The Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave


Douglass Frederick Douglass was born on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in February 1818. He was named Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. As a young boy, Douglass lived with his grandparents until he was six. He was then sent to live on the Lloyd Plantation, where he stayed until he was sent to Baltimore when he was eight years old. In Baltimore, he lived with Hugh and Sophia Auld. At his new home, Sophia Auld began to teach him to read. However, when her husband found out he forbid it, and she stopped.

Despite this setback, Douglass had a revelation about slavery when he overheard Hugh Auld explain to his wife about why she should not teach him to read. Auld explained that, “if you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him” and he would “become unmanageable, and of no value to his master.” According to Douglass: “I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty — to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man…. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.” Douglass realized that there was power in learning to read.

A pivotal event in Frederick Douglass’ early life as a slave was when he retaliated against the men hired to “break” him.

Douglass_3 “Mr. Covey seemed now to think he had me, and could do what he pleased; but at this moment – from whence came the spirit I don’t know – I resolved to fight; and, suiting my action to the resolution, I seized Covey hard by the throat; and as I did so, I rose. He held on to me, and I to him. My resistance was so entirely unexpected, that Covey seemed taken all aback. He trembled like a leaf. This gave me assurance, and I held him uneasy, causing the blood to run where I touched him with the ends of my fingers. Mr. Covey soon called out to Hughes for help. Hughes came, and, while Covey held me, attempted to tie my right hand. While he was in the act of doing so, I watched my chance, and gave him a heavy kick close under the ribs. This kick fairly sickened Hughes, so that he left me in the hands of Mr. Covey. This kick had the effect of not only weakening Hughes, but Covey also. When he saw Hughes bending over with pain, his courage quailed. He asked me if I meant to persist in my resistance. I told him I did, come what might; that he had used me like a brute for six months, and that I was determined to be used so no longer”.

On September 3, 1838, he escaped from slavery. Shortly after his arrival, he married Anna Murray, a free black woman he had met in Baltimore. They settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts. During their marriage, they had five children together. In 1841, Douglass began his life as a public figure and abolitionist. After hearing William Lloyd Garrison’s anti-slavery speech, Douglass was inspired to tell his story. He spoke at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society annual convention about his experience as a slave. His speech was powerful and eloquent. He was encouraged by Garrison, who became his mentor, to continue speaking.

In 1845, he wrote about his life as a slave in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. After its publication, he traveled to England, Scotland, and Ireland where he continued speaking against slavery. Upon his return to the United States in 1847, he moved to New York and published the weekly paper called the North Star. During the Civil War, he was active in recruiting black soldiers for the Union Army. Douglass also became an advocate of women’s rights. Later in his life, he served the government in several positions. From 1877 to 1881, he was the U.S. Marshall of the District of Columbia, from 1881 to 1886 he served as the recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia, and from 1889 to 1891 he was the minister to Haiti.

After Douglass’ wife died in 1882, he married his former secretary Helen Pitts in 1884. On February 20, 1895, after speaking at the National Council of Women, he died of a heart failure at his home Cedar Hill in Anacostia, Washington, D.C.

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