Throughout the Antebellum era,one issue that large in part contributed to the political and social climate of the era was the issue of slavery in the United States. This would be the subject of bitter debate over the years,culminating in the American Civil War. Before that,numerous writers and orators,both black and white,wrote and spoke on the issue,some with more moderate,peaceful views,and some with more militant,at times violent views regarding the issue of slavery. One of the more peaceful voices of the discussion was Frederick Douglass. Born into slavery,Douglass escaped his enslavement in Maryland as a young man. Upon arriving in New York,he married Anne Murray,and theysettled in New Bedford,MA to begin their life together. As Douglass became older,he became a prominent voice of the abolitionist,becoming a leader in both New York and Massachusetts. Douglass quickly became famous for incredible talent for oration,and for his passion and measure in fighting slavery. Regarded as perhaps the most prominent black abolitionist of his day,Frederick Douglass impacted the abolitionist movement and society’s view of black Americans ina remarkable,reverberating way,and redefined the way American slavery literature was written.
Frederick Douglass began writing and speaking during a time when the division within the Union was prominent for all to see.At this time,Douglass had a heavy hand in bringing attention to the debate of slavery.Douglass accomplished muchthroughout his life.Born aslave in 1817in Maryland,heeducated himself and became determined to escape the atrocities of slavery.Douglassattempted to escape slavery once,but failed.He later made hissuccessful escape in 1838.After settling in New Bedford,Douglass’s abolitionist careerbegan at an antislavery convention at Nantucket,Massachusetts.Here,he first demonstrated his skills as a powerful and eloquent orator.Douglass became involved with many importantabolitionistcauses,through his literary works,through his work with theUndergroundRailroad (Aptheker, 1989).Due to theincreasing stringency of fugitive slave laws,Douglass found himselfin danger ofbeing captured and returned to slavery.To avoid this,he left America,and stayed in the British Isles.There he lectured on slavery,and found similar popularity among abolition-minded British people. Some of these peopleraised money topurchase his freedom.In 1847,Douglass relocated to Rochester,New York,and becamethe person in charge of the Underground Railroad.Here he also began the abolitionistnewspaper North Star,which he edited until 1860(Bowers, 2010).
During this period,Douglass became friends with another well-known Americanabolitionist,John Brown.Brown was involved with the Underground Railroad,and laterwanted Douglass to join him on terroristic attacks on a United States government arsenalat Harper’s Ferry.Douglass declined to participate in such activities.In the aftermath of John Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry,Douglass fled for a time to Canada,fearing that his association with John Brown could threaten him.He returnedafter several months,and supported AbrahamLincoln’s campaign for president.FrederickDouglass remained a prominent figure of black abolitionismbefore dying in 1895,inWashington,D.C(Aptheker, 1989).
Frederick Douglass’s life as a slavenaturallyhad the greatest impact on his writings.With his experiences,Douglass’s experience as a former slave allowed him to paint a rather vivid picture for his audiences the cruelty the life of a slave was fraught with.Douglass recounted cruel instances ofwhippings,inadequate meals,and other harshtreatmentin a detailed way.His thirst for freedom,and his burning hatred of slavery caused him to writeNarrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass,and other similarworks.InhisNarrative,Douglass wrote the complete story of his miserablelife as a slave and his strife to obtain freedom.Douglass’s youthful motivationwas to make it through another day so that someday he might seefreedomeventually.This would,unsurprisingly,become the subject of Douglass’s writings. While these books all start with Douglasscoping with slavery,though as he was noted for his strong communication skills his writings served another purpose.As acommittedabolitionist,Douglass presented the brutality and inhumanity of slavery in an eloquent,urgent,and convincing way.Through telling his story,he won the hearts and minds of many who found themselves disgusted by the abhorrent institution of human enslavement(McFeely, 2011).
Douglass’s writingssingle-handedly redefined American Civil War literature,simply by redefining howantislavery writings were considered.There were other narrativeswritten by former slaves,butDouglass’s account remained one of the most popular.Frederick Douglass is well known for many of his literary achievements.He is bestknown,now,as awriter.As a writer,Frederick Douglass shined.As a speaker,FrederickDouglass was considered one of the most influential. Among both black and white abolitionists,Douglass was considered one of the most impressive and popular orators,if not the most impressive and popular.So impressive were Frederick Douglass’s oratorical and intellectual abilitiesthatsomeopponents refused to believe that he had been a slave,and alleged that hewas an impostor foisted on the public by the abolitionists.It was,partially,in response to this that Douglass first wrote hisNarrative,which in its final,revised form was titled theLife and Times of Frederick Douglass(McFeely, 2011).
Socially and culturally,seeing a former slave present his ideas and arguments in such a clear,concise,and persuasive way was exceedingly important for the abolitionist movement. Throughout his writings,Douglass reflects ondifferent times of his life,lookingat the past in different ways. InhisNarrative,Douglass uses a simple,yeteducated approach to show how he felt as a slave growing up in Maryland.Douglass’sNarrativewaspopular,asit wasa brief,descriptive,and easily-readpiece of literature.Itdemonstratedthe hardships ofslavery as seen by a slave who had lived through them.Douglass became educatedand literate through his own means,and he seemed to view his education as one of his saving graces.Withoutthis drive to educate and better himself,Douglasssuggests he might neverhave achievedhis freedom. Through his education and personal betterment,Douglassrealized the importance of freedom.This gave himdesireand drive for freedom,but mostimportantlyof all,hope(Douglass, 1845).Without knowledge,Frederick Douglass would never have been the man he waswhen he wasfree.He could express the problems and the solutions of slavery in aconvincing,educated manner.This made him more than a cheap source of labor in theNorth.Knowledge also was a blessing in that it gave his mind a challenge that the burdensof everyday slavery could not give.Learning to read and write was a challenge simplybecause the resources were not there.He used wit and good-natured cunning to tricklocal school boys into teaching him the alphabet.If he had neversought this education for himself,hemight never have been able to share his experiences effectively,and thus could not have changed the social landscape of slavery as he did(Douglass, 1845).In writing these accounts,Douglass sought to pass on that drive and hope onto his readers,and to translate that passion into an effective means of combatting slavery.
Christianity also played an important role in Frederick Douglass’s life,as well as hisautobiography.Douglass had conflicting feelings about slavery and Christianity as seen inNarrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass,An American Slave.He addressed the often employed religious arguments regarding slavery.FrederickDouglassbelieved in God and was a Christian himself.As such,he felt conflicted by the way in whichsome white slaveowners used Christianity to defend themselves,and he thought there beliefto be a crude mockery of the real thing.At first,Douglass was hopefulthat a master whofound religion became more humane.When he actually witnessed his master after hebecame religious,he found him to bemore cruel than before.Douglass states,”afterhis conversion,he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty.”(Aptheker, 1989). After witnessing this,Douglass began to rail against the religious defense of slavery more fervently,particularly inNarrative.
After writing Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass,An American Slave in1845,Douglass wrote another biography,My Bondage And My Freedomin 1855.Thisautobiographyexpanded on much of Douglass’s life,compared to the more conciseNarrative.My Bondage And My Freedomis a look at slavery from Douglass,both more mature as a person,and as a writer.Also,he reflects on his life as a slave inmore detail.My Bondage And My Freedom also gives readers an update to Narrative thatincludes Douglass’s life as a free manand the struggles he associates with that.In writing this piece,Douglass offers an even more graphic and detailed account of the slave experience,and found even greater popularity among the abolitionist movement.
Frederick Douglass also had another abolitionist publication,North Star,an abolitionist newspaper.Douglass edited the antislaverynewspaper for sixteen years,stopping in 1860.North Star’sname later waschanged toFrederick Douglass’sPaper.The paper,after the abolition of slavery,becameseen aslessand less necessary,and eventuallyceased publishing.Still,during the paper’s run,it was an extremely popular source of abolitionist news,and it inspired and it helped organized the movement into a more cohesive group to properly challenge slavery.Through this paper,Douglas even further played a role in redefining how the issue of slavery was discussed.
One thing that Douglas recognized about the debate around slavery was that it was an issue largely divided amongst the north and south respectively,and so it highlighted the regional disconnect.In the South,abolitionists were as commonas snow,and did not affect the literatureor lifestyles of those people very much.In theNorth,however,abolitionismwas more of a standard belief.For decades at this point,slavery simply had not made economic sense in the north compared to the south,and the practice became increasinglyobsoletein the north.This made the north a kind of idealized promised land to slaves,and so it naturally became the center of abolitionism. Many slaves who managed to escape north chose to express their anger over slavery,and many openly believed that violence was necessary to end slavery. Some of these more militant abolitionists were joined by John Brown,for example. Douglass,however,maintained and supported a more moderate approach to the debate. Douglas preached for unions to be created across both racial and ideological lines,and he was even willing to meet with white slaveowners to try to reach a compromise over slavery. Naturally,Douglass was criticized by some of his more militant counterparts,who claimed he was too willing to civilly address his oppressors. To this,Douglass famously replied,”I would unite with anybody to do right,and nobody to do wrong.”(Douglass, 2000). This quote arguably captures the composure and poise of Frederick Douglass. Socommitted was Douglassto finding a peaceful solution to the problem of slavery,he was even willing to meet with men who would see him placed back in bondage. It was an approach and message that resonated strongly with many in the abolitionist movement,even while it alienated some.
Frederick Douglass wasquite possibly the most influential black American orator and writer of his day.Hissuccess came from his fight against slavery.Being a former slave,used his experience and communication skills to spearhead the discussion surrounding slavery duringa troubled time for our nation.Douglass’sautobiographies and journalismhelped define the debate surrounding abolitionism.Hisworks document the rise of a slave to a free man,to arespected speaker,to a famous writer and politician.Douglass used his personal story to both inspire and agitate.These works do not stand alone,though.Frederick Douglass also was famous for his abolitionist speeches,and renowned for his eloquence and oration.Douglass alsosuccessfully published an abolitionist newsletter,The North Star.Douglass worked hard during his life,and his achievements speak for themselves.He helped to inspire the abolitionist movement,and he helped mold and the shape the very channels and methods through which its discussion was had.Douglass remains an inspiring figure of American History,and his message of “Agitate,agitate,agitate!” served as a rallying cry for those seeking the end of slavery. Frederick Douglass’s legacy and impact on the social and political landscape of is one of total,absolute commitment to equality and freedom,and he is thusly remembered to this day for it.
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Bontemps,Arna.100 Years Of Negro Freedom.Westport,Connecticut: GreenwoodPress,Publishers,1980.
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Douglass, Frederick.Frederick Douglass: Selected speeches and writings.Chicago Review Press, 2000.pp.260-71.
McFeeley,William.Frederick Douglass.New York: W.W.Norton & Company,1991.