Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) was one of the most notable social reformers in American history. He was an escaped slave who became a leader in speaking against slavery and fighting for African American rights. He believed deeply in the ideas of individual freedom.
Frederick was born in Maryland with the name Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. Although enslaved since birth, at age eight he began educating himself with the help of his master’s wife.
At age twenty, Frederick fled from his master and went to Massachusetts, and changed his name to Frederick Douglass to avoid being caught. He had difficulty finding a good job due to his race.
Anti-Slavery Activist and Journalist
In the early 1840s, Frederick began speaking and protesting against slavery and discrimination. In one of his protests, he sat in a train car reserved for white passengers, and was pulled out by force. That protest foreshadowed similar protests that occurred over a century later in the American civil rights movement.
By 1845, Frederick published his autobiography, and moved to England to avoid being discovered as a runaway slave due to his book. While there, he continued his anti-slavery efforts, and was also able to raise enough money from friends to buy his freedom in the US.
He went back to the US in 1847, and started an antislavery newspaper called The North Star, based in Rochester, New York. His home was also part of the Underground Railroad—a secret organization that helped runaway slaves escape to freedom.
In the early 1860s, Frederick helped recruit African Americans to fight for the Union Army during the Civil War. He also corresponded many times with President Abraham Lincoln.
In the 1880s, Frederick was a recorder of deeds in the District of Columbia, and later became the US minister to Haiti. In 1855 and 1881, he wrote expanded versions of his autobiography, the last of which was titled Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.
Frederick Douglass Quotes
I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false and to incur my own abhorrence.
We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.
Man’s greatness consists in his ability to do and the proper application of his powers to things needed to be done.
Find out just what the people will submit to and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them.
Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will.
I know no class of my fellowmen, however just, enlightened, and humane, which can be wisely and safely trusted absolutely with the liberties of any other class.
To educate a man is to unfit him to be a slave.
To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.
Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants. It is the right which they first of all strike down.
[On escaping slavery:]I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.
Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men… For the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory...
...Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us [African Americans]? …
I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us: I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary. Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common…
This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, is inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today? …
Fellow citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions, whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, today, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them… To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking…
My subject, then, fellow citizens, is American slavery. I shall see this day and its popular characteristics from the slave’s point of view… Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting…
…[I will] dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery, the great sin and shame of America! …
The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.
To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.
There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour…
...Allow me to say, in conclusion; notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery…
While drawing encouragement from The Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.
Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done.
Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness.
But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has born away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth. Wind, steam, and lightning are its chartered agents. Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together.
From Boston to London is now a holiday excursion. Space is comparatively annihilated. Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic are distinctly heard on the other. The far off and almost fabulous Pacific rolls in grandeur at our feet. The Celestial Empire, the mystery of ages, is being solved…
No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light.