Frederick Douglass: From Slavery to Freedom and Beyond
The great civil rights activist Frederick Douglass was born into slavery on a Maryland Eastern Shore plantation in February 1818. His given name, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, seemed to portend an unusual life for this son of a field hand and a white man, most likely Douglass's first master, Captain Aaron Anthony. Perhaps Harriet Bailey gave her son such a distinguished name in the hope that his life would be better than hers. She could scarcely imagine that her son's life would continue to be a source of interest and inspiration nearly 190 years after his birth. Indeed, it would be hard to find anyone who more closely embodies this year's Black History Month theme, "From Slavery to Freedom: Africans in the Americas." Like many in the nineteenth-century United States, Frederick Douglass escaped the horrors of slavery to enjoy a life of freedom, but his unique personal drive to achieve justice for his race led him to devote his life to the abolition of slavery and the movement for black civil rights. His fiery oratory and extraordinary achievements produced a legacy that stretches his influence across the centuries, making Frederick Douglass a role model for the twenty-first century.
One reason Douglass's story continues to resonate is that his life embodies the American dream of overcoming obstacles and reaching one's goals. Young Frederick Bailey spent his first twenty years in slavery, first on a Talbot County, Maryland plantation, then in the ship-building city of Baltimore. In the first of three autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, published in 1845, he recounts the adversity of his early life. He rarely saw his mother who worked as a field hand, had barely enough clothes to cover his body, and had to eat from a trough like a farmyard animal. As he grew old enough to work he passed through a series of masters, some kind and some cruel.
Despite his situation, Frederick managed to learn to read and write, sometimes by bribing white boys into teaching him in exchange for bits of bread. At the age of about twelve, he acquired a copy of the Columbian Orator, a book of famous speeches that formed the basis for his later skills as an outstanding public lecturer. After he gained basic literacy, Frederick began to reach out to others, assisting his fellow slaves to read and operating a forbidden Sunday school. As he gained more knowledge of the world at large, he could no longer passively submit to a life of slavery. In September 1838, he borrowed the identification papers of a free black sailor and boarded a train for the North. Locating in New Bedford, Massachusetts, he took the name Frederick Douglass, after a character in Sir Walter Scott's epic poem, The Lady in the Lake.
Although it was a momentous achievement, attaining freedom was merely a starting-point for Frederick Douglass. Within a few years he was a world-famous abolitionist, author, and orator. He published his narrative detailing his time as a slave, edited his own newspaper, and traveled throughout the United States and Britain lecturing on important civil rights and social justice topics. He was the single male delegate at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention on women's rights to support the call for woman's suffrage. When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Douglass was twice invited to the White House to advise President Abraham Lincoln, and then acted as a recruiter for African American troops. Following the war, hoping that equality would be achieved with the end of slavery, he moved his family to Washington, D.C., where he was appointed president of the Freedman's Savings Bank. In 1877 President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him federal marshal for the District of Columbia, and in that capacity he stood beside James Garfield as he took the presidential oath of office in 1881. By 1889 Frederick Douglass was the U.S. resident minister and consul general (ambassador) to Haiti. Ending his life at Cedar Hill, his twenty-one room District of Columbia home, in February 1895, Frederick Douglass had come about as far as humanly possible from his beginnings in a Maryland slave cabin.
The social distance Douglass traveled during his lifetime continues to inspire modern Americans to take a lesson from his life. If he could achieve so much after his most humble of beginnings, perhaps our own dreams and goals are within reach. Indeed, the words, images and heritage of Douglass abound in history and popular culture. Douglass once said, "If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning." Because he was willing to dedicate his life to struggle and agitate for the abolition of slavery, and then the cause of civil rights, Douglass remains at the forefront of the American consciousness.
His eloquence with words and prolific publications also make him accessible to modern Americans. Each of his three autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845); My Bondage and My Freedom (1855); and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, 1892), remain in print and are widely read by schoolchildren, college students, historians, and literary scholars. The remaining texts of his famous speeches make him one of the most quoted men of the nineteenth century. A scholar at a conference was once overheard to say, "When in doubt, quote Douglass." Indeed, President George W. Bush invoked Douglass's name when he spoke to an assembled group during his visit to Senegal in 2003. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has quoted Douglass in his rulings on several education cases.
Modern Americans are constantly reminded about the importance of Douglass's life and accomplishments. Many sites in the United States pay homage to the civil rights activist through adopting his name. At least twenty-four schools and academies are named for Douglass, and parks and buildings from New York to Louisiana bear his name. Places as diverse as Harlem, Detroit, and Oklahoma City have Frederick Douglass streets or avenues. His life has been dramatized in the fiction of such authors as Miriam Grace Monfredo and Jewell Parker Rhodes, and celebrated in the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Robert Hayden. He was memorialized on a U.S. postage stamp in 1985. The famous "history painter" Jacob Lawrence painted a series of thirty-two canvases dedicated to the life and memory of Douglass. To ensure that his words remain accessible, Yale University Press and a series of historical editors are producing modern editions of Douglass's autobiographies as well as his correspondence and speeches. The Library of Congress has digitized its entire collection of Douglass's papers and made them available at its American Memory website. Yale University's Gilder Lehrman Center awards an annual Frederick Douglass Prize for the best book on slavery or abolition. Monuments to Douglass stand in all of the cities and towns where he once lived, and Cedar Hill, his Anacostia, D.C., home is a National Park Service site visited by thousands each year.
The influence of Frederick Douglass reaches beyond his symbolic role as America's most famous former slave, although in his lifetime moving from slavery to freedom proved a tremendous accomplishment. He continues to be relevant to both history and modern American culture because he moved beyond enjoying freedom to dedicate his life to the principle that struggle is necessary to achieve progress. His desire to make his world a more just place led him to fight for the abolition of slavery and to support social justice and civil rights for African Americans and women. We would do well to follow his example, and to take inspiration from his famous words that "It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake."
L. Diane Barnes
Youngstown State University
Below you will find three outstanding thesis statements / paper topics for “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass; An American Slave, Told by Himself” that can be used as essay starters. All five incorporate at least one of the themes found in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements for “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” offer a summary of different elements that could be important in an essay but you are free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them. Using the essay topics below in conjunction with the list of important quotes from “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent paper.
For background, here is an excellent extended analysis and summary of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: The Paradox of Education in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass"
The power of education in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" is one of the most important themes in the entire work, but it is not a theme with a consistent meaning. Although Frederick Douglass understands that the only path to freedom, both for himself and fellow slaves, is through learning to read, write, and have an educational base to build on, he is at the same time disgusted with education because it causes him to understand the full extent of the horrors of slavery. At one point, he states, “It [education] opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but offered no ladder upon which to get out" (47). With this important quote as your starting point, examine the shifting meaning and importance of education in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" and consider if Douglass ultimately views it is the most important thing or as something that it is fraught with danger and disappointment. For more assistance with this topic, check out the article “The Incompatibility of Education and Slavery”Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: Representations of Christianity and Religion in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass"
Just as education is presented as a paradox in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas" so too is the issue of religion and Christianity. On the one hand, religion is a saving grace to many of the slaves and they take great joy in participating in religious activities, songs, and other forms of worship. On the other hand, there is a false form of Christianity, one that is practiced by the white people. This is the kind of religion or Christianity that says one thing, yet in practice does another—perfect hypocrisy. For this essay, examine (using characters such as Mr. Covey, for instance) the two forms of religion in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass; An American Slave" and consider what points Douglass is trying to make by showing the duality of Christianity. For more assistance with this topic, check out the article “Representations of Christianity in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass“
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: The Purpose of “The Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass
Certainly, one of the purposes of “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is to relate a personal story about slavery and the way one man could rise above it and make something of himself, but there are other purposes this text would have served, particularly during Fredrick Douglass’ lifetime. Since he was one of the few ex-slaves who was given ample opportunity to speak publicly about his experiences, often to white audiences (who were generally abolitionists) this was also a way for him to get across the pure cruelty of slavery as an institution to a captive audience. Such a forum allowed him to speak directly to whites, particularly in the North, about what was happening in the South and the treatment the average slave was prone to. For this essay, look for examples of how Douglass might have used stories of slavery to influence those involved in the Northern abolitionist movement. Also, the use of violence in “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" particularly against women (rape) would be useful, especially considering his stories were being told to whites, including white women. Another good starting point might be to look at ways Douglass compared whites with blacks in the south. Out of all three thesis statements for “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" listed here, this would be your best opportunity for a very long essay or a research paper that integrates historical facts and information.
** For an excellent essay/article discussing some of the most prevalent themes in “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, click here**
For background, here is an excellent extended analysis and summary of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
This list of important quotations from “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from “The Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglas” listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned. All quotes from “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” contain page numbers as well. Look at the bottom of the page to identify which edition of the text they are referring to.
“No words, no tears, no prayers from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped the longest" (11).
“I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell his birthday. They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time… A want of information concerning my own [birthday] 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" (13).
, “Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me. When I was there, she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which she did not a tear…Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities" (16).
“She [his mother] was long gone before I knew anything about it… I received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of stranger" (20).
“if their increase will do no other good, it will do away with the force of the arguments, that god cursed Ham, and therefore American slavery is right. If the lineal descendants of Ham are alone to be scripturally enslaved, it is certain that slavery at the south must soon become unscriptural…" (24).
I speak advisedly when I say this—that killing a slave, or any other colored person in Talbot County, Maryland, is not treated as a crime, either by the courts or the community" (26).
“I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see or hear" (29).
“We were all ranked together at the valuation. Men and women, old and young, married and single, were ranked with horses, sheep and swine…all holding the same rank in the scale of being and were all subjected to the same narrow examination" (51).
“I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the South is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes—a justifier of the most appalling barbarity…a shelter under…which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection" (86)
Source: Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave: Written by Himself (ed. John Blassingame) Yale University Press, 2001.