The Mystery Behind Frederick Douglass's Birthday

Two hundred years ago, one of the 19th century’s most significant Americans began his life in anonymity and bondage.

George Francis Schreiber / Library of Congress

A wealth of details was recorded about the day Frederick Douglass died as a free man in Washington, D.C. It was February 20, 1895. Douglass’s movements in the hours before his death were laid out in the New York Times obituary published the following day: He spent the morning at the Congressional library, then traveled to Metzerott Hall for sessions of the National Council of Women of the United States, staying through the afternoon; in the early evening he returned home, had dinner with his wife, and was standing and talking to her about the Women’s Council when, suddenly, he had a heart attack and “dropped dead in the hallway” at 7 p.m.

Comparatively, little is known about the day Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. Douglass himself was never even able to pinpoint exactly which day it was. His first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, begins not with his birthday but with its aching absence:

I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about 12 miles from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday. They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time. A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege. I was not allowed to make any inquiries of my master concerning it. He deemed all such inquiries on the part of a slave improper and impertinent, and evidence of a restless spirit.

After Douglass escaped bondage and fled north in 1838, he took on a new surname and eventually, though the exact date continued to elude him, chose to celebrate his birthday annually on February 14. As the year of his birth was recorded as 1818, that means February 14, 2018 marked the 200th anniversary of his adopted birth date.

Fortunately, the extraordinary moments and measures of his life were also well-recorded in the 1895 Times obituary and across thousands of other pages, many produced by Douglass himself. Though his slave master and mistress tried to prevent him from learning to read and write as a child, Douglass was able to find teachers among the poor local white boys and glean further lessons from his surroundings, and after gaining his freedom he became a powerful voice for emancipation and equal rights by way of his writing. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, he toured the country giving speeches against slavery, wrote two memoirs-cum-abolitionist tracts, and published the anti-slavery newspaper The North Star. Shortly after the war’s conclusion, he wrote two articles for The Atlantic, eloquently advocating for the elevation and protection of individual rights under the law to prevent further oppression and abuse.

In the first of these articles, published in our December 1866 issue, Douglass considered how Reconstruction could and should reform the South. “In reconstructing the institutions of these shattered and overthrown States, Congress should begin with a clean slate, and make clean work of it,” he wrote:

Let there be no hesitation. It would be a cowardly deference to a defeated and treacherous President, if any account were made of the illegitimate, one-sided, sham governments hurried into existence for a malign purpose in the absence of Congress. These pretended governments, which were never submitted to the people, and from participation in which four millions of the loyal people were excluded by Presidential order, should now be treated according to their true character, as shams and impositions, and supplanted by true and legitimate governments, in the formation of which loyal men, black and white, shall participate.

In the second article, published the following month, Douglass argued more specifically for the voting rights of black Americans, writing:

The fundamental and unanswerable argument in favor of the enfranchisement of the negro is found in the undisputed fact of his manhood. He is a man, and by every fact and argument by which any man can sustain his right to vote, the negro can sustain his right equally. It is plain that, if the right belongs to any, it belongs to all. The doctrine that some men have no rights that others are bound to respect is a doctrine which we must banish, as we have banished slavery, from which it emanated. If black men have no rights in the eyes of white men, of course the white can have none in the eyes of the blacks. The result is a war of races, and the annihilation of all proper human relations.

Though he is perhaps best remembered as an abolitionist and proponent of black equality, Douglass was also an outspoken and dedicated supporter of education and women’s rights. It was this latter cause to which he dedicated his last day, attending sessions of the National Council of Women of the United States, and even his last moments, during which he spoke with his wife about the sessions.

As his Times obituary noted, “There is no end of stories about Mr. Douglass.” The distance he traveled in a lifetime is unfathomable: from an anonymous enslaved boy whose birthday no one thought to record to one of the most significant and respected figures of 19th-century America, whose death was marked with a detailed notice in the national news. The distance his memory has traveled since—into classrooms and legislative chambers, across oceans, from generation to generation to generation—is a testament to his extraordinary impact. Two hundred years after the date of his birth was unmarked and forgotten, his life and legacy remain remarkable; unforgettable.