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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   

7. Slavery and

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Authors: Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)

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[6831] Frederick Douglass and Martin Delany, The North Star [banner] (1848),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Serial and Government Publications Division.

Frederick Douglass Activities
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Frederick Douglass was one of the most influential African American thinkers of his day, in spite of his inauspicious beginnings. He was born into slavery on a plantation in Maryland, where he was called Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. Douglass always suspected that his father was his mother's white owner, Captain Aaron Anthony. He spent his early childhood in privation on the plantation, then was sent to work as a house slave for the Auld family in Baltimore. There he came in contact with printed literature and quickly realized the relationship between literacy and personal freedom. With help from Mrs. Auld, Douglass learned how to read and write. In 1833, the Aulds sent him back to the plantation, where he soon acquired a reputation for resistance and insubordination. In an effort to make him more submissive, Douglass's owner sent him to Edward Covey, a "slave breaker" paid to discipline and train disobedient slaves. Instead of cowing Douglass, the experience with Covey only strengthened Douglass's resolve to acquire his freedom. Douglass was eventually sent back to Baltimore, where he learned the trade of ship caulking and achieved partial freedom by hiring himself out for work and paying a weekly fee to his owner. In 1838, Douglass escaped to the North with financial and emotional support from Anna Murray, a free black woman he had met in Baltimore. The two married in New York and then moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where they adopted a new surname, "Douglass."

In 1839, Douglass bought his first copy of The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison's radical abolitionist newspaper. He soon became involved in Garrison's abolitionist circle and emerged as an eloquent speaker for the cause of African American rights, addressing audiences all over the country with moving accounts of his experiences as a slave. In 1845, he published his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass both to disseminate his story to a wide audience and to quell public doubts about the authenticity of his past as a slave. The book, an outstanding example of the slave narrative genre, was a bestseller both in the United States and abroad, catapulting Douglass to celebrity and making him an international leader in the anti-slavery fight.

Eventually, Douglass broke with Garrison because they disagreed about how best to achieve abolitionist goals. While Garrison disavowed the United States Constitution as a pro-slavery document and advocated only passive resistance, Douglass was becoming increasingly committed to working within electoral politics and to adopting active--and if necessary violent--strategies to ensure emancipation. Douglass moved to Rochester, New York, in 1847 to establish an abolitionist newspaper for the African American population, The North Star (later renamed Frederick Douglass' Paper). During the Civil War, he worked tirelessly for black rights and was instrumental in convincing Lincoln to enlist African Americans in the Union army. After the war, he held a variety of posts in the government and remained a prominent champion of not only African American rights but also all human rights, including women's suffrage. He revised his autobiography twice, publishing My Bondage and My Freedom in 1855 and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass in 1881.

Douglass's original Narrative was a groundbreaking work of autobiography, setting the standard for many subsequent slave narratives in its eloquent articulation of a man's achievement of selfhood. Douglass powerfully appropriates the language and conventions of white middle-class American culture to condemn slavery and racism. Drawing on foundational republican ideals of human freedom and equality, he denounces the cruel contradictions and hypocrisies in American culture even as he affirms his hope for its future.

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