Frederick Douglass became a topic of discussion when President Donald Trump praised the historical figure in a speech hailing African-American History Month.
“Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice,” Trump said.
Trump’s use of the present tense to describe Douglass is what drew the media’s attention, as they began asking if Trump knew that Douglass was dead. Regardless of if Trump did or not, Douglass is an important historical figure. Here are nine things you need to know about him.
1. Douglass was originally born as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. Douglass changed his last name to ensure he could remain free after he fled from slavery. The name “Douglass” was based off James of Douglas, the protagonist in Sir Walter Scott’s poem Lady of the Lake.
2. Douglass was separated from his mother shortly after his birth and was never completely sure as to who his father was. Douglass’s mother, Harriet Bailey, was a slave, and his father is believed to have been a white man; presumably a slave owner. Douglass’s early years were primarily with his grandmother, Betty Bailey. He eventually left her care when he was seven years old.
3. Douglass learned to read and write as a slave primarily through his self-determination. He was initially being taught reading and writing skills by Sophia Auld, one of his owners, until she was forced to stop doing so by her husband, Hugh Auld, as teaching blacks to read and write was illegal at that time. Undeterred, Douglass received reading lessons from boys in the area and compensated them with bread. Douglass had to teach himself how to write through a myriad of ways, including holding writing contests for local boys and use their writings to teach himself and scouring through copybooks from one of his slavemasters.
Through his studies, Douglass read The Columbian Orator, a book that featured an exchange between a slave owner and a slave on the merits of slavery. The slave wins the argument that slavery is evil; causing him to win his freedom. It is through this that Douglass learned to effectively argue against slavery; he realized that slave owners purposely kept their slaves uneducated and illiterate so they wouldn’t realize the full evil and immorality of slavery and be manipulated into thinking they couldn’t survive without their slave owners. This epiphany fueled his determination to one day be free.
4. Douglass ended up getting into a fight with one of his slave masters and won. Douglass at point was owned by Edward Covey, known as the “negro-breaker and slave-driver” for ruthlessly breaking the will of his slaves. Douglass’ resolve was shattered at first, as the brutal treatment from Covey caused Douglass to only seek relief from his wounds rather than focus on escaping or reading. However, Douglass became weary of Covey’s treatment and one day fought back.
Covey bound Douglass’s legs as he was working on something. Douglass retaliated by grabbing Covey’s throat. The two fought each other for two hours, but Douglass came out on top. After that, Douglass was never on the receiving end of a whip again, and he believed it was because Covey didn’t want it known that a slave had beaten him in a fight. But more importantly, the fight caused Douglass to regain his confidence and determination to be free.
5. Douglass finally escaped. After one previous failed escape attempt with a group of slaves, Douglass eventually found freedom through the help of abolitionist journalist David Ruggles, a free black man, who permitted Douglass to reside in his boarding house and had him go to New York to enter the caulking profession. Douglass met his first wife Anna Murray there, and together they made their way to New Bedford, MA.
6. As a free man, Douglass became a leading figure in the abolitionist movement. Douglass first became involved in the movement after reading the Liberator, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper. Douglass started to attend abolitionist meetings, where Garrison urged Douglass to tell people about his experiences as a slave. Consequently, Douglass gave speeches about his time as a slave, and his oratory skills helped Douglass achieve prominence. He eventually published his story in the well-known book Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave and started his own abolitionist newspaper, North Star, after he split from Garrison’s brand of abolitionism due to political and tactical differences. According to the Civil War Trust, Douglass had become “the most prominent black man in the United States” when the Civil War began.
7. Douglass was initially skeptical of Abraham Lincoln but eventually became a strong defender and admirer of Lincoln. Douglass had thrown his support behind William Seward in the 1860 Republican presidential primary, and then supported Lincoln in the general election due to his disgust at Democratic presidential nominee Stephen Douglas. Douglass at first was concerned that Lincoln was too timid when it came to ending slavery, but was reassured that Lincoln was methodically and pragmatically working toward emancipation and was impressed by Lincoln’s demeanor.
Here’s what Douglass had to say about Lincoln in his memoirs:
“I have often said elsewhere what I wish to repeat here, that Mr. Lincoln was not only a great president, but a great man – too great to be small in anything. In his company I was never in any way reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular color. While I am, as it may seem, bragging of the kind consideration which I have reason to believe that Mr. Lincoln entertained towards me, I may mention one thing more. At the door of my friend John A. Gray, where I was stopping in Washington, I found one afternoon the carriage of Secretary Dole, and a messenger from President Lincoln with an invitation for me to take tea with him at the Soldiers Home, where he then passed his nights, riding out after the business of the day was over at the Executive Mansion. Unfortunately I had an engagement to speak that evening, and having made it one of the rules of my conduct in life never to break an engagement if possible to keep it, I felt obliged to decline the honor. I have often regretted that I did not make this an exception to my general rule. Could I have known that no such opportunity could come to me again, I should have justified myself in disappointing a large audience for the sake of such a visit with Abraham Lincoln.”
In speeches, Douglass referred to Lincoln as “the best man, truest patriot, and wisest statesman of his time and country” and “the greatest statesman that ever presided over the destinies of this Republic.”
8. After the Civil War, Douglass was an ardent proponent of achieving equality under the law for blacks until he died in 1895. Douglass knew that emancipation was only the first step in achieving equality, so his focus was on voting rights for blacks. He served in various government positions in Washington D.C. and even received a vote for president at the Republican National Convention in 1888, the first black man to ever have that distinction. Douglass himself was a lifelong supporter of the Republican Party; he detested the Democrat Party’s affinity for slavery.
9. Douglass was a firm believer in the Constitution and that hard work is the key to success. One of the reasons for the split between Douglass and Garrison was their view of the Constitution. Garrison viewed it as an endorsement of slavery; Douglass viewed it as the vehicle in which to end it. In fact, Douglass hailed the Constitution as “a glorious liberty document.”
- “We may explain success mainly by one word and that word is WORK! WORK!! WORK!!! WORK!!!! Not transient and fitful effort, but patient, enduring, honest, unremitting, and indefatigable work, into which the whole heart is put.”
- “The non-producers now receive the larger share of what those who labor produce. The result is natural. Discontent culminates in exactly the same ratio that intelligence sustains aspiration.”
- “I have no sympathy for the narrow, selfish notion of economy which assumes that every crumb of bread which goes into the mouth of one class is so much taken from the mouths of another class.”
Douglass was a true proponent of freedom and individual liberty; an admirable and important figure in American history who needs to be recognized as a household name.
Follow Aaron Bandler on Twitter @bandlersbanter.