Acton Institute Powerblog

5 Facts about Frederick Douglass

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February 14 is the chosen birthday of Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), one of America’s greatest champions of individual liberty. Here are five facts you should know about this writer, orator, statesman, and abolitionist:

Portrait of Frederick Douglass / Public domain

1. Douglas was born into slavery in Maryland circa 1818. (Like many slaves, he never knew his actual date of birth and so chose February 14 as his birthday.) He was given the name Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey but decided to change it when he became a free man. Although he was set on keeping his first name “Frederick”, he asked his friend Nathan Johnson to help him choose a last name. Johnson had been reading Sir Walter Scott’s narrative poem, Lady of the Lake, and recommended the name of a main character: Douglass.

2. In his youth, Douglass taught himself to read, aided by scraps of reading material he found and with the help of some white children he came into contact with in his neighborhood. Soon after, while hired out to a Maryland farmer, he surreptitiously taught other slaves to read the New Testament at a weekly Sunday school. It was during these meeting that he plotted his first escape attempt, for reading and writing sparked a desire for freedom. “Once you learn to read,” he would later write, “you will be forever free.” In 1845 he wrote about his life of bondage in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. The book became an instant bestseller and the preeminent example of the literary genre known as slave narrative.

3. After escaping to the North, Douglass settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts where he became a preacher in an African Methodist Episcopal Zion church. Honed in the pulpit, his oratorical skills would make him one of the most sought after abolitionist speakers of his day. Douglass was associated with a school of the antislavery movement that believed slavery should be ended through moral persuasion, and he attempted to use his writings and speaking events to educate slaveholders and Southerners about the evils of slavery.

4. Douglass spent nearly two years traveling in Great Britain speaking for the abolitionist cause. He was even encouraged to settle in England because his fame made it risky for him to return to the U.S., where federal law gave his slavemaster the right to seize Douglass. Two of his English friends, however, raised $710.96 to buy his freedom. At the age of 28, Douglass finally became a free man.

5. Even before the Civil War brought an end to the American slavery, Douglass became active in the women’s suffrage movement. He became so famous within the women’s rights movement that in 1872 he was nominated for Vice President of the United States at the Equal Rights Party convention. Although he declined the nomination and refused to campaign, he became the first African American to be listed on a presidential election ballot. In 1888, he also received one vote from the Kentucky Delegation at the Republican Convention in Chicago, making him the first African American nominated to be a U.S. presidential candidate for a major political party (he had also received a single vote to be a U.S. presidential candidate during the National Liberty Party Convention in 1848).

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

Comments

  • BoomerJAZZ78

    Black people today, can take a lesson from Douglass and advance themselves mightily by choosing to learn to read. It offers a way to leave the “plantation.”

    I grew up in the ghetto, knew the grandparents of many of my black friends, saw the breakup of the two-parent black family, firsthand, by civil rights legislation including affirmative action. Don’t give me any racist bullshit…I am immune…I don’t care what you think. I know what I have witnessed.

    Black people have a fabulous opportunity to help themselves, which ends up being the only way. I’m talking about ordinary black persons, not gifted athletes who are some of the worst. Ordinary black citizens can lift themselves up and overcome.

    One example: read a lot. Read the Book of Proverbs (1 chapter every day). Read books about Buffett. Read books about real estate. Read books about trusts.

    Save a little bit of money each week, open a broker account with as little as $1,000, open the cabinet under the kitchen sink or the medicine cabinet in the bathroom and read the labels on the products there. Then buy shares of stock in those companies, and never sell them.

    Next, buy a life insurance policy which has the highest premium per 1,000, and never let it lapse.