Frederick Douglass (February 1818 – February 20, 1895) was an African-American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. After escaping from slavery in Maryland, he became a national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York, gaining note for his dazzling oratory and incisive antislavery writings. In his time, he was described by abolitionists as a living counter-example to slaveholders’ arguments that slaves lacked the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens. Northerners at the time found it hard to believe that such a great orator had once been a slave.
Douglass wrote several autobiographies. He described his experiences as a slave in his 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which became a bestseller, and was influential in promoting the cause of abolition, as was his second book, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). After the Civil War, Douglass remained an active campaigner against slavery and wrote his last autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. First published in 1881 and revised in 1892, three years before his death, it covered events during and after the Civil War. Douglass also actively supported women’s suffrage and held several public offices. Without his approval, Douglass became the first African American nominated for Vice President of the United States as the running mate and Vice Presidential nominee of Victoria Woodhull, on the Equal Rights Party ticket.
Douglass was a firm believer in the equality of all peoples, whether black, female, Native American, or recent immigrant. He was also a believer in dialogue and in making alliances across racial and ideological divides, and in the liberal values of the U.S. Constitution. When radical abolitionists, under the motto “No Union With Slaveholders”, criticized Douglass’ willingness to dialogue with slave owners, he famously replied: “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”
Roy Finkenbine argues:
The most influential African American of the nineteenth century, Douglass made a career of agitating the American conscience. He spoke and wrote on behalf of a variety of reform causes: women’s rights, temperance, peace, land reform, free public education, and the abolition of capital punishment. But he devoted the bulk of his time, immense talent, and boundless energy to ending slavery and gaining equal rights for African Americans. These were the central concerns of his long reform career. Douglass understood that the struggle for emancipation and equality demanded forceful, persistent, and unyielding agitation. And he recognized that African Americans must play a conspicuous role in that struggle. Less than a month before his death, when a young black man solicited his advice to an African American just starting out in the world, Douglass replied without hesitation: “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!”
Douglass considered photography very important in ending slavery and racism, and believed that the camera would not lie, even in the hands of a racist white, photographs being an excellent counter to the many racist caricatures, particularly in blackface minstrelsy. He was the most photographed American of the 19th Century, self-consciously using photography to advance his political views. He never smiled, specifically so as not to play into the racist caricature of a happy slave. He tended to look directly into the camera to confront the viewer, with a stern look.
As a child, Douglass was exposed to a number of religious sermons, and in his youth, he sometimes heard Sophia Auld reading the Bible. In time, he became interested in literacy; he began reading and copying bible verses, and he eventually converted to Christianity. He described this approach in his last biography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass:
I was not more than thirteen years old, when in my loneliness and destitution I longed for some one to whom I could go, as to a father and protector. The preaching of a white Methodist minister, named Hanson, was the means of causing me to feel that in God I had such a friend. 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 cannot say that I had a very distinct notion of what was required of me, but one thing I did know well: I was wretched and had no means of making myself otherwise.
I consulted a good old colored man named Charles Lawson, and in tones of holy affection he told me to pray, and to “cast all my care upon God.” This I sought to do; and though for weeks I was a poor, broken-hearted mourner, traveling through doubts and fears, I finally found my burden lightened, and my heart relieved. I loved all mankind, slaveholders not excepted, though I abhorred slavery more than ever. I saw the world in a new light, and my great concern was to have everybody converted. My desire to learn increased, and especially, did I want a thorough acquaintance with the contents of the Bible.
Douglass was mentored by Rev. Charles Lawson, and, early in his activism, he often included biblical allusions and religious metaphors in his speeches. Though a believer, he strongly criticized religious hypocrisy and accused slaveholders of wickedness, lack of morality, and failure to follow the Golden Rule. In this sense, Douglass distinguished between the “Christianity of Christ” and the “Christianity of America” and considered religious slaveholders and clergymen who defended slavery as the most brutal, sinful, and cynical of all who represented “wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Notably, in a famous oration given in the Corinthian Hall of Rochester, he sharply criticized the attitude of religious people who kept silent about slavery, and held that religious ministers committed a blasphemy when they taught it as sanctioned by religion.
He considered that a law passed to support slavery was “one of the grossest infringements of Christian Liberty” and said that pro-slavery clergymen within the American Church “stripped the love of God of its beauty, and leave the throne of religion a huge, horrible, repulsive form,” and “an abomination in the sight of God.” Of ministers like John Chase Lord, Leonard Elijah Lathrop, Ichabod Spencer, and Orville Dewey, he said that they taught, against the Scriptures, that “we ought to obey man’s law before the law of God”. He further asserted, “in speaking of the American church, however, let it be distinctly understood that I mean the great mass of the religious organizations of our land. There are exceptions, and I thank God that there are. Noble men may be found, scattered all over these Northern States,… Henry Ward Beecher, of Brooklyn, Samuel J. May, of Syracuse, and my esteemed friend [Robert R. Raymonde].” He maintained that “upon these men lies the duty to inspire our ranks with high religious faith and zeal, and to cheer us on in the great mission of the slave’s redemption from his chains.” In addition, he called religious people to embrace abolitionism, stating, “let the religious press, the pulpit, the Sunday school, the conference meeting, the great ecclesiastical, missionary, Bible and tract associations of the land array their immense powers against slavery and slave-holding; and the whole system of crime and blood would be scattered to the winds.”
During his visits to the United Kingdom, between 1846 and 1848, Douglass asked British Christians never to support American Churches that permitted slavery, and he expressed his happiness to know that a group of ministers in Belfast had refused to admit slaveholders as members of the Church.
On his return to the United States, Douglass founded the North Star, a weekly publication with the motto “Right is of no sex, Truth is of no color, God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethren.” Douglass later wrote a letter to his former slaveholder, in which he denounced him for leaving Douglass’s family illiterate:
Your wickedness and cruelty committed in this respect on your fellow creatures, are greater than all the stripes you have laid upon my back or theirs. It is an outrage upon the soul, a war upon the immortal spirit, and one for which you must give account at the bar of our common Father and Creator.— Letter to His Old Master. To my Old Master Thomas Auld.
There is a lot more about Frederick Douglas and you can read it here.