Frederick Douglass said, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free”(Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave) of the people who were oppressed in the United States during the nineteenth century. Douglass born a slave, was the leading African American contributor to the passing of the thirteenth amendment to the United States Constitution. Douglass’ influence on the American people was voiced through his many literary works and newspaper articles he wrote during his lifetime. Frederick Douglass is the most significant abolitionist speaker and writer in American History.
Douglass’ biographies of his life as a slave impacted many Americans, and their life views of the lives of slaves in the 1800s. Frederick Douglass was born into slavery on an unknown date on February 1818 in Talbot County, Maryland. As a child, Douglass was raised by his grandmother, Betty Bailey, because he was selected to live on his masters’ brother’s plantation home. Never knowing who his father was, Douglass, Douglass cherished the few times he saw his biological mother before her death when he was only ten years old.
Douglass, at an early age acquired a strong thirst for knowledge from the wife of his master, Sophia Auld, as she taught him the alphabet. Douglass later was quoted to have said, “A little learning, indeed, may be a dangerous thing, but the want of learning is a calamity to any people.”(Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave). Douglass is saying that the want to learn is intriguing once begun, and the slaves should experience the effects of knowledge to better their lives, even at the expense of being beaten or ridiculed.
Once his slave master forbade Sophia from further teaching him, Douglass would acquire anything from newspapers to books from other white children in his neighborhood. With Douglass gaining knowledge from these books that would be useful in his daily life, he also learned to hate the prejudice and unjust acts committed by whites on African Americans in the South. Later in his life, Douglass credited author of “The Columbian Orator” Caleb Bingham with his molding views on human rights. After many attempts by Douglass to teach his fellow slaves to read and write, he was sent to a well known “slave breaker” named Edward Covey.
Following a verbal argument, Douglass, and Covey got into a physical altercation, resulting in a victory for Douglass and never being beaten again by Covey. After two failed escape attempts, Douglass escaped and married his wife Anna Murray in New York with their chosen last name being “Johnson” to avoid capture. Douglass and his wife settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts where they finally decided on the surname “Douglass” from the poem, “The Lady of the Lake” by Sir Walter Scott. Douglass used his time in Massachusetts for more than simply writing about the abolition of the slaves, he became a preacher at the African American Methodist Episcopal Zion Church to teach young children to read and write the Bible.
Douglass’ five children often helped him in writing and maintaining his most popular newspaper, “The North Star,” in which he wrote about current abolitionist issues. Douglass was inspired by fellow abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and his newspaper “The Liberator” to publish his works to the abolition of slavery in America. Garrison, being one of the few people to hear the mistreatment of slaves from a first hand source, encouraged Douglass to write about his experiences in hopes to show more people what really was going on in the South then.
The motto of Douglass’ newspaper was “Right is of no sex, Truth is of no color, God is the father of us all, and we are all brethren”(The North Star). This motto represents everything that Douglass hoped the American people would realize the mistreatment of women and African Americans in the United States during the nineteenth century. Douglass named the newspaper “The North Star” in hope that African Americans in, the South would read it and use the north star in the sky to guide them to the North while trying to escape from slavery. Douglass’ most famous work was his memoir “Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave”, in which he tells the story of his early life as a slave and shows the American people the atrocities of slavery in the South.
Douglass was also a major proponent of defending the rights of women. He was the only African American to attend the first womens’ rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York. With the majority of people in attendance being against the ideas the women were presenting, Douglass spoke in out in support of the ideas in the Declaration of Sentiments saying, “I have never yet been able to find one consideration, one argument, or suggestion in favor of man’s right to participate in civil government which did not equally apply to the right of woman…”(Seneca Falls Convention 1848). Douglass is speaking on thousands of years of mistreatment and misunderstanding of women. He was trying to show that there are no differences between men and women that should allow for women to not possess the same rights as men.
In fear of being caught or punished, Douglass fled to Europe where he continued to talk about his experiences as a slave to the people of Great Britain and Ireland. Douglass spoke in many cities in his tenure in Europe, one newspaper said, “We understand Frederick Douglass the fugitive American slave is expected to deliver lectures on American slavery in Leeds, the week after next, Mr Douglass is a noble specimen of physical intellectual manhood, and we have no doubt his lectures will excite the same interest in Leeds which they have done in Belfast, Liverpool, Edinburgh and other places.”(Leeds Mercury, December 12th 1846).
Due to great support from people in Europe, Douglass was able to finally pay for his freedom with many donations from the Europeans that Douglass positively impacted with his various lectures on the current issues in Europe, he was twenty-eight years old.
Finally becoming a free man, Douglass continued to push hard for the rights of all people in America. One of his most influential and powerful moments would have been his speech addressing the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in Rochester, New York, 1852. Douglass said, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” (The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One, Vol. 2.). In this quote, Douglass is trying to show that the Fourth of July to Americans is a symbol of liberty, having citizenship, and freedom, yet none of these qualities apply to an American slave. Douglass then compares slavery of the times to Great Britain’s tyranny over the American colonists not even a century prior.
If our founding fathers encouraged the colonists to question and eventually overthrow Britain influence in the colonies, how does it make the American people any better than the tyrannical British government they had so often criticized? What kind of appreciation does it show to the countless people who died fighting for the freedom from these unfair policies in place when we were under British control? Douglass was also a major proponent of having black men fight in the American Civil War to defeat the South and earn their freedom. Douglass, a big supporter of President Abraham Lincoln and his ideas, requested a meeting with Lincoln in 1863 about his idea of allowing “colored troops” to join the Union Army.
Douglass is said to have written, “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”, in a letter to President Lincoln, urging him to eventually issue the Emancipation Proclamation. With the Emancipation Proclamation in place, Douglass then went out to recruit black men to fight for the Union. Douglass, helped by two of his sons-Charles and Lewis, gained enough men to form two regiments in the Union Army, the 54th and 55th Massachusetts regiments.
In Douglass’ later life, he served as the President of the Freedman’s and Trust Company, which came into existence after the passing of the thirteenth amendment to the United States Constitution, ending slavery on U.S. soil. Douglass also served as “charge d’affairs” to the Dominican Republic in place of the ambassador, and was later appointed as minister resident and consul general to the Republic of Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world. He was also the first African American nominated for vice president under Victoria Woodhill, who was the nomination for the Equal Rights Party in 1872. Douglass died on February 20, 1895 of a heart attack, after attending a meeting of the National Council of Women in Washington D.C. Douglass, born a slave, quickly realized the injustice of the slave system in the South.
Speaking from his experience, Frederick Douglass preached that the slaves learn to read and write, as it was a ticket to freedom from white supremacy. Along with this preaching, eventually came for Douglass to encourage African Americans to enlist in the Union Army in support of freeing the slaves of the South, and to gain the much needed respect from other Americans in their own war effort. Douglass’ next major contribution to fighting slavery would have been the publication of his newspaper, “The North Star”, and his memoir, “Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave”.
These works began to shed light on the terrible things that slavery entails in America to people living across America. Douglass, not only concerned with society’s problem in slavery, also took aim to help women get the rights that they deserved. Douglass used many methods to make Americans question their treatment of African Americans and women, including drawing comparisons to the Founding Fathers of America and America’s fight for independence against Britain. Finally, Douglass fought for the many things he deemed to be important in his life.
He spoke out in support of slaves in the South, while being a runaway slave, and for women to gain their natural rights as a human being. He encouraged African Americans that followed him to continue their fight for equality and moral respect among the American people.Frederick was one of the most influential African American speakers and writers on the abolition of slaves in the history of the United States.
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