American Minute with Bill Federer: Frederick Douglass, Abolitionist Leader & Advisor to President Abraham Lincoln


Frederick Douglass was born Frederick “Baily” on a Maryland plantation around FEBRUARY 7, 1817, though no accurate records exist, as he was a slave.
He later chose the birth date of February 14 as he remembered his mother calling him her “little valentine.”
He never saw his mother in the daylight, as he was separated from her as an infant. He did not know who his father was.
Around the age of seven, Frederick witnessed a terribly mean overseer, Mr. Gore, shoot a slave in the face.
Frederick was sent to Baltimore where, around the age of 12, his master’s sister-in-law, Sophia Auld, began teaching him the alphabet, despite this being against the law.
An example of these laws was The Revised Code of the Laws of Virginia (1819):
“Whereas it is common in many places for slaves to meet at religious meeting-houses in the night, or at schools for teaching them reading or writing, which if not stopped may cause considerable evil to the community;
Be it passed: That all meetings of slaves, or free negroes or mulattoes mixing with such slaves, at any meeting-house or school for teaching them reading or writing, either in the day or night, for any reason, shall be deemed an unlawful assembly.
And any officer of the law may have permission to enter the house to arrest or send off such slaves, and to punish them with up to twenty lashes.”
In 1854, a Virginia woman, Mrs. Margaret Douglass (no relation to Frederick), was imprisoned in the common jail of Norfolk for a month for teaching colored children to read.
When Sophia Auld’s husband discovered that she was teaching Frederick to read, he immediately forbade it, saying that if slaves could read, they would grow discontent and desire freedom.
Frederick considered this the “first decidedly anti-slavery lecture”‘ he had ever heard, causing him to be determined to learn how to read all-the-more.
Frederick wrote in his autobiography of learning to read from neighborhood white children.
He would carefully observe the writings of men he worked with.
He remembered reading a newspaper only to have it snatched away from him with a scolding.
Frederick Douglass described in My Bondage and My Freedom (New York and Auburn: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1855), when he was around 10 to 13 years old, in the years 1828-1831:
“Nothing appeared to make my poor mistress more angry than seeing me, seated in some nook or corner, quietly reading a book or a newspaper.
I have had her rush at me with fury, and snatch it from my hand. Her anger was something like what a traitor might feel on being discovered in a plot by some dangerous spy.
I was most carefully watched in all my movements. If I remained in a separate room from the family for awhile, I was sure to be suspected of having a book. Then I was at once called upon to explain what I had been doing.
All this, however, was entirely too late. Determined to learn to read at any cost, I hit upon many ways to accomplish this goal. The main way, and most successful one, was to use my young white playmates in the streets as teachers …”
He continued:
“I used to carry almost constantly a copy of Webster’s spelling book in my pocket. When I was sent on errands or allowed to have play time, I would step aside with my young friends and take a less on in spelling.
I usually paid the boys with bread, which I also carried in my pocket. For a single biscuit, any of my hungry little playmates would give me a lesson more valuable to me than bread.
Not everyone, however, demanded payment. There were some who enjoyed teaching me, whenever I had a chance to be taught by them.”
Frederick voraciously read newspapers, books, and a publication titled The Columbian Orator.
He is noted as saying “knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom.”
Frederick was hired out to the William Freeland plantation where he taught other slaves to read the New Testament at a weekly Sunday school.
Slaves would use dirt as a chalk board.
Enthusiasm in learning to read drew more than 40 slaves to attend.
Douglass wrote:
“I held my Sabbath school at the house of a free colored man, whose name I deem it imprudent to mention; for should it be known, it might embarrass him greatly, though the crime of holding the school was committed ten years ago.
I had at one time over forty scholars, and those of the right sort, ardently desiring to learn. They were of all ages, though mostly men and women.
I look back to those Sundays with an amount of pleasure not to be expressed. They were great days to my soul. The work of instructing my dear fellow-slaves was the sweetest engagement with which I was ever blessed.
We loved each other, and to leave them at the close of the Sabbath was a severe cross indeed.
When I think that these precious souls are to-day shut up in the prison-house of slavery, my feelings overcome me, and I am almost ready to ask, ‘Does a righteous God govern the universe? and for what does he hold the thunders in his right hand, if not to smite the oppressor, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the spoiler?'”
Neighboring Democrat plantation owners were incensed that their slaves were learning to read, as this made it harder to control them.
One Sunday, slave owners from the surrounding Democrat plantations burst in with clubs and dispersed Frederick’s small congregation.
Frederick’s owner sent him a “slave-breaker” who whipped him regularly, nearly breaking him psychologically. After an abrupt confrontation, the slave-breaker never tried beating Frederick again.
Frederick’s owner rented him out to caulk ships in a shipyard.
In 1837, Frederick fell in love with Anna Murray, a free black in Baltimore.
Anna helped provide Frederick with a sailor’s uniform and some identification papers from a free black seaman.
On September 3, 1838, Frederick escaped by boarding a train to Havre de Grace, Maryland, and from there he fled to New York.
Frederick and Anna were married eleven days later by a black Presbyterian minister.
The newlyweds Frederick and Anna moved on north to New Bedford, Massachusetts, and joined a black church.
They changed their last name to “Douglass” to hide Frederick’s former identity from Democrat fugitive slave catchers.
In New Bedford, Frederick Douglass became a licensed preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.
At the age of only 23, he was an accomplished public speaker.
Frederick and Anna Douglass regularly attended white abolitionist meetings, where, in 1841 they heard William Lloyd Garrison speak.
Garrison was a founder of the Liberty Party, 1840, which was replaced by the Free-Soil Party, 1848, which was replaced by the Republican Party, 1854.
When Frederick Douglass was unexpectedly asked to speak, William Lloyd Garrison was so impressed that he eventually hired Douglass to sell subscriptions to the anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator.
In 1843, Douglass went on a 6-month speaking tour through Eastern and Midwestern States with the American Anti-Slavery Society.
He met Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Frederick Douglass wrote of speaking at a convention in Buffalo, New York:
“For nearly a week I spoke every day in this old post office to audiences increasing in numbers and respectability til the Michigan Avenue Baptist church was thrown open to me. When this became too small I went on Sunday into the open park and addressed an assembly of 4,000 persons.”
Frederick Douglass was frequently accosted by racist Democrat mobs, even having his hand broken, which never healed properly.
In 1845, Frederick Douglass published his autobiography, which became an instant best-seller, being translated into French and Dutch.
In it, Douglass condemned hypocritical “religious” slave owners. He clarified that he supported true Christianity, but the Democrat South did not live up to it:
“I find, since reading over the foregoing Narrative, that I have, in several instances, spoken in such a tone and manner, respecting religion, as may possibly lead those unacquainted with my religious views to suppose me an opponent of all religion.
To remove the liability of such misapprehension, I deem it proper to append the following brief explanation.
What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slave-holding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper;
for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference — so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other.
I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slave-holding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.”
Skeptics could not believe a former slave could have written such an eloquent book so they began to question Douglass’ real identity.
Realizing that if his true identity was discovered, fugitive slave-catchers would try to capture him and return him to his owner, Frederick Douglass decided to flee to Ireland.
The Irish were supportive of Douglass, as during the 17th century, more Irish Catholics were sold into slavery than Africans, either by British to the Caribbean or by Muslim Corsair pirates to Africa’s Barbary Coast.
Douglass met with Irish reformer Daniel O’Connell.
O’Connell was referred to as The Liberator or The Emancipator for his emancipation efforts to remove discriminating Acts against Irish Catholics.
Frederick Douglass then traveled to England where his white English abolitionist friends raised over $700 to buy his freedom.
Finally free, Douglass wrote:
“I may be deemed superstitious, and even egotistical, in regarding this event as a special interposition of divine Providence in my favor.
But I should be false to the earliest sentiments of my soul, if I suppressed the opinion. I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence.
From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace; and in the darkest hours of my career in slavery, this living word of faith and spirit of hope departed not from me, but remained like ministering angels to cheer me through the gloom.
This good spirit was from God, and to him I offer thanksgiving and praise.”
Douglass returned to New York where he founded The North Star newspaper and wrote in support of abolition and women’s suffrage.
His motto was: “Right is of no sex–Truth is of no color–God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethren.”
After Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican President, issued the Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863, Frederick Douglass wrote:
“Can any colored man, or any white man friendly to the freedom of all men, ever forget the night which followed the first day of January 1863, when the world was to see if Abraham Lincoln would prove to be as good as his word?”
Frederick Douglass became an adviser to Lincoln.
Douglass even raised the one of the the first all Black Regiments, the “54th Massachusetts.”
This as portrayed in the film Glory (1989), which starred Matthew Broderick, Morgan Freeman, Cary Elwes, and Denzel Washington, who won an Academy Award.
Other early all Black regiments were the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, which fought for America during the Revolutionary War;
and the First Kansas Colored Volunteers, which fought for the Union during the Civil War, notably in the Battles of Island Mound, Cabin Creek, Honey Spring, Poison Springs.
Frederick Douglass stated:
“I am a Republican, a black, dyed in the wool Republican, and I never intend to belong to any other party than the party of freedom and progress.”
Black Republicans of the 19th century included:
  • Jonathan Clarkson Gibbs (1821–1874), Presbyterian minister, Republican, Secretary of State of Florida and Florida Superintendent of Public Instruction;
  • James Weldon Johnson (1871–1944), Republican, appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt as U.S. Consul in Venezuela and Nicaragua, first black manager of the NAACP, president of the Colored Republican Club;
  • Josiah T. Walls (1842–1905), Republican, first African American to be elected a U.S. Representative from Florida;
  • Caesar Antoine (1836–1921), Republican, 13th Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana;
  • Antoine Dubuclet (1810–1887), Republican, State Treasurer of Louisiana;
  • Oscar Dunn (1826–1871), Republican, 11th Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana;
  • Charles Edmund Nash (1844–1913), Republican, U.S Representative;
  • P.B.S. Pinchback (1837–1921), Republican, 24th governor of Louisiana; first African-American governor of a U.S. state;
  • Julius Caesar Chappelle (1852–1904), Republican, legislator (1883–1886), Massachusetts House of Representatives;
  • Lewis Hayden (1811–1889), Republican, elected to the Massachusetts State Legislature;
  • William Henry Lewis (1868–1949), Republican, one of the first African Americans admitted to the bar, and the first African American to be appointed U.S. Assistant Attorney General, “the highest office in an executive branch of the government ever held by a member of his race”;
  • Clement G. Morgan (1859–1929), Republican, Boston attorney, civil rights activist, and city official;
  • George Lewis Ruffin (1834–1886), Republican, attorney, judge, Massachusetts state legislator, and Boston city councilman;
  • John J. Smith (1820–1906), Republican, abolitionist and Massachusetts state representative;
  • Butler R. Wilson (1861–1939), Republican, Boston civil rights activist;
  • Blanche Bruce (1841–1898), Republican, first African American to serve a full term in U.S. Senate;
  • Perry Wilbon Howard (1877–1961), attorney and delegate to Republican National Convention, 1912–1960;
  • John Roy Lynch (1847–1939), Republican, U.S. Representative;
  • Hiram Rhodes Revels (1827–1901), Republican, first African American to serve in U.S. Senate;
  • Roscoe Conkling Simmons (1881–1951), Republican, nephew of Booker T. Washington, journalist, first African-American columnist hired by the Chicago Tribune, Republican Party leader;
  • Ida B. Wells (1862–1931), Republican, civil rights advocate and co-founder of the NAACP;
  • Walthall M. Moore (1886–1960), Republican, first African American to serve in the Missouri state legislature;
Many notable black authors and speakers have criticized modern-day dependency on government entitlements as being kin to the dependency that existed on Southern Democrat plantations, where slaves waited for handouts from their masters.
  • Star Parker, founder of CURE (Center for Urban Renewal) wrote Uncle Sam’s Plantation: How Big Government Enslaves America’s Poor and What We Can Do About It.
  • Rev. C.L. Bryant produced a documentary Runaway Slave Movie, stating: “I am a ‘Runaway Slave’ from the Democrats’ plantation.”
  • C. Mason Weaver wrote It’s OK to Leave the Plantation: The New Underground Railroad.
  • Wayne Perryman wrote Unfounded Loyalty: An In-Depth Look Into The Love Affair Between Blacks and Democrats.
  • Jesse Lee Peterson wrote From Rage to Responsibility: Black Conservative Jesse Lee Peterson and America Today.
Frederick Douglass told the story of his conversion:
“I was not more than thirteen years old, when I felt the need of God, as a father and protector.
My religious nature was awakened by the preaching of a white Methodist minister, named Hanson.
He thought that all men, great and small, bond and free, were sinners in the sight of God; that they were, by nature, rebels against His government; and that they must repent of their sins, and be reconciled to God, through Christ …
I was, for weeks, a poor, broken-hearted mourner, traveling through the darkness and misery of doubts and fears …”
Douglass continued:
“I finally found that change of heart which comes by ‘casting all one’s care’ upon God, and by having faith in Jesus Christ, as the Redeemer, Friend, and Savior of those who diligently seek him. After this, I saw the world in a new light …
I loved all mankind-slaveholders not excepted; though I abhorred slavery more than ever …
I gathered scattered pages of the Bible from the filthy street gutters, and washed and dried them, that … I might get a word or two of wisdom from them.”
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