Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)
"If there is no struggle, there is no progress." - Frederick Douglass

Written by: Stephen Ryan


Frederick Douglass was born in Talbot County along the eastern shore of Maryland in February of 1818. Douglass was born into a difficult life of slavery and bondage. Douglass was the son of an African woman and a white male, who in all likelihood was her master. He never knew his father, and he had only seen his mother on a handful of occasions before she passed away when Douglass was only seven years old.

In the earliest years of his life, Douglass witnessed firsthand the evils and brutalities of slavery. His childhood was a difficult one plagued by constant hunger and mistreatment. At age 8, Douglass was sent to Baltimore to live with a ship carpenter. Here he first heard the word abolition and began to learn how to read. Douglass would later state that his time spent in Baltimore, “laid the foundation, and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity”.[1] Douglass was eventually sent back to Talbot County where he received several years of extremely harsh treatment that ranged from harsh whippings to starvation.

On September 3, 1838 at the age of 20 Douglass would finally realize his dream of escaping his life-long captivity when he managed to flee Baltimore for New York City. Douglass would eventually settle in New Bedford Massachusetts. Once in New Bedford Douglass continued to further educate himself, in addition to attending numerous abolitionist meetings. In 1841 Douglass would launch his lifelong career as an orator delivering speeches about the atrocities of slavery. This first speech was delivered at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in Nantucket. It was said of this speech that, “"Flinty hearts were pierced, and cold ones melted by his eloquence."[2]

Douglass would go on to publish three separate autobiographies in 1845, 1855, and 1881 respectively. Despite his fears that the information in his first and most famous autobiography The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass could potentially endanger his new found freedom, Douglass published the work anyways. This narrative provided the abolitionist cause with a powerful piece of anti-slavery literature and is regarded to this day as one of the greatest slave narratives ever written. Douglass would go on to edit the most influential black newspaper at this time, The North Star. In addition to his writings Douglass would continue his work as a great orator traveling across America as well as Europe delivering powerful speeches about his time as a slave, while also calling for the abolition of slavery and racial equality. During the American Civil War Frederick Douglass would serve as an advisor to President Lincoln. Additionally, he spent his time delivering speeches and lobbying on behalf of the Union cause of emancipation. Frederick Douglass died in 1895.

Challenge Discussion

The most significant challenges that Fredrick Douglass faced was the racism that permeated across the country at this time. Douglass’ youth was plagued by the evils of slavery, which were justified by the racist sentiments that guided society. Douglass was able to help bring about the end of slavery by persuading whites to join the abolitionist movement often on the grounds of racial equality. Douglass pursued the abolition of slavery by making speeches on behalf of the abolitionist movement. Frederick Douglass was a masterful speaker who has been described as, “a reformer who believed that the lectern was the primary instrument for advancing the cause of any reform, Douglass was a public speaker of unusual vigor and eloquence”.[3] His excellence as an orator was the best way for Douglass to bring about the change he so passionately desired.

In spite of his oratorical skills Frederick Douglass still found his message being continually challenged. Douglass and his message were harshly critiqued by the pro-slavery portion of American society who used racism to criticize the quality of his message. Douglass was, “invariably castigated by pro-slavery apologists and those whose nationalistic nerves were rubbed raw by his portrayal of American institutions as evil”.[4] In spite of these criticisms that were being negativity directed at him Douglass continued to spread his message across the United States and the globe. It is so remarkable that Douglass never let his racist critics negatively affect him. Instead, he continued to make his speeches and fight for what he believed in regardless of any challenges that he was facing.

Racism was truly the biggest challenge that Douglass faced as a leader. Many people conceived of him as less intelligent, or of lesser quality than the white man. However, even his most ardent critics were forced to admit that Douglass was a masterful orator. Douglass shattered false racial stereotypes of the time by showing how brilliant and eloquent a black man could be. In this sense, Douglass used the platform he was speaking on to combat the challenges of racism and slavery all at once. He was able to show that black people could accomplish amazing things if given the opportunity. Douglass truly was able to show how flawed the concept of racism and slavery truly was in American society.

Frederick Douglass was constantly battling against the challenges of racism from the time that he was a slave, through his career as a free orator. However, in spite of all these challenges, which would have made a lesser man crumble, Douglass never quit. Instead he was able to use the practice of public speaking to truly flourish as a leader of the abolitionist movement. Frederick Douglass is an excellent example to us all of displaying courage in the face of adversity and challenges. Douglass was able to face pressures head on and prevail by bringing about change in the racial landscape of America, as well as the abolition of slavery. Through his practice of public speaking Douglass was able to illustrate how a true leader stands up to adversity.

Virtue Discussion

The primary virtue employed by Frederick Douglass to overcome the challenges he faced was courage. Courage can be defined as, steeling the will, reinforcing its resolutions, and turning the mind relentlessly to seek or face the truth; conquering fear. Douglass was able to conquer his fear of being returned to slavery by publishing his book and telling his story regardless of what the potential consequences may have been. Additionally, he was able to get up and speak in front of large crowds, delivering his message in a brave and eloquent fashion. Despite the hostility that Douglass faced from a large portion of the white population he never once shied away from delivering his message. For this reason, the actions of Frederick Douglass are an excellent example of the virtue of courage.

Choice-worthy Good

The choice worthy good that Frederick Douglass pursued above all others was freedom. Douglass had suffered the atrocities of slavery first hand and seen countless evils done to his people, as the result of slavery. Through his own personal struggle Douglass had come to realize that slavery was an evil he must fight to tear down. Thus, for Douglass the abolition of slavery and the freedom of all people was the ultimate good that was worthy of pursuing. As a slave Douglass had desired to be free and had risked his own life fleeing from bondage. As a free man Douglass would strive to bring freedom to others who were suffering from the same evil that had once been inflicted upon him. By telling his story Douglass was able to illustrate the evils of slavery and convince countless people that the abolitionist cause was a good that was well worth pursuing.

Cultural Ill

The primary cultural ill that faced Frederick Douglass was the atrocity of slavery. While Douglass had been a victim of slavery and seen the atrocity first hand it was still a great challenge to stand up for what he believed in and speak out against the horrors of slavery. Those who owned slaves hated Douglass and viewed him as a serious threat to their way of life. He faced constant pressure from those who believed in slavery to remain quiet about his life as a slave. Douglass at the young age of 23 would begin giving speeches about his experiences as a slave. Douglass was often times the only black person in the room as he spoke to audiences made up primarily of white people. Despite his occasional nerves Douglass never shied away from the opportunity to share his message with others.

Douglass’ primary duty as a member of the abolitionist movement was to bring the cultural ill of slavery into the public eye. He was able to do this primarily through his speeches and his writings. While Douglass certainly had apprehensions that the material published in his autobiography could potentially endanger his new freedom he decided to publish the work anyways. While it would have been easy to remove himself from the limelight and simply enjoy his new freedom, Douglass chose instead to put that freedom at risk in pursuit of bringing an end to slavery.

Douglass faced the challenge of trying to convince an extremely racist portion of U.S. society that slavery was an evil that could not be allowed to continue in the world. The challenge was the fact that slavery was so deeply rooted in the fabric of American society at this point in time. Douglass’ message of the immorality of slavery was difficult for many slave owners to accept, especially since the message was coming from an African American who was viewed by many as being of lesser quality and intelligence than whites. Through his work Douglass’ was able to convince so many people that slavery was an ill that could no longer be tolerated. He was also able to shatter racist stereotypes about the black race by showing intelligence and articulate speech that was superior to the majority of whites at this time. While Douglass alone is certainly not responsible for the abolition of slavery, he clearly played a pivotal role in helping to free his people from their bonds. Additionally, Douglass can be credited with lessening the effects of racism in America. As a result, Douglass should be considered one of the most influential leaders of the abolitionist movement in America.

Works Cited

Blight, David. “Frederick Douglass 1818-1895”. 1 November 2013.

Douglass, Frederick. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”. Dover Publications, 1995.

Gatewood, Willard. “Frederick Douglass and the Building of a “Wall of Anti-Slavery Fire”, 1845-1846. The Florida Historical Quarterly. Vol. 59 No. 3. JSTOR. 1 November 2013.

PBS: Africans in America. Frederick Douglass 1818-1895. 1 November 2013.

[2] Ibid.
[3] Gatewood, Willard.“Frederick Douglass and the Building of a “Wall of Anti-Slavery Fire”, 1845-1846. p. 342.
[4] Ibid. p. 341.