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, published in 1845, sparked so overwhelming a nationwide reaction that Douglass fled to England to continue his career without fear of recapture. The emotive tale of Douglass’s life in bondage remains “More than a story about the evils of slavery, [touching] on … he value of freedom, social justice and equal rights, and condemnation of violence against those who do not have the legal power to protect themselves. ” The prevailing themes of Douglass’s early account demonstrate his ethical conviction in the moral evil of slavery, an institution that dehumanized African Americans solely on the basis of race. The Narrative showed that Douglass’s radical view of antislavery surpassed just the emancipation of slaves; his version of antislavery included full social, political, and economic freedom and equality for American blacks.
Circulation of the Narrative serves as a prime example of Douglass’s public expression of his revolutionary philosophy through influential writings. Future slave narratives, including My Bondage and Freedom, published in 1855, and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, published in 1893, fought black oppression with similar potency on the grounds that forced labor and consequent abuse was a horrifically immoral act. Excerpts from Douglass’s enthralling speeches illustrate the effectiveness of his persuasive language.
The argument against slavery that he posed in Rochester in 1850, a tumultuous period of sectional conflict that divided the northern and southern states, provided a solid foundation for the progression of his movement for immediate emancipation. With credibility from his past experiences as a slave, Douglass noted in his speech that “We are sometimes told of the contentment of the slaves, and are entertained with vivid pictures of their happiness. … It only proves to my mind, that though slavery is armed with a thousand stings, it is not able entirely to kill the elastic spirit of the bondman. By providing an image of slaves’ happiness, Douglass offers a sharp contrast to the instances of physical, mental, and emotional abuse that inspired the southern discriminatory attitude that he vigorously condemned. Despite the colorful mental picture of happy slaves that Douglass creates, he denounces the slave system by noting the limitations of happiness among slaves and highlighting the determination and spirit of slaves under extreme adversity.
Because of his own “elastic spirit,” Douglass rose to national prominence as he publicized his negative views of slavery and discrimination. Here, he inspires slaves and fellow abolitionists to overcome white oppression of blacks to establish a truly equal society. Central to Douglass’s creed was his belief that “All ideas of justice, and the laws of eternal goodness must be utterly blotted out from the human soul, ere a system so foul and infernal can escape condemnation, or this guilty Republic can have a sound and enduring Peace. By mentioning the human soul in discussion of slavery, Douglass questions the morality of slavery and pushes his audience to oppose slavery because of the dreadful effects of the institution on individual slaves and the racist sentiment slavery incited throughout the South. Douglass crucially notes that while abandoning the practice of slavery in a progressive American society required immediate attention, achieving this peaceful end should not destroy the Union.
While he considers the United States “guilty” of continuing the morally wrong practice of slavery for economic advancement, he proposes that freedom for blacks should be attained through such nonviolent means as the oral and written methods through which he himself attacked slavery. Rather than inciting violent slave rebellions, Douglass inspired northern antislavery fervor through the potency of his language as he resisted violence while attempting to simultaneously preserve the Union and eliminate slavery.
In his two-year escapade to England after the publication of the Narrative to avoid recapture into slavery and promote the democratic American ideal of antislavery abroad, Douglass’s acquaintances raised money for securing his freedom and establishing an abolitionist newspaper in the United States. Upon his return, Douglass began publication of the North Star in Rochester in 1847 with initial support from William Lloyd Garrison.
As an important method of self-expression, the North Star brought to the American public Douglass’s personal, radical views of abolition: “Even the most radical of the abolitionist papers, which were controlled by whites, were not prepared to go to the lengths the black press did in urging full citizenship for blacks. Freedom was one thing, but being equal was entirely different. ” Douglass’s insistence that full equality for blacks accompany emancipation demonstrated the division between Douglass’s fierce abolitionist ideology and most white perceptions of outlawing slavery.
Although most northerners were amenable to the prospect of freedom for slaves, few antislavery advocates wished to create complete socioeconomic equality for free African Americans, a notion that foreshadowed the outwardly racist segregation laws of the twentieth century. Radical papers and other publications similar to Douglass’s North Star demanded justice for all African Americans on the basis that blacks deserved opportunities and rights identical to those of white men.
As Douglass’s paper attracted northern abolitionists who shared his perspective of slavery, the popularity of his writings initiated his rise to the political scene: “Renamed Frederick Douglass’ Paper in 1851, the newspaper offered Douglass a rare opportunity to define himself and his views of the black freedom struggle. In the process, he was able to achieve a significant measure of political independence. ” While he expressed his outlook on freedom for oppressed African Americans, Douglass confirmed his relevance to the abolitionist movement through his writings in the North Star, a paper that served as his entrance to the political scene.
Douglass employed his various political offices as devices through which he would support the acquisition of equality for the African American population and both white and black American women oppressed by controlling husbands and other manipulative male figures. While Douglass owed much to Garrison for the North Star’s regional success, Douglass’s creation of his own newspaper widened the personal gap between the two abolitionists, who approached abolition with different methods of achieving the same goal.