He was born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland, approximately seventy miles from Washington, D.C. His mother was sent to a neighboring plantation shortly after his birth, he recalled never seeing her in the light of day. He endured the horrific poverty of enslavement as a child, never having clothing for the lower half of his body until he was six or seven years old. He secretly taught himself to read. As a teen, probably sixteen or seventeen years old, he was sent to a slave-breaker because he disobeyed those seeking to control him. After numerous beatings and denial of food, he physically fought the slave-breaker. That man, William Covey, fearing for his own reputation, never struck him again. Shortly thereafter, he escaped. He changed his name, married, and began a family. He became the main spokesperson for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. He wrote and spoke to thousands, becoming America’s most well-known abolitionist. He founded his own newspaper. He campaigned for women’s rights and was one of the male signers of the Seneca Falls “Declaration of Sentiments.” He became an advisor to presidents, marshall of the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Ambassador to Haiti. He wrote countless speeches, essays, and thankfully, three autobiographies across his long life. He was a father and a grandfather. Of course, many more details make up the life of Frederick Douglass.
Frederick Douglass understood the realities of freedom and equality. He understood these American values because he was born without them. Relentless in his drive to abolish slavery, he resisted the incrementalism others suggested. Aware that his freedom was tied to others’ freedom, he supported the equal treatment of women and their right to vote. Simply put, Douglass understood the deepest American values. He knew how vital it was that every American be treated the same before the law. He knew this because he suffered, and saw others suffer, when it did not happen.
Frederick Douglass was not alive in 1776. He did not write the documents that separated the American colonies from Britain. He did not live during the revolutionary war. However, unlike those who were alive in 1776, those America calls its “founders,” he did not enslave people. Washington owned hundreds of slaves. Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves and raped Sally Hemings, fathering several children, also enslaved. While these men were present at the founding, they did not understand American values. Douglass did. Born around 1818, less than fifty years after the American revolution, Douglass understood and embodied the deepest American values of freedom and equality. He is the American Founder. Not the men we normally honor with that term. Douglass understood the values and he lived them. He put the nation on the path its values required.
If you don’t know Douglass’ life, I urge you to read about him. I guarantee, you will be captivated by his wisdom, language, and courage. His first autobiography, titled The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is the place to start. In this account, which he writes as a twenty-six or twenty-seven year old man, Douglass tells the story of his early life in gripping, thoughtful detail. He does not describe his escape in this book because enslaved people are still using the method he used. Read his final autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass for that fascinating story. I would also urge you to read his “Letter to Harriet Tubman.” This short letter, reveals his humility.
Many of us were never taught the life of this essential American. I, who often think I had an excellent education, never heard a teacher or professor say the name of Frederick Douglass in a classroom. It was not until I began to teach African-American Literature and American Literature that I began to learn about Douglass.
As I tell my students, not knowing something in 2022 is a deliberate choice. If you don’t know about Douglass, you are choosing not to know about Douglass. I deeply believe we cannot understand America without understanding Frederick Douglass. He is The American Founder. Read his life and work. He will transform how you think about America.
I took the photograph at top of this post at the Talbot County Courthouse in Easton, Maryland, near where Douglass was once jailed. He also spoke at that courthouse as an older man. The photograph in the center of the post was taken at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Both photographs were taken in June, 2022.