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Frederick Douglass: The Famed Orator Turned Union Recruiter

Frederick Douglass

Born into slavery in Maryland in 1818, Frederick Douglass was an esteemed social reformer, orator, writer, statesman and abolitionist. He lived with his maternal grandmother at first but was selected to live in the home of the owners of the plantation. It is believed that one of the owners may have been his father as he was of mixed-race descent. When the plantation’s overseer died, the abolitionist was given to the Auld family and ended up living with U.S. Army First Lieutenant Hugh Auld. During this time, Auld’s wife Sophia began to teach the young man how to read and write, a practice that was banned in Maryland at the time. Auld put a stop to his wife’s teaching, but Douglass persisted and began to learn from people in the neighborhood instead.

Reading is how Douglass began to form an ideological opposition to the matter of slavery. He was an avid newspaper reader and focused on getting political literature and writing whenever he could. When he was hired out by Auld to William Freeland, he began to teach other slaves how to read the Bible during church services. The interest was so high that more than 40 slaves started attending weekly lessons. While Freeman did not try to stop the lessons, other slave owners took action, dispersing the group permanently using stones and clubs in an attack.

Douglass attempted to free himself from slavery two times before he finally succeeded. In his second attempt, he was helped by free black woman Anna Murray, whom he would later marry. In September of 1838, he boarded a train to Havre de Grace with a sailor’s uniform and identification papers from a free black sailor. He made his way to a safe house in New York in less than a day.

The new couple settled in the free black community of New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Douglass would begin to attend abolitionist meetings and impress those around him with his speaking and writing skills. In 1845, he would write and publish his autobiography “Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,” which would soon became a best-seller. Fear of being recaptured by his former masters drove Douglass to flee the U.S. for Ireland and the UK. His supporters overseas eventually raised enough money for Douglass to buy his freedom, and he would return to the U.S. a free and famous man in 1847.

The Civil War Begins

When the Civil War started, Douglass was among the most famous black men in the U.S. He used this status to influence the position of other African Americans in the country and their role in the conflict. Douglass would confer with President Lincoln over the treatment of black soldiers and convince him that abolition needed to be a part of the war effort. He also served as a recruiter of black men for the Union Army and got two of his own sons to sign up; they became part of the famous 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Although Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation did free all Confederate Territory slaves, Douglass did not support Lincoln during the 1864 election because the president was not publicly endorsing voting rights for free black men.

Following the war, the noted speaker would hold several political positions, including the Freedman’s Savings Bank president. He served as a diplomatic representative to the Dominican Republic for two years, after which he resigned over objections to government policy in the U.S. He would later serve as consul-general and minister-resident to Haiti, a position he held from 1889 to 1891. Douglass was the first African American vice president nominee when he was named the running mate to Victoria Woodhull in 1872 for the Equal Rights Party ticket, but he never campaigned as he was not asked if he wanted to run and was added to the ticket without his consent.

Douglass would continue to fight for the rights of African Americans and women in the U.S. until his death in 1895 from a massive stroke.