Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, After Slavery as an Abolitionist

Since he had a way with words, Frederick Douglass was asked to tell his story as an ex-slave at abolitionist rallies.

Frederick Douglass was a first-generation black leader and abolitionist orator. One of his mistress masters started to teach him how to read as a young slave boy until her husband halted her lessons, but she taught him just enough that he was able to break the code, and with help from the neighborhood white playmates in Baltimore he was able to steadily improve his reading comprehension.

It was against the law in many states of the Deep South to teach black slaves how to read, the fear was that education and literacy would broaden the horizons of the slave and ruin him as a slave as he yearned for the freedoms he read about, and for Frederick Douglass, this was indeed true. After several attempts, he managed to run away from Maryland to Boston in the 1830’s.

YouTube video:

Our blog on his first autobiography, where he tells us about his life as a slave:

Since he had a way with words, Frederick Douglass was asked to tell his story as an ex-slave at abolitionist rallies. Not only was he a leading abolitionist orator and writer, writings several best-selling books, including several editions of his autobiography, but he was also a leading black leader during and after the Civil War, disproving by example the notion that ex-slaves were necessarily intellectually inferior to whites,

In another video on his first autobiography telling his white readers his life experiences as a slave in the Upper South, in Virginia and Maryland. Young Frederick Douglass. He discusses, among other topics:

  • How slave families in the Upper South were often broken up, how breeding slaves to sell to the growing black belt plantations from Georgia to Alabama was often more profitable than using slaves to harvest crops in the exhausted soils.
  • How he barely knew his mother, and how he suspected that a master on a neighboring plantation was his father.
  • How savage whipping was often a way of life as a slave in the Deep South, how white masters could do as they wished with their property.

Most of the first autobiography was included in the third autobiography written decades later, with some additional details on how he made his escape that were originally omitted so he did not compromise the escape attempts of other slaves. We talked about how he spent the first few years of freedom as a laborer on the Massachusetts docks.

But these early decades of freedom were never carefree. Racial discrimination, segregation and humiliation was present everywhere in the United States, in the North as well as in the South, the differences were mainly due to differing economics, slaves just did not make good business sense up North. The Constitution also guaranteed that federal runaway slave laws would be in force, which meant that all blacks, both freedmen and runaway slaves, had to worry that slave traders would kidnap them, legally or illegally, and ship them south to be sold into slavery. The Movie, Twelve Years a Slave, is based on a true story where a black freedman was kidnapped from a northern state and was held as a slave for twelve years before the courts ordered that he be freed, as he had been illegally enslaved.

Frederick Douglass remembers, “In the South I was a slave, thought of and spoken of as property,” as chattel, like talking livestock. “In the Northern states, a fugitive slave was hunted like a felon, to be hurled into the terrible jaws of slavery, doomed by an inveterate prejudice against color,” “shut out from cabins on steamboats, refused admission to respectable hotels, caricatured, scorned, scoffed, mocked and maltreated by anyone with a white skin.”

Frederick Douglass was coaxed into speaking before an abolitionist meeting about his experiences living under slavery. When William Lloyd Garrison, leading abolitionist and newspaper publisher, heard Douglass speak, he encouraged him to join the abolitionist movement. In 1843 the New England Anti-Slavery Society resolved to hold One Hundred Conventions, an abolitionist speaking tour from Vermont and New York to Indiana. They had varying degrees of success, but at Indiana they encountered a mob of sixty ruffians who tore down the speaker’s platform, assaulted the speakers, knocked out some teeth, and as Frederick Douglass attempted to defend himself with a large stick they scuffled and broke his arm.

Soon after this, Frederick Douglass printed his first autobiography, and fearing for his freedom and safety, departed for refuge in England. He was denied first cabin ticket on the steamship, but once aboard the captain and passengers invited him to give a lecture on slavery.

Frederick Douglass remembers, “My visit to England did much for me in every way.” “Instead of a democratic government, I am under a monarchial government.” “I breathe, and lo! The chattel becomes a man! I gaze around in vain for one who will question my equal humanity, claim me as a slave, or offer me an insult. I employ a cab and I am seated beside white people; I reach the hotel and I enter by the same door; I dine at the same table, and no one is offended.” “I find no difficulty in entering any place of worship, instruction, or amusement, on equal terms, with people as white as any I ever saw in the United States.” Never did he hear in England those words he heard often in establishments in Boston, “We don’t allow niggers in here.”

Frederick Douglass spent two years touring and speaking in England and Ireland. During his journey his friends in England corresponded with his old master, Captain Auld, to accept 150 pounds sterling to formally ransom him from slavery. With his letters of manumission Frederick Douglass had some protection from abduction by slave traders, and though his fame also provided protection, he was never completely safe from kidnapping. His friends also raised enough money for a printing press to publish the first newspaper with a colored publisher.

Frederick Douglass told them that “the greatest hindrance to the adoption of abolition principles by the people of the United States was the low estimate placed upon the negro as a man. Because of his assumed natural inferiority, people reconciled themselves to his enslavement and oppression as inevitable if not desirable.”

This equality disappeared once on board the ship bound for America. Frederick Douglass remembers, “It was rather hard after having enjoyed for so long a time equal social privileges, after dining with persons of great literary, social, political, and religious eminence and never, during the whole time, having met with a single word, look, or gesture, which gave me the slightest reason to think my color was an offense to anyone, now to be cooped up in the stern of the Cambria, and denied the right to enter the saloon lest my presence should disturb some democratic fellow-passenger.”[1]

Frederick Douglass named his paper the North Star, after the North Star the runaway slaves followed at night in their flight to freedom, on his return to America in 1947, and it was initially published weekly, then it merged with another abolitionist paper, ceasing publication in 1860. Frederick Douglass remembers, “A slave, brought up in the depths of ignorance, assuming to instruct the highly civilized people of the north in the principle of liberty, justice, and humanity! The thing looked absurd. Nevertheless, I persevered.” He had visitors who doubted it was he who wrote his editorials, they expected that his articles and editorials were written by ghost white writers.

His opinions diverged from those of William Lloyd Garrison, his abolitionist mentor. Frederick Douglass remembers that they both thought that “the first duty of the non-slaveholding states was to dissolve the union with slaveholding states.” Douglass later reconsidered, and that despite the three-fifths clause stipulating that a slave counted as three-fifths of a freedman, that the Constitution was in spirt an “anti-slavery instrument demanding the abolition of slavery,” that “there was no necessity for dissolving the union,” and that the Constitution was not “designed to maintain and perpetuate a system of rape and murder like slavery.”

During this time, he was also “station master and conductor of the underground railroad” assisting fleeing runaway slaves in pursuit of their freedom, risking fines and imprisonment if he were caught. Frederick Douglass remembers, that though it was “a means of destroying slavery, it was like an attempt to bail out the ocean with a teaspoon, but the thought that there was one less slave, and one more freeman, having myself been a slave, and a fugitive slave, brought to my heart unspeakable joy.”[2]


In 1859, on the eve of the Civil Ware, Frederick Douglass’ life would again change after he met John Brown, he would once again be forced to flee England for refuge and another speaking tour. John Brown was a firebrand abolitionist who waged war in bloody Kansas. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, recently passed by Congress, proclaimed that the voters could decide by referendum whether the new state of Kansas would be a slave state or a free state. Both pro-slavery and anti-slavery forced flocked to bleeding Kansas and a mini-Civil War erupted, and John Brown and his sons were in the thick of the armed struggle. The struggle there subsided, so Brown went east for fund raising, and managed to raise some funds and arms, and met Douglass in Rochester, New York.

Frederick Douglass describes John Brown like he was a character out of a novel:

“In person he was lean, strong, and sinewy, of the best New England mold, built for times of trouble and fitted to grapple with the flintiest hardships. Clad in plain American woolen, shod in boots of cowhide leather, and wearing a cravat of the same substantial material, under six feet high, less than 150 pounds in weight, aged about fifty, he presented a figure straight and symmetrical as a mountain pine. His bearing was singularly impressive. His head was not large, but compact and high. His hair was coarse, strong, slightly gray, and closely trimmed, and grew low on his forehead. His face was smoothly shaved, and revealed a strong, square mouth, supported by a broad and prominent chin. His eyes were bluish gray, and in conversation they were full of light and fire. When on the street, he moved with a long, springing, race-horse step, absorbed by his own reflections, neither seeking nor shunning observation. Such was the man whose name I had heard in whispers; such was the spirit of his house and family; such was the house in which he lived; and such was Captain John Brown, whose name has now passed into history, as that of one of the most marked characters and greatest heroes known to American fame.”

Frederick Douglass remembers how, after a spartan dinner, “John Brown denounced slavery in look and language fierce and bitter; thought that slaveholders had forfeited their right to live; that the slaves had the right to gain their liberty in any way they could; did not believe that moral suasion would ever liberate the slave, or that political action would abolish the system. He said that he had long had a plan which could accomplish this end, and he had invited me to his house to lay that plan before me.”

John Brown was talking about armed insurrection and had this romantic notion that his armed band would gather in the mountains, and that slaves would flock to his positions, the weak would escape north to freedom, and the strong would join their band of freedom fighters. During this time the increased enforcement of the fugitive slave laws also raised tensions between north and south. Such excited talk raised the temperature, abolitionist speakers, including Frederick Douglass, started raising the prospect that slaves would need to be freed through blood.

Also, Frederick Douglass remembers, “In the midst of these fugitive slave troubles came the book known as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a work of remarkable depth and power. Nothing could have better suited the moral and humane requirements of the hour. Its effect was amazing, instantaneous, and universal. No book on the subject of slavery had so generally and favorable touched the American heart.”

Then struck John Brown. Frederick Douglass tells us, “On the night of October 16th, 1859, a party of nineteen men, fourteen white and five colored,” “brought with them a large supply of arms for themselves and anyone who might join them, and invaded the town of Harper’s Ferry, disarmed the watchman, took possession of the arsenal, rifle factory, armory, arrested and imprisoned of prominent citizens, collected fifty slaves, put bayonets in their hands, killed three men, proclaimed general emancipation, held the ground for more than thirty hours, but were subsequently overpowered and nearly all killed by US troops under the command of Colonel Robert E Lee.”

What effect did this have? Frederick Douglass remembers, “This raid upon Harper’s Ferry was as the last straw to the camel’s back. What in the tone of southern sentiment had been fierce before became furious and uncontrollable. A scream for vengeance came up from all sections of the slave States and from great multitudes in the North.” And, most ominously, “all who were supposed to have been any way connected with John Brown were to be hunted down and surrendered to the tender mercies of slaveholding and panic-stricken Virginian, and there to be tried after the fashion of John Brown’s trial, and of course to be summarily executed.” So immediately Frederick Douglass boarded a ship to England from Quebec and requested that papers in his desk written by John Brown be secured.

What role did Frederick Douglass play in Harper’s Ferry? John Brown had been a guest of many nights in his house, Douglass liked the idea of armed bands holing up in the mountains freeing slaves, but he desperately tried in vain to talk John Brown out of raiding Harper’s Ferry, he refused to participate, Douglass said Harper’s Ferry was a steel trap and predicted Brown would not get out alive. And there was correspondence between them both.

During the months following the raid, Frederick Douglass remembers that “Emerson’s prediction that Brown’s gallows would become like the cross, was already being fulfilled. The old hero, in the trial hour, had behaved so grandly that men regarded him not as a murderer, but as a martyr. All over the North men were singing the John Brown song. His body was in the dust, but his soul was marching on. His defeat was already assuming the form and pressure of victory, and his death was giving new life and power to the principles of justice and liberty.”[3]


After the start of the Civil War, and especially after the Emancipation Proclamation, freed blacks who lived in the North no longer needed to worry whether slave traders would kidnap and enslave them. The clamor over the John Brown affair had calmed down by then. After Emancipation, William Lloyd Garrison announced that the battle was over, and tried, but did not succeed, to dissolve the American Anti-Slavery Society, but he did close down his newspaper, The Liberator. Frederick Douglass opposed this, and vigorously fought for civil rights for the newly freed blacks during the Reconstruction and Jim Crow Redemption eras.

Frederick Douglass continued to give lectures on civil rights, he wrote this his third autobiography in 1881, which was also a best seller, and started another newspaper. He never held elective office, but he was appointed Marshall of District of Columbia by President Hayes, which supplemented his retirement funds. During the Civil War Frederick Douglass consulted with President Lincoln on racial issues many times. Frederick Douglass lobbied to permit black freedmen to join the army, and there were several black regiments after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, and after that he lobbied for equal pay for black soldiers.

Frederick Douglass remembers his response, “Lincoln began by saying that the employment of colored troops at all was a great gain to the colored people; that the measure could not have been successfully adopted at the beginning of the war; that the wisdom of making colored men soldiers was still doubted; that their enlistment was a serious offense to popular prejudice;” “that the fact that they would not receive the same pay as white soldiers seemed a necessary concession to smooth the way to their employment at all as soldiers; but that ultimately they would receive the same pay.”

Frederick Douglass recalls Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address shortly before the end of the Civil War, when Lincoln proclaimed, “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray that his might scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet if God wills that it continues until all the wealth piled up by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toll shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

At the Inaugural Reception two white policemen were guarding the door and initially they refused to admit Frederick Douglass, saying they had instructions that no colored may enter. Douglass replied that “he was quite sure there must be some mistake, for no such order could have emanated from President Lincoln: and if he knew I was at the door he would desire my admission.” He would not budge, so the policemen politely escorted him inside.

Frederick Douglass was touched by how much deference President Lincoln showed him at the Inaugural Reception, this black man, famous though he was. He remembers, “Like a mountain pine high above all others, Mr. Lincoln stood, in his grand simplicity, and home-like beauty, recognizing me, even before I reached him, he exclaimed, so that all around could hear him, ‘Here comes my friend Douglass.’ Taking me by the hand, he said, ‘I am glad to see you in the crowd today, listening to my inaugural address; how did you like it?’
I said, ‘Mr. Lincoln, I must not detain you with my poor opinion, when there are thousands waiting to shake hands with you.’
‘No, no,’ he said, ‘you must stop a little, Douglass; there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours. I want to know what you think of it?’
I replied, ‘Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort.’
‘I am glad you liked it!’ he said, and I passed on, feeling that any man, however distinguished, might well regard himself honored by such an expression, from such a man.”[4]

When he remembers his sorrow when Lincoln was assassinated, Frederick Douglass paints how he remembered the Great Emancipator, “Lincoln always impressed me as a strong, earnest man, having no time or disposition to trifle; grappling with all his might the work he had in hand. The expression of his face was a blending of suffering with patience and fortitude. Men called him homely, and homely he was; but it was a manifestly human homeliness, for there was nothing of the tiger or other wild animal in him. His eyes had in them the tenderness of motherhood, and his mouth and other features the highest perfection of a genuine manhood.” “His accusers, in whose opinion he was always too fast or too slow, too weak or too strong, too conciliatory or too aggressive, would soon become his admirers; it was soon to be seen that he had conducted the affairs of the nation with singular wisdom, and with absolute fidelity to the great trust confided in him.”[5]

Frederick Douglass, after the Civil War, after Emancipation, understood that though the former slaves were now free, that they were not yet truly free. “The freed man was free from the individual master but was still the slave of society. The black man had neither property, money, nor friends. He was free from the old plantation, but he had nothing but the dusty road under his feet. He was free from the old quarter that once gave him shelter, but a slave to rains of the summer and the frosts of the winter. He was, in a word, literally turned loose naked, hungry, and destitute to the open sky.”

Now the black man was not only not truly free, but he was also despised even more. “The first feeling towards him by the old master classes was full of bitterness and wrath. They resented his emancipation as an act of hostility towards them, and since they could not punish the emancipator, they felt like punishing the object which that act had emancipated.” Furthermore, “to guard, protect, and maintain his liberty, the freedman should have the ballot; that the liberties of the American people were dependent upon the Ballot-box, the Jury-box, and the Cartridge-box.”[6]

[1] Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Radford, VA: Wilder Publications, LLC, 2008, original 1881), pp. 130-135, 141-150.

[2] Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, pp. 151-155.

[3] Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, pp. 158-188.

[4] Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, pp. 202-203, 212-214.

[5] Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, pp. 216-217.

[6] Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, pp. 220-221.

About Bruce Strom 186 Articles
I was born and baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran. I made the mistake of reading works written by Luther, he has a bad habit of writing seemingly brilliant theology, but then every few pages he stops and calls the Pope often very vulgar names, what sort of Christian does that? Currently I am a seeker, studying church history and the writings of the Church Fathers. I am involved in the Catholic divorce ministries in our diocese, and have finished the diocese two-year Catholic Lay Ministry program. Also I took a year of Orthodox off-campus seminary courses. This blog explores the beauty of the Early Church and the writings and history of the Church through the centuries. I am a member of a faith community, for as St Augustine notes in his Confessions, you cannot truly be a Christian unless you worship God in the walls of the Church, unless persecution prevents this. This blog is non-polemical, so I really would rather not reveal my denomination here.

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