American Slavery


American Slavery Essay, Research Paper

Frederick Douglass: “No Progress without Struggle”


Frederick Douglass made it his life?s work to champion the rights of blacks by speaking and writing about his first hand experiences with slavery. Even after slavery was abolished, Douglass continued to fight for blacks? rights. Throughout this struggle, Douglass?s ideas about the relationship between blacks and whites evolved. When he was fighting for the abolition of slavery, he was very radical in the way he spoke and in the measures he took to get the slaves freed. After the Civil War, when the slaves were emancipated, Douglass felt that America had made the first step to progress, but soon after, he realized that the racism already instilled in Americans was too strong to challenge. By the end of his life, though, Douglass again sought to achieve racial integration.

Frederick Douglass?s Influential Background:

Frederick Douglass was a prominent figure in the abolitionist movement, yet before his fame and success, he experienced many trials and tribulations. Born as a slave in Maryland around 1817 (the date is not known), he made two attempts to run away from his master. On January 1, 1836, he vowed to make his first attempt to run-away before the end of the year. When the day came, Douglass and his fellow conspirators were rounded up because one of the people changed their mind and revealed their plan to the master. Douglass himself explains, “If my mother- then long in her grave- had appeared before me and told me that we were betrayed, I could not at the moment have felt more certain of the fact. (1) As the leader, Douglass was chained and put into jail. The second time, in 1838, he had $17 (some from his fianc?e), borrowed “protection”, and boarded a train going North until he reached New York. (2) Once he arrived in New York, he was advised to go to Massachusetts to find employment because his trade was as a calker, and may ships for whaling voyages were fitted there. Yet when he arrived, no one would employ him because of his color, and he was forced to take a number of odd jobs. (3)

While in Massachusetts in 1839, Douglass became interested in the abolitionist movement. He was a regular reader of William Lloyd Garrison?s Liberator, was a member of the Negro-controlled Zion Methodist church, and attended Negro abolitionist meetings. When hearing Garrison speak for the first time, Douglass said, “no face and form ever impressed me with such sentiments [the hatred of slavery] as did those of William Lloyd Garrison.” (4) Douglass began to work with Garrison, his mentor, and soon he wrote his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written By Himself. Three years later, in 1842, he published his own weekly newspaper, The North Star. Because of the admiration Douglass had for Garrison and his oratorical skill, and because of the genuine hatred he have for the slavery institution, Douglass decided to dedicate his life to champion the rights of black Americans.

Douglass?s effect on the abolitionist movement had a great deal to do with his first-hand experience of slavery. He was everything that the abolition movement needed in a new leader. Levi Coffin, a prominent Quaker abolitionist, introduced him to one crowd as ” a graduate of the peculiar institution, with [his] diploma written on [his] back.” (5) People would listen to him in awe that he was actually a slave being so well spoken and educated. The effect Douglass had on people was remarkable. His physical build, his voice, and his style were all important when he preached his message. As historian Benjamin Quarles writes:

In truth, he was an imposing figure. Six feet tall, broad-shouldered, his hair worn long, as was the custom, and neatly parted to the side, his eyes deep-set and steady, nose well formed, lips full, and skin bronze-colored, he looked like someone destined for the platform or pulpit. A face most likely not to be forgotten was not his only asset. His voice struck the ear pleasantly, and as he gained experience, he capitalized on it to the full. Melodious and strong, it varied in speech and pitch according to its use to convey wit, sarcasm, argument, or invective.(6)

The effect Douglass had over people was exceptional, and the style in which he spoke was captivating. He was destined to be a great leader.

Pre-Civil War:

Before the Civil War, Frederick Douglass radically attacked several aspects of the institution of slavery in America. He spoke of the hypocrisy of the government, the contradictions of Northerners, and relationships between blacks and whites. In these denunciations, Douglass pointed out exactly where American society needed to change before any progress could be made toward his goal of racial integration.

One of Douglass?s main targets when criticizing the government was the Constitution, for the document defines the way the country would be run. Because Douglass went to Europe, he was able to enjoy the freedom and respect that people should have for their fellow citizens. While in Europe he learned more and more how the American Constitution was hypocritical, and how all citizens should be treated with the same amount of respect. Douglass frankly denounces the Constitution?s hypocrisy, stating:

The fact is, the whole system- the whole network of American Society- is one great falsehood. Americans have become dishonest men from the very circumstances by which they are surrounded. Seventy years ago they went to the battle field in defense of liberty. Sixty years ago, they formed a Constitution, over the very gateway of which they inscribed, ‘To secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity!’? they make the loudest and clearest assertions of the rights of man; at the very same time, the men who draw up the Declaration of Independence- the very men who framed the American Constitution- the very men who adopted that Constitution- were trafficking in the bodies and souls of their fellow-men.(7)

If Americans knew the feeling of oppression and confinement, Douglass asked, how could they keep another people enslaved?

Douglass scrutinized the Constitution to show how it legalized slavery, making racial equality difficult to achieve. He began with the first clause of the Constitution: “[The President of the United States] shall, at all times, and in all cases, call out the army and navy to suppress domestic insurrections”. (8) Douglass later denounced the government?s role in slavery, arguing that “every man who casts a ball in the American ballot, becomes that very man who raise his hand in support of the American Constitution. This clause of the Constitution converts every American into an enemy of the black man in that land”.(9) It was clauses like this, Douglass argued, that slowed the emancipation process and prohibited racial coexistence. He felt that the Constitution on the whole was a pro-slavery document, but “can be wielded on behalf of emancipation”, especially where the federal government had exclusive jurisdiction.(10)

The Judiciary:

Douglass showed his radicalism, especially, when he attacked the Dred Scott Decision in 1857. He condemned the Supreme Court for such a decision and advised the anti-slavery movement to continue, for no one, he argued, had the power to interfere with the fate of the black race. He roared:

We are now told? that the day is lost-all lost- and that we might as well give up the struggle. The highest authority has spoken. The voice of the Supreme Court has gone out over the troublesome waves of the National Conscience?[but] my hopes were never brighter than now. I have no fear that the National Conscience would be put to sleep by such an open, glaring, and scandalous tissue of lies? He [Judge Taney] cannot bale out the ocean, annihilate the firm old earth, or pluck the silvery star of liberty from our Northern sky.(11)

In this oration, Douglass encouraged the people to continue to fight for what they believed. He assured them that there was no power that could keep a whole race down if it fought hard enough. In this speech, Douglass was to be at his prime as an abolitionist, willing to employ all measures to employ all impediments to the abolitionist movement.

Contradiction of the Northerners:

Douglass?s interpretations of the Constitution clearly showed his more radical side during the antebellum period. For example, the Constitution states, “No person held to service or labor, in any state under the law thereof, if taken into another shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be released from such service or labor; but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor should be due”. (12) The definition Douglass gave for this clause was telling for in it meant exactly what he said. He remarks:

It means that if any slave shall in the darkness of midnight, thinking himself a man, and entitled to the rights of a man, steal away from the hovel or quarter, shall snap the chain that binds his leg, shall break the fetter that links him to slavery, and seek a refuge from a democracy?on his way from a land of slavery to one of freedom, shall be liable to be hunted down like a felon and dragged back to the bondage from which he has escaped.(13)

These clauses, according to Douglass, made it impossible for the black Americans to rebel. Though many Americans claimed to be anti-slavery, Douglass argued, they were not, for they were not fighting to protect the black Americans but instead defended themselves. By obeying clauses as these, Douglass argued, people were supporting slavery.

When Douglass argued for the abolition of slavery, he sought to determine what hindered the abolitionist movement itself. Therefore, he turned next to identify those who claimed to help but really hurt the movement. Many people claimed to be anti-slavery or abolitionist, but many of those same people contradicted what they said by their actions. Douglass accused most Northerners of hypocrisy and contradiction, noting of their “proper” attitude toward the Fugitive Slave Act:

We are sincerely opposed to slavery, but if any of your slaves venture to run away from you and come among us, we will return them to you, and while you can make them believe that, of course they will not run away. Besides if your slaves attempt to gain their freedom by force, we will bring down upon them the whole civil, military, and naval force of the nation, and crush them into obedience. Tell them that we will do so, and we will give them every evidence that we will, by our votes in Congress, by our religious assemblies, by our deadly hate, by our fierce prejudice against the colored man; if he dares to attempt to gain freedom, we will kill him. Yet let it be understood that we hate slavery.(14)

Although Douglass?s sarcasm is evident, this was exactly what the Northerners did. They did not want any black neighbors, co-workers, or soldiers. Instead they simply wanted slavery to end, surrendering to other laws if necessary. This, Douglass knew, was another problem that hindered African-Americans from obtaining freedom.

Relationship Between Blacks and Whites:

Frederick Douglass initially believed that the only aspect that separated whites and blacks was the freedom that blacks never experienced. To him, what made whites “superior to” blacks was the rights whites and white society chose to give themselves but forbade blacks. Douglass expressed these feelings in his Fourth of July address to the nation in 1852:

I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us?The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, and sheered by you, not by me? This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn? 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 a constant victim.(15)

In this speech, Douglass told the nation why there was so much tension between the two races: whites celebrated universal while blacks were still oppressed, partially by federal law. Whites constantly reminding blacks about universal human rights, while still keeping them in bondage, created even more tension between the races.

The Civil War and Its Aftermath (1861-1867):

During the war through the beginning of the Reconstruction period, Douglass was optimistic about the racial progress of the country. Throughout the War, Douglass argued that the conflict should be a fight against slavery, so he became an aid to President Lincoln. When Lincoln finally emancipated the slaves, Douglass rejoiced. In a speech dedicated to Lincoln, Douglass said, “For the first time in the history of our people, and in the history of the whole American people, we join in this high worship, and march conspicuously in the line of this time-honored custom”. (16) This was a great moment in Douglass?s life, but he felt that his work was unfinished.

Even before, the slaves were emancipated, Douglass sense his chance to make his dream of the coexistence of the two races come true. Douglass soon realized, however, that people?s attitude towards black citizens were negative. Douglass, in turn, started to speak about egalitarianism. In one of his editions of The North Star, Douglass wrote:

Everything against the person with the hated color is promptly taken for granted; while everything in his favor is received with suspicion and doubt?In this case men are forever doomed to injustice, oppression, hate, and strife; and the religious sentiment of the world, with its grand idea of human brotherhood, its ?peace on earth and good-will to all men? is a golden rule, must be voted a dream, a delusion, and a snare?If I were to talk with all my white fellow-country men? I would say, in the language of the Scriptures ? Come and let us reason together?.(17)

At the beginning of the War, he directed his attentions to the admittance of blacks into the military. But soon after, he found that the consequences for black outweighed the advantages, and became discouraged: “Douglass lost enthusiasm for the recruitment effort after several months because black soldiers could not become officers and were not even paid equally with white soldiers. Worse yet, if black soldiers were captured by southern forces they faced the risk of being put to death or sent back into slavery.”(18) Although Douglass would later recommit himself to achieving his dream of racial equality, at this point in his life, Douglass felt helpless.

Sensing that people were unwilling to change their racist attitudes and doubting the future of Reconstruction, Douglass began to move away from his dream of racial coexistence. Of continuing racism, Douglass lamented, “Slavery is indeed gone but its shadow still lingers over the country and poisons more or less the moral atmosphere of all sections of the republic”. (19) Douglass later denounced the American system and society, disheartened that racism and segregation could not be overcome. This bigotry, he argued, extended deep into the nation?s courts. As he wrote in the North Star American Review, “if a crime has been committed, and the criminal is not positively known, a suspicious looking colored man is sure to have been seen in the neighborhood?If an unarmed colored man is shot down and dies in his tracks, a jury, under the influence of the spirit[racism] does not hesitate to find the murdered man the real criminal, and the murderer innocent”.(20) There was a clear sense of hopelessness then during this phase of Douglass?s life.

He Fights Harder:

l integration.Ultimately, however, Douglass sought again to champion blacks? civil rights and racial coexistence. He began to realize that the fight was not over and that he had to overcome hardships. His idea was to fight for suffrage for blacks. Douglass realized that the next step for African-Americans was to be actually represented in the government. He stated, “Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot”.(21) By this he meant that the black man would only be “virtually” represented if he were not a part of the election process. He felt that the only way blacks could get ahead was if they could elect their own representatives who would give them the rights that they deserved.

As time went on, Douglass became convinced that the only way America would progress was if the country came together- all races, all classes, all states- and work as one. He felt that in order for the country to work together, the state governments had to give up much of their power to the federal government. He argued:

The Civil Rights Bill and the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill and the proposed constitutional amendments, with the amendment already adopted and recognized as the law of the land, do not reach the difficulty, and cannot, unless the whole structure of the government is changed from a government by States to something like a despotic central government, with power to control even the municipal regulations of States, and to make them conform to its own despotic will. (22)

Because the states had their own constitutions and statues, all states did not have the same laws pertaining to black citizens. Douglass argued for consistency in the government because some of the states did not abide by the laws of Congress passed, nor did they always even acknowledge them. Douglass did not think that this was fair to the black citizens of America, and he fought against such inconsistencies in the government.

He revealed this on a more social level in his Address at the Annual Meeting of the American Missionary Association. At that meeting he remarked:

It [the "Negro problem"] is, however, not a white man?s problem or a black man?s problem, but a great national problem which involves the honor or dishonor, the glory or the shame, of the whole American people, and within their power to solve in one way or the other…(23)

In this speech, Douglass proposed to the world that all Americans work together to overcome all their hardships. He tried to resolve the problem by asking that the two races try to coexist under the same government and try to work out the problems with each other. He told the people that the power was within their hands and it was up to them to use it. Because Douglass was determined to prove that blacks and whites could work together, he re-committed himself to fight for racial integration.


Douglass did many things after Reconstruction, which proved his true commitment to racial integration. His marriage to Helen Pitts, a white woman, in 1886, proved his sincerity in his resolution. Although many opposed to this marriage, he decided that it could be an example that the two races can co-exist equally and be happy. Douglass?s argument after the war was that because American society had succumbed to prejudices, the country would not prosper fully until everyone was treated with equal opportunity.

By the end of Douglass?s life in 1895, his ideas on racial integration had evolved from radical to optimistic to pessimistic to resolute. These changes occurred because of the experiences that Frederick Douglass lived though and the failures that he witnessed. Douglass never, though, abandoned the movement of rights for his people. He stated about his association with anti-slavery groups, “When it [slavery] was abolished this Association [American Missionary Association] did not disband or discontinue its work, but went forward as earnestly as ever to advance, enlighten and elevate the colored people of the South”. (24) When slavery was abolished, Douglass knew that his purpose was not yet served. He knew that he, of all people, could not give up on the black race, and because of that he overcame the hardships, and spent the rest of his life fighting for the equal rights of black citizens.


Secondary Sources

Africans in America. “Frederick Douglass”. []

This is a series of many aspects of Douglass?s life with many direct quotations by Douglass.

Graham, Shirley. There was Once a Slave?.New York: Julian Messner, Inc., 1947.

This is a biography of Frederick Douglass, focusing especially on his significance as an abolitionist.

McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass. London: W.W. Norton & Co., 1991.

This Pulitzer Prize-winning historian focuses on the many personalities of Frederick Douglass, whom he terms ” a courageous fighter? a brilliant evocative writer and speaker, a wickedly gifted satirist, and a handsome and charismatic leader.”

Quarles, Benjamin. Frederick Douglass. New York: Atheneum, 1974.

This is a biography of Frederick Douglass focusing on how his life affected his message.

Russell, Sharman Apt. Frederick Douglass. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers. 1988.

This is part of a series on African-American men and women written by the Black Americans of Achievement and edited by Abolitionist Sharman Apt Russell. This biography is for young adults. It includes photographs, art, and documents. This biography also includes an inspirational essay, “On Achievement”, by Coretta Scott King.

Smithsonian. ” Historians commemorate political reformer Frederick Douglass”. []

This is a very brief biography of the life of Frederick Douglass.

Thomas, Sandra. “Frederick Douglass”. []

This is the main menu for different parts of Thomas?s biography of Douglass.

. “Life After the 13th Amendment”. []

This part of Thomas?s analysis is about the life of Douglass after slavery ended, telling of his new mission of racial integration.

Primary Sources

Douglass,Frederick.”An American Slave”

This document is a primary source written by Frederick Douglass himself.

Douglass, Frederick. “An Appeal to Congress for Impartial Suffrage”


This document is a primary source written by Frederick Douglass himself. As the title says, this is an appeal to Congress for impartial suffrage. What is especially important about this document is the message he conveys.

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