A brief Frederick Douglass biography by Dan Buttry
I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.
I have chosen only two figures who lived prior to the 20th century to profile in full chapters of this book. Thomas Clarkson, who Douglass met in 1846, is profiled in the Organizers section. In this section on advocates, Douglass’ passion for justice and his struggle to achieve it led him to a series of daring innovations in peacemaking. I include him here not out of a sense of nostalgia or obligation (there were many noteworthy peacemakers in earlier eras) but because Clarkson and Douglass were pioneers whose legacies still shape our work today. If Douglass were to somehow resurrect himself today, his restless mind and heart would continue to raise hard questions about injustice. His powerful image continues to march before us all.
Frederick Douglass was a man who claimed his own freedom by a dramatic escape from slavery—then became a liberator of others by helping fellow slaves escape. He was a powerful voice for abolition. He also advocated for the rights of women. He liberated the U.S. Constitution from its own inner contradictions so that it truly could become an instrument of freedom.
He was born into slavery and named Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. As a boy he was sold to a family in Baltimore, Maryland. His master’s wife began teaching him to read, though her husband disapproved. Slave owners at that time realized that if slaves learned to read they would be better equipped to pursue freedom. Douglass was an avid reader, teaching himself through any newspaper or book he could find. Later he was sold to a farmer known for his cruelty to slaves. Douglass was whipped frequently until he finally fought back against his master and was never beaten again. When he was 20 years old, he obtained a uniform and identification papers from a free black seaman and began a train journey that took him to New York and freedom. He abandoned his slave name and took the last name of Douglass from the hero of a Sir Walter Scott novel.
Douglass settled in Massachusetts where he met the famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. At 23 years of age he gave his first speech, detailing the horrors of slavery. Though he was nervous, his passion riveted those who heard him. He became a popular speaker, traveling across the country with the abolitionist message. He said: “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”
Douglass wrote his autobiography—later to be updated in two subsequent versions. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave became a best seller and was published in Europe as well. But this notoriety also was dangerous for he was still an escaped slave who could legally be returned to his owner. At the urging of his friends he went to Ireland and Great Britain for two years. English friends officially purchased his freedom.
While in Ireland, Douglass’ advocacy regarding struggles for justice broadened. He met with Irish nationalists and spoke out for Irish Home Rule. Seeing the deplorable working conditions of the early industrial revolution, he advocated for fair treatment of workers. He also supported feminism, and after returning to the United States, participated in the historic 1848 Seneca Falls Convention for women’s rights. Douglass was a whirlwind in that era, launching an abolitionist newspaper called The North Star, which proclaimed a broad view of freedom on its masthead: “Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren.” While most Americans still thought of slavery as the only racial issue the country was facing, Douglass already was identifying other related injustices on the horizon. In New York, a free state, the schools were segregated. Black schools received far less money per student than white schools. Since he believed that education was the key to freedom, he advocated for court action to desegregate schools.
Abolition of slavery remained his major concern. He served as a “stationmaster” on the Underground Railroad personally helping hundreds of people escape from slavery in the South and make their way to freedom. As the struggle intensified, Douglass wrote: “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.” He met with John Brown, the radical abolitionist who planned a violent raid at the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry. Douglass believed Brown’s plans for a slave revolt would not work and strongly disagreed with him. After Brown’s raid failed, Douglass fled briefly to Canada fearing that he would be targeted through guilt by even a brief association with Brown.
Douglass split with William Lloyd Garrison over this issue of the U.S. Constitution: Garrison saw the Constitution as an inherently pro-slavery document and even called for the dissolution of the United States but Douglass did not want to abandon the slaves in the South and argued that the Constitution could be turned into an instrument for freedom. (Douglass lived to see amendments to the Constitution that eliminated slavery and gave blacks citizenship, equal protection under the law and the right to vote without discrimination because of race.)
But first was the great struggle! For Douglass, the Civil War was always about slavery. He advised President Lincoln to free the slaves. When Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was announced Douglass spoke about it: “We were waiting and listening as for a bolt from the sky…we were watching…by the dim light of the stars for the dawn of a new day…we were longing for the answer to the agonizing prayers of centuries.” Douglass also urged Lincoln to allow blacks to join the Union Army so they could participate directly in the fight for their freedom. Two of his sons fought in the first black regiment to engage in battle.
After the war, Douglass continued as an advocate for justice for newly liberated African-Americans. He served as President of the Freedman’s Savings Bank to help former slaves in the Reconstruction period. He supported President Ulysses Grant in passing a law against the rising violence of the racist terror group, the Ku Klux Klan. Following passage of the Klan Act, Grant sent federal troops to arrest more than 5,000 Klansman, a move that Douglass applauded but that was unpopular among whites. Among many of Douglass’ appointments to government service, he was a diplomat to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He consistently pressed for voting rights, not only for blacks but also for women. Douglass’ last public appearance was at a meeting of the National Council for Women in 1895; he died of a heart attack that night.
Though many people, blacks and whites alike, played important roles in the struggle to abolish slavery in the United States, nobody had as broad, as long, and as strategically important an impact as Frederick Douglass. He mobilized public support, counseled presidents and provided a positive interpretation of the Constitution that allowed fundamental reform to take place within the structure of American law. His goals were so high that many were not realized in his lifetime, but his constant focus enabled political systems to eventually achieve these ideals.