Thursday, February 14, 2013

Frederick Douglass: The forgotten antislavery leader

"Sincerely and earnestly hoping that this little book may do something toward throwing light on the American slave system, and hastening the glad day of deliverance to the millions of my brethren in bonds - faithfully relying upon the power of truth, love, and justice, for success in my humble efforts - and solemnly pledging my self anew to the sacred cause - I subscribe myself, FREDERICK DOUGLASS. Lynn, Massachusetts, April 28, 1845."

- Concluding words of the Appendix to the "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written By Himself"

Have you ever wondered what American slavery was like? If so, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better answer to this question than the "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave" - written by himself. This book was written by a former slave to influence Americans to oppose the "peculiar institution" of slavery.

Young Frederick Douglass

His narrative began like this: "I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot County, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday. They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time.

"A want of information concerning my own," he continued, "was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege. I was not allowed to make any inquiries of my master concerning it. He deemed all such inquiries on the part of a slave improper and impertinent, and evidence of a restless spirit."

This gives you a flavor for the propaganda nature of the work (propaganda in the best sense): Its purpose was to convince people that slavery was an evil that needed to be abolished. This was not a message people wanted to hear then, since the slaveholding South had been threatening secession over this issue since the founding of the nation, and since there was considerable racism in both North and South.

But listen to it they did, for Frederick Douglass had an eloquence that few have ever possessed! His work was testimony, as much as anything else, that African-Americans were intelligent, and that they could be well-educated!

Thomas Sowell, economist

African-American economist Thomas Sowell once said: "A recently reprinted memoir by Frederick Douglass has footnotes explaining what words like 'arraigned,' 'curried' and 'exculpate' meant, and explaining who Job was. In other words, this man who was born a slave and never went to school educated himself to the point where his words now have to be explained to today's expensively under-educated generation."

The book is still quite readable, though: Its propaganda nature prevented it from becoming overly long, or from writing at too high a level, since that would risk alienating the audience that he wanted to influence against the "peculiar institution" of slavery.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin

If you want to read the book that most influenced Americans to oppose the institution of slavery, you'd be better off reading Uncle Tom's Cabin . But this was one of the most influential, and unlike Uncle Tom's Cabin, it was written by a former slave. Uncle Tom's Cabin was written by a white woman who had never been a slave.

If you're after a female slave narrative, I recommend Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl , which talks about what male masters did to female slaves without explicit detail. But this is definitely the best American male slave narrative.

Frederick Douglass before the Civil War

Frederick Douglass's memoirs have historical importance for another reason: He was the leader of black America before, during, and after the Civil War (which ended slavery in America). He was the most powerful black voice against the institution of slavery. He published this memoir at age twenty-seven or twenty-eight (the lack of knowledge about his birthday makes precision in this area impossible). He lived into his seventies, and later wrote two other autobiographies.

Frederick Douglass in the 1860's

I have not read his other two autobiographies; I only read the first, and that was because it was assigned in an American history course I took in college. But I greatly enjoyed it, for its literary value as much as anything else. Slave narratives are exciting, and their depiction of slave life has a way of making one better understand and appreciate freedom! If you want to understand slave life, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better source for it than this. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand slavery, the American Civil War, or race relations in this country.

Frederick Douglass after the Civil War

"I will give Mr. Freeland the credit of being the best master I ever had, till I became my own master."

Frederick Douglass, "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written By Himself" (Chapter X)

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Dred Scott: The most infamous decision in Supreme Court history

Slavery in the Constitution's "Three-Fifths" Compromise

Civil War miniseries (PBS)


  1. I really liked the excerpts from his autobiography...makes me almost curious enough to read it. :) And now I'm pretty curious about Uncle Tom's Cabin, too. Have you ever read that one?

  2. I have. I was required to read it for an American history class in college. I didn't like it as much as Frederick Douglass's book, but I'm glad I read it, as it is a historically important book.


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