Frederick Douglass – Influential Abolitionist

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Frederick Douglass’s writings reflected many American views that were influencedby national division. Douglass was a very successful abolitionist who changed America’sviews of slavery through his writings and actions. Frederick Douglass had manyachievements throughout his life. Douglass was born a slave in 1817, in Maryland. Heeducated himself and became determined to escape the atrocities of slavery. Douglassattempted to escape slavery once, but failed. He later made a successful escape in 1838. His fleeing brought him to New Bedford, Massachusetts. Douglass’s abolitionist careerbegan at an antislavery convention at Nantucket, Massachusetts. Here, he showed himselfto be a great speaker. Douglass became involved with many important abolitionist causes,both through his literary works, and also through activities such as the UndergroundRailroad, and also his role in organizing a regiment of former slaves to fight in the CivilWar for the Union army.Due to the Fugitive Slave Laws, Douglass became in danger ofbeing captured and returned to slavery. He left America, and stayed in the British Isles. There he lectured on slavery, and gained the respect of many people, who raised money topurchase his freedom. In 1847, Douglass relocated to Rochester, New York, and becamethe person in charge of the Underground Railroad. Here he also began the abolitionistnewspaper North Star, which he edited until 1860.

In this time period, Douglass became friends with another well known Americanabolitionist, John Brown. Brown was involved with the Underground Railroad, and laterwanted Douglass to join him on terroristic attacks on a United States government arsenalat Harper’s Ferry. Douglass declined to participate in such activities. He fled, once again,to Europe, fearing that his association with John Brown might threaten him. He returnedafter several months, and aided in Abraham Lincoln’s campaign for president. FrederickDouglass had many other achievements, mainly political, before dying in 1895, inWashington, D. C.

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Frederick Douglass’s life as a slave had the greatest impact on his writings.

Through slavery, Douglass was able to develop the necessary emotion and experiences forhim to become a successful abolitionist writer. Douglass grew up as a slave, experiencingall of the hardships that are included, such as whippings, inadequate meals, and other harshtreatment. His thirst for freedom, and his burning hatred of slavery caused him to writeNarrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, and other similar biographies. In NarrativeOf The Life Of Frederick Douglass, Douglass wrote the complete story of his miserablelife as a slave and his strife to obtain freedom. The main motivational force behind hischaracter (himself) was to make it through another day so that someday he might seefreedom. The well written books that he produced were all based on his life as wasNarrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass. These books all start with Douglasscoping with slavery. Frederick Douglass also had a reason to write these works. As adie-hard abolitionist, Douglass wanted to show the world how bad slavery really was. Hedid this very well, because he made many people understand the unknown, and madeabolitionists out of many people. This man had a cause, as well as a story to tell. Douglass, as a former slave, single-handedly redefined American Civil War literature,simply by redefining how antislavery writings were viewed. There were other narrativeswritten by former slaves, but none could live up to the educated, realistic accounts ofslavery by Frederick Douglass.

Frederick Douglass is well known for many of his literary achievements. He is bestknown, now, as a writer. As a writer, Frederick Douglass shined. As a speaker, FrederickDouglass was the best. There was no abolitionist, black or white, that was more respectedfor his speaking skills. So impressive were Frederick Douglass’s oratorical and intellectual abilities that opponents refused to believe that he had been a slave and alleged that hewas an impostor foistered on the public by the abolitionists. In reply, Douglass wrote Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, An AmericanSlave (1845) , which he revised in later years; in final form, it appeared in 1882 under the title Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Quarles,Benjamin, Microsoft Encarta).

One must not overlook Frederick Douglass’s oratory skills when looking at hisliterary career; however, it is Douglass’s form which left the largest impact on Civil Wartime period literature. Douglass’s most significant autobiographical works include:Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave; My Bondage And MyFreedom; and Life And Times Of Frederick Douglass. These three books are about thesame person, and share a similar message, but are written by Frederick Douglass atdifferent times of his life, looking at the past in different ways.

In Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, Douglass uses a simple, yeteducated approach to show how he felt as a slave growing up in Maryland. Douglass’sNarrative was known as being a brief, descriptive, and easy to read piece of literature. Itshowed the hardships of slavery as seen by a real slave. Douglass became educatedthrough his own means. Knowledge was truly a blessing for Frederick Douglass. Withoutknowledge, Douglass never would have achieved freedom. With knowledge, Douglassrealized the importance of freedom. This gave him his desire and a goal, but most of all,hope. Without knowledge, Frederick Douglass would never have been the man he waswhen he was free. He could express the problems and the solutions of slavery in aconvincing, educated manner. This made him more than a cheap source of labor in theNorth. Knowledge also was a blessing in that it gave his mind a challenge that the burdensof everyday slavery could not give. Learning to read and write was a challenge simplybecause the resources were not there. He used wit and good natured cunning to tricklocal school boys into teaching him the alphabet. If he had never sought knowledge, hewould never been able to write any of his autobiographies which live on even today asimportant accounts of slavery. Also, without knowledge, Frederick Douglass would nothave become an American legend like he is today. Christianity also played an important role in Frederick Douglass’s life, as well as hisautobiography. Douglass had conflicting feelings about slavery and Christianity as seen inNarrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Frederick Douglassbelieved in God and was a Christian himself. He saw the Christianity of his white mastersto be a crude mockery of the real thing. At first, Douglass believed that a master whofound religion became more humane. When he actually witnessed his master after hebecame religious, he found him very much more cruel than before. Douglass states, “afterhis conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty.” (pg.187) Frederick Douglass’s Narrative is perhaps his best known, as well as, mostpopular work. After writing Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave in1845, Douglass wrote another biography, My Bondage And My Freedom in 1855. Thisautobiography featured quite a bit more content than the concise Narrative Of The Life OfFrederick Douglass. My Bondage And My Freedom is a look at slavery from Douglass,both more mature as a person, and as a writer. Also, he reflects on his life as a slave inmore detail. My Bondage And My Freedom also gives readers an update to Narrative thatincludes Douglass’s life as a free man. In 1881, Life And Times Of Frederick Douglass was published. This wasDouglass’s final autobiography with the exception of a larger edition that was issued in1892. It is the life and the times, as the title suggests, of Douglass’s entire life. This bookwas less popular with the public than the previous two. Many people found it to be thesame material as the other two, and less enjoyable to read. “Its time had passed-or sothought the public, which did not buy it” (McFeely 311). This book included FrederickDouglass’s life as a slave, as well as a free man, well known speaker, and respecteddiplomat. At the time period it was written, after emancipation, the public was in lessneed for abolitionist propaganda.

But the book’s real message—which few people received—was that thestory of slavery should not be purged from the nation’s memory.WhiteAmerica wanted to hear no more of the subject; emancipation had beentaken care of.Many black Americans, reacting to this weariness, hadbecome almost apologetic about their slave past (McFeely 311).

Frederick Douglass also had another abolitionist publication, North Star. Ratherthan a book, North Star was an abolitionist newspaper. Douglass edited the antislaverynewspaper for sixteen years. North Star’s name later was changed to Frederick Douglass’Paper. The paper, after the abolition of slavery, became less important and eventuallyceased to be published.

Frederick Douglass played a major role in the redefinition of American literature inthe Civil War time period. Abolitionism was a very important thing in many people’s lives,and not only ex-slaves. But, with Douglass having been a slave, he had a very goodreason to fight for the abolitionist movement. In the South, abolitionists were as commonas snow, and did not affect the literature or lifestyles of those people very much. In theNorth; however, abolitionism was more of a standard practice. After all, the north waswhere slaves dreamed to escape to. Plantation style farming was not economicallyimportant in the north. This made slavery in northern states obsolete. The southernstates, though needed inexpensive labor, therefore slavery was a way of life. Thesedifferences caused for political strife (and eventually a war). Where there is politicalconflict, there is also political propaganda, and other related literature. The antislaverycampaign was a popular subject for successful writers of this time period. Harriet BeecherStowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was perhaps the most popular book of the time period. UncleTom’s Cabin had a strong antislavery message, and it showed slavery as a very abusivething. It is also believed that Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin played a very important role intriggering the Civil War. Frederick Douglass, being an abolitionist writer, had much incommon with Stowe. Both were important to American literature and its redefinitionduring the Civil War time period as influenced by national division.

Frederick Douglass was possibly the best black speaker and writer ever. Hissuccess came from his fight against slavery. Being a former slave, Douglass had muchreason to participate in the antislavery movement. Douglass wrote three significantautobiographies that helped define the way literature developed during the Civil War timeperiod. These three autobiographies: Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, AnAmerican Slave; My Bondage And My Freedom; and Life And Times Of FrederickDouglass, are the works that are seen to express a nation’s discontent for the treatment ofAfrican slaves in the south. These works document the rise of a slave to a free man, to arespected speaker, to a famous writer and politician. These works do not stand alone,though. Frederick Douglass also was famous for his abolitionist speeches. Douglass alsosuccessfully published an abolitionist newsletter, The North Star. All of Douglass’sachievements combined with his great literature combined to redefine the writing of thetime. After reading any of his works, one might realize just how important FrederickDouglass was to the abolitionist movement. Douglass changed many people’s lives, andhelped to earn the respect of African Americans today. Frederick Douglass’s writingsreflected many American views that were influenced by national division. BIBLIOGRAPHYAptheker, Herbert. Abolitionism A Revolutionary Movement. Boston: TwaynePublishers, 1989.

Bontemps, Arna. 100 Years Of Negro Freedom. Westport, Connecticut: GreenwoodPress, Publishers, 1980.

McFeeley, William. Frederick Douglass. New York: W.W. Norton ; Company, 1991.

Category: English

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