Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (book, editor)

As part of Casavaria’s effort to bring quality literary content to its readers, we chose Frederick Douglass’ wrenching and inspiring autobiography as our first American literary classic. Buy now at Amazon.com

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Frederick Douglass is one of the great figures of mid-19th century American letters, culture and politics. Born a slave, he was able to learn to read and eventually escaped to freedom, north of the Mason-Dixon line. His story, his demeanor, his learning and his moral authority inspired popular adhesion to the abolitionist movement, and his autobiography became the leading reference for understanding the struggles of southern slaves against a form of oppression mostly unknown in the northern states.

On 3 September 1838, Frederick Douglass escaped enslavement. Disguised in a sailor’s uniform and carrying papers lent to him by a free black sailor, he boarded a train to Havre de Grace, Maryland. From there, he crossed the Susquehanna River by ferry, then went on by train to Wilmington, Delaware. A steamboat took him to Philadelphia, and eventually, this complicated journey landed him in New York City, less than 24 hours after fleeing. He was one of the most prominent orators of his time and his ideas and relation of the horrors of being enslaved became influential throughout American society and culture.

His rise to prominence in public life led to his being named by Abraham Lincoln as the United States’ first ambassador to Haiti. In his preface, William Lloyd Garrison writes:

In the month of August, 1841, I attended an anti-slavery convention in Nantucket, at which it was my happiness to become acquainted with Frederick Douglass, the writer of the following Narrative. He was a stranger to nearly every member of that body; but, having recently made his escape from the southern prison house of bondage, and feeling his curiosity excited to ascertain the principles and measures of the abolitionists—of whom he had heard a somewhat vague description while he was a slave—, he was induced to give his attendance, on the occasion alluded to, though at that time a resident in New Bedford.

Fortunate, most fortunate occurrence!—fortunate for the millions of his manacled brethren, yet panting for deliverance from their awful thraldom!—fortunate for the cause of negro emancipation, and of universal liberty!—fortunate for the land of his birth, which he has already done so much to save and bless!—fortunate for a large circle of friends and acquaintances, whose sympathy and affection he has strongly secured by the many sufferings he has endured, by his virtuous traits of character, by his ever-abiding remembrance of those who are in bonds, as being bound with them!—fortunate for the multitudes, in various parts of our republic, whose minds he has enlightened on the subject of slavery, and who have been melted to tears by his pathos, or roused to virtuous indignation by his stirring eloquence against the enslavers of men!—fortunate for himself, as it at once brought him into the field of public usefulness, “gave the world assurance of a man,” quickened the slumbering energies of his soul, and consecrated him to the great work of breaking the rod of the oppressor, and letting the oppressed go free!

The importance of Frederick Douglass, his learning, his commitment to the values of open democracy, his contribution to American letters and the weight of his historic achievements, cannot be overestimated. He helped illuminate, with this thin volume, the massive scope of a criminal regime that threatened to undermine everything the young American republic stood for, threatened to wipe away the very idea of a free society, and he did so confessionally, from the innermost depths of a thinking, feeling soul, aware of his predicament and of the perils he might face throughout his life, betting on freedom or not.

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