Jun 13, 2015

The Life of Frederick Douglass: American Icon

Frederick Douglass circa 1774

Ten members showed up at the Kensington Row Bookshop on a lovely Wednesday evening to discuss Frederick Douglas and his times. (Check with Eli, who runs the Bookshop, if you want to purchase a previously owned copy of one of the books discussed by the book club.)

The discussion was based on Douglass' own writings. Frederick Douglass published three autobiographies which are all still in print:
Members present had read different ones of these books.

1845 Autobiography

Frederick's Biography (See this timeline of his life)
The following biographical sketch is provided for the reader. The members of the club had of course already read one of his books and checked other materials to gain a basic understanding of the events of his life. Thus we did not need to cover this material.
Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey (1818-1895) was born a slave on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. He lived there as a slave until he escaped in 1838. He never knew his father but believed him to be white. His mother, black, a slave field hand, saw him nights after work until he was two years old, but thereafter he lived with his maternal grandmother; she was also a slave. He moved to the Wye House Plantation when he was seven, and lived there for several years.

Eventually, however, he was loaned to the Hugh Auld house in Baltimore where he was the older companion and servant to the white child of that household. Hugh's wife, Sophia, there began to teach Frederick the alphabet and continued to do so until her husband discovered the lessons and ended them. Frederick, however, had learned that symbols represented sounds, and that the sounds related to strings of symbols could be words. He obtained a speller and a book of speeches and continued to learn to read. Indeed, he read everything he could get his hands on. Later, observing the use of letters to mark portions of boats in the Baltimore boatyards, he taught himself to write, making use also of his young charge's cast off spelling books.

In 1833, his owner Thomas Ault, reclaimed Frederick and began to assign him duties as a field hand. Dissatisfied with Frederick's behavior, Ault rented him to Edward Covey, a man known as a "slave breaker" -- one who rented slaves to work his fields and treated them brutally in order to break their spirits. After months of brutal treatment, Frederick physically confronted Covey; apparently the resistance Frederick showed resulted in Covey ameliorating Frederick's treatment.

Frederick's life improved, but his slavery continued after leaving Covey's establishment. In 1836 he with several others began to plot an escape to the north. They were betrayed, and Frederick with four of his companions was jailed. Perhaps strangely, Frederick's companions were released, and Frederick himself was sent back to Baltimore to begin to learn the trade of caulking ships in Hugh Ault's shipyard. Having a trade was a considerable step up for a slave!

Anna Murray
In 1837, Frederick met and fell in love with Anna Murray, a free black woman in Baltimore about five years older than he. In 1838, with Anna's help and travel papers loaned from a black seaman (sailors were allowed to travel on land from port to port with such papers), he escaped from slavery. He traveled by railroad and ship to New York City where he successfully found shelter with abolitionists.

Anna joined him there and they were married. They would be married for 44 years (until Anna's death) and have five children, four of whom survived to adulthood. It was at this point that they assumed the name Douglass (to make his apprehension by slave catchers less likely).

Fearing recapture in New York, the couple soon moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts. Frederick there worked as a day laborer and Anna went into domestic service, but they were safe both by having taken a pseudonym (Johnson) and by the abolitionist sentiment common in New Bedford. However, in New Bedford Frederick was to face threats and violence from white workmen (who felt threatened that blacks might threaten their livelihood).

In the course of his earlier life, Frederick had become religious, and in New Bedford joined the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. He became a licensed preacher in 1839, and this helped him hone his oratorical skills. He held various positions in the church, including steward, Sunday School superintendent, and sexton. During his years as a slave he had also become an abolitionist, and in New Bedford he subscribed to an abolitionist newspaper and began to attend abolitionist meetings.

In 1841 Frederick was unexpected invited to speak at an abolitionist event, and spoke eloquently about his life as a slave. He was introduced to William Lloyd Garrison, perhaps the most influential abolitionist of the time. (Garrison already had been aware of Frederick's story.) Frederick then spent the next three years as a speaker for the abolitionist cause.

Frederick Douglass circa 1847-52
With the publication of his first autobiography in 1845, his safety from slave catchers and pro-slavery forces was further endangered. and he was sent to Europe for his safety; he had great success there, and described that trip as well as his life as a slave in his 1855 autobiography. His British supporters purchased him from his Maryland owner and gave him his manumission papers. They also provided him with 500 British pounds (nearly 2,500 U.S. dollars which in 1848 would buy a great deal). The latter gift enabled him to set up his own abolitionist newspaper, The North Star; he and his wife did so in Rochester, New York.

In the following years his already considerable fame grew. He also took positions that differed from those of many abolitionists. For example, he opposed sending freed slaves to a colony in Africa and he opposed secession (favored by some abolitionists since it would have left the northern states free and no longer required to return escaped slaves to their southern masters); Douglass recognized that the Union was a more sure path to the abolition of slavery in the south. He came to believe that the United States Constitution was created in the belief that slavery would eventually be abolished, and thus that the Constitution was sufficiently flexible to define government that would function after slavery's abolition. In this period he also became active in the women's rights movement. He quickly rose to prominence in that movement for the importance of his voice and paper, and as a man and former slave. He supported human rights generally.

In 1851, Frederick merged his paper with another, with the resulting titled  Frederick Douglass' Paper. That paper was published until 1860. In 1855 he published his second (updated) autobiography. In 1858 he met with John Brown several weeks before Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry; however, Douglass disapproved of Brown's plan to start an armed slave rebellion in the South. After the raid, Douglass fled for a time to Canada, fearing possible arrest as a co-conspirator.

According to Wikipedia:
By the time of the Civil War, Douglass was one of the most famous black men in the country, known for his orations on the condition of the black race and on other issues such as women's rights. His eloquence gathered crowds at every location. His reception by leaders in England and Ireland added to his stature.
His fame continued to grow. During the Civil War, he met with President Lincoln and recruited black troops for the Union army. In 1870, Douglass started his last newspaper, the New National Era. After his home in Rochester caught fire, Douglass moved to Washington.

In April 1876, Douglass delivered the keynote speech at the unveiling of the Emancipation Memorial in Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C. Mary Lincoln supposedly gave Lincoln's favorite walking-stick to Douglass in appreciation for the speech. In 1877, he met with Thomas Auld and the two were reconciled.

In 1877, Frederick Douglass also bought his final home -- Cedar Hill -- in Washington. He and Anna expanded the house from 14 to 21 rooms. One year after buying the house, Douglass purchased adjoining lots and expanded the property to 15 acres. The home is now preserved as the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.

Frederick Douglass National Historical Site in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington D.C.
Douglass' final autobiography, published first in 1861 and in revised form in 1892 describes:
  • His Appointment by Gen. Grant to Accompany the Santo Domingo Commission;
  • Also to a Seat in the Council of the District of Columbia; 
  • His Appointment as United States Marshal by President R. B. Hayes; 
  • His Appointment to Be Recorder of Deeds in Washington by President J. A. Garfield
He served as president of the Reconstruction-era Freedman's Savings Bank which went bankrupt in 1874, mere months after Douglass became its president.

Hellen Pitts Douglass
In 1888, he was appointed Consul General to Haiti, and in 1889 he was appointed Charge d'Affaires for Santo Domingo as well as Minister Resident to Haiti.

After Anna died in 1882, in 1884 Douglass married again, to Helen Pitts, a white woman. She is a direct descendant of John and Priscilla Alden and a cousin to Presidents John and John Q. Adams. (Faced by controversy over this marriage, Douglass said his first wife was of the same race as his mother and his second wife of the same race as his father -- a perfect retort.)

Thus Frederick Douglass', born a slave, son to a black, woman field hand, died in 1895 a world famous advocate for human rights, who owned a mansion, and who had held a number of important private and public offices.

1855 Biography

How Did Frederick Douglass Rise to Such Prominence?

This was the topic of some discussion at the club meeting. Several members commented on the luck involved. In his 20 years a slave he might well have died of disease, been killed, or been sold into slavery in the deep south from which escape would have been less possible. He was lucky to have had lived in a house where the wife was willing to teach him to read, and where materials were present that enabled him to learn more. He was lucky to have become religious and to have had the opportunity to hear preaching, which no doubt included some minsters who could deliver a great sermon, Having been implicated in an escape attempt, he was lucky not to have had steps taken by his owner to make further attempts much more difficult. He was lucky to have come to Garrison's attention, and to be added to the cadre of traveling speakers for abolition. In his second book he himself describes the good luck that made him famous in Britain on his arrival, and he was lucky that his success in Britain was publicized in the United States. (That luck apparently held through his later life as he progressed from success to success.)

We also commented that he was very talented. By any standard, the prose in his books demonstrates that he was intelligent, articulate, and well able to manage his own life and that of his family. Speeches included as appendices in later volumes show that Douglass clearly understood the difference in writing to be read and writing to be delivered orally. He speeches not only are clear, but the language flow lends itself to oratory and is almost poetic; the speeches build to high points apparently by the author's plan.

It was noted that this visible brilliance must have contributed to Douglass' early success. One of the early claims of the proponents of slavery was that the Africans were incapable of civilization, and that their lives were better under the ownership of whites. The argument went: "After all, the natives in Africa were spear toting tribal people. As slaves here, they were noted for their singing and dancing" There were other escaped slaves who could speak about the life of slaves from personal experience. However, few if any could in the very nature of their writing or oratory demonstrate that they, the former slaves, were in no way inferior to their readers, their audiences, or to the slave owners themselves. Douglass clearly made that demonstration in his books, in his speeches (and probably in his newspapers).

It was pointed out in our meeting that other black men had demonstrated the same thing, albeit in other countries.
  • Alexander Dumas, the great French writer, was the son of an enslaved African woman. 
  • Abram Petrovich Gannibal appears to have been born in Central Africa, but was stolen by the Ottomans, ransomed by the Russians and brought to the court of Peter the Great. Raised in the Emperor's household, he eventually rose to become a prominent member of the imperial court in the reign of Peter's daughter Elizabeth. After Peter's daughter Elizabeth became the new monarch in 1741, Gannibal rose to the rank of major-general, and became superintendent of Reval (now Tallinn, Estonia), a position he held from 1742 to 1752. 
  • Gannibal was the great grandfather of the Russian author and poet, Alexander Pushkin.

The 1881/1892 Autobiography

What Was the United States Like that Douglass' Rise was Possible?

This topic was not well covered in the discussion, but it seems important. Abraham Lincoln would be elected president in 1860, states began to secede from the Union late that year, the Civil War began in 1861, the emancipation proclamation was issued in 1863 freeing slaves in the Confederate states, and slavery was abolished and all remaining slaves were emancipated in 1865 -- the institution of slavery was central to the war between the states. Abolition and secession were dominant issues in Frederick Douglass' life from birth in 1818 until the end of the Civil War; the status and treatment of the freed slaves remained of great public importance and personal importance to Douglass for the rest of his life.

1841 was a propitious time for a young man to begin his career as an abolitionist, and especially propitious for a young black man who could write well, speak well, knew the issues, and was an escaped slave. Douglass took full advantage of the opportunities that were provided, establishing a reputation as a speaker, publishing a best selling book in 1845, making a splash in Britain in the following two years, establishing an abolitionist paper on his return, and publishing another widely circulated book in 1855. As the Whig party was breaking apart and the Republican Party was soon to elect a president, Douglass' paper not only was prominent in the abolitionist camp, but he was right on a number of issues where other abolitionists turned out to be wrong. Moreover, he had broadened his appeal by supporting the relatively nascent movement for women's suffrage. Thus he was well positioned to have influence on Lincoln during the Civil War, and on Johnson and Grant during Reconstruction and in the war's aftermath.

Again, as the Republicans retained office after the Civil War and sought to appoint appropriate people to public office, Douglass was a smart, articulate black man. He perhaps seemed a natural representative for the USA as President Grant sought to establish a U.S. presence in the Caribbean (Spain still had colonies there, and other European empires were scrambling for territorial expansion; France had tried to absorb Mexico during the Civil War).

Economic issues kept the topics of abolition and secession before the public. 
  • In 19th century America, cotton was king. Southern plantation owners were making a fortune growing cotton (and rice in South Carolina) but believed that they needed the institution of slavery to do so. Mill owners in England and New England were making a fortune by manufacturing cotton cloth from the cotton grown and harvested in the South. In border states of Virginia and Maryland, where the profits from tobacco were failing as the crop was depleting the soils in large areas, the internal slave trade to supply the mortally dangerous plantations of the South became a profit point. 
  • In the North, family farms were where much of the economic action was to be found; immigrant working in the urban businesses of the northern cities didn't want competition from blacks, much less from slaves. Northerners tended to favor free labor, believing it to be necessary for the long term growth of the nation; they also tended to believe that the future of the nation was to be in manufacturing rather than agriculture. 
Many in the north saw slavery as an ethical and religious issue, and the enslavement of men and women and their brutal treatment as profoundly immoral. Apologists for slavery in the South claimed southern slaves to be happier and living better lives than northern "wage slaves", asking which system was more immoral. Southern ministers pointed to biblical references to slavery, indicating that it was a deeply established custom in Christianity.

The Autobiographies

As autobiographies, these seem somewhat lacking in details of Douglass' life. Thus, one member of the club asked for clarification as to who Douglass married and whether he had children. Of course, the early books were hiding identities to protect slaves and people who had helped Douglass from retaliation. Thus names, dates and places one would expect to find in a normal autobiography were not present. Only the guilty slave owners and their instruments were so identified. On the other hand, as they were written the early books were very effective abolitionist tracts -- making points again and again against the institution of slavery!

As time passed, Douglass was able to safely reveal more and more details about his past. In 1892, long after emancipation and reconstruction, he could have feared little from revealing details from half a century or more in the past. Still the books often seem more tracts against slavery than memoirs of the very interesting life of an American icon.

Other Points

One member suggested that the books about Frederick Douglass might be regarded as cultural history, rather than the political history or economic history that the club usually reads and discusses. Douglass was after all, famous for his speeches and books, a publisher is significant news papers. The abolition movement might be seen as a cultural movement.

Another member offered the contrasting suggestion that the books were actually political history. Frederick Douglass was engaged in a political movement (and later in his life received a number of political appointments; in fact, Douglass was nominated for Vice President of the United States by a small political party and was in 1872 the presidential elector at large for the State of New York, and took that state's votes to Washington, D.C.)

We noted that the books raised the issue of the effect of the institution of slavery on the white population. In order to keep slaves as slaves it became necessary to institutionalize such things as keeping slaves uneducated, using corporal punishment on slaves who disobeyed their owners of drivers, and employing mercenaries to catch escaping slaves. The necessity for these aspects of institutionalized slavery fed back on the beliefs and behavior of the whites, and the feedback was not something of which we club members approved.

Although the club had previously read about slavery, were again shocked by the descriptions of the treatment of slaves. Douglass' descriptions, told by someone who had been on the receiving end of that treatment, were exceptionally heartrending.

We noted that the people of the slave holding states held various positions on slavery. Ministers had to deal with the morality of the institution and tended to find justifications for slavery in scripture. Douglass differentiated between one of his masters who he thought to be gentlemanly, who treated his slaves well, versus others of his masterswho were of lower social status and did not treat slaves equally well. Slave drivers were seen as much less concerned with the morality of their behavior, and very likely to use physical force on the slaves, sometimes to excess. The merchants in the slave trade and the people who drove manacled slaves from the north where they had been bought to their new southern masters are portrayed by Douglass as without any moral compass.

Racial prejudice seems always to have been closely related to the issue of slavery, and we were diverted into some discussion of prejudice. As the members present tended to share views that racial prejudice is reprehensible, there was little disagreement. A member brought our attention to the increasing portion of multiracial people in America; the current ethnic classification system used for schools and statistics does not seem to function very well for kids trying to describe a multiracial heritage. Indeed, as people self declare race, some seem to do so to "game the system" seeking to put down whatever race they think will be most favored in the specific circumstances.

A member told a story from  one of his friends: the friend after living in Africa for a number of years was asked whether a third party was black or white; the friend simply didn't know. The member telling the story believed his friend; another member found the story simply incredible. We noted that President Obama's father was Kenyan and his mother American -- a clearly black father and a clearly white mother; Obama has chosen to define himself as black. Someone commented that almost all people in the United States defining themselves as black have some European ancestry.

One member suggested that it was time to get rid of the outdated concept of "race". Scientists are moving now toward individualized medicine. Based on an individual's genetic endowment and other factors, doctors will increasingly better understand illness; they will better be able to prescribe treatment that will benefit the individual patient and avoid treatments that have excessive risk to the individual patient. For this to come to pass, we will need to test treatments on very specific groups of people -- not large, heterogeneous groups like whites, blacks, Hispanics, etc. The current government classifications, which call for people to self identify race and are never checked for accuracy anyway, are counterproductive to these medical purposes. Indeed, members pointed out that people now frequently declare themselves of a specific race to gain advantage in selection processes, rather than in an effort to be factual.

It was not clear if the low attendance was due to the topic itself, to the club's failure recently to recruit new members to replace those who stop attending meetings (a natural attrition), or to a normal drop off in summer. It was noted that the number of downloads of the summaries of discussions is trending much higher, reaching 185 for last months discussion. Still, Frederick Douglass seemed of considerable interest to those present. At least one member expressed support for occasionally reading books by people who had lived the history rather than always reading recently published books.

One of our members posted these on his blog prior to the meeting:


  1. From The Economist: "(A)s the Baptist movement spread, racism became virtually inextricable from the church’s existence, particularly in the South. The Southern Baptists broke from their northern brethren in 1845, as war between the states loomed. English Baptists urged their American counterparts to ditch slavery, but to no avail. After the war, white Southern Baptists enthusiastically endorsed segregation, and some Ku Klux Klan leaders came from their ranks. At the same time, black Baptists’ numbers ballooned—Martin Luther King grew up a member of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia."


    1845 was a key year in Douglass' life, when he published his first book and made his first trip to Britain. The split in the U.S. Baptist church that year illustrates how active the abolitionist debate had become in the country.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. There is a very good three part (under one hour each) television show done for the Public Broadcasting Network titled The Abolitionists. Richard Brooks plays the role of Frederick Douglass.

    The series is available on DVD"