How Frederick Douglass’s first speech got him noticed
Frederick Douglass, whose birthday is honored on February 14, was born a slave in 1818, and now remembered for his eloquence, activism, and fearless championing against slavery.
Douglass had endured many of the awful transgressions typified by slavery’s bonds. He was separated from his family and physically and psychologically abused. As a child, Douglass was taught the alphabet by Sophia Auld, his white mistress, and after being found out by the master of the household, secretly educated himself. He escaped from slavery in 1838 and settled down in Massachusetts.
Radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison spoke at a meeting of the Bristol County Anti-Slavery Society, in New Bedford, Massachusetts, on August 9, 1841. Induced to speak himself about freeing slaves before the assembled group of abolitionists, Douglass caught Garrison’s attention.
Douglass was invited to speak two days later on Nantucket Island at the annual convention of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, in front of a largely white audience. This speech, on August 11, 1841, was the speech that got him noticed, and put Douglass on the path to becoming a lecturer for the society. He proceeded to go on tour, delivering speeches that touched upon his life and experience as a slave.
His oratory skills were so striking and impressive that many who heard him speak were skeptical, unable to believe that a former slave could have such talents. Like many a public figure today, Douglass wrote and published an autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, in May 1845.
It laid out, in great, stirring detail, his personal hardships and his strong passions.
“I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence. From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace[.]”
This slave narrative, a popular genre in the 19th century, sold thousands of copies. Douglass went abroad soon thereafter, in part to remove himself from possible repercussions to information revealed in the book. When he returned to the United States, Douglass was an internationally known abolitionist.
Douglass stands as a revered figure now because he was so influential in his own time. He went on to write two more autobiographies, published his own newspaper, The North Star, in 1847, and was a champion of many reform movements, including women’s suffrage, temperance, and racial equality. He was the only African American and one of only a handful of men to attend the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention.
Douglass spoke passionately about those issues he saw as unjust. He questioned the celebration of the Fourth of July for slaves. They did not get to enjoy the same liberties as white Americans.
Despite a long-time collegiality with Garrison, Douglass diverged in opinion with him, arguing that the U.S. Constitution was not a pro-slavery document. During the Civil War, he met with President Abraham Lincoln to discuss conditions of black soldiers in the Union Army and advised him on other subjects relating to African Americans.
Orator, leader, reformer–Frederick Douglass remains a significant historical figure. We celebrate his life’s work to push beyond accepted social and cultural boundaries to question and fight against injustices.
Hey, here is a list of resources/questions:
- In 1930 the Federal Writers’ Project collected more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slave life from those who experienced it. Explore these stories and choose an activity based on history, critical thinking, or arts & humanities at the Library of Congress’ American Memory website.
- Douglass and Garrison shared many of the same views on abolition until the emergence of radical abolitionism in the 1840s. As both men allied themselves to different factions of the antislavery moment, which particular issues did they not agree on? Here is a lesson plan from the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery to help your students investigate these two prominent abolitionists.
Paige Scofield is a former Programs & Communications Coordinator at the National Constitution Center. She read The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass for the first time as summer reading prior to her junior year of high school, many years ago.