Frederick Douglass Biography: Frederick Douglass’s Biography Inspires Today

Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) was a prominent American abolitionist, author, and orator who escaped slavery and became a leader in the abolition movement in the 19th century. He was known for his dazzling oratory skills and insightful memoirs and speeches, which helped fuel the abolitionist cause and fight for equal rights.

Early Life

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born into slavery on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in February 1818. Although the exact date of his birth is unknown, it’s estimated that he was born on February 14th.

His mother was Harriet Bailey, who was a slave. His father is speculated to have been Aaron Anthony, a white man, but his identity isn’t confirmed. Douglass was separated from his mother shortly after birth, which was a common practice in slavery at the time. He lived with his maternal grandmother Betty Bailey for a few years.

At age 6, he was sent to work on the Wye House plantation farm. Here he witnessed horrendous cruelty to slaves by the overseers and slave owners. In his autobiography, he recounts being whipped daily and barely having enough clothes and food to survive.

This brutal treatment and dire living conditions were formative experiences in Douglass’ life that fueled his passion for equality and freedom later on.

Life As a Slave

When Douglass was 8 years old, he was sent to Hugh Auld and his wife Sophia in Baltimore, Maryland. Sophia defied state law by teaching Douglass the alphabet despite slave codes preventing slaves from learning to read and write. However, when Hugh discovered her doing this, he immediately forbade her from continuing, saying that education would ruin slaves and make them unsatisfied and unmanageable.

This was a pivotal moment for Douglass – he realized the link between illiteracy, subservience, and oppression. He continued to teach himself in secret how to read and write by tricking local white children into helping him. He would use clever ways to gain information about abolition from the New Bedford Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society members he was serving at dinners. He also met slaves who introduced him to the written word including religious texts.

Table 1 shows a timeline of key events in Frederick Douglass’s enslaved life:

Year Age Event
1818 Birth Born into slavery as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey near Easton, Maryland
1824 6 Sent to work on Wye House plantation farm and experiences extreme cruelty
1826 8 Sent to Hugh and Sophia Auld in Baltimore, Sophia begins teaching him alphabet
1828 10 Hugh forbids Sophia from teaching Frederick to read and write
Early 1830s Teenager Self-educates in secret through trickery and cleverness

Even under the oppression of slavery, Douglass was determined to gain literacy skills and information – the foundations that allowed him to escape and become a prominent leader.

Escape From Slavery

On September 3, 1838, a 20-year old Douglass successfully escaped from slavery by impersonating a sailor and taking a train to the safe house of abolitionist David Ruggles in New York. He had attempted to escape twice before but was unsuccessful.

Anna Murray, a free black woman who he was engaged to, provided part of her savings and her sailor clothing to support his escape. She later joined him in New York and married him on September 15, 1838.

To evade slave catchers, Frederick and Anna moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts and settled among its large free black community. They adopted Douglass as their last name after reading “The Lady of the Lake” which features a character named Frederick Douglass. He began attending meetings at the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church where he met abolitionists who encouraged him to share his story publicly as a runaway slave.

Table 2 shows a timeline of Frederick Douglass’s escape from slavery and early abolitionist activities:

Date Event
September 3, 1838 Escapes slavery dressed as a sailor, takes train to New York
September 15, 1838 Marries Anna Murray in New York
1838 Settles with Anna in New Bedford, MA and joins African Methodist Episcopal Zion church
1839 Speaks at anti-slavery convention in Nantucket, becomes employed as abolitionist lecturer
1841 Gains legal freedom after supporters purchase manumission from Hugh Auld
1845 Publishes first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Gaining his freedom opened up opportunities for Douglass to leverage his gifted speaking and writing talents in the fight against slavery.

Abolitionist Leader

After Douglass shared his powerful first-hand story of slavery at an 1839 anti-slavery convention in Nantucket, Massachusetts, he became employed as a lecturer by the state’s anti-slavery society. This launched his career over the next 23 years speaking tirelessly across the Northern United States, eloquently describing the horrors of slavery and injustice.

Douglass published his first critically acclaimed autobiography in 1845, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. It shocked readers with its blunt depiction of slavery’s atrocities. The eloquent work became an influential tool for abolitionists. However, slave catchers began disrupting his speaking engagements so Douglass fled with his family to Ireland and Britain in 1845 for safety.

Overseas he was treated as an equal and celebrated speaker, even befriending Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell who made stirring speeches supporting emancipation. Douglass stayed for 2 years lecturing widely against slavery, eventually raising enough funds to purchase his legal freedom from Hugh Auld back in America.

Returning to the U.S in 1847, Douglass began publishing his own weekly abolitionist newsletter the North Star in Rochester, NY. He resided in Rochester for 25 years. The paper provided important commentary supporting emancipation leading up to and during the American Civil War.

Table 3 summarizes key details about Douglass’s abolitionist leadership activities:

Years Key Abolitionist Activities
1839 – 1841 Becomes anti-slavery lecturer across Northern U.S, publishes acclaimed autobiography (1845)
1845 – 1847 Stays in Ireland/Britain lecturing, befriends Daniel O’Connell, raises funds to buy legal freedom
1847 – 1868 Publishes newspaper The North Star, resides and speaks widely from Rochester, NY
1850s – 1860s Key leader of the abolition movement supporting Underground Railroad and recruiting black Union soliders
Post-Civil War Continues fighting for suffrage and civil rights for freed slaves until his death


Frederick Douglass lived an extraordinary life rising up from the oppressive bonds of slavery to become a prominent leader in the abolitionist movement and fight for civil rights. His early experiences being abused under the cruelty of slavery fueled his life-long passion for justice and equality.

Douglass was gifted with exceptional skills in oratory and writing which he leveraged powerfully to shed light on slavery’s appalling practices. His lectures transfixed audiences and helped galvanize public opinion against slavery. He put himself at great risk to publish truthful accounts that lifted the veil on the horrors slaves endured.

For over 50 years, Douglass dedicated himself to impactful abolitionist activities including working on the Underground Railroad, recruiting black regiments for the Union army, and advising President Lincoln and President Grant on emancipation and racial equality policies.

The night he died, Douglass stood up at a women’s rights meeting and said “I have given more than fifty years of my life for these causes”. Right up until the end, his commitment to advancing freedom and rights never ceased. His life’s work played a major role in the fight for abolition and equality in America. Douglass left an enduring legacy as one of history’s most prominent civil liberties champions.

Frequently Asked Questions About Frederick Douglass

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about Frederick Douglass:

Where was Frederick Douglass born?

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery around February 1818 on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. His exact birthplace isn’t known, but historians believe it was at Holme Hill Farm near Easton.

How did Frederick Douglass learn to read and write?

As a young slave in Baltimore around 1826, his mistress Sophia Auld began teaching him the alphabet despite this being against slave codes. When her husband Hugh found out and forbid her from continuing, Frederick tricked local white children into giving him reading lessons and secretly taught himself to read and write through any means possible.

How and when did Frederick Douglass escape from slavery?

On September 3, 1838 a 20-year old Douglass escaped slavery by boarding a train to the safe house of a New York abolitionist while dressed in a sailor uniform provided by his fiancé Anna Murray, a free black woman. Anna also provided some savings to support his escape. They married less than two weeks later.

What anti-slavery activities was Frederick Douglass involved in?

Douglass was involved in many impactful anti-slavery activities. He lectured extensively for state abolition societies from 1839 to 1841 before publishing his acclaimed autobiography detailing slavery horrors.

He aided escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad, recruited black soldiers for the Union Army during the Civil War, advised President Lincoln on emancipation policies, and continued advocating for civil rights until his death as one of history’s most prominent freedom champions.

When did Frederick Douglass die?

On February 20, 1895, Frederick Douglass died suddenly of a heart attack or stroke at age 77. He had attended a women’s rights meeting, stood up and said some words in praise of the movement just before his death. He was buried in Rochester, NY but his body was later moved to Washington DC where a memorial still honors him today.