“I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”
Frederick Douglass was a man who claimed his own freedom by a dramatic escape from slavery. He then became a liberator of others. He helped slaves escape their bondage. He was a powerful voice for abolition of slavery. He struggled for the rights of women. He also liberated the U.S. Constitution from its own inner contradictions to become an instrument of freedom.
He was born into slavery, named Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. As a boy he was sold to a family in Baltimore, Maryland. His master’s wife began teaching him to read, prompting the disapproval of her husband. The slave-owner said that if a slave learned to read he would become dissatisfied with his condition and desire freedom. But the boy continued to read, teaching himself through the newspapers he could find as well as reading any book he could get his hands on.
He was sold to a farmer known for his cruelty to slaves. Douglass was whipped frequently until he fought back against his master. He was never beaten again. When he was 20 years old he obtained a uniform and identification papers from a free black seaman and began a train journey that took him to New York and freedom. He abandoned his slave name and took the last name of Douglass from the hero of a Sir Walter Scott novel.
Douglass settled in Massachusetts where he met the famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. At 23 years of age he gave his first speech, detailing the horrors of slavery. Though he was nervous, his passion riveted those who heard him. He became a popular speaker, traveling across the country with the abolitionist message. He said, “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”
Douglass wrote his autobiography, later to be updated in two subsequent versions. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, written by Himself became a best-seller and was published in Europe as well. The publication of the book gave him notoriety that endangered him because he was still an escaped slave who could legally be returned to his owner. At the urging of his friends he went to Ireland and Great Britain for two years. English friends purchased his official freedom.
While in Ireland, Douglass’ advocacy regarding struggles for justice broadened. He met with Irish nationalists and spoke out for Irish Home Rule. Seeing the deplorable working conditions of the early industrial revolution, he advocated for fair treatment of workers. He had already become a feminist and had participated in the historic Seneca Falls Convention for women’s rights. When he returned to the United States Douglass launched an abolitionist newspaper called The North Star, which proclaimed a broad view of freedom on its masthead: “Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren.”
Douglass saw a different form of crippling injustice than slavery that also had a terrible impact on blacks. In New York, a free state, the schools were segregated. Black schools received far less money per student than white schools. Since he believed that education was the key to freedom, he called for desegregation. He advocated for court action to open all schools to children of all races.
Abolition of slavery remained his major concern. He served as a “stationmaster” on the Underground Railroad personally helping hundreds of people escape from slavery in the South and make their way to freedom. As the struggle intensified Douglass wrote: “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.” He met with John Brown, the radical abolitionist who planned a violent raid at the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry. Douglass believed Brown’s plans for a slave revolt would not work and strongly disagreed with him. After Brown’s failed raid, Douglass fled briefly to Canada fearing that he would be linked to Brown through guilt by association.
Douglass also split with William Lloyd Garrison over the issue of the U.S. Constitution. Garrison saw the Constitution as an inherently pro-slave document and even believed in the dissolution of the union of the states. Douglass believed such an approach would abandon the blacks of the South. Instead he held the Constitution could be turned into an instrument for freedom. Douglass lived to see amendments to the Constitution that eliminated slavery and gave blacks citizenship, equal protection under the law and the right to vote without discrimination because of race.
But first was the great struggle. For Douglass the U.S. Civil War was always about slavery. He advised President Lincoln to free the slaves. When Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was announced Douglass spoke about it: “We were waiting and listening as for a bolt from the sky…we were watching…by the dim light of the stars for the dawn of a new day…we were longing for the answer to the agonizing prayers of centuries.” Douglass also urged Lincoln to allow blacks to join the Union Army so they could participate directly in the fight for their freedom. Two of his sons fought in the first black regiment to engage in battle.
After the war Douglass continued as an advocate for justice for the newly liberated African-Americans. He served as President for the Freedman’s Savings Bank to help former slaves in the Reconstruction period. He supported President Ulysses Grant in passing a law against the rising violence of the racist terror group, the Ku Klux Klan. Following passage of the Klan Act, Grant sent federal troops to arrest over 5,000 Klansman, a move that Douglass applauded but that was unpopular among whites. Douglass worked in various government positions, including serving as a diplomat to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He consistently pressed for voting rights, not only for blacks but also for women. Douglass’ last public appearance was at a meeting of the National Council for Women in 1895; he died of a heart attack that night.
Though many people, black and white, played important roles in the struggle to abolish slavery in the United States, nobody had as broad, as long, and as strategically important an impact as Frederick Douglass. He mobilized public support, counseled Presidents and provided a positive interpretation about the Constitution that allowed fundamental reform to take place in the U.S. national structure and identity. He proclaimed high ideals and also found the ways to move political systems to be more in line with those ideals.