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Saturday, February 1, 1997

Frederick Douglass: Heroic Orator for Liberty

Douglass Put a Human Face on the Horrors of American Slavery

Frederick Douglass made himself the most compelling witness to the evils of slavery and prejudice.

He suffered as his master broke up his family. He endured whippings and beatings. In the antebellum South, it was illegal to teach slaves how to read and write, but Douglass learned anyway, and he secretly educated other slaves. After he escaped to freedom, he tirelessly addressed antislavery meetings throughout the North and the British Isles for more than two decades. When it became clear that the Civil War was only a bloody benchmark in the struggle, he spearheaded the protest against Northern prejudice and Southern states that subverted the newly won civil liberties of blacks.

Douglass embraced the ideal of equal freedom. He supported women’s suffrage, saying “we hold woman to be justly entitled to all we claim for man.” He urged toleration for persecuted immigrants—”I know of no rights of race superior to the rights of humanity.” Overseas, he joined the great Daniel O’Connell in demanding Irish freedom, and he shared lecture platforms with Richard Cobden and John Bright, speaking out for free trade.

Douglass believed that private property, competitive enterprise, and self-help are essential for human progress. “Property,” he wrote, “will produce for us the only condition upon which any people can rise to the dignity of genuine manhood . . . . Knowledge, wisdom, culture, refinement, manners, are all founded on work and the wealth which work brings . . . . Without money, there’s no leisure, without leisure no thought, without thought no progress.”

Critics considered Douglass stubborn, arrogant, and overly sensitive to slights, but he earned respect from friends of freedom. For years he appeared on lecture platforms with William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, leading lights of the antislavery movement. Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe praised Douglass. He impressed essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who declared: “Here is Man; and if you have man, black or white is an insignificance.”

Mark Twain was proud to count Douglass as a friend. John Bright contributed money to help buy his freedom. “He saw it all, lived it all, and overcame it all,” exulted black self-help pioneer Booker T. Washington.

An American observer recalled Douglass’s presence as a speaker: “He was more than six feet in height, and his majestic form, as he rose to speak, straight as an arrow, muscular, yet lithe and graceful, his flashing eye, and more than all, his voice, that rivaled Webster’s in its richness, and in the depth and sonorousness of its cadences, made up such an ideal of an orator as the listeners never forgot.”

Individualist feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton saw how, at a Boston antislavery meeting, “with wit, satire, and indignation [Douglass] graphically described the bitterness of slavery and the humiliation of subjection to those who, in all human virtues and powers, were inferior to himself . . . . Around him sat the great antislavery orators of the day, earnestly watching the effect of his eloquence on that immense audience, that laughed and wept by turns, completely carried away by the wondrous gifts of his pathos and humor  . . . all the other speakers seemed tame after Frederick Douglass . . . [he] stood there like an African prince, majestic in his wrath.”

Born into Slavery

Frederick Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey sometime in February 1818 — slave births weren’t recorded — on a plantation along Maryland’s eastern shore, near Easton. He didn’t know who his father was, though he became convinced his father must have been a white man. His mother, Harriet Bailey, was a slave, and consequently all her children were condemned to be slaves. Frederick was soon separated from her. “I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four or five times in my life,” Frederick recalled, “and each of these times was very short in duration, and at night.”

His mother died when he was seven. “I was not allowed to be present during her illness, at her death, or burial,” he noted. “She was long gone before I knew any thing about it.” He added: “I never think of this terrible interference of slavery with my infantile affections without feelings to which I can give no adequate expression.”

Frederick was taken to the mansion of Edward Lloyd, who was former Maryland governor and U.S. senator and among the richest men in the South. Lloyd owned a number of farms, each managed by an overseer. Frederick remembered how one overseer, Austin Gore, was whipping a slave named Denby. When Denby tried to escape into a stream, Gore shot him dead—and got away with it. Killing a slave, or any colored person, in Talbot County, Maryland, Frederick explained, is not treated as a crime. On another occasion, Frederick saw his aunt Hester mercilessly beaten.

In November 1826, young Frederick was assigned to Thomas Auld, who sent him to his brother Hugh in Baltimore. Hugh and his wife, Sophia, didn’t own any other slaves. She read to the child from the Bible, and he noticed the connection between marks on the page and the words she spoke. She began teaching him the alphabet. When her husband learned about this he was outraged. As Frederick later recalled, Hugh Auld snarled that “If you learn him how to read, he’ll want to know how to write; and this accomplished, he’ll be running away with himself.”

Young Frederick learned more on the streets of Baltimore: “when I met with any boy who I knew could write, I would tell him I could write as well as he. The next word would be, ‘I don’t believe you. Let me see you try it.’ I would then make the letters which I had been so fortunate as to learn, and ask him to beat that. In this way I got a good many lessons in writing, which it is quite possible I should never have gotten in any other way. During this time, my copy-book was the board fence, brick wall, and pavement; my pen and ink was a lump of chalk. With these, I learned mainly how to write.”

When Frederick was 12, he heard his friends read from a collection of great speeches, assigned in school. He took 50 cents that he had hoarded, went to Knight’s Bookstore, and bought his own copy of The Columbian Orator. Compiled by Caleb Bingham, it first appeared in 1797 and went through many editions. It offered great speeches by Marcus Tullius Cicero, William Pitt the Elder, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and Charles James Fox, among others. “Alone, behind the shipyard wall,” reported biographer William McFeely, Frederick Bailey read aloud. Laboriously, studiously, at first, then fluently, melodically, he recited great speeches.

With The Columbian Orator in his hand, with the words of great speakers coming from his mouth, he was rehearsing. He was readying the sounds — and meanings— of words of his own that he would one day write. He had the whole world before him. He was Cato before the Roman senate, Pitt before Parliament defending American liberty, Sheridan arguing for Catholic emancipation, Washington bidding his officers farewell.” The book included a” Dialogue between Master and Slave,” in which the slave tells the master he wants not kindness but liberty. There was also a short play, “Slave in Barbary,” where the ruler Hamet declares: “Let it be remembered, there is no luxury so exquisite as the exercise of humanity, and no post so honourable as his, who defends the rights of man.”

“The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness,” Frederick recounted. “Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever. It was heard in every sound, and seen in every thing. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.”

In March 1832, Thomas Auld decided he needed Frederick, and had him returned to Auld’s place in St. Michaels, Maryland. Auld discovered that the taste of freedom in Baltimore had a pernicious effect on the young man and that harsh discipline was called for. Accordingly, in January 1833, Frederick was hired out as a field hand to Edward Covey, a small tenant farmer nearby. Covey was an intensely religious man known to be ruthlessly cruel to slaves.

For instance, after Frederick lost control of some draft animals, Covey “went to a large gum-tree, and with his axe cut three large switches, and, after trimming them up neatly with his pocket-knife, he ordered me to take off my clothes. I made him no answer, but stood with my clothes on. He repeated the order. I still made him no answer, nor did I move to strip myself. Upon this he rushed at me with the fierceness of a tiger, tore off my clothes, and lashed me till he had worn out his switches. . . .”

Covey attacked him on another occasion, but this time Frederick fought back. He kicked Covey’s cousin, who tried to intervene. Covey ordered other slaves to subdue Frederick but they affected ignorance. The young slave prevailed with his powerful arms and indomitable spirit. During the six months that he remained with Covey, he wasn’t whipped again.

Education for Freedom

He resolved to be free, and he did what he could to nourish the spirit of freedom in others. At the house of a free black man, he educated some 40 slaves with his Columbian Orator and a copy of Webster’s Spelling Book, which he apparently had acquired from a friend. “These dear souls came not to Sabbath school because it was popular to do so, nor did I teach them because it was reputable to be thus engaged, he wrote. Every moment they spent in that school, they were liable to be taken up, and given thirty-nine lashes. They came because they wished to learn. Their minds had been starved by their cruel masters. They had been shut up in mental darkness. . . . The work of instructing my dear fellow-slaves was the sweetest engagement with which I was ever blessed.”

In April 1836, Frederick Bailey and four other slaves plotted their escape, but the men were betrayed. They were dragged behind horses some 15 miles to the Easton jail. Frederick was considered a dangerous influence on a plantation, and Thomas Auld decided that he should be turned back over to his brother Hugh in Baltimore.

Frederick got a job in Gardiner’s shipyard as an apprentice caulker, but white workers resented the presence of a black man. Four attacked him, bashing him with fists, a brick, and a heavy metal bar. Somehow he stumbled home. Hugh Auld went to the local magistrate’s office, outraged at this assault on his personal property, but the magistrate insisted it was impossible to press charges against the assailants: “I cannot move in this matter except upon the oath of white witnesses.”

In the spring of 1838, Thomas Auld came to Baltimore on business, and 20-year-old Frederick boldly proposed a deal: “let him be free to hire himself out, he would buy his own tools, he would pay his own room and board, and he would remit some of his pay—$3 per week.” 

The answer was no. Two months later, Frederick proposed the same deal to Hugh Auld who—unaware his brother had nixed it—concluded that approval might help keep the restless young man from running away. This arrangement, Frederick acknowledged, “was decidedly in my master’s favor. . . . I found it a hard bargain. But, hard as it was, I thought it better than the old mode of getting along. It was a step towards freedom to be allowed to bear the responsibilities of a freeman, and I was determined to hold on upon it.”

Frederick Bailey focused single-mindedly on making money. Buying his freedom, were Thomas Auld willing to sell, might cost $1,000. If he ran away, he had to get black-market “free papers,” which every free black was required to carry to prove the bearer wasn’t a slave.

During his spare time, he joined the East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society, an association of free black caulkers. They gathered to sharpen their intellects by conducting debates. Perhaps more important, he learned much about living on one’s own—and escaping to freedom.

Meanwhile, he met Anna Murray, a free black woman whose parents reportedly had been freed before her birth. She was about five years older than he and worked as a domestic servant in Baltimore. Although she was illiterate, she was probably the one who encouraged him to play the violin. This became a cherished pastime throughout his life, and he especially loved Handel, Haydn, and Mozart.

In August 1838, Hugh Auld demanded that Frederick move back where he could be watched and that he remit all his earnings. Anna reportedly raised money for her companion’s escape by selling a featherbed. Since he had worked around the Baltimore docks, he could talk like a sailor, and he decided to escape dressed like a sailor—a red shirt, a flat-topped sailor’s hat, and a handkerchief around his neck.


On September 3, 1838, he boarded a crowded northbound train, and when the conductor asked for his free papers, he replied: “No sir, I never carry my free papers to sea with me.” He presented seaman’s papers (used by American sailors when traveling overseas), borrowed from a retired free black sailor. Apparently impressed by the American eagle at the top, the conductor didn’t notice that the papers described someone else.

At Havre de Grace, Frederick boarded a ferry that crossed the Susquehanna River. He encountered a Baltimore acquaintance who wanted to know what he was doing, but got out of that conversation quickly. On the other side of the river, while boarding another northbound train, he saw two more acquaintances who would have recognized him as a slave, but luckily nothing happened. A steamship took him to Philadelphia.

He didn’t linger. He boarded a ferry, a night train, and another ferry for New York, where he would be more likely to elude slave-hunters. As an extra precaution, he adopted the name Johnson. He exulted: “A free state around me, and a free earth under my feet! What a moment was this to me! A whole year was pressed into a single day. A new world burst upon my agitated vision.”

Anna joined him in New York, and they were married. He met with an abolitionist named David Ruggles, who advised him that it wasn’t safe to remain in New York because of all the slave-hunters. Ruggles recommended that Frederick, as a skilled caulker, should be able to quickly find a job in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where a lot of ships were being built for the whaling industry. New Bedford had some 12,000 people, a black community, and a significant contingent of antislavery Quakers.

Frederick marveled at the prosperity in New Bedford. “I had very strangely supposed, while in slavery, that few of the comforts, and scarcely any of the luxuries, of life were enjoyed at the north, compared with what were enjoyed by slaveholders of the south. I probably came to this conclusion from the fact that northern people owned no slaves. I supposed that they were about upon a level with the non-slaveholding population of the south. I knew they were exceedingly poor, and I had been accustomed to regard their poverty as the necessary consequence of their being non-slaveholders. I had somehow imbibed the opinion that, in the absence of slaves, there could be no wealth, and very little refinement….”

“In the afternoon of the day when I reached New Bedford, I visited the wharves to take a view of the shipping. Here I found myself surrounded with the strongest proofs of wealth. Lying at the wharves, and riding in the stream, I saw many ships of the finest model, in the best order, and of the largest size. Upon the right and left, I was walled in by granite warehouses of the widest dimensions, stowed to their utmost capacity with the necessaries and comforts of life. Added to this, almost every body seemed to be at work, but noiselessly so, compared with what I had been accustomed to in Baltimore. . . . I heard no deep oaths or horrid curses on the laborer. I saw no whipping of men; but all seemed to go smoothly on. Every man appeared to understand his work, and went at it with a sober yet cheerful earnestness, which betokened the deep interest which he felt in what he was doing, as well as a sense of his own dignity as a man. To me this looked exceedingly strange. From the wharves I strolled around and over the town, gazing with wonder and admiration at the splendid churches, beautiful dwellings, and finely-cultivated gardens; evincing an amount of wealth, comfort, taste, and refinement, such as I had never seen in any part of slaveholding Maryland.”

A New Life

Until the couple found their own lodgings, they stayed with black caterers Mary and Nathan Johnson. Frederick reported that Nathan read more newspapers, better understood the moral, religious, and political character of the nation,—than nine tenths of the slaveholders in Talbot county, Maryland. Yet Mr. Johnson was a working man. His hands were hardened by toil, and not his alone, but those also of Mrs. Johnson. I found the colored people much more spirited than I had supposed they would be. I found among them a determination to protect each other from the blood-thirsty kidnapper, at all hazards. Nathan suggested that since so many blacks were named Johnson, Frederick Bailey ought to adopt something different—like Douglas, the name of a Scottish lord in Walter Scott’s poem The Lady of the Lake. He did, adding an extra “s” for more individuality.

Douglass tried to earn a living as skilled caulker at $2 per day, but white shipyard workers announced they would leave the job site if he were hired. He had to settle for $1-per-day jobs like shoveling coal, sawing wood, hauling garbage, and cleaning ships. Eventually he landed a steady job at a Quaker-owned whale-oil refinery.

He and Anna attended the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. The minister, Thomas James, was active in the antislavery movement and editor of a twice-monthly publication called The Rights of Man. James was impressed with his new parishioner and the articulate Douglass became a lay preacher. On March 12, 1839, he rose at a church meeting and delivered a speech denouncing proposals that blacks be shipped back to Africa. He insisted blacks should be free here in America. His remarks were stirring enough to be mentioned in The Liberator, the radical antislavery newspaper that William Lloyd Garrison had published weekly since January 1831. At an antislavery meeting attended mostly by whites, James encouraged Douglass to tell his personal story.

In April, Garrison himself appeared at New Bedford’s Mechanics Hall, addressing blacks as well as whites. The son of an impecunious Massachusetts sea captain who disappeared when he was three, Garrison had started his career as a printer, and in 1828 pioneering abolitionist Benjamin Lundy won him over to the antislavery movement. Garrison helped launch the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society (1831) and the New England Anti-Slavery Society (1831), and he joined with antislavery crusaders in New York and Philadelphia to establish the American Anti-Slavery Society (1833). His goal: immediate abolition. He opposed political action since he considered the Constitution to be hopelessly compromised by slavery. He was committed to a nonviolent strategy of moral suasion. He favored expelling slave states from the Union. Although he became unpopular for hammering clergymen who defended slavery, he was an intensely religious man. He insisted that slavery was an abomination which violated the higher law of morality. That April night, he thundered, “NO COMPROMISE WITH SLAVERY! NO UNION WITH SLAVEHOLDERS!” Douglass decided he, too, must be an orator against slavery.

Speaking Out Against Slavery

Later that year, Douglass appeared before the Bristol County Anti-Slavery Society to talk about his experiences as a slave. Among those attending was William C. Coffin, a bank bookkeeper and member of the Coffin clan from Nantucket—a hotbed of the abolitionist movement. Coffin invited Douglass to speak at a big Nantucket gathering of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, starting the next day. Garrison and his compatriot Wendell Phillips would be there.

Phillips, tall, slim, and Harvard-trained, had been a Boston lawyer. In 1837, a proslavery mob murdered an abolitionist printer, and Phillips committed his life to abolition. He soon emerged as the most powerful antislavery orator. He used plain language and spoke with quiet intensity. He was a skilled debater who, without taking any notes, could reply point by point to a complex presentation. John Bright exclaimed that there was no orator superior to him who spoke the English language. A Boston journalist called Phillips the “anti-slavery Cicero.”

When it was Douglass’s turn to speak, recalled Garrison, “He came forward to the platform with a hesitancy and embarrassment. After apologizing for his ignorance, and reminding the audience that slavery was a poor school for the human intellect and heart, he proceeded to narrate some of the facts in his own history as a slave, and in the course of his speech gave utterance to many noble thoughts and thrilling reflections. “As soon as he had taken his seat, filled with hope and admiration, I rose, and declared that Patrick Henry, of revolutionary fame, never made a speech more eloquent in the cause of liberty. . . .”

Douglass was asked to become a salaried speaker for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society on a three-month trial basis. It was tough going because most Northerners were either uninterested in slavery or considered abolitionists as troublemakers. In many Northern towns, a black speaker wasn’t welcome. But Douglass inspired people with his oratory. He entertained by mimicking Northern hypocrites and Southern slaveholders. He engaged hecklers.

He joined Garrison, Phillips, Stephen S. Foster, and Charles Lenox Remond, speaking wherever a couple dozen people could be gathered. The most controversial speaking combination mixed races and sexes: Douglass, radical Abby Kelley, and white orthopedic surgeon Erasmus Hudson. Altogether, Douglass appeared in some 60 towns throughout Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. Train travel with other antislavery speakers was difficult, because conductors often ordered him to the “Negro car” — and when he refused, he was thrown off the train.

Many times, there was violence. In Indiana, hecklers threw eggs and stones at the speakers. A mob went after Douglass, shouting vile epithets. One assailant broke Douglass’s right hand with a club. Douglass might have been killed had it not been for the intervention of his white compatriot William White. Later Douglas wrote White: I shall never forget how like two very brothers we were ready to dare, do, and even die for each other.

Increasingly, he spoke out on racial prejudice as well as slavery. “Prejudice against color is stronger north than south,” he observed, “it hangs around my neck like a heavy weight.” Douglass was such a hit that in 1842 the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society retained him as a regular agent. He delivered over 100 speeches a year, and he became a valued contributor to The Liberator.

His first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (June 1845), helped secure his fame. It was written as an antislavery tract, with details of his escape left out to protect others. Published by the Anti-Slavery Office, Boston, the book included a letter by Phillips and a preface by Garrison. Douglass, wrote Garrison, offers a “union of head and heart, which is indispensable to an enlightenment of the heads and a winning of the hearts of others.” Soon there were three European editions, and total sales reportedly reached 30,000 within five years.

Time Abroad

Douglass seemed like a natural to help turn Europeans against the South, thus isolating it in the international community. On August 16, 1845, he left Boston aboard the Cunard steamer Cambria. Denied a cabin, however, he went steerage—the most humble accommodations. The speaking tour began in Ireland, and Douglass was horrified at Irish poverty, which was worse than anything he had experienced. At a gathering of some 20,000 people, he shared the lecture platform with Daniel O’Connell, the legendary orator for Irish emancipation. He was moved when Irishmen dubbed him the “Black O’Connell of the United States.” Douglass realized that blacks weren’t the only ones struggling to be free.

One million Irish died of starvation following the failure of the potato crop that year, and Douglass joined cool-headed free trade agitator Richard Cobden and his compatriot John Bright, a passionate speaker. The threesome traveled from town to town, demanding immediate repeal of the corn laws (grain tariffs), so desperate people could buy cheap food. Douglass was welcomed at London’s Free-Trade Club, and he cherished his times as a welcome guest at the house of Mr. Bright in Rochdale . . . treated as a friend and brother among his brothers and sisters.”

Garrison arrived, and he and Douglass resumed the antislavery crusade, addressing audiences in Scotland, England, and Wales. They dramatized the evils of American slavery, attacked clergymen who supported slavery, called on people to cut off ties with the slaveholding South, and asked for contributions.

Meanwhile, Douglass learned that Thomas Auld had sold him to Hugh Auld, and that Hugh was determined to have him captured when he returned to the United States. Since Douglass had become a key player in the abolitionist movement, his friends thought it best to purchase his freedom. The agreed-on price was £50. John Bright kicked off the fund-raising with a £50 check. The rest came quickly, and Hugh Auld received $711.60. Douglass was legally free on December 12, 1845. Most abolitionists criticized the move for seeming to sanction the buying and selling of human beings, but Garrison thought it made sense. Douglass sailed for the United States on April 4, 1847. He returned with considerable prestige, having enlarged his vision, proven himself in a strange land, and won acclaim from famous freedom fighters.

The Compromise of 1850

Unfortunately, all the speaking out seemed to have little impact on government policy. Proslavery forces controlled the federal government. James K. Polk had been elected president in 1844, and he launched the Mexican War, which was viewed by Douglass and other abolitionists as a scheme for expanding slavery. In 1848, Polk was succeeded by Zachary Taylor, the slave-owning hero of the Mexican War. Kentucky Senator Henry Clay forged the notorious Compromise of 1850, which specified that the federal government would enforce slavery where it was already established, that California would join the Union as a free state, and that Utah and New Mexico could become slave states later.

The Compromise included a tougher Fugitive Slave Act, requiring federal law enforcement officials to help return runaway slaves. During the next decade, there were 81 fugitive slave cases under this law. It inflamed northern opinion as nothing before, and Garrison, Phillips, Douglass, and other anti-slavery speakers made the most of the situation. The American Anti-Slavery Society grew to some 2,000 local societies with over 200,000 members. As William McFeely noted, “Those who wanted to hear no more of the slavery question slowly came to realize that nothing would ever silence these antislavery people. They would keep up their agitation, against all odds, until—finally—slavery was ended.”

Increasing numbers of people helped the Underground Railroad. Eleven northern states — all except Ohio and Indiana — made it illegal to return a runaway slave. Disobeying the Fugitive Slave Law became a patriotic thing to do. Reportedly, a slave could go from a border state to Canada within 48 hours. Many a runaway slave showed up at Douglass’s three-story Rochester, New York, home, and his family took care of them until they could go the seven miles to Charlotte and catch a steamer across Lake Ontario to Canada. Douglass knew Harriet Tubman, the black woman who became famous for making 19 trips down South and escorting some 300 slaves to freedom. Most escapes occurred during the winter when there was less supervision on plantations, and Douglass tirelessly raised money to provide the destitute runaways with warm clothing and food.

Douglass and Garrison, however, began to move apart because Douglass was determined to be his own man, while Garrison believed his organization should lead the antislavery movement. Douglass continued to refine his speaking technique, despite Garrison’s concern that audiences would doubt “you were ever a slave.” He came to believe in all peaceful means against slavery, including political action. After all, the number of antislavery Congressmen increased during the 1840s.

Douglass talked about starting his own antislavery newspaper, an idea bitterly opposed by Garrison’s people. On December 3, 1847, with $4,000 raised from his speaking tour in the British Isles, Douglass published the first issue of North Star. He was to keep it going for 17 years. He traveled constantly, speaking against slavery and urging people to subscribe.

On July 19-20, 1848, he spoke at the Seneca Falls convention that Elizabeth Cady Stanton had organized to promote women’s rights. Douglass was the only male present who supported women’s suffrage—32 men and 68 women attended. He agreed that wives should, if they wished, be able to earn their own money; that widows, like widowers, should be able to serve as legal guardians of their children; that women, like men, should be able to own property, inherit property, and administer estates.

More and more, Douglass became convinced he must plunge into political action. In a speech delivered July 5, 1852—considered by some to be the greatest antislavery oration—he defended the Constitution: “interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.”

By this time, Douglass and Garrison had split for good, although Douglass never publicly mentioned the break. Garrison’s people carped about how Douglass was selfish and temperamental. Douglass’s friend Harriet Beecher Stowe, who had electrified the antislavery movement with her 1852 bestseller Uncle Tom’s Cabin, wrote Garrison in an unsuccessful effort at reconciliation: “Why is he any more to be called an apostate for having spoken ill-tempered things of former friends than they for having spoken severely and cruelly as they have of him . . . where is this work of excommunication to end? Is there but one true anti-slavery church and all others infidels?”

Douglass’s second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, was published in 1855. He expanded his story about slavery, offered his firsthand view of the antislavery movement, and affirmed his confidence that it would triumph.

The Fight Continues

The personal costs of Douglass’s antislavery campaign were high. He spent hardly any time at home. He missed seeing his five children growing up. Douglass’s wife, Anna, resented being left alone to tend the children and earn extra money.

But Douglass was in the thick of fast-moving events. In the notorious Dred Scott decision, March 6, 1857, Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney ruled that neither a slave, nor a former slave, nor a descendant of slaves could become a U.S. citizen. He further ruled that Congress couldn’t outlaw slavery in new U.S. territories.

The political situation seemed desperate enough that Douglass was willing to hear any ideas that might help the fight against slavery. In 1858, the former Massachusetts tanner John Brown was at Douglass’s Rochester home, working on his idea for stirring a slave insurrection and forming a black state in the Appalachian mountains. Douglass reportedly provided financial support. He respected Brown as a man who had courageously led dozens of Missouri slaves to freedom and fought to keep Kansas free.

But Brown abandoned the idea of a black state as he planned a raid on a federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. The idea was to capture arms and distribute them to slaves. Douglass warned this was suicidal—there were only about 5,000 blacks versus 100,000 whites in the region. On October 16, 1859, Brown and 22 followers seized the arsenal, but they were captured by Robert E. Lee’s marines.

Douglass became implicated after investigators found his correspondence among Brown’s papers, and the order went out to arrest him. He fled to Canada and then to England and Scotland where, conveniently, he was already booked for a lecture tour. Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859. Three months later, when Douglass was in Glasgow, he got word that his 10-year-old daughter Annie had died, and he resolved to go home. He cautiously took an indirect route, to Maine, Montreal, and then Rochester. About this time, he got lucky. There was a backlash of public outrage against slavery, and Congress feared that further hangings would make more martyrs. Accordingly, it closed the John Brown affair. Within just a few months, Douglass’s association with John Brown had gone from a big liability to a badge of honor.

Douglass spoke forcefully for Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln, but he was shocked to discover that large numbers of Northerners blamed abolitionists for the crisis of the Union. At a December 3, 1860, Boston rally, Douglass found himself in a riot as Unionists fought abolitionists. Then after the April 1861 firing on Fort Sumter, which marked the beginning of the Civil War, President Lincoln made clear this was a struggle to preserve the Union, not to abolish slavery. Lincoln’s policy was that runaway slaves must be returned to their masters. Lincoln overruled General John C. Frémont, who had emancipated slaves in Missouri.

Douglass demanded “the unrestricted and complete Emancipation of every slave in the United States whether claimed by loyal or disloyal masters. This is the lesson of the Hour.” On January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued an Emancipation Proclamation saying that slaves were liberated in rebellious states—which he obviously didn’t control. The Proclamation didn’t free slaves in the North. But Douglass hailed it because it made the abolition of slavery a war aim.

Alas, Douglass was swept away by war fever like almost everybody else. Although he didn’t enlist himself, he delivered speeches encouraging black men to join the Union army. Douglass’s aim was to help win the war and gain respect for blacks. But Douglass’s efforts backfired to some extent when, during riots against military conscription, angry whites blamed blacks for starting the Civil War. While the North welcomed black volunteers into segregated fighting units like the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Volunteers, blacks were paid less than whites and weren’t promoted into the ranks of noncommissioned officers.

Especially after his cordial White House meeting with President Lincoln, Douglass became a Republican booster, but war casualties soared with no end in sight, generating pressures to compromise. As another presidential election year approached, there was talk about a negotiated peace that would let the South maintain slavery. Lincoln’s likely Democratic opponent, General George McClellan, promised he wouldn’t end slavery in rebel states. Douglass countered: “no war but an Abolition war; no peace but an Abolition peace; liberty for all, chains for none; the black man a soldier in war; a laborer in peace; a voter at the South as well as at the North; America his permanent home, and all Americans his fellow-countrymen.”

War’s End

The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865, and five days later Lincoln was assassinated. Douglass certainly admired Lincoln but acknowledged: “He was ready to execute all the supposed constitutional guaranties of the United States Constitution in favor of the slave system anywhere inside the slave States. He was willing to pursue, recapture, and send back the fugitive slave to his master, and to suppress a slave rising for liberty, though his guilty master were already in arms against the Government. The race to which we belong were not the special objects of his consideration.”

With slavery abolished, Garrison as well as many others in the antislavery movement considered their work done. But Douglass focused on what had always been his long-term goal: to help blacks achieve their human potential and live in harmony with whites.

How to achieve these things? There weren’t any good choices. War-weary Northerners didn’t want to hear about the problems of blacks. Embittered Southerners were determined to get their revenge. Douglass hoped for federal action, but Andrew Johnson, who had succeeded Lincoln as president, did nothing while white Southerners reasserted their power over blacks. They enacted Black Codes that effectively denied blacks their civil rights. For example: Mississippi specified that blacks could not live in a particular place or hold a job unless they got a (white-controlled) government license which could be revoked at any time. Johnson told blacks they should prove they had the right to be free.

Douglass set his sights on getting blacks the vote, so they could establish a political presence—blacks were denied the vote in Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and several western states. He took leave of his family once more and crisscrossed the country. His rallying cry: “They gave us the bullet to save themselves; they will yet give the ballot to save themselves.”

But it became politically impossible to push for giving both blacks and women the vote at the same time, and feminists refused to support black suffrage if women weren’t part of the deal. Things got nasty with Susan B. Anthony, among others, taking swipes at the intelligence of black men. Douglass’s view: “While the negro is mobbed, beaten, shot, stabbed, hanged, burnt and is the target of all that is malignant in the North and all that is murderous in the South, his claims may be preferred by me without exposing in any wise myself to the imputation of narrowness or meanness toward the cause of woman. Immediately after the March 30, 1870, adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment, granting blacks the right to vote, Douglass urged a new campaign for female suffrage.

Douglass hitched himself to the Republican Party during the long sunset of his career, because the Democratic Party was committed to undoing black gains. He campaigned for Republican presidential candidates, and for his trouble he was named to inconsequential posts — Marshal in the District of Columbia, Recorder of Deeds and Consul-General to Haiti. He hoped to influence government policy but didn’t. His posts provided some cover for Republican presidents who sold out blacks in the South. On October 15, 1883, eight out of nine Republican Supreme Court justices ruled that state legislatures had jurisdiction over civil rights, affirming the triumph of white supremacy in the South.

There was an open season on blacks. They were excluded from white labor unions. Terrorist groups like the Pale Faces, Knights of the White Camelia and, of course, the Ku Klux Klan, burned black homes, schools, and churches. Blacks were lynched, and neither state nor federal governments did much, if anything.

It was through his private efforts, not any political connections, that Douglass fought these evils. “A white man has but to blacken his face and commit a crime, to have some negro lynched in his stead,” he protested. “An abandoned woman has only to start the cry that she has been insulted by a black man, to have him arrested and summarily murdered by the mob. Frightened and tortured by his captors, confused into telling crooked stories about his whereabouts at the time when the alleged crime was committed and the death penalty is at once inflicted, though his story may be but the incoherency of ignorance or distraction caused by terror.”

The problem, he insisted, is “whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their Constitution. . . . We Negroes love our country. We fought for it. We ask only that we be treated as well as those who fought against it.”

Douglass rejected the thought that one class must rule over another. He pleaded: “Let the nation try justice and the problem will be solved.”

Douglass returned to his theme of self-help. The question now is, will the black man do as much now for his master (himself) as he used to do for his old master? He encouraged black parents: “Educate your sons and daughters, send them to school . . . into mechanical trades; press them into blacksmith-shops, the wheelwright-shops, the cooper-shops, and the tailor-shops . . . . Trades are important. Wherever a man may be thrown by misfortune, if he have in his hands a useful trade, he is useful to his fellow-men, and will be esteemed accordingly. . . .”

In 1881, he published The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. He provided more details about his experience as a slave, revealed (for the first time) how he escaped and offered his comments on the Civil War and subsequent events. His concern was that Americans should never forget the evils of slavery. Douglass issued an expanded edition of the book in 1892.

Douglass’s last years brought much sadness. He had launched a newspaper, the New National Era, but it failed and cost him $10,000. His grown children were all dependent on him for financial support. His wife, Anna, died on August 4, 1882. Two years later, he married a white abolitionist, Helen Pitts, antagonizing both blacks and whites.

After arsonists torched his beloved Rochester home, Douglass moved to a 20-room white frame house on 23 acres across the Anacostia River from Washington, D.C. The place had once been owned by Robert E. Lee. Called Cedar Hill, it included a library and a music room where Douglass could play his violin.

On February 20, 1895, he attended a Washington, D.C., rally for women’s rights. When he finished dinner that night, he rose from his chair, then collapsed and died. There was a private funeral service at his home, and the casket was moved to the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church where tremendous crowds, including thousands of children, paid their respects. After another service at Rochester’s Central Church, he was buried in Mount Home Cemetery near his daughter and his first wife.

More than anyone else, Douglass put a human face on the horrors of American slavery. He helped convince millions that it must be abolished. He courageously spoke out against the subversion of civil rights. He expressed generous sympathy for all who were oppressed. He urged people to help themselves and fulfill their destiny. He longed for the day when men and women, blacks, whites, and everyone else could live in peace.

  • Jim Powell, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is an expert in the history of liberty. He has lectured in England, Germany, Japan, Argentina and Brazil as well as at Harvard, Stanford and other universities across the United States. He has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Esquire, Audacity/American Heritage and other publications, and is author of six books.