Frederick Douglass - A Biography
by Charles Waddell Chesnutt
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Charles Chesnutt

The Beacon biographies of eminent Americans. Includes bibliographical references (p.).


Frederick Douglass lived so long, and played so conspicuous a part on the world's stage, that it would be impossible, in a work of the size of this, to do more than touch upon the salient features of his career, to suggest the respects in which he influenced the course of events in his lifetime, and to epitomize for the readers of another generation the judgment of his contemporaries as to his genius and his character.

Douglass's fame as an orator has long been secure. His position as the champion of an oppressed race, and at the same time an example of its possibilities, was, in his own generation, as picturesque as it was unique; and his life may serve for all time as an incentive to aspiring souls who would fight the battles and win the love of mankind. The average American of to-day who sees, when his attention is called to it, and deplores, if he be a thoughtful and just man, the deep undertow of race prejudice that retards the progress of the colored people of our own generation, cannot, except by reading the painful records of the past, conceive of the mental and spiritual darkness to which slavery, as the inexorable condition of its existence, condemned its victims and, in a less measure, their oppressors, or of the blank wall of proscription and scorn by which free people of color were shut up in a moral and social Ghetto, the gates of which have yet not been entirely torn down.

From this night of slavery Douglass emerged, passed through the limbo of prejudice which he encountered as a freeman, and took his place in history. "As few of the world's great men have ever had so checkered and diversified a career," says Henry Wilson, "so it may at least be plausibly claimed that no man represents in himself more conflicting ideas and interests. His life is, in itself, an epic which finds few to equal it in the realms of either romance or reality." It was, after all, no misfortune for humanity that Frederick Douglass felt the iron hand of slavery; for his genius changed the drawbacks of color and condition into levers by which he raised himself and his people.

The materials for this work have been near at hand, though there is a vast amount of which lack of space must prevent the use. Acknowledgment is here made to members of the Douglass family for aid in securing the photograph from which the frontispiece is reproduced.

The more the writer has studied the records of Douglass's life, the more it has appealed to his imagination and his heart. He can claim no special qualification for this task, unless perhaps it be a profound and in some degree a personal sympathy with every step of Douglass's upward career. Belonging to a later generation, he was only privileged to see the man and hear the orator after his life-work was substantially completed, but often enough then to appreciate something of the strength and eloquence by which he impressed his contemporaries. If by this brief sketch the writer can revive among the readers of another generation a tithe of the interest that Douglass created for himself when he led the forlorn hope of his race for freedom and opportunity, his labor will be amply repaid.

Charles W. Chesnutt

Cleveland, October, 1899



Frederick Douglass was born at Tuckahoe, near Easton, Talbot County, Maryland.


Was sent to Baltimore to live with a relative of his master.


March. Was taken to St. Michaels, Maryland, to live again with his master.


January. Was sent to live with Edward Covey, slave-breaker, with whom he spent the year.


Hired to William Freeland. Made an unsuccessful attempt to escape from slavery, Was sent to Baltimore to learn the ship-calkers trade.


May. Hired his own time and worked at his trade.

September 3. Escaped from slavery and went to New York City. Married Miss Anna Murray. Went to New Bedford, Massachusetts. Assumed the name of "Douglass."


Attended anti-slavery convention at New Bedford and addressed the meeting. Was employed as agent of the Massachusetts Anti-slavery Society.


Took part in Rhode Island campaign against the Dorr constitution. Lectured on slavery. Moved to Lynn, Massachusetts.


Took part in the famous "One Hundred Conventions" of the New England Anti-slavery Society.


Lectured with Pillsbury, Foster, and others.


Published Frederick Douglass's Narrative.


Visited Great Britain and Ireland. Remained in Europe two years, lecturing on slavery and other subjects. Was presented by English friends with money to purchase his freedom and to establish a newspaper.


Returned to the United States. Moved with his family to Rochester, New York. Established the North Star, subsequently renamed Frederick Douglass's Paper. Visited John Brown at Springfield, Massachusetts.


Lectured on slavery and woman suffrage.


Edited newspaper. Lectured against slavery. Assisted the escape of fugitive slaves.


May 7. Attended meeting of Anti-slavery Society at New York City. Running debate with Captain Rynders.


Supported the Free Soil party. Elected delegate from Rochester to Free Soil convention at Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Supported John P. Hale for the Presidency.


Visited Harriet Beecher Stowe at Andover, Massachusetts, with reference to industrial school for colored youth.


Opposed repeal of Missouri Compromise.

June 12. Delivered commencement address at Western Reserve College, Hudson, Ohio.


Published My Bondage and My Freedom. March. Addressed the New York legislature.


Supported Fremont, candidate of the Republican party.


Established Douglass's Monthly. Entertained John Brown at Rochester.


August 20. Visited John Brown at Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.

May 12 [October]. Went to Canada to avoid arrest for alleged complicity in the John Brown raid.

November 12. Sailed from Quebec for England.

Lectured and spoke in England and Scotland for six months.


Returned to the United States. Supported Lincoln for the Presidency.


Lectured and spoke in favor of the war and against slavery.


Assisted in recruiting Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth Massachusetts colored regiments. Invited to visit President Lincoln.


Supported Lincoln for re-election.


Was active in procuring the franchise for the freedmen.

September. Elected delegate from Rochester to National Loyalists' Convention at Philadelphia.

1869 [1870]

Moved to Washington, District of Columbia. Established [Edited and then bought] the New National Era.


Appointed secretary of the Santo Domingo Commission by President Grant.


Appointed councillor of the District of Columbia. [Moved family there after a fire (probably arson) destroyed their Rochester home and Douglass's newspaper files.] Elected presidential elector of the State of New York, and chosen by the electoral college to take the vote to Washington.


Delivered address at unveiling of Lincoln statue at Washington.


Appointed Marshal of the District of Columbia by President Hayes.


Visited his old home in Maryland and met his old master.


Bust of Douglass placed in Sibley Hall, of Rochester University. Spoke against the proposed negro exodus from the South.


Appointed recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia.


January. Published Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, the third and last of his autobiographies. August 4. Mrs. Frederick Douglass died.


February 6. Attended funeral of Wendell Phillips. February 9. Attended memorial meeting and delivered eulogy on Phillips. Married Miss Helen Pitts.


May 20. Lectured on John Brown at Music Hall, Boston.

September 11. Attended a dinner given in his honor by the Wendell Phillips Club, Boston.

September. Sailed for Europe.

Visited Great Britain, France, Italy, Greece, and Egypt, 1886-87.


Made a tour of the Southern States.


Appointed United States minister resident and consul-general to the Republic of Hayti and charge d'affaires to Santo Domingo.


September 22. Addressed abolition reunion at Boston.


Resigned the office of minister to Hayti.


Acted as commissioner for Hayti at World's Columbian Exposition.


February 20. Frederick Douglass died at his home on Anacostia Heights, near Washington, District of Columbia.

In a few places in the text of Frederick Douglass, bracketed words have been inserted to indicate possible typographical errors, other unclear or misleading passages in the 1899 original edition, and identifications that were not needed in 1899 but may be needed in the twenty-first century.


If it be no small task for a man of the most favored antecedents and the most fortunate surroundings to rise above mediocrity in a great nation, it is surely a more remarkable achievement for a man of the very humblest origin possible to humanity in any country in any age of the world, in the face of obstacles seemingly insurmountable, to win high honors and rewards, to retain for more than a generation the respect of good men in many lands, and to be deemed worthy of enrolment among his country's great men. Such a man was Frederick Douglass, and the example of one who thus rose to eminence by sheer force of character and talents that neither slavery nor caste proscription could crush must ever remain as a shining illustration of the essential superiority of manhood to environment. Circumstances made Frederick Douglass a slave, but they could not prevent him from becoming a freeman and a leader among mankind.

The early life of Douglass, as detailed by himself from the platform in vigorous and eloquent speech, and as recorded in the three volumes written by himself at different periods of his career, is perhaps the completest indictment of the slave system ever presented at the bar of public opinion. Fanny Kemble's Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, kept by her in the very year of Douglass's escape from bondage, but not published until 1863, too late to contribute anything to the downfall of slavery, is a singularly clear revelation of plantation life from the standpoint of an outsider entirely unbiased by American prejudice. Frederick Douglass's Narrative is the same story told from the inside. They coincide in the main facts; and in the matter of detail, like the two slightly differing views of a stereoscopic picture, they bring out into bold relief the real character of the peculiar institution. Uncle Tom's Cabin lent to the structure of fact the decorations of humor, a dramatic plot, and characters to whose fate the touch of creative genius gave a living interest. But, after all, it was not Uncle Tom, nor Topsy, nor Miss Ophelia, nor Eliza, nor little Eva that made the book the power it proved to stir the hearts of men, but the great underlying tragedy then already rapidly approaching a bloody climax.

Frederick Douglass was born in February, l8l7,—as nearly as the date could be determined in after years, when it became a matter of public interest,—at Tuckahoe, near Easton, Talbot County, on the eastern shore of Maryland, a barren and poverty-stricken district, which possesses in the birth of Douglass its sole title to distinction. His mother was a negro slave, tall, erect, and well-proportioned, of a deep black and glossy complexion, with regular features, and manners of a natural dignity and sedateness. Though a field hand and compelled to toil many hours a day, she had in some mysterious way learned to read, being the only person of color in Tuckahoe, slave or free, who possessed that accomplishment. His father was a white man. It was in the nature of things that in after years attempts should be made to analyze the sources of Douglass's talent, and that the question should be raised whether he owed it to the black or the white half of his mixed ancestry. But Douglass himself, who knew his own mother and grandmother, ascribed such powers as he possessed to the negro half of his blood; and, as to it certainly he owed the experience which gave his anti-slavery work its peculiar distinction and value, he doubtless believed it only fair that the credit for what he accomplished should go to those who needed it most and could justly be proud of it. He never knew with certainty who his white father was, for the exigencies of slavery separated the boy from his mother before the subject of his paternity became of interest to him; and in after years his white father never claimed the honor, which might have given him a place in history.

Douglass's earliest recollections centered around the cabin of his grandmother, Betsey Bailey, who seems to have been something of a privileged character on the plantation, being permitted to live with her husband, Isaac, in a cabin of their own, charged with only the relatively light duty of looking after a number of young children, mostly the offspring of her own five daughters, and providing for her own support.

It is impossible in a work of the scope of this to go into very elaborate detail with reference to this period of Douglass's life, however interesting it might be. The real importance of his life to us of another generation lies in what he accomplished toward the world's progress, which he only began to influence several years after his escape from slavery. Enough ought to be stated, however, to trace his development from slave to freeman, and his preparation for the platform where he secured his hearing and earned his fame.

Douglass was born the slave of one Captain Aaron Anthony, a man of some consequence in eastern Maryland, the manager or chief clerk of one Colonel Lloyd, the head for that generation of an old, exceedingly wealthy, and highly honored family in Maryland, the possessor of a stately mansion and one of the largest and most fertile plantations in the State. Captain Anthony, though only the satellite of this great man, himself owned several farms and a number of slaves. At the age of seven Douglass was taken from the cabin of his grandmother at Tuckahoe to his masters residence on Colonel Lloyd's plantation.

Up to this time he had never, to his recollection, seen his mother. All his impressions of her were derived from a few brief visits made to him at Colonel Lloyd's plantation, most of them at night. These fleeting visits of the mother were important events in the life of the child, now no longer under the care of his grandmother, but turned over to the tender mercies of his master's cook, with whom he does not seem to have been a favorite. His mother died when he was eight or nine years old. Her son did not see her during her illness, nor learn of it until after her death. It was always a matter of grief to him that he did not know her better, and that he could not was one of the sins of slavery that he never forgave.

On Colonel Lloyd's plantation Douglass spent four years of the slave life of which his graphic description on the platform stirred humane hearts to righteous judgment of an unrighteous institution. It is enough to say that this lad, with keen eyes and susceptible feelings, was an eye-witness of all the evils to which slavery gave birth. Its extremes of luxury and misery could be found within the limits of one estate. He saw the field hand driven forth at dawn to labor until dark. He beheld every natural affection crushed when inconsistent with slavery, or warped and distorted to fit the necessities and promote the interests of the institution. He heard the unmerited strokes of the lash on the backs of others, and felt them on his own. In the wild songs of the slaves he read, beneath their senseless jargon or their fulsome praise of "old master," the often unconscious note of grief and despair. He perceived, too, the debasing effects of slavery upon master and slave alike, crushing all semblance of manhood in the one, and in the other substituting passion for judgment, caprice for justice, and indolence and effeminacy for the more virile virtues of freemen. Doubtless the gentle hand of time will some time spread the veil of silence over this painful past; but, while we are still gathering its evil aftermath, it is well enough that we do not forget the origin of so many of our civic problems.

When Douglass was ten years old, he was sent from the Lloyd plantation to Baltimore, to live with one Hugh Auld, a relative of his master. Here he enjoyed the high privilege, for a slave, of living in the house with his master's family. In the capacity of house boy it was his duty to run errands and take care of a little white boy, Tommy Auld, the son of his mistress for the time being, Mrs. Sophia Auld. Mrs. Auld was of a religious turn of mind; and, from hearing her reading the Bible aloud frequently, curiosity prompted the boy to ask her to teach him to read. She complied, and found him an apt pupil, until her husband learned of her unlawful and dangerous conduct, and put an end to the instruction. But the evil was already done, and the seed thus sown brought forth fruit in the after career of the orator and leader of men. The mere fact that his master wished to prevent his learning made him all the more eager to acquire knowledge. In after years, even when most bitter in his denunciation of the palpable evils of slavery, Douglass always acknowledged the debt he owed to this good lady who innocently broke the laws and at the same time broke the chains that held a mind in bondage.

Douglass lived in the family of Hugh Auld at Baltimore for seven years. During this time the achievement that had the greatest influence upon his future was his learning to read and write. His mistress had given him a start. His own efforts gained the rest. He carried in his pocket a blue-backed Webster's Spelling Book, and, as occasion offered, induced his young white playmates, by the bribes of childhood, to give him lessons in spelling. When he was about thirteen, he began to feel deeply the moral yoke of slavery and to seek for knowledge of the means to escape it. One book seems to have had a marked influence upon his life at this epoch. He obtained, somehow, a copy of The Columbian Orator, containing some of the choicest masterpieces of English oratory, in which he saw liberty praised and oppression condemned; and the glowing periods of Pitt and Fox and Sheridan and our own Patrick Henry stirred to life in the heart of this slave boy the genius for oratory which did not burst forth until years afterward. The worldly wisdom of denying to slaves the key to knowledge is apparent when it is said that Douglass first learned from a newspaper that there were such people as abolitionists, who were opposed to human bondage and sought to make all men free. At about this same period Douglass's mind fell under religious influences. He was converted, professed faith in Jesus Christ, and began to read the Bible. He had dreamed of liberty before; he now prayed for it, and trusted in God. But, with the shrewd common sense which marked his whole life and saved it from shipwreck in more than one instance, he never forgot that God helps them that help themselves, and so never missed an opportunity to acquire the knowledge that would prepare him for freedom and give him the means of escape from slavery.

Douglass had learned to read, partly from childish curiosity and the desire to be able to do what others around him did; but it was with a definite end in view that he learned to write. By the slave code it was unlawful for a slave to go beyond the limits of his own neighborhood without the written permission of his master. Douglass's desire to write grew mainly out of the fact that in order to escape from bondage, which he had early determined to do, he would probably need such a "pass," as this written permission was termed, and could write it himself if he but knew how. His master for the time being kept a ship-yard, and in this and neighboring establishments of the same kind the boy spent much of his time. He noticed that the carpenters, after dressing pieces of timber, marked them with certain letters to indicate their positions in the vessel. By asking questions of the workmen he learned the names of these letters and their significance. He got up writing matches with sticks upon the ground with the little white boys, copied the italics in his spelling-book, and in the secrecy of the attic filled up all the blank spaces of his young master's old copy-books. In time he learned to write, and thus again demonstrated the power of the mind to overleap the bounds that men set for it and work out the destiny to which God designs it.


It was the curious fate of Douglass to pass through almost every phase of slavery, as though to prepare him the more thoroughly for his future career. Shortly after he went to Baltimore, his master, Captain Anthony, died intestate, and his property was divided between his two children. Douglass, with the other slaves, was part of the personal estate, and was sent for to be appraised and disposed of in the division. He fell to the share of Mrs. Lucretia Auld, his masters daughter, who sent him back to Baltimore, where, after a month's absence, he resumed his life in the household of Mrs. Hugh Auld, the sister-in-law of his legal mistress. Owing to a family misunderstanding, he was taken, in March, 1833, from Baltimore back to St. Michaels.

His mistress, Lucretia Auld, had died in the mean time; and the new household in which he found himself, with Thomas Auld and his second wife, Rowena, at its head, was distinctly less favorable to the slave boy's comfort than the home where he had lived in Baltimore. Here he saw hardships of the life in bondage that had been less apparent in a large city. It is to be feared that Douglass was not the ideal slave, governed by the meek and lowly spirit of Uncle Tom. He seems, by his own showing, to have manifested but little appreciation of the wise oversight, the thoughtful care, and the freedom from responsibility with which slavery claimed to hedge round its victims, and he was inclined to spurn the rod rather than to kiss it. A tendency to insubordination, due partly to the freer life he had led in Baltimore, got him into disfavor with a master easily displeased; and, not proving sufficiently amenable to the discipline of the home plantation, he was sent to a certain celebrated negro-breaker by the name of Edward Covey, one of the poorer whites who, as overseers and slave-catchers, and in similar unsavory capacities, earned a living as parasites on the system of slavery. Douglass spent a year under Coveys ministrations, and his life there may be summed up in his own words: "I had neither sufficient time in which to eat nor to sleep, except on Sundays. The overwork and the brutal chastisements of which I was the victim, combined with that ever-gnawing and soul-destroying thought, 'I am a slave,—a slave for life,' rendered me a living embodiment of mental and physical wretchedness."

But even all this did not entirely crush the indomitable spirit of a man destined to achieve his own freedom and thereafter to help win freedom for a race. In August, 1834, after a particularly atrocious beating, which left him wounded and weak from loss of blood, Douglass escaped the vigilance of the slave-breaker and made his way back to his own master to seek protection. The master, who would have lost his slave's wages for a year if he had broken the contract with Covey before the year's end, sent Douglass back to his taskmaster. Anticipating the most direful consequences, Douglass made the desperate resolution to resist any further punishment at Covey's hands. After a fight of two hours Covey gave up his attempt to whip Frederick, and thenceforth laid hands on him no more. That Covey did not invoke the law, which made death the punishment of the slave who resisted his master, was probably due to shame at having been worsted by a negro boy, or to the prudent consideration that there was no profit to be derived from a dead negro. Strength of character, re-enforced by strength of muscle, thus won a victory over brute force that secured for Douglass comparative immunity from abuse during the remaining months of his year's service with Covey.

The next year, 1835, Douglass was hired out to a Mr. William Freeland, who lived near St. Michael's, a gentleman who did not forget justice or humanity, so far as they were consistent with slavery, even in dealing with bond-servants. Here Douglass led a comparatively comfortable life. He had enough to eat, was not overworked, and found the time to conduct a surreptitious Sunday-school, where he tried to help others by teaching his fellow-slaves to read the Bible.


The manner of Douglass's escape from Maryland was never publicly disclosed by him until the war had made slavery a memory and the slave-catcher a thing of the past. It was the theory of the anti-slavery workers of the time that the publication of the details of escapes or rescues from bondage seldom reached the ears of those who might have learned thereby to do likewise, but merely furnished the master class with information that would render other escapes more difficult and bring suspicion or punishment upon those who had assisted fugitives. That this was no idle fear there is abundant testimony in the annals of the period. But in later years, when there was no longer any danger of unpleasant consequences, and when it had become an honor rather than a disgrace to have assisted a distressed runaway, Douglass published in detail the story of his flight. It would not compare in dramatic interest with many other celebrated escapes from slavery or imprisonment. He simply masqueraded as a sailor, borrowed a sailors "protection," or certificate that he belonged to the navy, took the train to Baltimore in the evening, and rode in the negro car until he reached New York City. There were many anxious moments during this journey. The "protection" he carried described a man somewhat different from him, but the conductor did not examine it carefully. Fear clutched at the fugitive's heart whenever he neared a State border line. He saw several persons whom he knew; but, if they recognized him or suspected his purpose, they made no sign. A little boldness, a little address, and a great deal of good luck carried him safely to his journey's end.

Douglass arrived in New York on September 4, 1838, having attained only a few months before what would have been in a freeman his legal majority. But, though landed in a free State, he was by no means a free man. He was still a piece of property, and could be reclaimed by the law's aid if his whereabouts were discovered. While local sentiment at the North afforded a measure of protection to fugitives, and few were ever returned to bondage compared with the number that escaped, yet the fear of recapture was ever with them, darkening their lives and impeding their pursuit of happiness.

But even the partial freedom Douglass had achieved gave birth to a thousand delightful sensations. In his autobiography he describes this dawn of liberty thus:

"A new world had opened up to me. I lived more in one day than in a year of my slave life. I felt as one might feel upon escape from a den of hungry lions. My chains were broken, and the victory brought me unspeakable joy."

But one cannot live long on joy; and, while his chains were broken, he was not beyond the echo of their clanking. He met on the streets, within a few hours after his arrival in New York, a man of his own color, who informed him that New York was full of Southerners at that season of the year, and that slave-hunters and spies were numerous, that old residents of the city were not safe, and that any recent fugitive was in imminent danger. After this cheerful communication Douglass's informant left him, evidently fearing that Douglass himself might be a slave-hunting spy. There were negroes base enough to play this role. In a sailor whom he encountered he found a friend. This Good Samaritan took him home for the night, and accompanied him next day to a Mr. David Ruggles, a colored man, the secretary of the New York Vigilance Committee and an active antislavery worker. Mr. Ruggles kept him concealed for several days, during which time the woman Douglass loved, a free woman, came on from Baltimore; and they were married. He had no money in his pocket, and nothing to depend upon but his hands, which doubtless seemed to him quite a valuable possession, as he knew they had brought in an income of several hundred dollars a year to their former owner.

Douglass's new friends advised him to go to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where whaling fleets were fitted out, and where he might hope to find work at his trade of ship-calker. It was believed, too, that he would be safer there, as the anti-slavery sentiment was considered too strong to permit a fugitive slave's being returned to the South.

When Douglass, accompanied by his wife, arrived in New Bedford, a Mr. Nathan Johnson, a colored man to whom he had been recommended, received him kindly, gave him shelter and sympathy, and lent him a small sum of money to redeem his meagre baggage, which had been held by the stage-driver as security for an unpaid balance of the fare to New Bedford. In his autobiography Douglass commends Mr. Johnson for his "noble-hearted hospitality and manly character."

In New York Douglass had changed his name in order the better to hide his identity from any possible pursuer. Douglass's name was another tie that bound him to his race. He has been called "Douglass" by the writer because that was the name he took for himself, as he did his education and his freedom; and as "Douglass" he made himself famous. As a slave, he was legally entitled to but one name,—Frederick. From his grandfather, Isaac Bailey, a freeman, he had derived the surname Bailey. His mother, with unconscious sarcasm, had called the little slave boy Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. The bearer of this imposing string of appellations had, with a finer sense of fitness, cut it down to Frederick Bailey. In New York he had called himself Frederick Johnson; but, finding when he reached New Bedford that a considerable portion of the colored population of the city already rejoiced in this familiar designation, he fell in with the suggestion of his host, who had been reading Scott's Lady of the Lake, and traced an analogy between the runaway slave and the fugitive chieftain, that the new freeman should call himself Douglass, after the noble Scot of that name [Douglas]. The choice proved not inappropriate, for this modern Douglass fought as valiantly in his own cause and with his own weapons as ever any Douglass [Douglas] fought with flashing steel in border foray.

Here, then, in a New England town, Douglass began the life of a freeman, from which, relieved now of the incubus of slavery, he soon emerged into the career for which, in the providence of God, he seemed by his multiform experience to have been especially fitted. He did not find himself, even in Massachusetts, quite beyond the influence of slavery. While before the law of the State he was the equal of any other man, caste prejudice prevented him from finding work at his trade of calker; and he therefore sought employment as a laborer. This he found easily, and for three years worked at whatever his hands found to do. The hardest toil was easy to him, the heaviest burdens were light; for the money that he earned went into his own pocket. If it did not remain there long, he at least had the satisfaction of spending it and of enjoying what it purchased.

During these three years he was learning the lesson of liberty and unconsciously continuing his training for the work of an anti-slavery agitator. He became a subscriber to the Liberator, each number of which he devoured with eagerness. He heard William Lloyd Garrison lecture, and became one of his most devoted disciples. He attended every anti-slavery meeting in New Bedford, and now and then spoke on the subject of slavery in humble gatherings of his own people.


In 1841 Douglass entered upon that epoch of his life which brought the hitherto obscure refugee prominently before the public, and in which his services as anti-slavery orator and reformer constitute his chief claim to enduring recollection. Millions of negroes whose lives had been far less bright than Douglass's had lived and died in slavery. Thousands of fugitives under assumed names were winning a precarious livelihood in the free States and trembling in constant fear of the slave-catcher. Some of these were doing noble work in assisting others to escape from bondage. Mr. Siebert, in his Underground Railroad, mentions one fugitive slave, John Mason by name, who assisted thirteen hundred others to escape from Kentucky. Another picturesque fugitive was Harriet Tubman, who devoted her life to this work with a courage, skill, and success that won her a wide reputation among the friends of freedom. A number of free colored men in the North, a few of them wealthy and cultivated, lent their time and their means to this cause. But it was reserved for Douglass, by virtue of his marvellous gift of oratory, to become pre-eminently the personal representative of his people for a generation.

In 1841 the Massachusetts Anti-slavery Society, which had been for some little time weakened by faction, arranged its differences, and entered upon a campaign of unusual activity, which found expression in numerous meetings throughout the free States, mainly in New England. On August 15 of that year a meeting was held at Nantucket, Massachusetts. The meeting was conducted by John A. Collins, at that time general agent of the society, and was addressed by William Lloyd Garrison and other leading abolitionists. Douglass had taken a holiday and come from New Bedford to attend this convention, without the remotest thought of taking part except as a spectator. The proceedings were interesting, and aroused the audience to a high state of feeling. There was present in the meeting a certain abolitionist, by name William C. Coffin, who had heard Douglass speak in the little negro Sunday-school at New Bedford, and who knew of his recent escape from slavery. To him came the happy inspiration to ask Douglass to speak a few words to the convention by way of personal testimony. Collins introduced the speaker as "a graduate from slavery, with his diploma written upon his back."

Douglass himself speaks very modestly about this, his first public appearance. He seems, from his own account, to have suffered somewhat from stage fright, which was apparently his chief memory concerning it. The impressions of others, however, allowing a little for the enthusiasm of the moment, are a safer guide as to the effect of Douglass's first speech. Parker Pillsbury reported that, "though it was late in the evening when the young man closed his remarks, none seemed to know or care for the hour.... The crowded congregation had been wrought up almost to enchantment during the whole long evening, particularly by some of the utterances of the last speaker [Douglass], as he turned over the terrible apocalypse of his experience in slavery." Mr. Garrison bore testimony to "the extraordinary emotion it exerted on his own mind and to the powerful impression it exerted upon a crowded auditory." "Patrick Henry," he declared, "had never made a more eloquent speech than the one they had just listened to from the lips of the hunted fugitive." Upon Douglass and his speech as a text Mr. Garrison delivered one of the sublimest and most masterly efforts of his life; and then and there began the friendship between the fugitive slave and the great agitator which opened the door for Douglass to a life of noble usefulness, and secured to the anti-slavery cause one of its most brilliant and effective orators.

At Garrison's instance Collins offered Douglass employment as lecturer for the Anti-slavery Society, though the idea of thus engaging him doubtless occurred to more than one of the abolition leaders who heard his Nantucket speech. Douglass was distrustful of his own powers. Only three years out of slavery, with little learning and no experience as a public speaker, painfully aware of the prejudice which must be encountered by men of his color, fearful too of the publicity that might reveal his whereabouts to his legal owner, who might reclaim his property wherever found, he yielded only reluctantly to Mr. Collins's proposition, and agreed at first upon only a three months' term of service.

Most of the abolitionists were, or meant to be, consistent in their practice of what they preached; and so, when Douglass was enrolled as one of the little band of apostles, they treated him literally as a man and a brother. Their homes, their hearts, and their often none too well-filled purses were open to him. In this new atmosphere his mind expanded, his spirit took on high courage, and he read and studied diligently, that he might make himself worthy of his opportunity to do something for his people.

During the remainder of 1841 Douglass travelled and lectured in Eastern Massachusetts with George Foster, in the interest of the two leading abolition journals, the Anti-slavery Standard and the Liberator, and also lectured in Rhode Island against the proposed Dorr constitution, which sought to limit the right of suffrage to white male citizens only, thus disfranchising colored men who had theretofore voted. With Foster and Pillsbury and Parker[1] and Monroe[2] and Abby Kelly [Kelley][3] he labored to defeat the Dorr constitution and at the same time promote the abolition gospel. The proposed constitution was defeated, and colored men who could meet the Rhode Island property qualification were left in possession of the right to vote.

[Footnote 1: Editor's Note to Dover Edition: Reverend Theodore Parker (1810-1860) was a Unitarian minister who graduated from the Harvard Divinity School and was active in the Boston area.]

[Footnote 2: Editor's Note to Dover Edition: James Monroe (1821-1898), a New Englander with a Quaker mother; in 1839 he became an Abolitionist lecturer instead of enrolling in college.]

[Footnote 3: Editor's Note to Dover Edition: Abigail Kelley Foster (1811-1887), who married another Abolitionist, Stephen Foster, in 1845, was a Quaker orator and organizer on behalf of the abolition of slavery and for women's right to vote.]

Douglass had plunged into this new work, after the first embarrassment wore off, with all the enthusiasm of youth and hope. But, except among the little band of Garrisonians and their sympathizers, his position did not relieve him from the disabilities attaching to his color. The feeling toward the negro in New England in 1841 was but little different from that in the State of Georgia to-day. Men of color were regarded and treated as belonging to a distinctly inferior order of creation. At hotels and places of public resort they were refused entertainment. On railroads and steamboats they were herded off by themselves in mean and uncomfortable cars. If welcomed in churches at all, they were carefully restricted to the negro pew. As in the Southern States to-day, no distinction was made among them in these respects by virtue of dress or manners or culture or means; but all were alike discriminated against because of their dark skins. Some of Douglass's abolition friends, among whom he especially mentions Wendell Phillips and two others of lesser note, won their way to his heart by at all times refusing to accept privileges that were denied to their swarthy companion. Douglass resented proscription wherever met with, and resisted it with force when the odds were not too overwhelming. More than once he was beaten and maltreated by railroad conductors and brakemen. For a time the Eastern Railroad ran its cars through Lynn, Massachusetts, without stopping, because Douglass, who resided at that time in Lynn, insisted on riding in the white people's car, and made trouble when interfered with. Often it was impossible for the abolitionists to secure a meeting-place; and in several instances Douglass paraded the streets with a bell, like a town crier, to announce that he would lecture in the open air.

Some of Douglass's friends, it must be admitted, were at times rather extreme in their language, and perhaps stirred up feelings that a more temperate vocabulary would not have aroused. None of them ever hesitated to call a spade a spade, and some of them denounced slavery and all its sympathizers with the vigor and picturesqueness of a Muggletonian or Fifth Monarchy man of Cromwell's time execrating his religious adversaries. And, while it was true enough that the Church and the State were, generally speaking, the obsequious tools of slavery, it was not easy for an abolitionist to say so in vehement language without incurring the charge of treason or blasphemy,—an old trick of bigotry and tyranny to curb freedom of thought and freedom of speech. The little personal idiosyncrasies which some of the reformers affected, such as long hair in the men and short hair in the women,—there is surely some psychological reason why reformers run to such things,—served as convenient excuses for gibes and unseemly interruptions at their public meetings. On one memorable occasion, at Syracuse, New York, in November, 1842, Douglass and his fellows narrowly escaped tar and feathers. But, although Douglass was vehemently denunciatory of slavery in all its aspects, his twenty years of training in that hard school had developed in him a vein of prudence that saved him from these verbal excesses,—perhaps there was also some element of taste involved,—and thus made his arguments more effective than if he had alienated his audiences by indiscriminate attacks on all the institutions of society. No one could justly accuse Frederick Douglass of cowardice or self-seeking; yet he was opportunist enough to sacrifice the immaterial for the essential, and to use the best means at hand to promote the ultimate object sought, although the means thus offered might not be the ideal instrument. It was doubtless this trait that led Douglass, after he separated from his abolitionist friends, to modify his views upon the subject of disunion and the constitutionality of slavery, and to support political parties whose platforms by no means expressed the full measure of his convictions.

In 1843 the New England Anti-slavery Society resolved, at its annual meeting in the spring, to stir the Northern heart and rouse the national conscience by a series of one hundred conventions in New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania. Douglass was assigned as one of the agents for the conduct of this undertaking. Among those associated in this work, which extended over five months, were John A. Collins, the president of the society, who mapped out the campaign; James Monroe; George Bradburn; William A. White; Charles L. Remond, a colored orator, born in Massachusetts, who rendered effective service in the abolition cause; and Sidney Howard Gay, at that time managing editor of the National Anti-slavery Standard and later of the New York Tribune and the New York Evening Post.

The campaign upon which this little band of missionaries set out was no inconsiderable one. They were not going forth to face enthusiastic crowds of supporters, who would meet them with brass bands and shouts of welcome. They were more likely to be greeted with hisses and cat-calls, sticks and stones, stale eggs and decayed cabbages, hoots and yells of derision, and decorations of tar and feathers.

In some towns of Vermont slanderous reports were made in advance of their arrival, their characters were assailed, and their aims and objects misrepresented. In Syracuse, afterward distinguished for its strong anti-slavery sentiment, the abolitionists were compelled to hold their meetings in the public park, from inability to procure a house in which to speak; and only after their convention was well under way were they offered the shelter of a dilapidated and abandoned church. In Rochester they met with a more hospitable reception. The indifference of Buffalo so disgusted Douglass's companions that they shook the dust of the city from their feet, and left Douglass, who was accustomed to coldness and therefore undaunted by it, to tread the wine-press alone. He spoke in an old post-office for nearly a week, to such good purpose that a church was thrown open to him; and on a certain Sunday, in the public park, he held and thrilled by his eloquence an audience of five thousand people.

On leaving Buffalo, Douglass joined the other speakers, and went with them to Clinton County, Ohio, where, under a large tent, a mass meeting was held of abolitionists who had come from widely scattered points. During an excursion made about this time to Pennsylvania to attend a convention at Norristown, an attempt was made to lynch him at Manayunk; but his usual good fortune served him, and he lived to be threatened by higher powers than a pro-slavery mob.

When the party of reformers reached Indiana, where the pro-slavery spirit was always strong, the State having been settled largely by Southerners, their campaign of education became a running fight, in which Douglass, whose dark skin attracted most attention, often got more than his share. His strength and address brought him safely out of many an encounter; but in a struggle with a mob at Richmond, Indiana, he was badly beaten and left unconscious on the ground. A good Quaker took him home in his wagon, his wife bound up Douglass's wounds and nursed him tenderly,—the Quakers were ever the consistent friends of freedom,—but for the lack of proper setting he carried to the grave a stiff hand as the result of this affray. He had often been introduced to audiences as "a graduate from slavery with his diploma written upon his back": from Indiana he received the distinction of a post-graduate degree.


It can easily be understood that such a man as Douglass, thrown thus into stimulating daily intercourse with some of the brightest minds of his generation, all animated by a high and noble enthusiasm for liberty and humanity,—such men as Garrison and Phillips and Gay and Monroe and many others,—should have developed with remarkable rapidity those reserves of character and intellect which slavery had kept in repression. And yet, while aware of his wonderful talent for oratory, he never for a moment let this knowledge turn his head or obscure the consciousness that he had brought with him out of slavery of some of the disabilities of that status. Naturally, his expanding intelligence sought a wider range of expression; and his simple narrative of the wrongs of slavery gave way sometimes to a discussion of its philosophy. His abolitionist friends would have preferred him to stick a little more closely to the old line,—to furnish the experience while they provided the argument. But the strong will that slavery had not been able to break was not always amenable to politic suggestion. Douglass's style and vocabulary and logic improved so rapidly that people began to question his having been a slave. His appearance, speech, and manner differed so little in material particulars from those of his excellent exemplars that many people were sceptical of his antecedents. Douglass had, since his escape from slavery, carefully kept silent about the place he came from and his master's name and the manner of his escape, for the very good reason that their revelation would have informed his master of his whereabouts and rendered his freedom precarious; for the fugitive slave law was in force, and only here and there could local public sentiment have prevented its operation. Confronted with the probability of losing his usefulness, as the "awful example," Douglass took the bold step of publishing in the spring of 1845 the narrative of his experience as a slave, giving names of people and places, and dates as nearly as he could recall them. His abolitionist friends doubted the expediency of this step; and Wendell Phillips advised him to throw the manuscript into the fire, declaring that the government of Massachusetts had neither the power nor the will to protect him from the consequences of his daring.

The pamphlet was widely read. It was written in a style of graphic simplicity, and was such an expose of slavery as exasperated its jealous supporters and beneficiaries. Douglass soon had excellent reasons to fear that he would be recaptured by force or guile and returned to slavery or a worse fate. The prospect was not an alluring one; and hence, to avoid an involuntary visit to the scenes of his childhood, he sought liberty beyond the sea, where men of his color have always enjoyed a larger freedom than in their native land.

In 1845 Douglass set sail for England on board the Cambria, of the Cunard Line, accompanied by James N. Buffum, a prominent abolitionist of Lynn, Massachusetts. On the same steamer were the Hutchinson family, who lent their sweet songs to the anti-slavery crusade. Douglass's color rendered him ineligible for cabin passage, and he was relegated to the steerage. Nevertheless, he became quite the lion of the vessel, made the steerage fashionable, was given the freedom of the ship, and invited to lecture on slavery. This he did to the satisfaction of all the passengers except a few young men from New Orleans and Georgia, who, true to the instincts of their caste, made his strictures on the South a personal matter, and threatened to throw him overboard. Their zeal was diminished by an order of the captain to put them in irons. They sulked in their cabins, however, and rushed into print when they reached Liverpool, thus giving Douglass the very introduction he needed to the British public, which was promptly informed, by himself and others, of the true facts in regard to the steamer speech and the speaker.


The two years Douglass spent in Great Britain upon this visit were active and fruitful ones, and did much to bring him to that full measure of development scarcely possible for him in slave-ridden America. For while the English government had fostered slavery prior to the Revolution, and had only a few years before Douglass's visit abolished it in its own colonies, this wretched system had never fastened its clutches upon the home islands. Slaves had been brought to England, it is true, and carried away; but, when the right to remove them was questioned in court, Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, with an abundance of argument and precedent to support a position similar to that of Justice Taney in the Dred Scott case, had taken the contrary view, and declared that the air of England was free, and the slave who breathed it but once ceased thereby to be a slave. History and humanity have delivered their verdict on these two decisions, and time is not likely to disturb it.

A few days after landing at Liverpool, Douglass went to Ireland, where the agitation for the repeal of the union between Great Britain and Ireland was in full swing, under the leadership of Daniel O'Connell, the great Irish orator. O'Connell had denounced slavery in words of burning eloquence. The Garrisonian abolitionists advocated the separation of the free and slave States as the only means of securing some part of the United States to freedom. The American and Irish disunionists were united by a strong bond of sympathy. Douglass was soon referred to as "the black O'Connell," and lectured on slavery and on temperance to large and enthusiastic audiences. He was introduced to O'Connell, and exchanged compliments with him. A public breakfast was given him at Cork, and a soiree by Father Matthew, the eminent leader of the great temperance crusade which at that time shared with the repeal agitation the public interest of Ireland. A reception to Douglass and his friend Buffum was held in St. Patricks Temperance Hall, where they were greeted with a special song of welcome, written for the occasion. On January 6, 1846, a public breakfast was given Douglass at Belfast, at which the local branch of the British and Foreign Anti-slavery Society presented him with a Bible bound in gold.

After four months in Ireland, where he delivered more than fifty lectures, Douglass and his friend Buffum left Ireland, on January 10, 1846, for Scotland, where another important reform was in progress. It was an epoch of rebellion against the established order of things. The spirit of revolt was in the air. The disruption movement in the Established Church of Scotland, led by the famous Dr. Chalmers, had culminated in 1843 in the withdrawal of four hundred and seventy ministers, who gave up the shelter and security of the Establishment for the principle that a congregation should choose its own pastor, and organized themselves into the Free Protesting Church, commonly called the Free Kirk. An appeal had been issued to the Presbyterian churches of the world for aid to establish a sustentation fund for the use of the new church. Among the contributions from the United States was one from a Presbyterian church in Charleston, South Carolina. Just before this contribution arrived a South Carolina judge had condemned a Northern man to death for aiding the escape of a female slave. This incident had aroused horror and indignation throughout Great Britain. Lord Brougham had commented on it in the House of Lords, and Lord Chief Justice Denham had characterized it "in the name of all the judges of England" as a "horrible iniquity." O'Connell had rejected profferred contributions from the Southern States, and an effort was made in Scotland to have the South Carolina money sent back. The attempt failed ultimately; but the agitation on the subject was for a time very fierce, and gave Douglass and his friends the opportunity to strike many telling blows at slavery. He had never minced his words in the United States, and he now handled without gloves the government whose laws had driven him from its borders.

From Scotland Douglass went to England, where he found still another great reform movement nearing a triumphant conclusion. The Anti-corn Law League, after many years of labor, under the leadership of Richard Cobden and John Bright, for the abolition of the protective tariff on wheat and other kinds of grain for food, had brought its agitation to a successful issue; and on June 26, 1846, the Corn Laws were repealed. The generous enthusiasm for reform of one kind or another that pervaded the British Islands gave ready sympathy and support to the abolitionists in their mission. The abolition of slavery in the colonies had been decreed by Parliament in 1833, but the old leaders in that reform had not lost their zeal for liberty. George Thompson, who with Clarkson and Wilberforce had led the British abolitionists, invited Garrison over to help reorganize the anti-slavery sentiment of Great Britain against American slavery; and in August, 1846, Garrison went to England, in that year evidently a paradise of reformers.

During the week beginning May 17, 1846, Douglass addressed respectively the annual meeting of the British and Foreign Anti-slavery Society, a peace convention, a suffrage extension meeting, and a temperance convention, and spoke also at a reception where efforts were made to induce him to remain in England, and money subscribed to bring over his family. As will be seen hereafter, he chose the alternative of returning to the United States.

On August 7, 1846, Douglass addressed the World's Temperance Convention, held at Covent Garden Theatre, London. There were many speakers, and the time allotted to each was brief; but Douglass never lost an opportunity to attack slavery, and he did so on this occasion over the shoulder of temperance. He stated that he was not a delegate to the convention, because those whom he might have represented were placed beyond the pale of American temperance societies either by slavery or by an inveterate prejudice against their color. He referred to the mobbing of a procession of colored temperance societies in Philadelphia several years before, the burning of one of their churches, and the wrecking of their best temperance hall. These remarks brought out loud protests and calls for order from the American delegates present, who manifested the usual American sensitiveness to criticism, especially on the subject of slavery; but the house sustained Douglass, and demanded that he go on. Douglass was denounced for this in a letter to the New York papers by Rev. Dr. Cox, one of the American delegates.

Douglass's reply to this letter gave him the better of the controversy. He sometimes expressed the belief, founded on long experience, that doctors of divinity were, as a rule, among the most ardent supporters of slavery. Dr. Cox, who seems at least to have met the description, was also a delegate to the Evangelical Alliance, which met in London, August 19, 1846, with a membership of one thousand delegates from fifty different evangelical sects throughout the world. The question was raised in the convention whether or not fellowship should be held with slaveholders. Dr. Cox and the other Americans held that it should, and their views ultimately prevailed. Douglass made some telling speeches at Anti-slavery League meetings, in denunciation of the cowardice of the Alliance, and won a wide popularity.

Douglass remained in England two years. Not only did this visit give him a great opportunity to influence British public opinion against slavery, but the material benefits to himself were inestimable. He had left the United States a slave before the law, denied every civil right and every social privilege, literally a man without a country, and forced to cross the Atlantic among the cattle in the steerage of the steamboat. During his sojourn in Great Britain an English lady, Mrs. Ellen Richardson, of Newcastle, had raised seven hundred and fifty dollars, which was paid over to Hugh Auld, of Maryland, to secure Douglass's legal manumission; and, not content with this generous work, the same large-hearted lady had raised by subscription about two thousand five hundred dollars, which Douglass carried back to the United States as a free gift, and used to start his newspaper. He had met in Europe, as he said in a farewell speech, men quite as white as he had ever seen in the United States and of quite as noble exterior, and had seen in their faces no scorn of his complexion. He had travelled over the four kingdoms, and had encountered no sign of disrespect. He had been lionized in London, had spoken every night of his last month there, and had declined as many more invitations. He had shaken hands with the venerable Clarkson, and had breakfasted with the philosopher Combe, the author of The Constitution of Man. He had won the friendship of John Bright, had broken bread with Sir John Bowring, had been introduced to Lord Brougham, the brilliant leader of the Liberal party, and had listened to his wonderful eloquence. He had met Douglas Jerrold, the famous wit, and had been entertained by the poet William Howitt, who made a farewell speech in his honor. Everywhere he had denounced slavery, everywhere hospitable doors had opened wide to receive him, everywhere he had made friends for himself and his cause. A slave and an outcast at home, he had been made to feel himself a gentleman, had been the companion of great men and good women. Urged to remain in this land of freedom, and offered aid to establish himself in life there, his heart bled for his less fortunate brethren in captivity; and, with the God-speed of his English friends ringing in his ears, he went back to America,—to scorn, to obloquy, to ostracism, but after all to the work to which he had been ordained, and which he was so well qualified to perform.


Douglass landed April 20, 1847. He returned to the United States with the intention of publishing the newspaper for which his English friends had so kindly furnished the means; but his plan meeting with opposition from his abolitionist friends, who thought the platform offered him a better field for usefulness, he deferred the enterprise until near the end of the year. In the mean time he plunged again into the thick of the anti-slavery agitation. We find him lecturing in May in the Broadway Tabernacle, New York, and writing letters to the anti-slavery papers. In June he was elected president of the New England Anti-slavery Convention. In August and September he went on a lecturing tour with Garrison and others through Pennsylvania and Ohio. On this tour the party attended the commencement exercises of Oberlin College, famous for its anti-slavery principles and practice, and spoke to immense meetings at various places in Ohio and New York. Their cause was growing in popular favor; and, in places where formerly they had spoken out of doors because of the difficulty of securing a place of meeting, they were now compelled to speak in the open air, because the churches and halls would not contain their audiences.

On December 3, 1847, the first number of the North Star appeared. Douglass's abolitionist friends had not yet become reconciled to this project, and his persistence in it resulted in a temporary coldness between them. They very naturally expected him to be guided by their advice. They had found him on the wharf at New Bedford, and given him his chance in life; and they may easily be pardoned for finding it presumptuous in him to disregard their advice and adopt a new line of conduct without consulting them. Mr. Garrison wrote in a letter to his wife from Cleveland, "It will also greatly surprise our friends in Boston to hear that in regard to his prospect of establishing a paper here, to be called the North Star, he never opened his lips to me on the subject nor asked my advice in any particular whatever." But Samuel May Jr., in a letter written to one of Douglass's English friends, in which he mentions this charge of Garrison, adds, "It is only common justice to Frederick Douglass to inform you that this is a mistake; that, on the contrary, he did speak to Mr. Garrison about it, just before he was taken ill at Cleveland." The probability is that Douglass had his mind made up, and did not seek advice, and that Mr. Garrison did not attach much importance to any casual remark Douglass may have made upon the subject. In a foot-note to the Life and Times of Garrison it is stated:—

"This enterprise was not regarded with favor by the leading abolitionists, who knew only too well the precarious support which a fifth anti-slavery paper, edited by a colored man, must have, and who appreciated to the full Douglass's unrivalled powers as a lecturer in the field ... As anticipated, it nearly proved the ruin of its projector; but by extraordinary exertions it was kept alive, not, however, on the platform of Garrisonian abolitionism. The necessary support could only be secured by a change of principles in accordance with Mr. Douglass's immediate (political abolition) environment."

Douglass's own statement does not differ very widely from this, except that he does not admit the mercenary motive for his change of principles. It was in deference, however, to the feelings of his former associates that the North Star was established at Rochester instead of in the East, where the field for anti-slavery papers was already fully occupied. In Rochester, then as now the centre of a thrifty, liberal, and progressive population, Douglass gradually won the sympathy and support which such an enterprise demanded.

The North Star, in size, typography, and interest, compared favorably with the other weeklies of the day, and lived for seventeen years. It had, however, its "ups and downs." At one time the editor had mortgaged his house to pay the running expenses; but friends came to his aid, his debts were paid, and the circulation of the paper doubled. In My Bondage and My Freedom Douglass gives the names of numerous persons who helped him in these earlier years of editorial effort, among whom were a dozen of the most distinguished public men of his day. After the North Star had been in existence several years, its name was changed to Frederick Douglass's Paper, to give it a more distinctive designation, the newspaper firmament already scintillating with many other "Stars."

In later years Douglass speaks of this newspaper enterprise as one of the wisest things he ever undertook. To paraphrase Lord Bacon's famous maxim, much reading of life and of books had made him a full man, and much speaking had made him a ready man. The attempt to put facts and arguments into literary form tended to make him more logical in reasoning and more exact in statement. One of the effects of Douglass's editorial responsibility and the influences brought to bear upon him by reason of it, was a change in his political views. Until he began the publication of the North Star and for several years thereafter, he was, with the rest of the Garrisonians, a pronounced disunionist. He held to the Garrisonian doctrine that the pro-slavery Constitution of the United States was a "league with death and a covenant with hell," maintained that anti-slavery men should not vote under it, and advocated the separation of the free States as the only means of preventing the utter extinction of freedom by the ever-advancing encroachments of the slave power. In Rochester he found himself in the region where the Liberty party, under the leadership of James G. Birney, Salmon P. Chase, Gerrit Smith, and others, had its largest support. The Liberty party maintained that slavery could be fought best with political weapons, that by the power of the ballot slavery could be confined strictly within its constitutional limits and prevented from invading new territory, and that it could be extinguished by the respective States whenever the growth of public opinion demanded it. One wing of the party took the more extreme ground that slavery was contrary to the true intent and meaning of the Constitution, and demanded that the country should return to the principles of liberty upon which it was founded. Though the more radical abolitionists were for a time bitterly opposed to these views, yet the Liberty party was the natural outgrowth of the abolition agitation. Garrison and Phillips and Douglass and the rest had planted, Birney and Gerrit Smith and Chase and the rest watered, and the Union party, led by the great emancipator, garnered the grain after a bloody harvest.

Several influences must have co-operated to modify Douglass's political views. The moral support and occasional financial aid given his paper by members of the Liberty party undoubtedly predisposed him favorably to their opinions. His retirement as agent of the Anti-slavery Society and the coolness resulting therefrom had taken him out of the close personal contact with those fervent spirits who had led the van in the struggle for liberty. Their zeal had been more disinterested, perhaps, than Douglass's own; for, after all, they had no personal stake in the outcome, while to Douglass and his people the abolition of slavery was a matter of life and death. Serene in the high altitude of their convictions, the Garrisonians would accept no halfway measures, would compromise no principles, and, if their right arm offended them, would cut it off with sublime fortitude and cast it into the fire. They wanted a free country, where the fleeing victim of slavery could find a refuge. Douglass perceived the immense advantage these swarming millions would gain through being free in the States where they already were. He had always been minded to do the best thing possible. When a slave, he had postponed his escape until it seemed entirely feasible. When denied cabin passage on steamboats, he had gone in the steerage or on deck. When he had been refused accommodation in a hotel, he had sought it under any humble roof that offered. It would have been a fine thing in the abstract to refuse the half-loaf, but in that event we should have had no Frederick Douglass. It was this very vein of prudence, keeping always in view the object to be attained, and in a broad, non-Jesuitical sense subordinating the means to the end, that enabled Douglass to prolong his usefulness a generation after the abolition of slavery. Douglass in his Life and Times states his own case as follows:

"After a time, a careful reconsideration of the subject convinced me that there was no necessity for dissolving the union between the Northern and Southern States; that to seek this dissolution was no part of my duty as an abolitionist; that to abstain from voting was to refuse to exercise a legitimate and powerful means for abolishing slavery; and that the Constitution of the United States not only contained no guarantees in favor of slavery, but, on the contrary, was in its letter and spirit an anti-slavery instrument, demanding the abolition of slavery as a condition of its own existence, as the supreme law of the land."

This opinion was not exactly the opinion of the majority of the Liberty party, which did not question the constitutionality of slavery in the slave States. Neither was it the opinion of the Supreme Court, which in the Dred Scott case held that the Constitution guaranteed not only the right to hold slaves, but to hold them in free States. Nevertheless, entertaining the views he did, Douglass was able to support the measures which sought to oppose slavery through political action. In August, 1848, while his Garrisonian views were as yet unchanged, he had been present as a spectator at the Free Soil Convention at Buffalo. In his Life and Times he says of this gathering: "This Buffalo Convention of Free Soilers, however low their standard, did lay the foundation of a grand superstructure. It was a powerful link in the chain of events by which the slave system has been abolished, the slave emancipated, and the country saved from dismemberment." In 1851 Douglass announced that his sympathies were with the voting abolitionists, and thenceforth he supported by voice and pen Hale, Fremont, and Lincoln, the successive candidates of the new party.

Douglass's political defection very much intensified the feeling against him among his former coadjutors. The Garrisonians, with their usual plain speaking, did not hesitate to say what they thought of Douglass. Their three papers, the Liberator, the Standard, and the Freeman, assailed Douglass fiercely, and charged him with treachery, inconsistency, ingratitude, and all the other crimes so easily imputed to one who changes his opinions. Garrison and Phillips and others of his former associates denounced him as a deserter, and attributed his change of heart to mercenary motives. Douglass seems to have borne himself with rare dignity and moderation in this trying period. He realized perfectly well that he was on the defensive, and that the burden devolved upon him to justify his change of front. This he seems to have attempted vigorously, but by argument rather than invective. Even during the height of the indignation against him Douglass disclaimed any desire to antagonize his former associates. He simply realized that there was more than one way to fight slavery,—which knew a dozen ways to maintain itself,—and had concluded to select the one that seemed most practical. He was quite willing that his former friends should go their own way. "No personal assaults," he wrote to George Thompson, the English abolitionist, who wrote to him for an explanation of the charges made against him, "shall ever lead me to forget that some, who in America have often made me the subject of personal abuse, are in their own way earnestly working for the abolition of slavery."

In later years, when political action had resulted in abolition, some of these harsh judgments were modified, and Douglass and his earlier friends met in peace and harmony. The debt he owed to William Lloyd Garrison he ever delighted to acknowledge. His speech on the death of Garrison breathes in every word the love and honor in which he held him. In one of the last chapters of his Life and Times he makes a sweeping acknowledgment of his obligations to the men and women who rendered his career possible.

"It was my good fortune," he writes, "to get out of slavery at the right time, to be speedily brought in contact with that circle of highly cultivated men and women, banded together for the overthrow of slavery, of which William Lloyd Garrison was the acknowledged leader. To these friends, earnest, courageous, inflexible, ready to own me as a man and a brother, against all the scorn, contempt, and derision of a slavery-polluted atmosphere, I owe my success in life."


Events moved rapidly in the decade preceding the war. In 1850 the new Fugitive Slave Law brought discouragement to the hearts of the friends of liberty. Douglass's utterances during this period breathed the fiery indignation which he felt when the slave-driver's whip was heard cracking over the free States, and all citizens were ordered to aid in the enforcement of this inhuman statute when called upon. This law really defeated its own purpose. There were thousands of conservative Northern men, who, recognizing the constitutional guarantees of slavery and the difficulty of abolishing it unless the South should take the initiative, were content that it should be preserved intact so long as it remained a local institution. But when the attempt was made to make the North wash the South's dirty linen, and transform every man in the Northern States into a slave-catcher, it wrought a revulsion of feeling that aroused widespread sympathy for the slave and strengthened the cause of freedom amazingly. Thousands of escaped slaves were living in Northern communities. Some of them had acquired homes, had educated their children, and in some States had become citizens and voters. Already social pariahs, restricted generally to menial labor, bearing the burdens of poverty and prejudice, they now had thrust before them the spectre of the kidnapper, the slave-catcher with his affidavit, and the United States [Supreme] Court, which was made by this law the subservient tool of tyranny. This law gave Douglass and the other abolitionists a new text. It was a set-back to their cause; but they were not entirely disheartened, for they saw in it the desperate expedients by which it was sought to bolster up an institution already doomed by the advancing tide of civilization.

The loss of slaves had become a serious drain upon the border States. The number of refugees settled in the North was, of course, largely a matter of estimate. Runaway slaves were not apt to advertise their status, but rather to conceal it, so that most estimates were more likely to be under than over the truth. Henry Wilson places the number in the free States at twenty thousand. There were in Boston in 1850, according to a public statement of Theodore Parker, from four to six hundred; and in other New England towns, notably New Bedford, the number was large. Other estimates place the figures much higher. Mr. Siebert, in his Underground Railroad, after a careful calculation from the best obtainable data, puts the number of fugitives aided in Ohio alone at forty thousand in the thirty years preceding 1860, and in the same period nine thousand in the city of Philadelphia alone, which was one of the principal stations of the underground railroad and the home of William Still, whose elaborate work on the Underground Railroad gives the details of many thrilling escapes.

In the work of assisting runaway slaves Douglass found congenial employment. It was exciting and dangerous, but inspiring and soul-satisfying. He kept a room in his house always ready for fugitives, having with him as many as eleven at a time. He would keep them over night, pay their fare on the train for Canada, and give them half a dollar extra. And Canada, to her eternal honor be it said, received these assisted emigrants, with their fifty cents apiece, of alien race, debauched by slavery, gave them welcome and protection, refused to enter into diplomatic relations for their rendition to bondage, and spoke well of them as men and citizens when Henry Clay and the other slave [pro-slavery] leaders denounced them as the most worthless of their class. The example of Canada may be commended to those persons in the United States, of little faith, who, because in thirty years the emancipated race have not equalled the white man in achievement, are fearful lest nothing good can be expected of them.

In the stirring years of the early fifties Douglass led a busy life. He had each week to fill the columns of his paper and raise the money to pay its expenses. Add to this his platform work and the underground railroad work, which consisted not only in personal aid to the fugitives, but in raising money to pay their expenses, and his time was very adequately employed. In every anti-slavery meeting his face was welcome, and his position as a representative of his own peculiar people was daily strengthened.

When Uncle Tom's Cabin, in 1852, set the world on fire over the wrongs of the slave,—or rather the wrongs of slavery, for that wonderful book did not portray the negro as the only sufferer from this hoary iniquity,—Mrs. Stowe, in her new capacity as a champion of liberty, conceived the plan of raising a fund for the benefit of the colored race, and in 1853 invited Douglass to visit her at Andover, Massachusetts, where she consulted with him in reference to the establishment of an industrial institute or trades school for colored youth, with a view to improving their condition in the free States. Douglass approved heartily of this plan, and through his paper made himself its sponsor. When, later on, Mrs. Stowe abandoned the project, Douglass was made the subject of some criticism, though he was not at all to blame for Mrs. Stowes altered plans. In our own time the value of such institutions has been widely recognized, and the success of those at Hampton and Tuskegee has stimulated anew the interest in industrial education as one important factor in the elevation of the colored race.

In the years from 1853 to 1860 the slave power, inspired with divine madness, rushed headlong toward its doom. The arbitrary enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act; the struggle between freedom and slavery in Kansas; the Dred Scott decision, by which a learned and subtle judge, who had it within his power to enlarge the boundaries of human liberty and cover his own name with glory, deliberately and laboriously summarized and dignified with the sanction of a court of last resort all the most odious prejudices that had restricted the opportunities of the colored people; the repeal of the Missouri Compromise; the John Brown raid; the [1855] assault on [Massachusetts antislavery U.S. Senator] Charles Sumner,—each of these incidents has been, in itself, the subject of more than one volume. Of these events the Dred Scott decision was the most disheartening. Douglass was not proof against the universal gloom, and began to feel that there was little hope of the peaceful solution of the question of slavery. It was in one of his darker moments that old Sojourner Truth, whose face appeared in so many anti-slavery gatherings, put her famous question, which breathed a sublime and childlike faith in God, even when his hand seemed heaviest on her people: "Frederick," she asked, "is God dead?" The orator paused impressively, and then thundered in a voice that thrilled his audience with prophetic intimations, "No, God is not dead; and therefore it is that slavery must end in blood!"

During this period John Brown stamped his name indelibly upon American history. It was almost inevitable that a man of the views, activities, and prominence of Douglass should become acquainted with John Brown. Their first meeting, however, was in 1847, more than ten years before the tragic episode at Harpers Ferry. At that time Brown was a merchant at Springfield, Massachusetts, whither Douglass was invited to visit him. In his Life and Times he describes Brown as a prosperous merchant, who in his home lived with the utmost abstemiousness, in order that he might save money for the great scheme he was already revolving. "His wife believed in him, and his children observed him with reverence. His arguments seemed to convince all, his appeals touched all, and his will impressed all. Certainly, I never felt myself in the presence of stronger religious influence than while in this man's house." There in his own home, where Douglass stayed as his guest, Brown outlined a plan which in substantially the same form he held dear to his heart for a decade longer. This plan, briefly stated, was to establish camps at certain easily defended points in the Allegheny Mountains; to send emissaries down to the plantations in the lowlands, starting in Virginia, and draw off the slaves to these mountain fastnesses; to maintain bands of them there, if possible, as a constant menace to slavery and an example of freedom; or, if that were impracticable, to lead them to Canada from time to time by the most available routes. Wild as this plan may seem in the light of the desperate game subsequently played by slavery, it did not at the time seem impracticable to such level-headed men as Theodore Parker and Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

Douglass's views were very much colored by his association with Brown; but, with his usual prudence and foresight, he pointed out the difficulties of this plan. From the time of their first meeting the relations of the two men were friendly and confidential. Captain Brown had his scheme ever in mind, and succeeded in convincing Douglass and others that it would subserve a useful purpose,—that, even if it resulted in failure, it would stir the conscience of the nation to a juster appreciation of the iniquity of slavery.

The Kansas troubles, however, turned Brown's energies for a time into a different channel. After Kansas had been secured to freedom, he returned with renewed ardor to his old project. He stayed for three weeks at Douglass's house at Rochester, and while there carried on an extensive correspondence with sympathizers and supporters, and thoroughly demonstrated to all with whom he conversed that he was a man of one all-absorbing idea.

In 1859, very shortly before the raid at Harpers Ferry, Douglass met Brown by appointment, in an abandoned stone quarry near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. John Brown was already an outlaw, with a price upon his head; for a traitor had betrayed his plan the year before, and he had for this reason deferred its execution for a year. The meeting was surrounded by all the mystery and conducted with all the precautions befitting a meeting of conspirators. Brown had changed the details of his former plan, and told Douglass of his determination to take Harpers Ferry. Douglass opposed the measure vehemently, pointing out its certain and disastrous failure. Brown met each argument with another, and was not to be swayed from his purpose. They spent more than a day together discussing the details of the movement. When the more practical Douglass declined to take part in Brown's attempt, the old man threw his arms around his swarthy friend, in a manner typical of his friendship for the dark race, and said: "Come with me, Douglass, I will defend you with my life. I want you for a special purpose. When I strike, the bees will begin to swarm, and I shall want you to help hive them." But Douglass would not be persuaded. His abandonment of his old friend on the eve of a desperate enterprise was criticised by some, who, as Douglass says, "kept even farther from this brave and heroic man than I did." John Brown went forth to meet a felon's fate and wear a martyr's crown: Douglass lived to fight the battles of his race for years to come. There was room for both, and each played the part for which he was best adapted. It would have strengthened the cause of liberty very little for Douglass to die with Brown.

It is quite likely, however, that he narrowly escaped Brown's fate. When the raid at Harpers Ferry had roused the country, Douglass, with other leading Northern men, was indicted in Virginia for complicity in the affair. Brown's correspondence had fallen into the hands of the Virginia authorities, and certain letters seemed to implicate Douglass. A trial in Virginia meant almost certain death. Governor Wise, of Virginia, would have hung him with cheerful alacrity, and publicly expressed his desire to do so. Douglass, with timely warning that extradition papers had been issued for his arrest, escaped to Canada. He had previously planned a second visit to England, and the John Brown affair had delayed his departure by some days. He sailed from Quebec, November 12, 1859.

After a most uncomfortable winter voyage of fourteen days Douglass found himself again in England, an object of marked interest and in very great demand as a speaker. Six months he spent on the hospitable shores of Great Britain, lecturing on John Brown, on slavery and other subjects, and renewing the friendships of former years. Being informed of the death of his youngest daughter, he cut short his visit, which he had meant to extend to France, and returned to the United States. So rapid had been the course of events since his departure that the excitement over the John Brown raid had subsided. The first Lincoln campaign was in active progress; and the whole country quivered with vague anticipation of the impending crisis which was to end the conflict of irreconcilable principles, and sweep slavery out of the path of civilization and progress. Douglass plunged into the campaign with his accustomed zeal, and did what he could to promote the triumph of the Republican party. Lincoln was elected, and in a few short months the country found itself in the midst of war. God was not dead, and slavery was to end in blood.


Ever mindful of his people and seeking always to promote their welfare, Douglass was one of those who urged, in all his addresses at this period, the abolition of slavery and the arming of the negroes as the most effective means of crushing the rebellion. In 1862 he delivered a series of lectures in New England under the auspices of the recently formed Emancipation League, which contended for abolition as a military necessity.

The first or conditional emancipation proclamation was issued in September, 1862; and shortly afterward Douglass published a pamphlet for circulation in Great Britain, entitled The Slave's Appeal to Great Britain, in which he urged the English people to refuse recognition of the independence of the Confederate States. He always endeavored in his public utterances to remove the doubts and fears of those who were tempted to leave the negroes in slavery because of the difficulty of disposing of them after they became free. Douglass, with the simple, direct, primitive sense of justice that had always marked his mind, took the only true ground for the solution of the race problems of that or any other epoch,-that the situation should be met with equal and exact justice, and that his people should be allowed to do as they pleased with themselves, "subject only to the same great laws which apply to other men." He was a conspicuous figure at the meeting in Tremont Temple, Boston, on January 1, 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation, hourly expected by an anxious gathering, finally flashed over the wires. Douglass was among the first to suggest the employment of colored troops in the Union army. In spite of all assertions to the contrary, he foresaw in the war the end of slavery. He perceived that by the enlistment of colored men not only would the Northern arms be strengthened, but his people would win an opportunity to exercise one of the highest rights of freemen, and by valor on the field of battle to remove some of the stigma that slavery had placed upon them. He strove through every channel at his command to impress his views upon the country; and his efforts helped to swell the current of opinion which found expression, after several intermediate steps, in the enlistment of two colored regiments by Governor Andrew, the famous war governor of Massachusetts, a State foremost in all good works. When Mr. Lincoln had granted permission for the recruiting of these regiments, Douglass issued through his paper a stirring appeal, which was copied in the principal journals of the Union States, exhorting his people to rally to this call, to seize this opportunity to strike a blow at slavery and win the gratitude of the country and the blessings of liberty for themselves and their posterity.

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