Born a slave in Maryland, Douglass escapes to the North and writes a best-selling account of his life. In 1845, fearing recapture, he seeks refuge in Great Britain. On his return to the United States, he sets up his own newspaper and becomes a leading spokesman for black America and campaigner for civil rights.
From Slave to Free Man
Frederick Douglass was born a slave in Maryland in 1818 on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. As a boy he was taken away from the Great House Farm to Baltimore, as the family servant of Thomas and Sophia Auld. Later he was hired out to work on plantations across the Bay, but in 1836 returned to Baltimore, where he was employed in the shipyards. With the help of Anna Murray, a free black woman from the city, he escaped to the north by train to New York, disguised as a sailor. He was just twenty years old.
He was soon reunited with Anna, whom he married. They moved to New Bedford, a whaling port in Massachusetts, and within three years, he was lecturing on behalf of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, speaking at public halls across New England. At first he simply told of his own experiences in Maryland, but before long, he found ‘it did not entirely satisfy me to narrate wrongs; I felt like denouncing them.’
Across the Ocean
He recounts this story in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself published in 1845. The book was written partly to answer those who heard his accomplished speeches and doubted he ever was a slave. It was an instant critical and commercial success. Within five years, it had sold 30,000 copies in Britain and the United States and had been translated into Dutch and French.
But by providing the details of his experience in slavery, ‘giving names of persons, places, and dates’, he put himself in grave danger.
This statement soon became known in Maryland, and I had reason to believe that an effort would be made to recapture me…
And while there was little probability of successful recapture, if attempted openly, I was constantly in danger of being spirited away, at a moment when my friends could render me no assistance. In traveling about from place to place – often alone – I was much exposed to this sort of attack. Any one cherishing the design to betray me, could easily do so, by simply tracing my whereabouts through the anti-slavery journals, for my meetings and movements were promptly made known in advance.
So in August 1845 he set sail for England.
Leader and Statesman
On his return in 1847, Douglass settled in Rochester, New York, and consolidated his position as one of the leading anti-slavery campaigners, founding his own newspaper, the North Star (later renamed Frederick Douglass’ Paper). During the Civil War, he recruited young men for the Union Army, and in later years held a number of government posts, including that of Minister to Haiti (1889-91).
He revisited Scotland in 1859-60, but his speeches lacked the radical edge of 1846. No doubt he was shaken by the recent hanging of his friend John Brown, who had attempted to spark off a major slave insurrection by seizing the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. But he also found that British support for abolitionism was on the decline.
He died in February 1895 at Cedar Hill, the beautiful house he acquired 17 years earlier, in woodland across the Anacostia River from Washington, DC. The house is now a national monument and site of a museum devoted to this major politician and writer of the 19th Century.