Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

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"Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" from Frederick Douglass. African-american social reformer, orator, writer and statesman (1818-1895).
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The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

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"Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" from Frederick Douglass. African-american social reformer, orator, writer and statesman (1818-1895).
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
A century and a half after its first publication, Frederick Douglass's Narrative retains its hold on us, capturing us with its first-person story of the abolitionist's passage from bondage to freedom.
Sacred Life

When it was first published, many critics doubted that The Narrative of the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass had even been written by Frederick Douglass. As odd as it may seem now, that criticism was not completely unfounded: In the mid-nineteenth century, the antislavery movement produced hundreds of slave narratives, many of them ghostwritten by white abolitionists and tailored to create sympathy for their movement. But this book, by this remarkable man, was different. The tag line at the end of the book&#39s subtitle&#8212Written by Himself &#8212was vitally important. Although clearly written with the abolitionist cause in mind, this book is not merely a political tract. True, its dispassionate prose brought to light the "injustice, exposure to outrage, and savage barbarity" of slavery as Douglass observed and experienced But also brought to life an uncommon man and the particular concerns seared into him during his experience of bondage. Douglass recounts that during slavery, he and his people were denied life&#39s fundamentals: faith, family, education, the capacity for bold action, a sense of community, and personal identity. Douglass saw reclamation of these things as the key to his and his people&#39s survival, redemption, and salvation.

The autobiography opens with a description of the aspects of his own life that Douglass was never allowed to know: the identity of his father, the warmth and care of his mother (who was a stranger to him), and even the fact of his own date of birth. As a child, he suffered from and observed savage beatings firsthand, including the fierce beating of his Aunt Hester at the hands of their master, Captain Aaron Anthony. As he grew older, Douglass liberated himself in stages: mentally, spiritually, and, eventually, physically. His mental freedom began when he was taught to read and write and realized the power of literacy; his spiritual freedom came when he discovered the grace of Christianity and the will to resist his beatings; his physical freedom arrived when he finally escaped to the North.

After escaping, Douglass was committed to telling the world about the condition of the brothers and sisters he left behind. Aside from telling Douglass&#39s personal story, his autobiography takes us to the fields and the cabins and the lives of many slaves to reveal the real human cost of slavery. Douglass focused on the dehumanizing aspects of slavery: not just the beatings, but the parting of children from their mothers, the denial of education, and the sexual abuses of slave masters. He ends the book with this statement: "Sincerely and earnestly hoping that his little book may do something toward throwing light on the American slave system, and hastening the glad day of deliverance to the millions of my brethren in bonds&#8212faithfully relying upon the power of truth, love, and justice, for success in my humble efforts&#8212and solemnly pledging myself anew to the sacred cause, I subscribe myself, Frederick Douglass."

The book was an incredible success: It sold over thirty thousand copies and was an international bestseller. It was the first, and most successful, of three autobiographies that Douglass was to write. The other two, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, update the story of his life and revise some of the facts of his earlier autobiography.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781511813969
  • Publisher: CreateSpace Publishing
  • Publication date: 4/20/2015
  • Pages: 90
  • Sales rank: 302,769
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.19 (d)

Meet the Author

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass (c.1818 - 1895)

Frederick Douglass (born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey) was an American social reformer, orator, writer and statesman. After escaping from slavery, he became a leader of the abolitionist movement, gaining note for his dazzling oratory and incisive antislavery writing. He stood as a living counter-example to slaveholders' arguments that slaves did not have the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens. Douglass wrote several autobiographies. Douglass was a firm believer in the equality of all people, whether black, female, Native American, or recent immigrant, famously quoted as saying, "I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong".

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    1. Also Known As:
      Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey (birth name)
    2. Hometown:
      Tuckahoe, Maryland
    1. Date of Birth:
    1. Date of Death:
      February 20, 1895
    2. Place of Death:
      Washington, D.C.

Read an Excerpt

I have often been utterly astonished, since I came north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy….Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery. The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion. -- from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
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Table of Contents

INTRODUCTION: "A Psalm of Freedom"
Pt. 1 The Document 25
Editor's Note on the Text 27
Preface by William Lloyd Garrison, May 1,1845 29
Letter from Wendell Phillips, Esq., April 22,1845 36
Narrative Of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself 39
Notes on the Text 109
Pt. 2 Selected Reviews, Documents, and Speeches 117
Caleb Bingham, "Dialogue Between a Master and a Slave," in The Columbian Orator (1797) 119
Margaret Fuller, Review of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, New York Tribune, June 10, 1845 121
Ephraim Peabody, "Narratives of Fugitive Slaves," excerpt, Christian Examiner, July 1849 124
Nathaniel P. Rogers, "Southern Slavery and Northern Religion," two addresses delivered in Concord, New Hampshire, February 11, 1844, as reported in (Concord, N.H.) Herald Freedom, February 16,1844 128
Frederick Douglass, "My Slave Experience in Maryland," an address delivered in New York City, May 6, 1845, as recorded in National Antislavery Standard, May 22,1845 130
Frederick Douglass, Letter to Thomas Auld, September 3, 1848, published in The North Star, September 8,1848; and The Liberator, September 22, 1848 134
Frederick Douglass, "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" speech delivered in Corinthian Hall, Rochester, New York, July 5, 1852 141
App. A Douglass chronology (1818-1895) 147
App. Questions for Considerarion 153
App. Selected Bibliography 155
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Reading Group Guide


The compelling autobiography of an extraordinary man born into slavery, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is also a powerful inquiry into the question of what it means to be human. From the opening sentences of the narrative, Douglass delineates the context from which this question emerges—the fact that slave owners typically thought of slaves as animals. Douglass does not know how old he is, and he quickly asserts that this is not unusual, since most slaves "know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs" (p. 47). It is instructive that this initial comparison of slaves to animals does not serve to express something about the minds of the slave owners; instead, it expresses something about the minds of the slaves that is the consequence of being born into an environment constructed and carefully maintained by their owners. In an environment that does not permit the idea that slaves are human, the only perspective available to them is that of their owners. Their own perspective therefore becomes an additional barrier to thinking of themselves as human.

Learning to read and write is essential to the process whereby Douglass comes to see himself as human. As he describes it, the acquisition of these skills is inseparable from the dawning of self-consciousness. Reading gives Douglass access to a new world that opens before him, but the strongest effect of his literacy is the light it casts on the world he already knows. His anguish is so great that he "would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing" (p. 84). It allows him to see his "wretched condition, without the remedy" (p. 84). Self-consciousness, the trait that most distinguishes humans from animals, produces such despair in Douglass that he confesses he often wished himself a beast.

Douglass portrays the breadth of slavery's ability to dehumanize through his insights into the mentality of slave owners. Douglass suggests that if slaves are made rather than born, the same is sometimes true of slave owners. The mistress who began teaching him to read and write "at first lacked the depravity indispensable to shutting [him] up in mental darkness" (p. 81). Under the influence of her husband and, more generally, the institution of slavery, "the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness" (p. 82). The mistress not only stops teaching Douglass to read and write, but she is even more vigilant than her husband in preventing him from learning. The transformation of his mistress raises the question of how much of the behavior of slave owners toward their slaves was learned and how much was internally motivated. Douglass would have us believe that the mistress was the victim of her circumstances, yet the brutality other slave owners seemed to come by so easily makes it difficult to determine whether the behavior was learned or inherent.

Edward Covey undoubtedly counts among the slave owners who play the role as if born for it; his harsh treatment breaks Douglass "in body, soul, and spirit" (p. 105). Following his eloquent lament for the freedom he cannot have, represented by the ships sailing on Chesapeake Bay, Douglass writes, "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man" (p. 107). The first part of this statement could refer to the methods employed by Covey, if not to all the owners at whose hands Douglass suffered. The second part refers to the story that follows, in which Douglass resists the whipping Covey intends to give him for disobeying. They fight for two hours, with Covey "getting entirely the worst end of the bargain" (p. 113). Douglass is never whipped again, and he describes this incident as "the turning-point in [his] career as a slave" and says that it "revived within [him] a sense of [his] own manhood" (p. 113). Douglass emphasizes the importance of literacy in developing his sense of himself as human. Is he suggesting, though, that his refusal to submit to Covey's punishment was ultimately more important than his ability to read and write in shaping his sense of self?

In a letter that prefaces the narrative, Wendell Phillips, social activist and friend of Douglass's, recalls "the old fable of 'The Man and the Lion,' where the lion complained that he should not be so misrepresented 'when the lions wrote history'" (p. 43). As Phillips observes, Douglass's narrative is history written from the perspective of those who previously had no voice. The very existence of the narrative makes it a testament to its author's humanity and, therefore, a document of revisionist history. However, what gives Douglass's narrative its universal relevance is his acute awareness of the complexities of human psychology. He observes that slaves usually spoke of themselves as content and of their masters as kind, concluding that slaves "suppress the truth rather than take the consequences of telling it, and in so doing prove themselves a part of the human family" (p. 62). Douglass is ever mindful that our humanity encompasses our failings no less than our capacity for nobility.


Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in rural Maryland in 1818. Sent to work in Baltimore, he was taught to read by the mistress of the house and regarded this achievement as a turning point in his life. Another such point was his violent resistance to a beating by the man to whom he had been bound as a field slave at age seventeen. Three years later, he escaped to the North, married, and worked menial jobs until his debut as an orator at an antislavery convention in 1841.

To expand his audience and to document the authenticity of his story, Douglass published his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, in 1845. The book was critically acclaimed and sold well both in the United States and in Europe. Douglass left for England later the same year, where he spent two years writing and lecturing. He returned to the United States after abolitionist friends purchased his legal emancipation.

From 1847 to 1863, Douglass published his own weekly paper, The North Star, leading to a break with his mentor William Lloyd Garrison. Douglass also produced a number of other periodicals, as well as two extensions of his narrative—Life and Times of Frederick Douglass and My Bondage and My Freedom. In 1848, he played a prominent role at the women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, and he was a lifelong supporter of the women's suffrage movement. During the Civil War he was an adviser to President Lincoln and recruited blacks, including his own sons, for the Union army. He was appointed to several government positions, including recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia and United States minister and consul general to Haiti. Douglass died in 1895.


  • Why does Douglass believe "Slavery proved as injurious to [his master's wife] as it did to [him]" (p. 81)?
  • After his confrontation with Mr. Covey, what does Douglass mean when he writes "however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact" (p. 113)?
  • Why is Douglass able to "understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs" (p. 57) sung by slaves only when he no longer is a slave himself?
  • When Douglass writes, "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man" (p. 107), what does he understand a man to be?
  • Douglass describes knowledge as "valuable bread" (p. 83) and the Liberator, an anti-slavery paper, as his "meat and drink" (p. 151). How does literacy sustain him?
  • How is Douglass able to maintain his religious faith when that of his owners is used to justify their treatment of him?
  • Why does Douglass consider holiday celebrations as part of the "inhumanity of slavery" (p. 115)?
  • Why does Douglass describe the sails on Chesapeake Bay as "so many shrouded ghosts" (p. 106)?
  • For Further Reflection
  1. To what extent should a piece of autobiographical writing be regarded as "factual"?
  2. Can literacy be a curse as well as a blessing?

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Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)
This autobiographical work not only documents the horrors of slave life, but also provides a perspective on the suffering specific to female slaves.

Martin Luther King, Jr., "I Have a Dream" (1963)
The civil rights leader's most famous speech, one of the finest in modern oratory, projects his vision for an American nation worthy of the ideals that inspired its creation.

Henry David Thoreau, "Civil Disobedience" (1849)
This highly influential essay, in which the author explains why he cannot pay a poll tax to a government that tolerates slavery, remains a touchstone for social and political activism.

Richard Wright, Native Son (1940)
This novel challenges both blacks and whites to face the reality of race relations in the United States.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 23 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 23 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 6, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    The "Narrative" Is A Must Read For Students Learning American History

    I am a high school Social Studies teacher. Each year when I teach about the Reform Period (1820-1860), I require my students to read the "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass." The abolitionist movement is the most visible element of the Reform Period, and Douglass is a giant among men in the movement.

    If you want to learn about what life was really like for African Americans trapped in the institution of slavery then this is your book. When my classes read this book, we read one chapter a day for eleven consecutive days. The book is not all that lengthy, and when presented in this fashion it allows them the opportunity to slowly filter all of what Douglass is relating about his topic.

    Douglass does an excellent job of getting his readers to understand how "ignorance" is used as a tool of slavery. He also vividly conveys how male and female slaves alike are victimized by their masters. Lastly, and most importantly I believe, he conveys how slavery creates a perversion of Christianity.

    This book is a classic and more Americans should find time to read it.

    23 out of 23 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 28, 2008

    awesome for history!

    this was the most intriguing book about Fredric Douglas.It is a great read and I hope that other young people become involved with learning more about a man like Fredric Douglas. -Caiti

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 8, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    A Must Read

    Douglass' poignantly recounts his life as a slave and his coming to freedom. Throughout his Narrative he demonstrates a sensitivity to himself and to those around him including insight into human behavior and its effects on character. In his appendix Douglass clarifies his comments concerning religion -- Christianity -- words which resonant even today. This Narrative is more than historically significant and an unveiling the reality of American slavery. It portrays much of the psychological impact of slavery on slaveholders as well as slaves, provides an insightful critique of religious practice and justification, and shares generously of his journey to claim freedom and manhood. I consider this a must read for citizenship for all Americans. Highly recommended.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 4, 2013

    This book allows you to go into the deepest darkest thoughts of

    This book allows you to go into the deepest darkest thoughts of an american slave as Frederick Douglass vividly and intensively describes the lifestyle of a slave in both the south and the north. The book allows the reader to get a point of view on why slavery should have been ended from a slave who unfortunately had to participate in the harmful acts of slavery. From the beginning of the book to the end, Frederick Douglass does a fantastic job at proving that African Americans at the time could indeed be knowledgeable  

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 14, 2011

    An excellent role model for all American children An excellent role model for all American children An excellent role model for all American children An excellent role model for all American children

    Frederick Douglass was elegant and eloquent. When you give serious consideration to the incredible circumstances he overcame to achieve success in the 1800s, it is truly impressive and inspiring. He wrote with honesty and honor. It is a shame that most Americans know nothing of this man or his works.

    Whether you are history buff or not, everyone should read this book as there are lessons to be learned by us all.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 19, 2008

    American History

    I loved this book. It gave me an important look into American history. It is a story that we can all learn from, and that everyone should have a chance to read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 19, 2013

    This book cool


    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 16, 2009

    Frederick Douglass

    Haven't read the book yet, but fast service, excellent book quality.

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