Frederick Douglass

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Frederick Douglass
Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey
BirthplaceTalbot County, Maryland, U.S.
Abolitionist, author, editor, diplomat

Douglass, Frederick

Douglass, Frederick (dŭgˈləs), c.1818–1895, American abolitionist, b. near Easton, Md. as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. The son of a black slave, Harriet Bailey, and a white father, most likely his mother's owner, he reinvented himself by taking the name of Douglass (from Scott's hero in The Lady of the Lake) after his successful second attempt to escape from slavery in 1838. At New Bedford, Mass., he found work as a day laborer. A staunch abolitionist, he maintained that there could be no compromise with slavery. He had begun speaking at a local black church, and an extemporaneous 1841 speech before a meeting of the Nantucket Anti-Slavery Society established him as a superb orator in the abolitionist cause. Fearing capture as a fugitive slave, he spent two years in England and Ireland, returning in 1847 after English friends had purchased (1846) his freedom.

Douglass, who had learned to read and write while still a slave, published his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave in 1845, the first of three autobiographies; My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), was a fuller version of the first book, and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881) described his later life as a statesman and man of letters. Douglass spent some 15 years traveling by train, advocating abolition in speeches throughout the country, and soon became one of its most famous spokesmen. At Rochester, N.Y., he established (1847) the North Star anti-slavery weekly (later retitled Frederick Douglass' Paper) and edited it for 17 years. Unlike William L. Garrison, he favored abolition through political action and thus became a follower of James G. Birney.

In the Civil War he helped organize two Massachusetts regiments of African Americans and urged other blacks to join the Union ranks. During Reconstruction he continued to urge civil rights for African Americans as a member of the Republican Party. He spoke out against Jim Crow laws and spent much of his time helping to establish black institutions such as colleges. He also served as secretary of the Santo Domingo Commission (1871), marshal (1877–81) and recorder of deeds (1881–86) for the District of Columbia, and minister to Haiti (1889–91).


See P. S. Foner, ed., Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass (4 vol., 1950–55); biographies by B. T. Washington (1907), P. Foner (1964), B. Quarles (1968), A. Bontemps (1971), W. McFreely (1991), and D. W. Blight (2018); E. Fuller, A Star Pointed North (1946); J. Stauffer and Z. Trodd, Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century's Most Photographed American (2015).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Douglass, Frederick


(pseudonym of Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey). Born February 1817, in Tuckahoe, Md.; died Feb. 20, 1895, in Anacostia Heights, a suburb of Washington, D. C. American abolitionist and revolutionary democrat. Leader of the Negro liberation movement, public figure, and writer.

Born a slave, Douglass fled to the North in 1838 and took an active part in the antislavery movement. At first Douglass shared the illusions of many abolitionist leaders on the need for moral exhortations to the slaveowners. Later, however, he resolutely supported revolutionary methods of struggle. Douglass’ political activity was subordinated to the idea of the unification of all antislavery forces and the creation of a mass abolitionist party. He took part in the organization of the National Liberty Party and in the Free Soil Party, and he was active in the Negro congress movement and in the work of the underground railroad.

Douglass was a brilliant publicist and orator. In 1847 he began to publish the newspaper North Star, which became one of the leading organs of the antislavery movement. In the 1850’s, under the influence of John Brown, Douglass came out in favor of armed struggle against slavery. He clearly conceived the revolutionary character of the Civil War in the USA (1861-65) and advanced the slogan of immediate emancipation of the slaves. Douglass participated in the formation of the first Negro regiments. During the Reconstruction period he took part in the Negro popular mass struggle for equality in US economic, political, and social life. He played a leading role in the Negro political organization the National League of Struggle for Equality, and he became chairman of the National Colored Labor Union in 1870. Douglass actively supported the democratization of US society and politics and defended the rights of women. His autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845; revised editions: My Bondage and My Freedom,1855; and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, 1881), exposes slavery.


The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, vols. 1-4. Edited by P. Foner. New York, 1950-55.


Foster, W. Z. Negritianskii narod v istorii Ameriki. Moscow, 1955. (Translated from English.)
Graham, S. Frederik Duglas. Moscow, 1959. (Translated from English.)
Ivanov, R. F. “Frederik Duglas—rukovoditel’ revoliutsionnogo kryla abolitsionistskogo dvizheniia.” In the collection K stoletiiu grazhdanskoi voiny v SShA. Moscow, 1961.
Bekker, M. I. Progressivnaia negritianskaia literatura SShA. Leningrad, 1957.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Douglass, Frederick (b. Frederick Augustus Washington Baily)

(1817–95) abolitionist, author, public official; born near Tuckahoe, Md. Born into slavery (his father was white, his mother was part American Indian), he was taught to read as a household servant but at age 16 was sent out to work as a field hand. In 1836 he was apprenticed to a shipyard in Baltimore, Md., but he escaped in 1838 and settled in New Bedford, Mass., where he assumed the name by which he would thereafter be known. After he made a speech before the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in 1841, he was hired as an agent and he lectured throughout the North; because his intelligence and speaking abilities led some to question whether he had been a slave, he published Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave in 1845. Then, fearing for his freedom, he fled to England where he lectured with such effect that the British contributed a generous sum of money that, added to money contributed by Americans, helped him buy his freedom when he returned to the U.S.A. in 1847. He went to Rochester, N.Y., where he cofounded (with Martin Delany) the abolitionist periodical North Star, which he edited for 16 years (in 1851 changing its name to Frederick Douglass's Paper). In 1859 he took refuge in Canada for a short time because he was falsely accused of aiding John Brown. He took a more gradualist approach to ending slavery but never wavered as the leading voice of African-Americans' call for freedom and equality. During the Civil War he urged President Lincoln to emancipate the slaves and he helped recruit African-American troops. After the Civil War, he also spoke out for other social reforms such as woman's suffrage. He also held a series of government posts—assistant secretary to the Santo Domingo Commission, marshal of the District of Columbia (1877–81), district recorder of deeds (1881–86), and ambassador to Haiti (1889–91). He issued a final revision of his autobiography as Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881).
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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