Born enslaved on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Frederick Douglass (b. February 1818–d. 20 February 1895) became the most prominent African American of the 19th century. Although he escaped slavery under his own volition at the age of twenty, he has been often remembered as the nation’s most famous former slave. This is partly due to the sustained popularity of his first autobiography (of three), which became a “best seller” when it was first published in 1845. Even today it remains the most widely read narrative of enslavement. Douglass lived and strove for justice for fifty-seven years after reaching freedom. Just over two years after escaping to the North, he began his career as an antislavery lecturer for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. By 1847, he was widely recognized as an internationally known orator, abolitionist, and advocate for black freedom in America. That same year, Douglass began publishing his own weekly abolitionist paper and soon after moved his family to Rochester, New York, where he resided until 1872. By 1851 he parted ways with the radical Garrisonians, adopting the belief that the US Constitution was indeed an antislavery document. During the Civil War and after, he formed a staunch attachment to the Republican Party, while maintaining an active lecture and editing career pushing for African American suffrage and civil rights. He met with several presidents and held minor Republican posts. Eventually he served as US minister to Haiti from 1889 to 1891. Famous in his own time, Douglass was an exceptional American who remains representative of his 19th-century world and helps modern historians and ordinary citizens see the past more clearly. He was the most photographed American of the 19th century, and certainly he remains today the most quoted African American. Because of his outstanding record of achievements obtained in his lifetime, and the timeless resonance of his life and his words, Douglass remains one of the most studied figures in American history and culture.
In many senses, Douglass was his own biographer, penning his life story three times and then revising his third autobiography to add an updated account of his experiences late in life. The autobiographies have formed the basis for most historical scholarship. His first personal narrative, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (Douglass 2009, originally published in 1845), remains the most widely read account, and it was written both as a powerful condemnation of slavery and as a means to affirm the validity of Douglass’s life experiences. A decade later, Douglass’s second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (Douglass 2019, originally published in 1855), retold the narrative of his life in slavery, after which he turns to cover his rise as a prominent orator, black abolitionist, and newspaper editor. The third autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Douglass 1881), reflects the span of Douglass’s full life beginning with his enslavement and ending with his postwar political career. A new edition, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Douglass 1892), adds a third part, detailing his diplomatic role in Haiti. It was published three years before his death.
Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Hartford, CT: Park, 1881.
This lengthy and least familiar narrative retells the story of Douglass’s enslavement and his Civil War, and post–Civil War interactions and accomplishments. The details of his 1838 escape from slavery are described for the first time.
Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Boston: De Wolfe & Fiske, 1892.
Largely a reprint of the 1881 edition, the volume adds a substantial third part offering Douglass’s account of his interactions with late-19th-century politicians and his corrective to the public criticism of his role as minister to Haiti (1889–1891).
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Originally published in 1845 (Boston: Anti-Slavery Office). This first autobiography fits within the genre of the slave narrative. Introductory letters by William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips attest to the narrative’s veracity, and it was published by the American Anti-Slavery Society’s Boston Office. The most recognized of autobiographies of Douglass, it traces his twenty years in slavery, ending with his 1838 escape to freedom in the North.
Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.
Originally published in 1855 (New York: Orton & Mulligan). Appearing a decade after the first narrative, this volume retells Douglass’s enslavement with a slightly different cast and places emphasis on his life in freedom as he became an internationally recognized abolitionist and orator. The volume’s introduction, written by prominent African American physician James McCune Smith, emphasizes Douglass as a man of letters and as a black intellectual.
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