The most well-known former slave during the Civil War era was Frederick Douglass. He was an African-American social reformer, orator, writer and statesman. Before and during the war Douglass was a preeminent abolitionist who wrote and spoke about slavery throughout the North. He was a friend of John Brown and later, Abraham Lincoln.
Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey had been born a slave in Talbot County, Maryland to Harriet Bailey. It was rumored that his father was their master. The day and year of his birth is unknown. Douglass who changed his name after he escaped slavery was taken from his mother at an early age and raised by his maternal grandmother, Betty Bailey, until he was seven. Douglass later wrote:
The opinion was … whispered that my master was my father; but of the correctness of this opinion I know nothing…. My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant…. It [was] common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age. I do not recollect ever seeing my mother by the light of day. … She would lie down with me, and get me to sleep, but long before I waked she was gone.
Douglass lived in a number of households in his early years. At one the mistress, Sophia Auld, taught him the alphabet, although it was illegal to teach slaves to read. Her husband disapproved but the lessons continued. He learned to read from neighboring white children and the people whom he worked for until one day his mistress observed him reading a newspaper and snatched it away from him. He continued to teach himself in secret.
Douglass was taken back by his owner, Thomas Auld, from his brother Hugh and rented to Edward Covey who had a reputation as a slave breaker. Covey beat Douglass regularly until one day Douglass rebelled and fought back. After losing the confrontation with Douglass Covey never beat him again.
Douglass attempted to escape several time from 1833 until his final successful attempt in 1838. He had met Anne Murray, a free black woman from Baltimore, and fallen in love. Murray provided him with a sailor’s uniform and he escaped by train to the North. Maryland had a large free black population and it would not have been an unusual sight to see an African-American sailor. Within 24 hours Douglass was in a safe house in New York. Douglass would write later about his thoughts of freedom:
I have often been asked, how I felt when first I found myself on free soil. And my readers may share the same curiosity. There is scarcely anything in my experience about which I could not give a more satisfactory answer. A new world had opened upon me. If life is more than breath, and the ‘quick round of blood,’ I lived more in one day than in a year of my slave life. It was a time of joyous excitement which words can but tamely describe. In a letter written to a friend soon after reaching New York, I said: ‘I felt as one might feel upon escape from a den of hungry lions.’ Anguish and grief, like darkness and rain, may be depicted; but gladness and joy, like the rainbow, defy the skill of pen or pencil.
Twelve days after his escape Douglass and Murray were married by a black Presbyterian minister. At first the couple settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts where they adopted Douglass as their married name. It was here that Douglass first became aware of the abolitionist movement. Eventually, he was asked to speak at a meeting of the Bristol Anti-Slavery Society where he told his compelling story.
With the encouragement Douglass became a speaker on the American Anti-Slavery Society‘s Hundred Conventions project, a six-month tour of meeting halls throughout the Eastern and Midwestern United States. Though only about 23 years old, Douglass was able to conquer his nervousness and eloquently speak about his life as a slave.
In 1845, Douglass’ first autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave was published. Although some skeptics questioned his ability to write the book was a success. Within three years of its publication, it had been reprinted nine times with 11,000 copies circulating in the United States; it was also translated into French and Dutch and published in Europe.
Douglass published three versions of his autobiography during his lifetime (and revised the third of these), each time expanding on the previous one. The 1845 Narrative, which was his biggest seller, was followed by My Bondage and My Freedom in 1855. In 1881, after the Civil War, Douglass published Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, which he revised in 1892.
Frederick Douglass went on to become the preeminent voice of the slaves in America. He was to travel widely and associate with some of the most consequential people in the era. By the time of the Civil War, Douglass was one of the most famous black men in the country, known for his orations on the condition of the black race and on other issues such as women’s rights. His eloquence gathered crowds at every location. His reception by leaders in England and Ireland added to his stature.
In his first autobiography, Douglass defined his views about slavery in clear and stark terms. He condemned the hypocritical Christianity of the South that used religion to justify slavery.
I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of the land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. Never was there a clearer case of ‘stealing the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil in.’ I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me. We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. . . . The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealers in the bodies and souls of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity. Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other—devils dressed in angels’ robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.
In his second autobiography, Douglass wrote about the denial of marriage to slaves:
The marriage institution cannot exist among slaves, and one sixth of the population of democratic America is denied it’s privileges by the law of the land. What is to be thought of a nation boasting of its liberty, boasting of it’s humanity, boasting of its Christianity, boasting of its love of justice and purity, and yet having within its own borders three millions of persons denied by law the right of marriage?
Again in his first autobiography Douglass talks about the contentment of the uneducated slave versus the discontent of one who has been able to learn:
I have observed this in my experience of slavery, – that whenever my condition was improved, instead of its increasing my contentment, it only increased my desire to be free, and set me to thinking of plans to gain my freedom. I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceased to be a man.
Frederick Douglass seemingly summed up his life to that point in his 1845 autobiography. It actually summed up his entire life because he struggled for success his entire life.
Without Struggle There Is No Success