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Douglass, Frederick

slavery american rights national

Frederick Douglass was the black face of antislavery and civil rights in the United States from the mid-1840s until his death in 1895. As a speaker, writer, newspaper editor and publisher, he influenced public opinion and perspectives about African Americans. His autobiography became a classic American literary masterpiece. A world-renowned orator, he battled slavery and racial segregation, and also championed women’s rights. The masthead of his signature North Star newspaper carried the motto, “Right is of no sex—Truth is of no color—God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethren.”

Douglass was born on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in February 1818. His mother was a slave named Harriet Bailey. Speculation held that his father was probably Aaron Anthony, his mother’s white owner. Douglass stole himself from slavery on September 3, 1838, assisted by Anna Murray (1813–1882), a free black Baltimore resident whose savings supplemented his expenses. Forged seaman’s protection papers got him from Baltimore to Philadelphia, and then to New York City, where he and Anna reunited and wed. The couple soon moved on to New Bedford, Massachusetts. Jettisoning parts of his birth name of Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, he took his last name from the heroic character in The Lady of the Lake , a popular 1810 novel by the Scottish novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott. His renaming was both a break from the past and a disguise for the future.

In New Bedford, a haven for fugitive slaves, Frederick and Anna had three sons and two daughters in ten years. In August 1841 the radical American Anti-Slavery Society leader William Lloyd Garrison invited Douglass to speak against slavery to an audience of whites in Nantucket, Massachusetts. The precision and eloquence of his speaking ability stirred the audience, and Douglass soon became something of a living antislavery exhibit, recounting his experiences as a slave. He attacked American hypocrisy about freedom and he challenged the Christian pronouncements of U.S. churches. He mixed moral fervor with a vision of enlightenment democracy that challenged America to shun the prejudices and practices of white supremacy and embrace the egalitarianism of universal human rights.

Written to convince skeptics he had indeed been a bondsman, the first version of Douglass’s autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), made him a national and international celebrity. However, as a fugitive slave, he stood liable under U.S. law to be captured and returned in chains to his legal owner, Thomas Auld. Reacting in part to the prospect of capture, and also to many invitations to speak abroad, Douglass sailed to Great Britain in 1845. He was lionized during a near two-year stay in England, Ireland, and Scotland, and the British bought his freedom for about seven hundred dollars.

Returning to the United States as a legally free man, Douglass struck out on his own, though his growing independence caused a breach with Garrison. With $2,174 from his British admirers, Douglass launched his North Star newspaper in December 1847. To imitators, he retitled the publication Frederick Douglass’ Paper (1851–1860) and also produced Douglass’ Monthly (1859–1863). He subsidized his publications with some $12,000 of earnings from his public appearances.

On the editorial pages of the North Star , Douglass rejected Garrison’s belief that moral suasion, rather than political action, was the best way to abolish slavery, and that the U.S. Constitution was primarily a proslavery document. He held instead that the Constitution’s basic principles supported freedom. Responding in May 1857 to the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision which classified blacks as noncitizens, Douglass declared, “I base my sense of the certain overthrow of slavery, in part, upon the nature of the American Government, the Constitution, the tendencies of the age, and the character of the American people.”

U.S. law was not inherently racist, Douglass argued. The law that elevated concepts of race and racism could also reduce and erase them. He persisted in this view even after the backlash of postwar Reconstruction reversed the nation’s apparent progress, as reflected in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Douglass persisted in his quest to have the United States honor universal individual liberty, fully recognizing that the end to slavery had not ushered in equal rights.

While editing the New National Era newspaper in Washington, D.C., from 1870 to 1874, Douglass continued to speak and write for expanding civil rights. Yet the racially conservative politics of postbellum America increasingly shunted him from the national stage. Aligned with the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln, and with the Constitutional amendments ending slavery and bestowing citizenship upon blacks, Douglass was increasingly dismissed as a mere partisan. Apparently unable to fully recognize the distinct differences of economic condition that beset the mass of blacks after slavery’s end, Douglass’s later voice oversimplified the efficacy of civil rights, middle-class uplift, and simple self-reliance amid violent white reaction and rising industrial capitalism’s oppression.

Douglass’s marriage to the white feminist Helen Pitts (1838–1903) in 1884, two years after Anna Murray’s death, symbolized his commitment to racial integration and his sense that racism in America would end only when race in America was no longer visible. Prior to their marriage, Pitts worked for Douglass, and she later led the preservation work on their home on Cedar Hill in Washington, D.C. In the early twenty-first century the house is a national historic site visited by tens of thousands of tourists. Douglass died at home of a heart attack on Wednesday, February 20, 1895, just after appearing nearby at a meeting of the National Council of Women.

Dow, Charles - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: Charles Dow [next] [back] Douglas, Mike

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