Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Frederick Douglass: American Slave, Orator, Abolitionist, and Statesman

Frederick Douglass, National Portrait Gallery, 
Smithsonian Institution
When I first read the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, I was struck by Douglass’s incredible self-motivation and gift with language and oratory. Then, when I had the opportunity to visit the home of Frederick Douglass, now a national historic site, in Washington D.C. a year or two later, I became even more fascinated with this remarkable man.

Frederick Douglass was born in 1818, son of a slave woman and a white man, most likely his master, though he was never sure. As a child in slavery he witnessed incredible cruelty, though he also had a kind mistress for a few years as an older child, and he taught himself to read during this period with a bit of help from her. He later wrote, though, of how he eventually saw even her gentle character corrupted by the insidious power of slave-holding.

Douglass educated himself, reading all he could get his hands on and absorbing much of his later oratorical technique and human rights philosophy from a copy of The Columbian Orator that he managed to procure. His elevated grasp of language and rhetoric with no formal education was remarkable, making his work challenging but rich reading for adults today.

As a teenager, Douglass suffered under the hand of a notorious “slave-breaker,” Edward Covey, a man wicked enough to be Simon Legree in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. One day, however, young Frederick’s spirit rose up against this man, and he trounced him so well in a fight that Covey never laid a hand on him again. Douglass noted that experience as the moment he felt himself to be a man, and it doubtless gave inspiration for his successful escape from slavery at age twenty.

Douglass's Narrative, published in 1845. Public Domain: PD-US
Douglass married his sweetheart, Anna, a free woman who had helped him escape, and settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he was free, though technically still a fugitive. Then one day, he visited an anti-slavery meeting held by William Lloyd Garrison, a prominent white abolitionist. Garrison persuaded Douglass to speak to the gathering from his own personal experience as a slave. Though Douglass was terrified, he did so, and the response to his impromptu speech was overwhelming. 

For the first time, people were hearing, not just about how bad slavery was, but from someone who had been a slave himself.

Soon Douglass joined the abolition movement as an official travelling orator, and his presence galvanized and humanized the cause as never before. He advised President Lincoln and recruited for the Union cause, though he eventually became disillusioned with Lincoln’s lack of support for racial equality and black suffrage. Douglass continued to fight for freedom and equality for the rest of his life, as a speaker, writer, adviser, and statesman, speaking out in support of women’s rights as well as racial justice. He traveled internationally, especially to Britain, where English friends actually raised the funds to officially buy Douglass’s freedom, lifting the burden of being a fugitive from him forever.

Later in his life, Douglass served under five presidents as U.S. Marshal and Recorder of Deeds for D.C., as well as Consul General to Haiti, the first African-American to hold political office in the United States.

Frederick Douglass's desk in his home, now a National Historic Site
of the District of Columbia. His desk is arranged
almost exactly as it was during his life.
On February 20, 1895, Frederick Douglass died of a heart attack, in between speaking engagements at a women’s rights rally and a local church. His funeral service attracted an overflow crowd at the Metropolitan AME church in Washington D.C., where you can still see the pew where Douglass sat for services. His words and legacy continue to this day, testimony to the power of one man to tell his story and use his gifts for the good of others.

Famous quotes from Frederick Douglass:

"What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?
I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy - a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages." 

~from Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” speech on July 5, 1852. Douglass refused to celebrate the 4th of July until the slaves were freed.

And from his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, addressing the hypocrisy of professed Christians supporting slavery:

"...I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me. We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus...The slave auctioneer's bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master...The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity. Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other - evils dressed in angels' robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise."

So, what do you know about Frederick Douglass? Did you learn anything new today? What stands out to you most about his life? Please comment and share!

Kiersti Giron holds a life-long passion for history and historical fiction. She loves to write stories that show the intersection of past and present, explore relationships that bridge cultural divides, and probe the healing Jesus can bring out of brokenness. Kiersti has been published in several magazines and won the 2013 ACFW Genesis Award - Historical for her manuscript Beneath a Turquoise Sky. A high school teacher and member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Kiersti loves learning and growing with other writers penning God's story into theirs, as well as blogging at www.kierstigiron.com. She lives in California with her wonderful husband, Anthony.


  1. He certainly had a way with words! Thanks for the post.

    1. And thank you for stopping by and commenting, Connie! And yes, indeed he did.

  2. A remarkable man that rose up and spoke the truth with his words. Thank you for sharing.

    1. I agree, Marilyn. Thanks so much for sharing also--blessings!