The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself – Frederick Douglass (1845)

A shortish but fascinating true autobiography of an American slave who escaped the system and, with the help of people of the abolition system, managed to stay free and travel to help bring awareness of slavery to other people. This narrative is so well written, in fact, that when it was first published, the general public did not believe that a former slave could have written it. How would he learn to write like that?…

The narrative is thought to be the most famous memoir of a former slave and fueled the abolitionist movement on both sides of the Atlantic. He was a living model of how slaves could be educated and function as independent American citizens.

As the story of Douglass’ early life is told (through his eyes), we learn that he has spent his whole childhood and some adulthood in slavery to various slaveholders on the East Coast. It’s a hard life (obviously), but he really brings the life to life (!) in the many descriptions he adds. (This is also what bolstered his claim to have the narrative – he included so many real names, dates and places that it all gave him credibility. Plus his story explains how he procured his education.)

The abolitionist movement was overjoyed to have Douglass as a speaker, but still, they would only let him give a canned repetitive speech following a script of sorts. However, once his printed book became more popular and more widespread, Douglass was given a lot more latitude. A lot of his early free work was in Ireland and England as he believed his former slaveholder was after him. Apparently, it was quite common for former slaves to escape to Ireland, where he said that he was treated “not as a color, but as a man…” (Interestingly, the Great Potato Famine was around this time as well. Absolutely nothing to do with Douglass, but interesting how great events collide.)

Douglass was not only anti-slavery, but also supported women’s suffrage and even was nominated (unknowingly) for the office of Vice-President for the US (via a very minor political party). However, he did not acknowledge this at any time. He also met with several US Presidents. His attitude was thus:  “I would unite with anybody to do right, and with nobody to do wrong.” (1855)

His description of slave life was fascinatingly awful – slaves were only given minimal clothing allowances for each year, and not enough to wear when they did laundry (and working in the South in the cotton fields must have meant a lot of sweaty days)… The kids were given one shirt a year – no pants, no nothing else, so they just wore this long shirt that got shorter as they grew taller. On laundry day, presumably, there were a lot of naked kids running around.

One of the really interesting points that Douglass raised was that when he was a slave in the South, he (and others) believed that because the Northern states did not have slaves, they must be really poor. He could not imagine a place without wealthy people having slaves so it was a big surprise to him when he escaped to come across wealthy people who made do without slaves. It had never crossed his mind before.

Brief run-down:

1542 – Spain enacts first European law abolishing slavery

1807 – UK Slave Trade Act makes slave trade illegal throughout the British Empire/colonies. (You could still own slaves – just not sell them.)

1833 – UK Slavery Abolition Act – abolition of all slavery within the British Empire/colonies

1863 – US Emancipation Proclamation (which meant slaves were now free in the Southern/Confederate States)

1865 – US 13th Amendment ended slavery in all the states of the US

A fascinating story. For more slavery-related reading, check out this post about a book on the history of the British slavery trade.

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