Frederick Douglass

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By: David Wilson

How did the early years of Frederick Douglass’ life affect the beliefs of the man he would become? Frederick Douglass’ adulthood was one of triumph and prestige. Still, he by no means gained virtue without struggle and conflict. There was much opposition and hostility against him. To fully understand all his thoughts and beliefs first one must look at his childhood. Frederick Augustus Bailey was born in February of 1818 to a black field hand named Harriet. He grew up on the banks of the Tuckahoe Creek deep within the woods of Maryland. Separated from his mother at an early age, he was raised by his grandparents Betsy and Isaac Bailey. Isaac and Betsy are not thought to be related. Isaac was a free man and a sawyer, while Betsy was an owned slave, but she kept her own rules. Her owner trusted her to watch over and raise the children of the slaves until they were old enough to begin their labor. She was allowed to keep her own cabin, and to farm food for the children and herself. It was not an easy job. While all of the mothers were busy working in the fields of their master, Aaron Anthony, she was busy watching over their infants. Betsy Bailey was quite a woman. She was a master fisher, and spent most of her days in the river or in the field farming. She was very intelligent and physically able bodied. Most historians credit Frederick’s intelligence to his extraordinary grandmother. Douglass later recalled not seeing his mother very often, just on the few times she would come to visit later in his life. At the age of six, Frederick’s carefree days of running and playing in the fields and came to an abrupt end. He was taken away from his grandmother to begin the toil and sweat of the field workers. Here he joined his older brother and sisters, Perry, Sarah and Eliza in the fields of Edward Lloyd. The slave head in charge of Frederick was the cruel cook, Aunt Katy. Although perhaps he deserved some of her wrath, being a very mischievous child, she was undoubtedly a little out of line. She took up a need to abuse him, mentally and sometimes physically. This may have sprouted from a resentment against his mother. One of Katy’s favorite acts of punishment was starvation. On one occasion when Frederick’s mother had come to visit, she had committed a terrible deed bye interfering in Katy’s eyes. Later in life Douglass talked very fondly of his mother. He remembers her as “having a natural genius, though unprotected and uncultivated.” Douglass was also very proud of her literacy. He never knew her in his older years, however, because she died when he was only seven or eight. Katy also resented Lucretia Auld, a resident of the house who had taken a liking to him, who gave him food when she wouldn’t. These were to her just more reasons to be hard on Frederick. After being caught up around master Lloyd’s house, Wye House, he was forbidden not to venture near there ever again. Young Douglass loved to watch the people, especially Lloyd. He was a wealthy former Governor of Maryland and a senator and also an ideal example of an exploiter of the very profitable slave system. It is quite feasible that the reason he was so interested in Lloyd was because of Frederick’s lack of a father. In fact many historians believe that Lloyd may very well have been the father of this young mulatto. Douglass later knew that his father must have been white which was the only way to explain the light shade of his skin. After exploring the property on many occasions he began to spend time in the garden because he loved spending time with the fragrant smells and vibrant colors. Eventually he met with Lloyd’s young son Daniel. They became friends and Daniel began to smuggle Frederick in the house through the garden. In slavery it was very common, before puberty, for a slave child to play with the master’s children. By the time he was eight it was time for Douglass to pack up and move again. This time he was sent to Baltimore to live with Hugh Auld. Auld was the brother of Aaron Anthony’s son-in-law, Thomas Auld. Hugh was the owner of a plantation and with him lived his wife Sophia and their son Thomas. Frederick and Thomas were about the same age and Douglass became his playmate as well as his guardian. Like he did earlier with Lucretia and Daniel at the Wye House, Frederick felt a sense of family. He became very close with Sophia and she began to treat him like he was a half brother to little Tommy. Throughout his childhood Douglass was always very alert to acts of kindness by whites and experiences like this and those back at the Lloyd Plantation fueled his disdain for slavery. They made him aware of human oneness and the inhumanity of slavery. In urban Baltimore, a slave’s life was very different from that of a field hand. Here Douglass enjoyed various privileges and opportunities that were denied to plantation slaves. This new setting provided a rich environment that helped to develop his natural intellectual abilities and allowed him to be exposed to different and interesting people. City slaves were sometimes hired out to merchants and maybe the wages they earned would be used to buy their freedom, if the master allowed them to it. Soon he became interested in learning to read after hearing Mistress Sophia reading the Bible aloud. She readily agreed to teach young Frederick to read. This was a very bold move by Sophia because it was very dangerous to teach a slave anything. Especially so soon after the slave codes had been passed. Sophia taught him the alphabet and the basics of reading. She made an untimely mistake however. Mrs. Auld decided to share the news of Frederick’s progress with Master Hugh. He ordered her to cease these lessons at once. “Learning will spoil the best nigger in the world. If he learns to read the Bible it will unfit him to be a slave. He should know nothing but the will of his master, and learn to obey itIf you teach him how to read, he’ll want to know how to write, and this accomplished, he’ll run away with himself.” 1 Recalling later Douglass named this speech as the first anti-slavery lecture he’d ever heard. After this Sophia became even more opposed to Frederick’s learning to read than Master Auld himself. Douglass later had this to say of her, “Nature made us friends, but slavery made us enemies.”2 This taught Frederick a very valuable lesson. If reading and writing were dangerous, if it was against the master’s will that he know more than he should, then education would be an essential means for Douglass to find a path from slavery to freedom. He was determined to prove Auld right. Having that basic knowledge of the written language and his appetite wetted, Frederick set out to teach himself to read. This is one of the most amazing aspects of Frederick Douglass, that someone, especially a young slave, could teach himself to read. He learned to write by watching carpenters initial timber to designate where it was to be used. He copied script of spelling books and the Bible, and challenged his playmates to spelling matches. His resentment for slavery grew with the knowledge he gained from reading more and more. Douglass also began to realize that there were alternatives to the physical deprivations, injustices, and dehumanizing effects of slavery. No longer bound to his master’s world, he began to gain his own opinions on issues and became much more independent. Near age thirteen Frederick read a dialogue between a runaway slave and his master out of The Columbian Orator, which also contained many powerful speeches that criticized slavery. In the dialogue he read, the slave argues against the owner’s claims to enslave him and convinces him to set him free forever. It made Frederick want to learn to write well even more so he could write to his master, Lloyd. Auld had been right when he said it would be Douglass unfit to be a slave, because he now found that he was feeling anguish of having a free mind trapped in a slave’s body. Later he said of this, “I almost envy my fellow slaves in their stupid indifferenceI wished myself a beast, a bird, anything rather than a slave.”3 Although he was in bondage now however, he was intent on winning his freedom. Douglass had the desire, the arguments to justify his freedom, and a movement to give him hope. At this same tender age of thirteen, Frederick was converted to Christianity by a white Methodist minister named Reverend Hanson, and Charles Johnson, a black lay preacher. He experienced a spiritual re-birth and later wrote, ” I finally found my burden lightened, and my heart relieved. I loved all mankind, slaveholders not excepted, though I abhorred slavery all together.”4 He wanted everyone to be converted. Charles Lawson became his spiritual mentor. Douglass helped Lawson to write the word, due to Lawson’s limited reading ability, while he helped Frederick with his spirit. They became close friends and spent a lot of time together in spite of Master Hugh’s contention against their relationship. Lawson encouraged him to spread the Gospel, insisting that it was God’s will. Dawson’s advice fueled his ambition and expanded his vision of his personal identity. When Irish dockworkers suggested that he run North to freedom he saw this it was not only up to God, but also to himself to gain freedom. His perception of God helps those who helps themselves guided him through his entire life. He started at least two black Sabbath schools. Things were going great until their second session was broken up by an angry mob of white religious leaders. Master Thomas Auld was among them. Soon Douglass was accused of emulating Nat Turner and cautioned him that if he did not change he too would be killed. Despite the warning, several years later he taught another school which he thoroughly enjoyed. He believed education was the key to their emancipation. At sixteen his repeated insolence caused Frederick to be hired out to Edward Covey, known collectively as “the Negro Breaker.” This marked the first time Douglass worked as a field hand and the change from being an urban domestic slave was very hard for him. It was also the first time he was regularly whipped, the sores were kept open all the time by his coarse clothing. After a few long months of being worked to exhaustion and gruesome physical assaults Douglass was broken. “My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye, died out.”5 Even after this he still clung to thoughts of freedom and that is what kept him going. More and more Douglass realized the inhumanity of the religion of Christian slave holders. Once after a brutal flogging by Covey, Douglass struggled back to his master, Thomas Auld. He complained to him about Covey’s mistreatment of him, but was only answered with Auld’s contention that he probably deserved it. Frederick anticipated a beating when he returned and Sandy, a well respected wizard-like character, proposed that he take a magic root. Returning on the Sabbath kept him clean for a day but Monday Covey made up for it. Douglass stood firm, determined to win the battle. It was a long and hard fought victory for Frederick. The tyrant had been defeated. Douglass later recalled this moment as the turning point in his life as a slave. It inspired him with the idea to become a free man. He knew he could not resist forever, and the only course left in his mind was his escape to freedom in the North. Anon thoughts of escape attempts entered his mind. Frederick was sure not to exclude his family and friend, and also his pupils. These included Henry and John Harris, Sandy Jenkins, Charles Robertson and Henry Bailey. Although Douglass was the youngest, he had some knowledge of the geography of the surrounding area and was very persuasive, so he became the leader of the pack. They were to escape in a stolen canoe and paddle to the head of Chesapeake Bay, then follow the North Star to freedom. Sandy withdrew from the plan following a nightmare about Frederick in the claws of a giant bird. On the day of the planned escape, as it happened, they were betrayed and jailed. Thomas Auld sent him to work with his brother Hugh and learn about trade and the caulking business. He made a promise at to Frederick at this time, if he behaved, he would be free by 25. Shortly, Douglass was transformed into a skillful caulker. He began to make friends at secret meetings he attended for free blacks, like the East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society. Here he met the love of his life, Anna Murray. They planned to marry as soon ad Frederick could escape. The time for his freedom was now. September 3rd, 1838, dressed as a sailor and carrying the papers of a retired black merchant sailor, he took a train from Baltimore to the Susquehanna River, crossed the ferry to Wilmington, Delaware, and never looked back. From there he traveled to Philadelphia by steamboat and caught another train to New York City. Eleven days later he and Anna were married by J.W.C. Peterson. They decided to settle in New Bedford, Massachusetts, to avoid the slave catchers who ran so rampant in New York. He would have been most happy as a ship caulker, but due to opposition by whites was forced to become a common laborer. The quality of life here was a big improvement from the South but racial prejudice was still far and wide. Frederick Bailey wanted to assume a name that was better suited to his new persona. He chose the hero of Sir Walter Scott’s book, The Lady of the Lake, because he reminded him of himself. He was a character who can be described as, “a brave and transcended character in search of a lost patrimony.”6 Frederick was fascinated and sensed it was destiny. He took the name. While in New Bedford, Douglass became entranced by the work of William Lloyd Garrison. In particular, his magazine, The Liberator. Garrison became his teacher, hero and idol. It gave Frederick a clear understanding of the principles of the Anti-Slavery Movement. He began to attend anti-slavery meetings in New Bedford. This enlightenment of Negroes, which he had never seen before inspired him and filled him with pride, although he did not show his talent of speaking just yet, he just sat and listened approvingly. At a Christian Church on March 12th, 1839, Douglass signed a resolution condemning slavery and African colonization and praised Garrison “as deserving of our support and confidence.” This event was noted in the columns of the Liberator. After hearing Garrison speak at Liberty Hall, Douglass determined that it was not fanciness or eloquence that made him a great speaker, but his effectiveness sprung from the inner fire inside him. Over the next two years Douglass listened to Garrison more and more and agreed continuously. He felt Garrison was speaking “the spontaneous feeling of my own heart.” During this exciting time, Frederick and Anna’s first two children were born. Rosetta, in June of 1839, and Lewis in 1840. Frederick supported the family by working at a brass foundry while Anna worked over washtubs and did house cleaning. By June 30, 1841 Douglass had become a leader of the group that met at Liberty Hall. He served as chairman of a meeting to censor the Maryland Colonization Society for threatening to remove free blacks from the state by force. His life of diligent work for the government and for his people was just beginning. In the winter of 1844 he began writing an account of his slave experiences to put down people’s thoughts of him never being a slave. These speculations were only due to the integrity and intelligence he had shown recently. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave came out in May of 1845. The introduction was written by William Lloyd Garrison himself. This book found much success and by 1848 more than 11, 000 copies had been published. This success led to his second work, My Bondage and My Freedom, in 1855. These were regarded as unparalleled abolitionist propaganda. His beliefs and character began to come out in the things he spoke of and accomplished. Of abolitionists Douglass had this to say, “Whites became abolitionists out of choice, blacks became abolitionists out of necessity.”7 His abolition combined the subjective and objective dimensions of description and analysis. He knew how much this abolition movement meant to Southern slaves, and that it increased their hope for liberty. Douglass also maintained that they wouldn’t revolt knowing that this action was already going on. White and black abolitionists both agreed on two things, that slaves needed to have their freedom, and after that, their level in society must be elevated. The American Anti-Slavery Society adopted these two goals in their original Declaration of Sentiments in December 1833. Even though white abolitionists were much, much different than the vast majority of Whites, they were hardly as committed to achieving racial equality than the black abolitionists. Douglass tested this commitment by observing how Northerners treated their black neighbor. “Those who only cared about abolition in the South and were not interested in the elevation of the blacks were known to him as sham abolitionists.”8 He knew that full slavery wasn’t just the end of slavery but the end of racism. He agreed with many free blacks that a good way to combat this was to have a population of “industrious, enterprising, thrifty, and intelligent” free blacks. In one speech Douglass could condemn the United States for slavery, that it’s existence in the past and present bind it to exist in the future, but in the same speech he could lift up listeners spirits. He would tell them of “the forces in operation which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery.”9 This referred to his belief in a moral universe ruled by God. Douglass drew a lot of hope from the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the obvious tendencies of the age like, growing civilization, progress, and internationalism. Douglass was committed to making whites aware of the injustice blacks endured through his lectures and writings. His oratorical abilities made him one of the most popular anti-slavery speakers ever. “He was described by his contemporaries as graceful, distinguished, imposing, strong, manly, confident and modest. He charmed the audiences with his style”10 In 1847 Frederick and the family moved to Rochester, where he began his independent career as an abolitionist editor. His thousands of editorials in The North Star reflect his interest in the tensions between hope and despair among his people who were struggling for their freedom and their own survival. He would try to dig deep into listeners’ and reader’s own conscience like a sermon of deliverance. He never stopped believing that the universe we live in is a moral one. He compared the struggle between slavery and freedom to similar conflicts that occur in nature. “Like the great forces of the physical world, fire, steam and lightning, they had slumbered in the bosom of nature since the world began.”11 During the 1850s Douglass moved beyond Garrison’s philosophy of nonresistance and said it was a slave’s moral right to overthrown their oppressors. Douglass accomplished many feats worth noting. In the 1860s he was the “station master and conductor” of the Underground Railroad in Rochester. He helped raise two regiments of black soldiers during the Civil War, the 54th and 55th Massachusetts. After the war he fought for enactment of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution. He became U. S. marshal for the District of Columbia in 1877 and recorder of deeds in Washington D. C. in 1881. He was also the U. S. minister to Haiti from 1889 to 1891. Frederick Douglass stood at the center of the crisis black intellectuals faced at the end of the Civil War and thereafter. He was the most influential of all the black leaders throughout the mid 19th century.


Bibliography Bailey, Thomas A. The American Spirit. (Lexington: D. C. Health and Company, 1991) , 666. Blight, David. Frederick Douglass’ Civil War. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989) , 270. Bontemps, Arna. Free at Last. (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1971) , 309. Martin, Waldo E. The Mind of Frederick Douglass. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1984) , 333. McFreely, William S. Frederick Douglass. (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc, 1991) , 465. Meyer, Michael-ed., Frederick Douglass: The Narrative and Selected Writings. (New York: The Modern Libray, 1984.) , 391. Preston Dickson J. Young Frederick Douglass. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.) , 242.

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