The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
How Douglass’s first book changed America
There are numerous examples of books and works of literature that have completely changed the landscape of American society. One of the most significant examples of this is Frederick Douglass’s first autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. At the time of publication, Douglass’s narrative changed the way many Americans viewed slavery and contributed to the fight for abolition of slavery. Additionally, this narrative remains relevant in today’s society because it reminds us of America’s dark past and inspires us to fight for what we believe in. When reading Douglass’s narrative, it becomes clear why it was so pivotal in the abolition of slavery and how it continues to inspire people around the world today.
About the Author
Frederick Douglass was born a slave in the early nineteenth century on a plantation in Talbot county, Maryland. Throughout his childhood, Douglass had no accurate knowledge of his age and was only able to meet his mother a few times since he was separated from her at a very young age. Additionally, many of the slaves on the plantation were treated incredibly poorly by the overseers of the plantation, Captain Anthony and Colonel Lloyd.
When Douglass was seven years of age, he was sent to live in Baltimore with Hugh Auld, a relative of Captain Anthony. In the nineteenth century, there were laws that prevented slaves from learning to read and write. However, Hugh Auld’s wife, Sophia, taught Douglass the alphabet and some basic writing skills. She stopped teaching him at her husband’s request, but Douglass continued teaching himself as he realized the skills could be used to gain freedom.
Eventually, Douglass began working for Auld in a Baltimore shipyard and was able to secretly collect a bit of money in preparation for his escape. In 1838, Douglass escaped slavery and would later become an abolitionist leader. Douglass died of a heart attack in 1895, but his story and contributions continue to inspire people around the world.
About the Book
The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was published in 1845, which was incredibly courageous as Douglass escaped slavery in 1838 and was not yet considered free. The book begins with statements from abolitionists William Garrison and Wendell Phillips. Garrison and Phillips both reflect on their friendships with Douglass and assure the reader that Douglass’s narrative is entirely factual and not exaggerated in any way.
In his narrative, Fredrick Douglass writes about his experiences and what life was like as a slave. He recalls living on plantation in Maryland as a child and being sent to different areas to work before his eventual escape. One of the more interesting things about Douglass’s narrative is how he explains his experiences in precise detail to show how horrible slavery truly was. The only exception to this is Douglass’s escape, which he purposely left out of the narrative in order to protect other slaves attempting a similar escape. The use of specific people and places is part of what made Douglass’s narrative so influential, because it rejected the claim that Douglass was fabricating his experiences (Quarles).
The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass undoubtedly left quite a legacy on American society and the way the world viewed slavery. Although it was not the first narrative written by an enslaved person, Douglass’s narrative quickly became the most popular. As a result of this publicity, Douglass travelled to Britain and gave speeches against slavery. Many believe that these visits to Britain “contributed much to the anti-Confederate sentiment of the British masses during the civil war” (Quarles).
After returning to the United States, Douglass began publishing a weekly newspaper and continued giving speeches. Speeches like “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” pointed out the hypocrisy in many of America’s founding ideas and exposed the need for the abolition of slavery. Additionally, Douglass’s work changed the way many Americans viewed slavery, and led to the rejection of confederacy during the civil war. Finally, in 1865, slavery was abolished, and the civil war was over. It is also believed that many of Douglass’s ideas contributed to other movements in the nineteenth century, such as gender equality and the improvement of prisons (Quarles).
Not only did Douglass’s narrative change America in the nineteenth century, it continued to impact the country even after his death. For example, many of the leaders of the Civil Rights movement in the mid-twentieth century were inspired by Frederick Douglass’s story and contributions to the United States. Also, in the Rhetoric Review article, “Frederick Douglass’s Rhetorical Legacy,” Professor Jonathan Rossing compares Douglass’s Rhetoric with the current Black Lives Matter movement, and states that “his rhetoric points out the way to guide the nation back to its high regard for human dignity and equal rights”.
Upon reading The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and reviewing the book’s legacy, we are reminded of how influential Douglass was in the abolition of slavery. Moreover, we learn that Douglass’s legacy will never fade as long as it continues to inspire people to fight for what they believe in.
Quarles, Benjamin. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Revisited.” Narrative of theLife of Frederick Douglass, Revisited | Harvard University Press, www.hup.harvard.edu/features/frederick-douglass/.
Rossing, Jonathan P., and John R. McKivigan. “Frederick Douglass’s Rhetorical Legacy.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 37, no. 1, Jan. 2018, pp. 1–5. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/07350198.2018.1395263.