Frederick Douglass’s writings reflected many American views that were influenced
by national division. Douglass was a very successful abolitionist who changed America’s
views of slavery through his writings and actions. Frederick Douglass had many
achievements throughout his life. Douglass was born a slave in 1817, in Maryland. He
educated himself and became determined to escape the atrocities of slavery. Douglass
attempted 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 career
began at an antislavery convention at Nantucket, Massachusetts. Here, he showed himself
to be a great speaker. Douglass became involved with many important abolitionist causes,
both through his literary works, and also through activities such as the Underground
Railroad, and also his role in organizing a regiment of former slaves to fight in the Civil
War for the Union army.Due to the Fugitive Slave Laws, Douglass became in danger of
being 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 to
purchase his freedom. In 1847, Douglass relocated to Rochester, New York, and became
the person in charge of the Underground Railroad. Here he also began the abolitionist
newspaper North Star, which he edited until 1860.
In this time period, Douglass became friends with another well known American
abolitionist, John Brown. Brown was involved with the Underground Railroad, and later
wanted Douglass to join him on terroristic attacks on a United States government arsenal
at 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 returned
after several months, and aided in Abraham Lincoln’s campaign for president. Frederick
Douglass had many other achievements, mainly political, before dying in 1895, in
Washington, D. C.
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 for
him to become a successful abolitionist writer. Douglass grew up as a slave, experiencing
all of the hardships that are included, such as whippings, inadequate meals, and other harsh
treatment. His thirst for freedom, and his burning hatred of slavery caused him to write
Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, and other similar biographies. In Narrative
Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, Douglass wrote the complete story of his miserable
life as a slave and his strife to obtain freedom. The main motivational force behind his
character (himself) was to make it through another day so that someday he might see
freedom. The well written books that he produced were all based on his life as was
Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass. These books all start with Douglass
coping with slavery. Frederick Douglass also had a reason to write these works. As a
die-hard abolitionist, Douglass wanted to show the world how bad slavery really was. He
did this very well, because he made many people understand the unknown, and made
abolitionists 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 narratives
written by former slaves, but none could live up to the educated, realistic accounts of
slavery by Frederick Douglass.
Frederick Douglass is well known for many of his literary achievements. He is best
known, now, as a writer. As a writer, Frederick Douglass shined. As a speaker, Frederick
Douglass was the best. There was no abolitionist, black or white, that was more respected
for 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 he
was an impostor foistered on the public by the abolitionists. In reply,
Douglass wrote Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, An American
Slave (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 his
literary career; however, it is Douglass’s form which left the largest impact on Civil War
time period literature. Douglass’s most significant autobiographical works include:
Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave; My Bondage And My
Freedom; and Life And Times Of Frederick Douglass. These three books are about the
same person, and share a similar message, but are written by Frederick Douglass at
different times of his life, looking at the past in different ways.
In Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, Douglass uses a simple, yet
educated approach to show how he felt as a slave growing up in Maryland. Douglass’s
Narrative was known as being a brief, descriptive, and easy to read piece of literature. It
showed the hardships of slavery as seen by a real slave. Douglass became educated
through his own means. Knowledge was truly a blessing for Frederick Douglass. Without
knowledge, Douglass never would have achieved freedom. With knowledge, Douglass
realized 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 was
when he was free. He could express the problems and the solutions of slavery in a
convincing, educated manner. This made him more than a cheap source of labor in the
North. Knowledge also was a blessing in that it gave his mind a challenge that the burdens
of everyday slavery could not give. Learning to read and write was a challenge simply
because the resources were not there. He used wit and good natured cunning to trick
local school boys into teaching him the alphabet. If he had never sought knowledge, he
would never been able to write any of his autobiographies which live on even today as
important accounts of slavery. Also, without knowledge, Frederick Douglass would not
have become an American legend like he is today.
Christianity also played an important role in Frederick Douglass’s life, as well as his
autobiography. Douglass had conflicting feelings about slavery and Christianity as seen in
Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Frederick Douglass
believed in God and was a Christian himself. He saw the Christianity of his white masters
to be a crude mockery of the real thing. At first, Douglass believed that a master who
found religion became more humane. When he actually witnessed his master after he
became religious, he found him very much more cruel than before. Douglass states, “after
his 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, most
After writing Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave in
1845, Douglass wrote another biography, My Bondage And My Freedom in 1855. This
autobiography featured quite a bit more content than the concise Narrative Of The Life Of
Frederick 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 in
more detail. My Bondage And My Freedom also gives readers an update to Narrative that
includes Douglass’s life as a free man.
In 1881, Life And Times Of Frederick Douglass was published. This was
Douglass’s final autobiography with the exception of a larger edition that was issued in
1892. It is the life and the times, as the title suggests, of Douglass’s entire life. This book
was less popular with the public than the previous two. Many people found it to be the
same material as the other two, and less enjoyable to read. “Its time had passed-or so
thought the public, which did not buy it” (McFeely 311). This book included Frederick
Douglass’s life as a slave, as well as a free man, well known speaker, and respected
diplomat. At the time period it was written, after emancipation, the public was in less
need for abolitionist propaganda.
But the book’s real message—which few people received—was that the
story of slavery should not be purged from the nation’s memory.White
America wanted to hear no more of the subject; emancipation had been
taken care of.Many black Americans, reacting to this weariness, had
become almost apologetic about their slave past (McFeely 311).
Frederick Douglass also had another abolitionist publication, North Star. Rather
than a book, North Star was an abolitionist newspaper. Douglass edited the antislavery
newspaper 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 eventually
ceased to be published.
Frederick Douglass played a major role in the redefinition of American literature in
the 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 good
reason to fight for the abolitionist movement. In the South, abolitionists were as common
as snow, and did not affect the literature or lifestyles of those people very much. In the
North; however, abolitionism was more of a standard practice. After all, the north was
where slaves dreamed to escape to. Plantation style farming was not economically
important in the north. This made slavery in northern states obsolete. The southern
states, though needed inexpensive labor, therefore slavery was a way of life. These
differences caused for political strife (and eventually a war). Where there is political
conflict, there is also political propaganda, and other related literature. The antislavery
campaign was a popular subject for successful writers of this time period. Harriet Beecher
Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was perhaps the most popular book of the time period. Uncle
Tom’s Cabin had a strong antislavery message, and it showed slavery as a very abusive
thing. It is also believed that Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin played a very important role in
triggering the Civil War. Frederick Douglass, being an abolitionist writer, had much in
common with Stowe. Both were important to American literature and its redefinition
during the Civil War time period as influenced by national division.
Frederick Douglass was possibly the best black speaker and writer ever. His
success came from his fight against slavery. Being a former slave, Douglass had much
reason to participate in the antislavery movement. Douglass wrote three significant
autobiographies that helped define the way literature developed during the Civil War time
period. These three autobiographies: Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, An
American Slave; My Bondage And My Freedom; and Life And Times Of Frederick
Douglass, are the works that are seen to express a nation’s discontent for the treatment of
African slaves in the south. These works document the rise of a slave to a free man, to a
respected speaker, to a famous writer and politician. These works do not stand alone,
though. Frederick Douglass also was famous for his abolitionist speeches. Douglass also
successfully published an abolitionist newsletter, The North Star. All of Douglass’s
achievements combined with his great literature combined to redefine the writing of the
time. After reading any of his works, one might realize just how important Frederick
Douglass was to the abolitionist movement. Douglass changed many people’s lives, and
helped to earn the respect of African Americans today. Frederick Douglass’s writings
reflected many American views that were influenced by national division.
Aptheker, Herbert. Abolitionism A Revolutionary Movement. Boston: Twayne
Bontemps, Arna. 100 Years Of Negro Freedom. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood
Press, Publishers, 1980.
McFeeley, William. Frederick Douglass. New York: W.W. Norton ; Company, 1991.