It is difficult to imagine a more remarkable story of self-determination and advancement than the life of Frederick Douglass. Emblematic of the depths from which he rose is the pall of uncertainty that shrouded his origins. For a long time he believed that he had been born in 1817. Then, in 1877, during a visit to a former master in Maryland, Douglass was told that he had actually been born in 1818. Douglass could barely recall his mother, who had been consigned to different households from the one where her baby lived. And he never discovered the identity of his father, who was likely a white man. “Genealogical trees,” Douglass mordantly observed, “do not flourish among slaves.”
Douglass fled enslavement in 1838, and with the assistance of abolitionists, he cultivated his prodigious talents as an orator and a writer. He produced a score of extraordinary speeches. The widely anthologized “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?,” delivered in 1852, is the most damning critique of American hypocrisy ever uttered:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? … a day that reveals to him … the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham … your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery … There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.”
He wrote analyses of court opinions that deservedly appear in constitutional-law casebooks. He published many arresting columns in magazines and newspapers, including several that he started. He also wrote three exceptional memoirs, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881). The most celebrated black man of his era, Douglass became the most photographed American of any race in the 19th century. He was the first black person appointed to an office requiring senatorial confirmation; in 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes nominated him to be the marshal of the District of Columbia.
Throughout his life, however, Douglass repeatedly fell victim to the brutalizations and insults commonly experienced by African Americans of his time. As a slave, he suffered at the hands of a vicious “nigger breaker” to whom he was rented. He fled to the “free” North, only to have his work as a maritime caulker thwarted by racist white competitors. As a traveling evangelist for abolitionism, he was repeatedly ejected from whites-only railroad cars, restaurants, and lodgings. When he died, an admiring obituary in The New York Times suggested that Douglass’s “white blood” accounted for his “superior intelligence.” After his death, his reputation declined precipitously alongside the general standing of African Americans in the age of Jim Crow.