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A brief biography and exercise suitable for grades 4-8

"Keep the black man away from the books, keep us ignorant, and we would always be his slaves!...Come hell or high water--even if it cost me my life--I was determined to be read."--Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) was the most prominent black American leader of the 19th century. A fiery orator, dedicated editor, bestselling author, and presidential advisor, Douglass crusaded for human rights as an abolitionist, was a strong advocate of women's suffrage, and became a unique voice for social justice.

Born into slavery in Tuckahoe, Maryland, as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, he was taught to read and write as a child in violation of state laws. After being sold and traded to several different owners, he escaped to freedom at age 20, got married, and adopted the last name Douglass. He soon became active in the incipient abolitionist movement. After making an impromptu speech at the Massachusetts Antislavery Society in 1841, Douglass began to speak more and more on behalf of abolitionism, and eventually embarked upon a three-year speaking tour of Northern cities. His powerful rhetorical style, combining humor and outrage, showed audiences the numerous evils of slavery and built public support for the abolitionist cause.

In 1845, Douglass wrote his autobiography and called it Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written as antislavery propaganda, this powerful book told of his struggle to gain his freedom, identified his "owner," and became a national bestseller. It also forced Douglass into exile in England for two years to avoid capture by slave traders. British supporters "purchased" Douglass allowing him to live free in the United States.

Douglass returned to the United States in 1847 to publish The North Star, an abolitionist paper, in Rochester, New York. On the masthead appeared the motto, "Right is of no sex...Truth is of no color...God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethen." Douglass's children helped publish the four-page paper.

As the abolitionist movement gained strength in 1850s, Douglass became more directly involved with the Underground Railroad. Harriet Tubman and other "conductors" often stayed at Douglass's house en route to Canada. In the notorious Dred Scott decision of 1857, the Supreme Court ruled that black people had no rights under the Constitution. This decision infuriated Douglass, and deepened the national debate over slavery.

Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860 promising to limit slavery's expansion. Eleven Southern states, built on a slave economy, decided to leave the country. War soon broke out. Douglass welcomed the Civil War in 1861 as an opportunity for a moral crusade to free slaves and establish a true democracy. During the Civil War, Douglass traveled around the country calling on Lincoln to immediately end slavery and enroll black troops in the war effort. After Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, Douglass helped recruit blacks for the Union Army.

Douglass continued to advise Lincoln throughout the Civil War, and pushed for constitutional amendments that would end slavery once and for all and give blacks a legally guaranteed place in society. With the North's victory, Douglass saw these goals realized: the 13th amendment banned slavery, the 14th amendment gave citizenship to everyone born in the United States, and the 15th amendment granted the right to vote to males over the age of 21 (women did not gain the right to vote until 1920 with the passage of the 19th amendment).

After the war, Douglass held a number of posts. President Rutherford Hayes appointed Douglass the federal marshal of Washington D.C. in 1877. In 1889, Douglass became minister to Haiti, a position he stayed in for two years. During the 1890s, Douglass returned to the lecture circuit in order to condemn the lynchings and ìJim Crowî laws (these limited the rights of blacks) which characterized the new wave of racism sweeping the South. Douglass died on February 20, 1895, just after attending a meeting for women's suffrage.


  1. Where was Douglass born? What was his legal status?
  2. When did Douglass first speak in public? Why?
  3. What was an abolitionist?
  4. What was the name of Douglass's 1845 bestseller?
  5. Why did Douglass write his autobiography?
  6. Where did Douglass flee to? Why?
  7. Why did Douglass return to the United States?
  8. What was the North Star's motto?
  9. What was the Underground Railroad?
  10. Why did Douglass welcome the Civil War?
  11. What was the 13th Amendment? 14th Amendment? 15th Amendment?
  12. Why was the 15th amendment particularly important?
  13. What government positions did Douglass hold?
  14. Do you consider Douglass an American hero? Why?
Frederick Douglass was a fiery orator. His speeches often provoked controversy, inspiring some while shocking others. Douglass's address "The Meaning of July 4th for the American Negro," was given in Rochester, New York on July 5th, 1852. Here are two short excerpts:
"What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all the other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim...To him, your celebration is a sham...a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States."

"Fellow citizens, I will not enlarge further on your national inconsistencies. The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home. It saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing and a byword to a mocking earth. It is the antagonistic force in your government, the only thing that seriously disturbs and endangers your Union. It fetters your progress, it is the enemy of improvement; the deadly foe of education; it fosters pride; it breeds indolence; it promotes vice; it shelters crime; it is a curse of the earth that supports it; and yet you cling to it as if it were the sheet anchor of all your hopes."

  1. Why does Douglass call American republicanism a "sham"?
  2. According to Douglass, how does slavery hurt the United States?
  3. Why do you think Douglass's speech caused controversy?