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Frederick Douglass

Abolitionist, Orator, Author

Frederick DouglassAs a young, free man, Douglass was influenced immensely by New England's abolitionist movement, yet as history shows us, he carried clout of his own. He devoted his entire free life to enabling others to enjoy that same freedom; his overall optimism in a time of national crisis showed us his true character. This article will place into historical context Douglass's writings and career and will delve into his complicated relationships with his influences in the abolitionist movement.

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery around 1817 or 1818 on a Talbot County, Maryland plantation. In his early teens, Douglass first learned of the concept of abolition. (Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass 42-43) A deeper, optimistic longing for freedom filled Douglass; it is this longing that motivated him to surreptitiously learn to read, write and keep abreast of abolitionist news. After Douglass's escape from slavery and flight to the North in 1838, he settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts. A few months later, he started subscribing to "The Liberator", the newsletter of the American Anti-Slavery Society and the main creative outlet of William Lloyd Garrison, an extreme and fervent abolitionist. ("From Slave to Abolitionist/Editor") Douglass took to the paper and soon became a member of the Anti-Slavery Society.

In 1841, Douglass was asked to speak before the Society's annual meeting in New Bedford. It was after this oration, Douglass's first public address, that Garrison acquainted himself with Douglass and took him under his wing. Douglass soon toured with Garrison and other abolitionists, giving speeches and selling subscriptions to "The Liberator" and "The Anti-Slavery Standard", a similar periodical. Until their formal breach in 1851, Garrison and Douglass worked in unison to further the cause of abolitionism.

William Lloyd Garrison

Garrison and the American Anti-Slavery Society directly influenced Douglass's career and his writings, yet he was a leader in his own right. Said the Concord, Massachusetts newspaper Herald of Freedom, "He has wit, arguments, sarcasm, pathos — all that first rate men show in their master effort." ("From Slave to Abolitionist/Editor") Whilst under the tutelage of Garrison, Douglass was enthralling audiences all over New England. In 1845, at the persuasion of the Anti-Slavery Society, Douglass published his first memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave - Written by Himself. Both Garrison and Wendell Philips wrote introductions to the novel, commending Douglass's life and work.

Garrison, in particular, made no bones about his influence on Douglass: "I therefore endeavored to instill hope and courage into his mind, in order that he might dare to engage in a vocation so anomalous and responsible for a person in his situation." (Garrison, Preface xi) When asked at a lecture where he received his education, Douglass replied, "I have answered, from the Massachusetts Abolition University, Mr. Garrison, President." ("The Abolitionist Movement") Garrison indeed seized the opportunity to make an effective abolitionist out of Douglass and persuaded him to devote his "time and talents to the promotion of the anti-slavery enterprise." (Garrison, Preface xi) Garrison's Liberator helped establish Douglass as a prominent abolitionist, and inspired him to later publish his own newsletter.

Douglass's relationship with the Garrisonian abolitionist movement was complicated and at times, rocky. Garrison's abrasive character was the impetus of many splinterings of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Douglass himself parted ways with him and moved to Rochester, New York in 1847 to start his own newsletter, the North Star, later renamed simply "Frederick Douglass's newsletter". The North Star marked the beginning of Douglass's independence from Garrison and white abolitionists. ("The Rochester Years") Douglass and Garrison butted heads on the issue of violent means to achieve freedom. The former came to believe that slavery could not be ended peacefully and tolerated violent means to its end. The latter was more or less a pacifist ("The Rochester Years") and took an anti-political stance. (Benbasset-Miller 1) Because of these and other disagreements betwixt the two abolitionists, Douglass received bad press from the Garrisonian abolitionists after their formal breach. ("The Rochester Years")

From John Quincy Adams to the Civil War

In the 1830s and '40s, Douglass had few abolitionist allies in Congress. One important abolitionist, however, was House member and former president John Quincy Adams. In 1837, a petition drive regarding the rights of slaves was started by the American Anti-Slavery Society - namely Theodore Dwight Weld, John Greenleaf Whittier and Henry B. Stanton. This drive eventually convinced Adams to submit a resolution to Congress. In 1842, Adams submitted a proposed amendment to the Constitution consisting of three facets: the abolition of hereditary slavery (gradualism), the annexation only of states that do not tolerate slavery, and the total abolition of slavery in the nation's capital. (Miller 353) This resolution was not even brought before the House of Representatives, illustrating to Douglass and other abolitionists the apparent futility of such an amendment.

The general pessimism of the 1830s and '40s slowly turned to optimism in the years preceding the Civil War (the Dred Scott decision notwithstanding). Freed blacks were becoming more prevalent. Furthermore, abolition was unofficially but gradually becoming mainstream among members of Congress. (Blight 13) The dying Whig Party and the brand-new Republican Party were an oasis of hope for blacks; at the time, the Democratic Party offered no vocal supporters of abolition. Free blacks and abolitionists overwhelmingly voted Whig, and later, Republican. (Miller 373-378)

During the war, Douglass shifted his focus somewhat, from abolition to black enlistment. While too old to join the infantry himself, he was influential in enlisting thousands of black for the Union, including his son, Frederick, Jr.. Surmised Douglass of the black infantryman: "Let the black man get upon his person the brass letters 'U.S.', an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship" (Channing 145) In taking part in their own emancipation, blacks affirmed themselves for the first time as genuine citizens.

The Civil War and Lincoln's assassination were seen by many abolitionists as apocalyptic. Douglass, too, embraced this line of thought and equated the Civil War as a natural progression of abolitionism. (Blight 12) Douglass and the abolitionists thus hailed Lincoln's Proclamation with near-religious zeal. Said Douglass in his third autobiography: "It was not logic but the triumph of jubilee which everybody wanted to hear. We were waiting and listening as for a bolt from the sky, which should rend the fetters of four millions of slaves…" (Douglass, Life and Times 353) To Douglass, the Emancipation of slaves was not the design of an individual, but the design of the "Almighty." (Blight 11)

Douglass blossoms as speaker and author

Upon his escape from bondage, Douglass did not proactively set out to lead the abolitionist movement. Only at the urging of abolitionists did he venture into the speech-giving and memoir-writing arenas. In this context, the abolitionist movement had a direct and positive influence on his writings and on his career.

Like many effective speakers, Douglass had a flair for rhetoric, a trait no doubt influenced by fellow abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Both used rhetoric to point out the illogic of slavery and the cruelty of slave holders. Garrison's 1831 editorial, entitled "Truisms", is effective because it provides an emotional appeal (Lowance 105) and demonstrates the absurdity of slaveholders by being absurd. Below is an excerpt.

The slaves are kept in bondage for their own good. Liberty is a curse to the free people of color - their condition is worse than that of slaves! … The slaves are contented and happy. If sometimes they are so ungrateful or deluded as to abscond, it is pure philanthropy that induces their masters to offer a handsome reward for their detection. (Garrison 107)

Garrison's persuasive style was effective at changing minds. Douglass took note of this. He benefited from Garrison's usage of style and employs similar rhetoric in his Narrative of the Life that is at once bitter, enlightening, fatalistic, and dead-on correct:

It is said he has the devil in him, and it must be whipped out. Does he speak loudly when spoken to by his master? Then he is getting high-minded, and should be taken down a button-hole lower. Does he forget to pull off his hat at the approach of a white person? Then he is wanting in reverence and should be whipped for it. (Douglass 80)

This passage is satisfying for the reader because Douglass tears down the rationalizations that slaveholders had for abusing their slaves. Similarly, in Douglass' landmark 1852 speech, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" (also known as the Rochester Speech), he outlines the hypocrisy and cruelty of American slaveholders. It is one of his more powerful, rhetorical abolitionist speeches because "much of its secret lies in [his] ability to make direct contact with his audience, through persuasive, direct statements." (Lowance 38-39) His flawless mix of first-person narrative and abolitionist rhetoric left many who heard him astonished that a black man with sparse formal education could be so eloquent.

In his "Fourth of July" speech, he asks the audience rhetorically, "Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?"1 Douglass went on to reveal an onset of futility in arguing his case. After listing several atrocious acts committed against slaves in general, he asks, "Must I argue that a system this marked with blood, and stained with pollution is wrong? … What then remains to be argued?" (Lowance 41) Again, in his "Address to the People of the United States", Douglass is likened to a "…master of rhetoric at the height of his game." (Newman 214) Douglass here points out the self-evident immorality of slavery; that the question of abolition should not even be an issue to people who claim to be moral or Christian.

Differences within the abolitionist movement

John Quincy Adams and Garrison were both abolitionists, yet saw two distinct ways of abolishing slavery. Adams, as was mentioned, thought that slavery could be abolished within the confines of the Constitution. Garrison, on the other hand, was opposed to the so-called pro-slavery Constitution and to the apparent hypocrisy that existed in government. In 1851 Douglass and Garrison were at wit's end with each other, with Douglass taking Adam's lead and arguing the antislavery interpretation of the Constitution and Garrison arguing the opposite. This marked the end of their association, but despite a fundamental difference in opinion, Douglass and Garrison both continued to further the abolitionist cause (Lowance 113), albeit from different camps.

Douglass broke with Garrison (and with fellow abolitionist Wendell Phillips) on the issue of the constitutionality of slavery partially because of the writings of Lysander Spooner. Spooner's "The Unconstitutionality of Slavery" (1845) absolves the Constitution of any design to support the institution. (Spooner 253-255) Douglass also noted the Jan 1, 1808 law which marked the end of the legal slave trade in America. (Adams 1/1) In this case, the Constitution had been interpreted as promoting the eradication of slavery. Douglass saw hope that similar legislation would soon be passed.

It is interesting to see the influence abolitionists wielded against each other. Spooner's essay was published the same year Wendell Phillips published his "The Constitution, a Pro-Slavery Compact." Douglass's refutation of the Constitution as an anti-slavery document may have been a retort against the sentiment of Phillips, but it is more likely an echo of the sentiments of Spooner. Whatever the case, it is a wonder the abolitionists as a whole did not get much negative publicity from these fundamental disagreements.

Ward McAfee, in The Slaveholding Republic, argues that the Constitution is mostly neutral on the issue of slavery. (McAfee ix) After all, the U.S. Constitution does not even contain the words "slave" or "Negro" (Quarles 74), partially because the Founding Fathers believed slavery would not have been a relevant issue twenty, fifty or a hundred years hence. Douglass's interpretation of the document stemmed from a desire to retain national unity and to use the Constitution to abolish slavery in the states where it already existed. (Douglass, "Glasgow Speech") His constitutional argument was not original, but borrowed from fellow abolitionist Spooner (Fehrenbacker 299) and the sentiments of John Quincy Adams.

The politics of emancipation

Although a Republican, Douglass had but a lukewarm impression of President Lincoln. Slavery was not a major concern for Lincoln, as keeping the Union together was his primary focus. (Gienapp 55) Douglass describes Lincoln's political vacillation on the issue of emancipation as "…peculiar, cautious, forbearing, and hesitating … slow … slothful deliberation." (Douglass, "Emancipation Proclaimed") Lincoln freed the slaves not just because it was the moral thing to do, but, like Douglass, thought of preserving the Union. He would have preferred a "gradual emancipation" to a complete political and social equality. (Lincoln 316) Lincoln, in the months preceding the Emancipation Proclamation, even toyed with the idea of sending freed slaves back to Africa. Douglass later commended the president's actions in his memoirs, reasoning that his deliberate action virtually prevented his retraction of the Proclamation.

Although his oratory skills, narratives, and searing logic indeed changed the hearts and minds of many who heard him, Douglass was not and still is not remembered along with Lincoln as the abolitionists' equivalent of Martin Luther King, Jr. Douglass wrote, published newsletters and gave speeches for 23 years preceding the Emancipation Proclamation. In contrast, Lincoln became known at the "Great Emancipator" (and rightly so) with one stroke of his pen. While Lincoln's emancipation of the slaves brought him immortality, "[Douglass] is not likely to become a comprehensive symbol for the entire nation" (Miller 82) of the abolitionist movement.

What he has become, however, is a stalwart figure in the abolitionist movement and America's first and foremost black civil rights leader. His early influences in the abolitionist movement empowered him to become a leader. The blessings that the movement bestowed upon him have since been magnified greatly and his positive influence on national history and civil rights is now far-reaching.

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Works Cited and Consulted

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