Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)

Copyright (c) 2008 by Hugo S. Cunningham

File added 2008/1029
latest minor change 2008/1119

Quotes by Frederick Douglass

Some minor bibliographical notes

    Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Wordsworth American Library, 1996 (original editions 1881 and 1892).

    William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass, W.W. Norton & Company, New York and London, 1991

    Dickson J. Preston, Young Frederick Douglass: The Maryland Years, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1980.

    Preston takes a somewhat revisionist view, claiming that Douglass's Maryland background was not such an empty, featureless waste as his anti-slavery lectures suggested.
    For example:

      Slave-owners, at least on Maryland's Eastern Shore, often kept detailed records of the births and deaths of slaves. On his mother's side, Douglass's great-great-grandfather Baly (later Anglicized to Bailey) was recorded as early as 1746, assumed to be about 45 years old. An entry in the Anthony family register makes clear that Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Bailey in February 1818. His family settled on Valentine's Day (14 Feb) as the specific birthday. McFeely suggests the surname Baly/Bailey, passed down through generations, might be of African origin: Belali or Billal (spellings vary) is a common Muslim name. Preston stresses that the Bailey clan remained vigorous in the Maryland Eastern Shore after Frederick escaped in 1843, and were easy to find after Emancipation in 1865.

      Although the Maryland Eastern Shore had slave codes as brutal as those of the Deep South , actual practice was often milder, (more like European serfdom?), eg. allowing slaves like Douglass's grandmother Betsey (his de-facto foster mother) to develop specialized skills and exercise informal leadership. Over generations they took root in the land; the horror of being sold South had not yet appeared.

      Douglass's DNA father was generally assumed to be white, perhaps his master Aaron Anthony.

      McFeely suggests that the indifference of Douglass's mother Harriet, only rarely seeing her son, was her choice rather than, as Douglass suggested, an inevitable byproduct of slavery. The destruction of family ties by commercial sales (eg to the South) would come later.

      In the famous incident where the teenaged Douglass refused to accept a flogging from a slave-breaker, Preston finds his explanation about why the slave-breaker did not get help for a rematch the next day not entirely convincing. Preston suggests owner Thomas Auld, though promising nothing to Douglass, quietly intervened with the slave-breaker.

      Indeed, Preston emphasizes that Douglass's slave-owners were not the unmitigated villains suggested by Douglass's early anti-slavery testimonials. Although constrained by the attitudes of slavery, they did try to find ways for young Douglass to use his obvious intelligence (eg apprenticing to skilled dockside crafts), rather than trying to break him into agricultural drudgery. The term with the slave-breaker was unusual, the result of Douglass organizing an abortive mass escape.

      For a few days after his escape, Frederick Augustus Bailey assumed the surname Johnson. After he moved to New Bedford, he was persuaded to take the surname of a character in Sir Walter Scott's Lady of the Lake.

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