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Frederick Douglass: Orator and Reformer

written by: Eighty Six • edited by: Carly Stockwell • updated: 2/8/2013

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) was the most influential black orator of the 19th century. His autobiographies, newspapers and thousands of speeches changed the nation and the world. He worked his whole life for racial equality, women's rights, universal suffrage and education.

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    I didn't know I was a slave until I found out I couldn't do the things I wanted.

    Frederick Douglass Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born a slave in Talbot County, Maryland, around 1818. He was taught the alphabet at age twelve by Sophia Auld, wife of one of his owners. He continued to learn from white children around him and read anything he could, showing a particular interest in newspapers and political writings. He took his last name from the hero of Sir Walter Scott's Lady of the Lake.

    On Sundays, Douglass would teach a group of up to forty slaves to read using the New Testament. When word got out about what he was doing, a mob of slave-owners arrived with clubs and stones to break up the congregation.

    No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.

    In 1833, Douglass was sent to work for Edward Covey, a known slave-breaker. Covey's constant abuse did nearly break Douglass' psyche until he fought back at the age of sixteen. After losing the battle, Covey never beat him again. Douglass documented the battle in his first autobiography. Rather than let his reputation as a slave-breaker be destroyed, Covey keeps his loss a secret less Douglass get away with the insurrection.

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    Escape From Slavery & Support for Women's Rights

    I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.

    At the age of twenty, Douglass succeeded on his third attempt to escape slavery, assisted by Anna Murray. She provided him with money, identification and a sailor's uniform. September 3, 1938, he boarded a train and escaped to a safe-house in New York. He sent for Murray and they were married on September 15.

    They settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where a free black community was thriving. They joined a church and regularly attended abolitionist meetings. Douglass was asked to tell his own story. At this time, Douglass displayed his gift for persuasion and rhetoric. He became a regular speaker.

    William Lloyd Garrison was impressed with his ability and wrote about him in The Liberator. Several days later, Douglass spoke at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society's annual convention. At Garrison's urging, Douglass wrote his first autobiography: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.

    To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.

    When his autobiography was published in 1845, it became a best seller in America. It was translated into several European languages. Fame had its troubles for Douglass, however. The avoid recapture, he spent two years touring Ireland. Eventually, British abolitionists gathered funds to purchase Douglass' freedom. He would publish two more versions of his story in his lifetime, each one revised and expanded.

    Upon his return from Europe, Douglass began work in abolitionist journalism. He published The North Star for sixteen years. Its motto was "Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren."

    Douglass was also a supporter of women's rights. In 1848, he was the only black to attend the first women's rights conference in Seneca Falls, New York. He stated that we would not accept the right to vote as a black man if women did not have that same right.

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    Douglass and the War

    The life of the nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful, and virtuous.

    By the start of the Civil War, Douglass was the nation's most famous black. He was a powerful abolitionist speaker throughout the country. He conferred with Abraham Lincoln about the treatment of black soldiers and suffrage. However, he supported John Fremont in the 1864 election because Lincoln did not publicly support voting rights for blacks.

    In 1872, he was selected as vice-presidential candidate for Victoria Woodhull’s Equal Rights Party. Woodhull was the presidential candidate, marking firsts for both females and blacks in America.

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    End of His Life

    I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and to incur my own abhorrence.

    After Anna Murray's death, Douglass married Helen Pitts, bringing nationwide attention because Pitts was both white and almost twenty years his junior. His children were particularly displeased with the marriage. Douglass and Pitts remained married until his death eleven years later in 1895. Douglass is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York.