In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Frederick Douglass

  • Introduction
  • Reference Work
  • Douglass and Family
  • Douglass and Women
  • Douglass the Abolitionist
  • Douglass and the Civil War Era
  • Douglass’s Political and Intellectual Views
  • Literary Criticism
  • Douglass and Local History
  • Creative Work about Douglass

American Literature Frederick Douglass
Leigh Fought
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 April 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0217


Frederick Douglass (b. 1818–d. 1895), one of the most eminent African Americans of the 19th century, defies categorization. Possessing a ranging intellect, he first rose to prominence as the self-emancipated slave who forcefully indicted the institution as an orator, writer, and newspaper editor. Not content simply to bear witness about his first twenty years under slavery, he exposed national hypocrisy on race where it appeared in religion, science, segregation, voter disfranchisement, and freedom of association. Through the rhetoric of his autobiographies, editorials, and lectures, he advanced to the forefront of the multifaceted antislavery movement as it became a driving force behind national politics in the 1850s. The 1860s and 1870s saw him demanding emancipation, goading President Abraham Lincoln on the subject, but also fighting for black citizenship and universal suffrage. In the latter half of his life, he worked through the political system that he once opposed in order to secure equal protections and opportunities for African Americans, usually to frustrating ends. He continued to absorb and explore the boundaries of race, condemning cant, protesting injustice, and using his fame to amplify disfranchised voices. After his death, his widow, Helen, preserved his papers and home, now the Frederick Douglass Papers in the Library of Congress and the Frederick Douglass National Historic Park, which have allowed his legacy to rise above those of his contemporaries. Douglass’s interests concentrated on questions of identity, justice, race, and national belonging that were both universal and specific to the 19th-century United States. Study of his work and life straddles multiple disciplines. Initially, he was remembered for his oratory while his autobiographies served as historical texts describing slavery and outlining his life. Toward the end of the 20th century, the expanding availability of documents at the Library of Congress and the University of Rochester, the publication of Philip Foner’s The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, John Blassingame’s Frederick Douglass Papers Project, and new methods of historical and literary study opened new avenues into his world. Scholars working in one field borrow from others, but distinctions still exist in which historians use multiple types of documents to understand Douglass in his time, literary scholars analyze his texts, and political scientists examine his work among American political traditions. All reveal many facets of a man of infinite curiosity and continuing relevance.

Primary and Print Sources

These are the basis of research into the life of Frederick Douglass. Initially, only his autobiographies had served as the main sources, and they continue to provide the most important window into his own interpretation of his experiences. Although he published some of his later speeches, they went through limited printing and the record for most lay in contemporary newspapers. Other documentation, such as correspondence, gradually became accessible over the 20th and 21st centuries as his own collection at Cedar Hill in Anacostia, DC, became available privately through the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association and then publicly through the Library of Congress in the 1970s. The donation of other collections to various repositories and libraries brought more Douglass documents to light. Additionally, microfilm, documentary and scholarly editions, and digitization projects have increased access to these resources. The category of “primary source” follows the definition used by historians, meaning evidence contemporary to the subject. Print Primary Sources encompass contemporary publications written or edited by Douglass, while Archival Collections include collections of unpublished documents, such as correspondence, photographs, or ephemera, often held in a repository such as a university special collections or government document office. Most “Frederick Douglass” papers or collections were usually assembled by family members or Douglass himself and contain correspondence to him, although they may include other types of evidence related to his life. Correspondence from him, and quite often about him, will be found in the archives of the people to whom he wrote. Access to primary sources can be difficult, and archives offer little context beyond the finding aid. Document editing projects, here classified as Published Primary Sources, highlight certain aspects of Douglass’s life or selections of documents, with greater explanation of their contents and context. Philip Foner’s five-volume Life and Writings (1950–1955) gave access to the most complete set of Douglass documents for many decades. John Blassingame undertook a more ambitious project in the late 1970s, establishing the Frederick Douglass Papers at Yale University, an ongoing project now at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis, under John R. Kaufman-McKivigan. That project has produced a Speeches, Debates, and Interviews series, a series of critical editions of Douglass’s autobiography, and two volumes of a projected longer Correspondence series. Other scholars have chosen shorter volumes to highlight aspects of Douglass’s career, life, or new or untapped documents. The section on Published Print Primary Sources includes editions of material that predominantly were originally published contemporary to Douglass and were written or edited by Douglass. Published Primary Sources about Douglass include editions of both printed and archival sources that are neither about nor by Douglass but discuss aspects of his life and work. While many primary sources are available in microfilm or online, the limitations of resources, as well as the requirements of tenure and promotion, have made digital Douglass projects unattractive to scholars.

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