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Frederick Douglass


Until the end of his life, Douglass was known as an accomplished and persuasive orator for the cause. He interest in educating himself gave him the ability to have the knowledge to debate causes, and his rhythm in his speech style gave him the authority and attention to grab his audience. Much of this skill came from his church education, where the cadence of preachers rubbed off on the eager learner. He was adamant that he would not sound “darkie” and uneducated when he spoke. His revivalist style would draw in his audience and bring them to their feet or to tears. The abolitionist movement had their superstar in Frederick Douglass. The suffrage movement would also reap the benefits of his oratory, as he found the struggles of women to be just as injustice of those of slaves. In the truest sense of the word, Douglass was one of the earliest proponents of civil rights for all individuals in the United States. His voice was crucial in the enactment of social change.


In the midst of his abolitionist undertakings, Douglass penned his definitive account of slavery in his autobiographer, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Published in May of 1845, the book was a first hand account of the injustices suffered by a slave. Within three years, it had sold more than 11,000 copies in the United States, an extraordinary amount for its time, and went through nine editions in Great Britain. It was even translated into German and French, where it made an even bigger impact in Europe. As Margaret Fuller, a noted feminist, wrote of the book: “Considered merely as a narrative, we never read one more simple, true, coherent and warm with genuine feeling. It is an excellent piece of writing, and on that score to be prized as a specimen of the powers of the black race, which prejudice persists in disputing.” (p. 41) In August of 1855, Douglass would publish a second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom. In 1881, his final account of his life was published under the title, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. All three books were popular for their content and are still published today for their importance in the understanding of a time in American history when racial injustice was accepted.

Newspaper Editor

The need to make information about the social injustices more apparent to the populace convinced Douglass to start a newspaper of his own. Who better to be the voice of cruelty of slavery than one who had experienced it firsthand? In 1847 Douglass and his wife were living in Lynn, Massachusetts. Douglass made the decision to publish his newspaper in a location further away from the established abolitionist territory. He settled on Rochester, New York, a location that had been impacted by the revivalist fervor that had swept through in the early 19th century. It was an up and coming area for new thought and ideals concerning abolition and women’s rights. By being an editor of his own newspaper, he could become a principal in the movement for change, not just an agent. He and his family settled into a home near the Highland Park area of Rochester and started his weekly newspaper known as the North Star. He was given financial assistance to begin this endeavor by the British, whom he was popular with. He knew he needed to address the issues of slavery in the south and Jim Crow in the north. The newspaper would also tackle issues of race, class and gender. He believed that rights of the individual were not based on one’s orientation but were equal to all individuals.

William Lloyd Garrison, his former compatriot, was not happy with Douglass’ competing newspaper. Garrison felt that Douglass was usurping his place in the abolitionist movement. But the reality was, both men took a different viewpoint on how emancipation would come about. Garrison’s belief was that the Constitution was used as a vehicle to justify slavery in the country and that it was imperative that morality be utilized to enact the change necessary to end slavery. Douglass had a very different belief in ending the institution of slavery. He believed that the Constitution should be used as a document verifying the illegality of slavery by showing that America was false in its past, present and future stands on the subject. He also believed that only by violent tactics would slavery be forced to end. Finally, it was his belief that this change could only happen if blacks came to the forefront to take control of their own destiny. It must the black race and not the white abolitionists who enact this change.

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