Frederick Douglass

Born: February, 1818
Died:  February 20, 1895
Birthplace: Maryland

If the old adage "The Pen is Mightier than the Sword" ever needed substantiation, one need look no farther than the life of Frederick Douglass.

Born a slave, Douglass embraced both the written and spoken word to achieve political and social heights no African-American of his time, and precious few since, even dared dream of.

Like many second-generation and after slaves, Douglass was the product of a slave woman and her white master in February 1818 on Maryland’s eastern shore.

His youth didn’t offer any insight into the man he was to become, as he lived the life of most slaves, enduring backbreaking labor and witnessing his peers suffer intense whippings.

Unlike many other slaves, young Douglass was taught to read, an avocation he engulfed with pleasure.  As a teenager, he organized illegal schools to help other slaves learn to read and write.

His ever increasing knowledge made the shackles of slavery all the tighter and, after a failed attempt that landed him in jail, Douglass escaped for good and fled to New Bedford, Massachusetts with his young bride in 1838.

Douglass continued to educate himself and became caught up in the Abolitionist movement to end slavery forever.  William Lloyd Garrison, one of the Abolitionist leaders, became Douglass’s mentor.

"No face and form ever impressed me with such sentiments (anti-slavery) as did those of William Lloyd Garrison," Douglass wrote in his autobiography.

At the tender age of 23, Douglass gave a speech to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society that stirred passion into even the most obtuse heart.  It was the start of a public speaking career that continued throughout his life.

In 1845, Douglass published his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written By Himself.  Fearing recapture as a slave, Douglass went to the British Isles for two years.

While in Britain Douglass spoke in favor of Irish home rule and eventually would speak on behalf of the European peasantry, women's suffrage, prison reform, free public school education and universal peace.

While in England, a group got enough money to buy Douglass’s freedom from slavery.  He returned home and started a newspaper, the North Star, out of Rochester, NY.

Douglass was still firmly in the Abolitionist camp, but preferred using politics and debate as a means to an end, where Garrison was more radical, pushing for solutions that included the dissolution of the Union.  Douglass thought such a move would lead to even further isolation for Blacks in the South, and the two had a bitter falling out that lasted well into the Civil War.

Abraham Lincoln enlisted Douglass as a consultant during the war, using the African American leader to help enlist Black troops to fight for the Union.  Douglass continued to speak out for the rights of all people, throughout his life, emphasizing three keys for success in life:

1. Believe in yourself.
2. Take advantage of every opportunity.
3. Use the power of spoken and written language to effect positive     change for yourself and society.

"What’s possible for me is possible for you," Douglass said. 

Aside from being an advisor to the President, Douglass was also marshal of the District of Columbia, recorder of deeds for DC, and minister to Haiti.

Want to learn more?