The Life And Work Of Frederick Douglass

Essay, Research Paper

The Life and Work of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass’s writings reflected many American views that were

influenced by national division. Douglass was a very successful abolitionist

who changed America’s views of slavery through his writings and actions.

Frederick Douglass had many achievements throughout his life. Douglass was born

a slave in 1817, in Maryland. He educated himself and became determined to

escape the atrocities of slavery. Douglass attempted to escape slavery once,

but failed. He later made a successful escape in 1838. His fleeing brought him

to New Bedford, Massachusetts. Douglass’s abolitionist career began at an

antislavery convention at Nantucket, Massachusetts. Here, he showed himself to

be a great speaker. Douglass became involved with many important abolitionist

causes, both through his literary works, and also through activities such as the

Underground Railroad, and also his role in organizing a regiment of former

slaves to fight in the Civil War for the Union army. Due to the Fugitive Slave

Laws, Douglass became in danger of being captured and returned to slavery. He

left America, and stayed in the British Isles. There he lectured on slavery,

and gained the respect of many people, who raised money to purchase his freedom.

In 1847, Douglass relocated to Rochester, New York, and became the person in

charge of the Underground Railroad. Here he also began the abolitionist

newspaper North Star, which he edited until 1860.

In this time period, Douglass became friends with another well known

American abolitionist, John Brown. Brown was involved with the Underground

Railroad, and later wanted Douglass to join him on terroristic attacks on a

United States government arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. Douglass declined to

participate in such activities. He fled, once again, to Europe, fearing that

his association with John Brown might threaten him. He returned after several

months, and aided in Abraham Lincoln’s campaign for president. Frederick

Douglass had many other achievements, mainly political, before dying in 1895, in

Washington, D. C.

Frederick Douglass’s life as a slave had the greatest impact on his

writings. Through slavery, Douglass was able to develop the necessary emotion

and experiences for him to become a successful abolitionist writer. Douglass

grew up as a slave, experiencing all of the hardships that are included, such as

whippings, inadequate meals, and other harsh treatment. His thirst for freedom,

and his burning hatred of slavery caused him to write Narrative Of The Life Of

Frederick Douglass, and other similar biographies. In Narrative Of The Life Of

Frederick Douglass, Douglass wrote the complete story of his miserable life as a

slave and his strife to obtain freedom. The main motivational force behind his

character (himself) was to make it through another day so that someday he might

see freedom. The well written books that he produced were all based on his life

as was Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass. These books all start with

Douglass coping with slavery. Frederick Douglass also had a reason to write

these works. As a die-hard abolitionist, Douglass wanted to show the world how

bad slavery really was. He did this very well, because he made many people

understand the unknown, and made abolitionists out of many people. This man had

a cause, as well as a story to tell. Douglass, as a former slave, single-

handedly redefined American Civil War literature, simply by redefining how

antislavery writings were viewed. There were other narratives written by former

slaves, but none could live up to the educated, realistic accounts of slavery by

Frederick Douglass.

Frederick Douglass is well known for many of his literary achievements.

He is best known, now, as a writer. As a writer, Frederick Douglass shined. As

a speaker, Frederick Douglass was the best. There was no abolitionist, black or

white, that was more respected for his speaking skills.

So impressive were Frederick Douglass’s oratorical and intellectual

abilities that opponents refused to believe that he had been a slave

and alleged that he was an impostor foistered on the public by the

abolitionists. In reply, Douglass wrote Narrative Of The Life Of

Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845) , which he revised in

later years; in final form, it appeared in 1882 under the title

Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Quarles, Benjamin, Microsoft


One must not overlook Frederick Douglass’s oratory skills when looking

at his literary career; however, it is Douglass’s form which left the largest

impact on Civil War time period literature. Douglass’s most significant

autobiographical works include: Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, An

American Slave; My Bondage And My Freedom; and Life And Times Of Frederick

Douglass. These three books are about the same person, and share a similar

message, but are written by Frederick Douglass at different times of his life,

looking at the past in different ways.

In Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, Douglass uses a simple,

yet educated approach to show how he felt as a slave growing up in Maryland.

Douglass’s Narrative was known as being a brief, descriptive, and easy to read

piece of literature. It showed the hardships of slavery as seen by a real slave.

Douglass became educated through his own means. Knowledge was truly a blessing

for Frederick Douglass. Without knowledge, Douglass never would have achieved

freedom. With knowledge, Douglass realized the importance of freedom. This

gave him his desire and a goal, but most of all, hope. Without knowledge,

Frederick Douglass would never have been the man he was when he was free. He

could express the problems and the solutions of slavery in a convincing,

educated manner. This made him more than a cheap source of labor in the North.

Knowledge also was a blessing in that it gave his mind a challenge that the

burdens of everyday slavery could not give. Learning to read and write was a

challenge simply because the resources were not there. He used wit and good

natured cunning to trick local school boys into teaching him the alphabet. If

he had never sought knowledge, he would never been able to write any of his

autobiographies which live on even today as important accounts of slavery. Also,

without knowledge, Frederick Douglass would not have become an American legend

like he is today.

Christianity also played an important role in Frederick Douglass’s life,

as well as his autobiography. Douglass had conflicting feelings about slavery

and Christianity as seen in Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, An

American Slave. Frederick Douglass believed in God and was a Christian himself.

He saw the Christianity of his white masters to be a crude mockery of the real

thing. At first, Douglass believed that a master who found religion became more

humane. When he actually witnessed his master after he became religious, he

found him very much more cruel than before. Douglass states, “after his

conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding

cruelty.” (pg.187) Frederick Douglass’s Narrative is perhaps his best known,

as well as, most popular work.

After writing Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, An American

Slave in 1845, Douglass wrote another biography, My Bondage And My Freedom in

1855. This autobiography featured quite a bit more content than the concise

Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass. My Bondage And My Freedom is a

look at slavery from Douglass, both more mature as a person, and as a writer.

Also, he reflects on his life as a slave in more detail. My Bondage And My

Freedom also gives readers an update to Narrative that includes Douglass’s life

as a free man.

In 1881, Life And Times Of Frederick Douglass was published. This was

Douglass’s final autobiography with the exception of a larger edition that was

issued in 1892. It is the life and the times, as the title suggests, of

Douglass’s entire life. This book was less popular with the public than the

previous two. Many people found it to be the same material as the other two,

and less enjoyable to read. “Its time had passed-or so thought the public,

which did not buy it” (McFeely 311). This book included Frederick Douglass’s

life as a slave, as well as a free man, well known speaker, and respected

diplomat. At the time period it was written, after emancipation, the public was

in less need for abolitionist propaganda.

But the book’s real message—which few people received—was that the

story of slavery should not be purged from the nation’s memory. White

America wanted to hear no more of the subject; emancipation had been

taken care of. Many black Americans, reacting to this weariness, had

become almost apologetic about their slave past (McFeely 311).

Frederick Douglass also had another abolitionist publication, North Star.

Rather than a book, North Star was an abolitionist newspaper. Douglass edited

the antislavery newspaper for sixteen years. North Star’s name later was

changed to Frederick Douglass’ Paper. The paper, after the abolition of slavery,

became less important and eventually ceased to be published.

Frederick Douglass played a major role in the redefinition of American

literature in the Civil War time period. Abolitionism was a very important

thing in many people’s lives, and not only ex-slaves. But, with Douglass having

been a slave, he had a very good reason to fight for the abolitionist movement.

In the South, abolitionists were as common as snow, and did not affect the

literature or lifestyles of those people very much. In the North; however,

abolitionism was more of a standard practice. After all, the north was where

slaves dreamed to escape to. Plantation style farming was not economically

important in the north. This made slavery in northern states obsolete. The

southern states, though needed inexpensive labor, therefore slavery was a way of

life. These differences caused for political strife (and eventually a war).

Where there is political conflict, there is also political propaganda, and other

related literature. The antislavery campaign was a popular subject for

successful writers of this time period. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s

Cabin was perhaps the most popular book of the time period. Uncle Tom’s Cabin

had a strong antislavery message, and it showed slavery as a very abusive thing.

It is also believed that Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin played a very important role

in triggering the Civil War. Frederick Douglass, being an abolitionist writer,

had much in common with Stowe. Both were important to American literature and

its redefinition during the Civil War time period as influenced by national


Frederick Douglass was possibly the best black speaker and writer ever.

His success came from his fight against slavery. Being a former slave, Douglass

had much reason to participate in the antislavery movement. Douglass wrote

three significant autobiographies that helped define the way literature

developed during the Civil War time period. These three autobiographies:

Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave; My Bondage And

My Freedom; and Life And Times Of Frederick Douglass, are the works that are

seen to express a nation’s discontent for the treatment of African slaves in the

south. These works document the rise of a slave to a free man, to a respected

speaker, to a famous writer and politician. These works do not stand alone,

though. Frederick Douglass also was famous for his abolitionist speeches.

Douglass also successfully published an abolitionist newsletter, The North Star.

All of Douglass’s achievements combined with his great literature combined to

redefine the writing of the time. After reading any of his works, one might

realize just how important Frederick Douglass was to the abolitionist movement.

Douglass changed many people’s lives, and helped to earn the respect of African

Americans today. Frederick Douglass’s writings reflected many American views

that were influenced by national division.


Aptheker, Herbert. Abolitionism A Revolutionary Movement. Boston: Twayne

Publishers, 1989.

Bontemps, Arna. 100 Years Of Negro Freedom. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood

Press, Publishers, 1980.

McFeeley, William. Frederick Douglass. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.



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