‘Prophet of Freedom’
Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) is one of the towering figures in American history. In his masterful biography of Douglass, Yale University historian David Blight states the former slave was an intellectual, the author of hundreds of speeches and editorials, a political philosopher and activist, and a legal scholar who focused almost all of these endeavors on the abolition of human bondage in this country.
Born Frederick Bailey on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Douglass rarely saw his mother Harriet as she was hired out to farms up to 12 miles away from Frederick and her other children. Years later Douglass wrote: “My poor mother, like so many slave women, had many children, but NO FAMILY!” (emphasis in the original)
Douglass’s father was white and could have been his first master, Aaron Anthony (age 51 when Douglass was born), although there is no definitive evidence that he was the future abolitionist’s biological father. Slave women were routinely raped by their owners or acquiesced to the sexual advances of these men, fearful of being “sold south” or their children sold off to plantations in the cotton-growing states, never to be seen again.
That slave “overseers” and owners had the temperament to brutalize and rape slave women is beyond doubt. In the first of his three autobiographies — “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave” — Douglass states that an overseer, Mr. Plummer, “would at times take great pleasure in whipping a slave. I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped.” Douglass witnessed these beatings when “quite a child,” with this cruelty engendering a hatred of slavery that would become the overriding passion of his life.
In 1838 at age 20, Douglass escaped and took up residence in Massachusetts with his wife Anna, a free black woman he met while hired out by his master to work in Baltimore. (He changed his surname to Douglass to avoid apprehension by slave catchers.) In 1841 he spoke at a meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society, headed by famed abolitionist and publisher of The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879). Nervous at first, Douglass delivered a stirring account of his slave years, and a lifelong public speaking career had begun.
Douglass was a highly effective orator for three reasons: First, his well-crafted presentations, typically replete with biblical references, cut to the heart of the immorality of slavery. Second, his years in bondage lent credibility to these arguments. Third, Douglass was a master showman, his “presentation of self” extraordinary. He was capable of making an audience laugh at the stupidity of slavery, then cry at the cruelty of human bondage as he took on the persona of a scolding country preacher seeking justice. Historian Benjamin Quarels notes there “was a dramatic quality in his very appearance — his imposing figure, his deep-set flashing eyes and well-featured nose, and the mass of hair crowning his head.” And his baritone voice “was created for public speaking.”
Accounts of his speeches typically note that audiences were “mesmerized” by Douglass. Others report how they were motivated to action. One observer stated that “In listening to him your whole soul is fired, every nerve strung — every faculty you possess ready to perform at a moment’s bidding.”
Not everyone who heard Douglass speak was receptive to his words. He was often heckled, called vile names and pelted with rotten eggs and stones. On at least one occasion he was almost killed by a racist mob. But Douglass was a brave man, and these attacks never deterred his public denunciation of slavery.
As early as 1832, Garrison argued the U.S. Constitution was a pact with the devil, “the most bloody heaven-daring arrangement ever made by men for the continuance and protection of a system of the most atrocious villainy ever exhibited on earth.” That villainy was slavery. The logic of this position led Garrison to advocate “disunionism,” a breakup of the nation — the free North and the slave-holding South — and the creation of a new Constitution in the North (the Union) that would prohibit slavery. With a slave-expunged Constitution, the economic ties between the cotton-producing South and northern bankers, cotton exporters and cotton textile manufacturers, who benefitted from human bondage, would end, effectively killing the Southern economy, which could not survive with slaves.
Influenced by wealthy New Yorker Gerrit Smith and the Liberty Party, Douglass announced at a meeting in Syracuse in 1851 that he did not assume the Constitution was pro-slavery. To the contrary, he believed that document could “be wielded on behalf of emancipation,” especially in those locales where the federal government had exclusive jurisdiction. Douglass opposed disunionism, arguing that an independent South would isolate slaves and condemn untold generations of Blacks to human bondage.
According to David Blight, Douglass first met radical abolitionist John Brown in 1847 or early 1848, and was immediately attracted to Brown’s passionate hatred of slavery that matched his own rage against human bondage. Over a two-year period beginning in December 1856, Brown tirelessly attempted to recruit Douglass in provoking a slave uprising in Virginia. The two abolitionists met in August 1859, with Brown informing Douglass of his plan to attack the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. He implored the black abolitionist to come with him and his small band. (“I will defend you with my life,” he told Douglass.) Douglass told the fiery preacher his plan had no chance of success and that Brown was “going into a perfect steel trap.”
As Douglass had predicted, the October Harpers Ferry attack was a complete disaster. Ten of Brown’s men were killed (including two of his sons), and there was no slave insurrection. Wounded during the fighting, Brown was convicted of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia and hanged on Dec. 2, 1859. Before his execution, Brown gave his guard a slip of paper that read, “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.” The Civil War began 15 months later.
Douglass welcomed the conflict as he came to believe that after 19 years of speaking and writing against slavery, persuasion, prayer and peaceful political action would not likely eradicate that evil. On the first anniversary of Brown’s execution, Douglass stated that “all methods of proceeding against slavery” should be used, including the “John Brown way.”
Historian Ariana Weiner notes “the promotion of black military service” was one of the most significant provisions of Abraham Lincoln’s January 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Douglas viewed black men in the Union army and navy as not only a manpower boost to the nation’s armed forces, but as an avenue to black citizenship. “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters ‘U.S.,'” Douglass said, “and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned his right to citizenship.” Too old to serve in military — Douglass was 43 when the Civil War began — at their father’s urging two of his sons fought in the famous 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Infantry, the first African American regiment organized in the North.
The subtitle of David Blight’s biography of Douglass is “Prophet of Freedom,” an aptly chosen description of the most important and influential African-American of the 19th century.
A tireless advocate of human dignity and equality for all, Douglass died of a massive heart attack in February 1895 shortly after speaking at a women’s rights meeting. He was 77 years old. Frederick Douglass resided in Rochester from 1847 to 1872 and is buried in that city’s New Hope Cemetery.
George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale, is author of “Voices from the Civil War: North and South, Men and Women, Black and White,” and is retired after 24 years of teaching sociology at the University of San Diego.
“Black Soldiers in the U.S. Military During the Civil War” (accessed 2019) National Archives, www.archives.gov
Blight, D. (2018) “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” Simon & Schuster: New York
Douglass, F. (accessed 2019) “Frederick Douglass” African Americans, PBS, www.pbs.org
Douglass, F. (1960, first edition 1845) “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass.
“Garrison and Douglass: Friendship and Estrangement” (accessed 2019) Pilgrim Pathways, http://pilgrimpathways.wordpress.com
“The Constitution and Call for Disunion” (accessed 2019) The Liberator Files, http://theliberatorfiles.com
“John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry” (accessed 2019) History, www.history.com
Quarles, B. (1960) “Introduction” in F. Douglass, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass.
Weiner, A. (accessed 2019) “The Emancipation Proclamation: Black Soldiers Respond,” Brooklyn Historical Society, www.brooklynhistory.org