He rose from slavery in the South to international prominence as a writer, orator and anti-slavery activist. Frederick Douglass didn’t spend a day in school and only learned to read by a stroke of luck. That’s just one of the amazing facts about Frederick Douglass.
He was born in 1818 to a white father he never identified and to a black mother he barely knew.
Douglass escaped from slavery as a 20-year-old with the help of a free African-American, Anna Murray, whom he married as soon as he escaped.
After only a few years of freedom, abolitionists discovered the articulate young fugitive slave. But Frederick Douglass was far more than an abolitionist exhibit of a survivor of slavery. As an orator, he enraptured his audiences; as a polemicist, he caught the attention of presidents; and as a public intellectual, he influenced the debate about slavery, war, equality and opportunity.
Here then are seven fascinating facts about Frederick Douglass.
1. Why New Bedford
Frederick Douglass moved to New Bedford in 1838 to get a job as a caulker, a trade he had learned as a slave in Baltimore.
When he escaped slavery and arrived in New York City, his rescuer, David Ruggles, advised him to go to New Bedford because he could get a job on the waterfront there. He could also fit into the large African-American community, which included both free blacks and fugitive slaves. He arrived penniless and with a new wife. Eventually he began to speak out against slavery at local abolitionist meetings.
William Lloyd Garrison, leader of the American Anti-Slavery Society, heard him speak and decided to put him on the broader abolitionist circuit.
By the time Frederick Douglass left New Bedford, he was a rising star on the abolitionist lecture circuit, traveling as far as Michigan to speak against slavery.
He never did get a job as a caulker, though. White workers on the waterfront refused to work with him, so he had to earn a meager living doing common labor like hauling barrels of whale oil.
2. Columbian Orator
Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln learned how to give speeches from the same book.
Published in 1797, the Columbian Orator sold 200,000 copies and went through 23 printings until 1860. The author, Caleb Bingham, was a radical egalitarian who believed the young United States needed educated citizens. He published the book to promote a dignified, classical style of speaking without any aristocratic pretensions.
Abraham Lincoln studied it as a young politician during a cold winter in Illinois. The Columbian Orator also influenced Ralph Waldo Emerson and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Frederick Douglass bought the book as a 13-year-old slave living and working in Fells Point, Baltimore.
His mistress taught him to read, which was unusual (and forbidden). The boy made friends with a gang of white boys in Baltimore, and they showed him their schoolbook, the Columbian Orator. The book captivated him, and he spent 50 cents to buy it with money he earned polishing boots. “Every opportunity I got, I used to read this book,” he said.
The full name of the book: Columbian Orator, Containing a Variety of Original and Selected Pieces, Together with Rules, Calculated to Improve Youth and Others in the Ornamental and Useful Art of Eloquence.
3. A Little-Known Fact About Frederick Douglass
One of the little-known facts about Frederick Douglass was that he took his name from a Scottish hero in a Sir Walter Scott poem.
Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, he changed his name to Stanley, then Johnson, to evade capture when he fled Maryland.
But when he arrived in New Bedford, he and his wife Anna stayed with Nathan and Mary Johnson, black abolitionists. Nathan Johnson told him there were already too many Johnsons in New Bedford. He gave his houseguest the name ‘Douglass’ after the hero of Sir Walter Scott’s poem, The Lady of the Lake.
Frederick Douglass described what happened in one of his three autobiographies:
…unwilling to have another of his own name added to the community in this unauthorised way, after I spent a night and a day at his house, gave me my present name. He had been reading Lady of the Lake, and was pleased to regard me as a suitable person to wear this, one of Scotland’s many famous names.
In the poem, James Douglas feuded with King James V of Scotland, whom he had formerly mentored, and was himself a fugitive. He came from a line of aristocrats known as the black Douglases because of an ancestor’s dark complexion and ferocity on the battlefield.
Douglass later went on the abolitionist lecture circuit in Scotland, a country he loved. While there, he met a surviving relative of Sir Walter Scott.
4. Frederick Douglass Says No to John Brown
Three-and-a-half weeks before John Brown made his famous raid on Harper’s Ferry, Frederick Douglass met with him in a stone quarry across the Virginia line in Pennsylvania. Brown, disguised as a fisherman, urged Douglass to join him in the attack.
Up until then Frederick Douglass encouraged and supported Brown, but he couldn’t go along with his plan to seize the federal armory. He tried to talk him out of the suicide mission.
After the attack failed disastrously, word got out that Douglass met with Brown just before the raid. The governor of Virginia ordered Frederick Douglass arrested, but he fled to Canada and then to Britain.
5. A Career Highlight With Abraham Lincoln
After the Civil War, Frederick Douglass criticized President Abraham Lincoln for his weak Reconstruction plan and failure to give black people the vote. Lincoln invited Douglass to visit him at the White House.
During their meeting – their second – the two men had a long and frank discussion while Connecticut Gov. William Buckingham waited at the door. Lincoln’s secretary interrupted Lincoln twice to tell him the governor waited for him, and Lincoln waved him off. He said, “I want to have a long talk with my friend Frederick Douglass.”
Douglass often retold that story.
6. Jim Crow in Lynn
He moved to Lynn, Mass., in 1841, after his involvement in one of the most famous Jim Crow incidents in history. Still living in New Bedford, he had taken the train from Boston for a speaking engagement in Newburyport, Mass. He boarded the train in Lynn and sat with three white abolitionists.
Then the conductor grabbed him by the collar and demanded he move to the Jim Crow car. Douglass said he would if the conductor gave him a reason. Other passengers began to chant, “Give him a reason.”
The conductor finally replied, “Because you are black.” The passengers surrounded the conductor, but soon a half dozen company thugs arrived and began to beat Frederick Douglass. He clung to his seat, but they pulled it up by the bolts and threw him and the seat out of the railcar and onto the ground. They threw his luggage after him as well.
The outrage shown by the people of Lynn helped persuaded him to move to the city, which had a large abolitionist community. He and his growing family lived in a small frame house on Union Street.
His wife helped support them by working as a shoebinder, a common occupation then in Lynn. He wrote his first autobiography (he wrote three) in Lynn, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.
7. White Women
His friendships with white abolitionist women provoked severe criticism. In 1847, he caused a scandal when he traveled by steamboat down the Hudson River to an abolitionist meeting. Newspapers discovered he slept in a stateroom next to Lydia or Lucretia Mott (it isn’t clear which). He finally had to explain that he had two choices: to sleep on the deck in the cold because black men couldn’t buy cabins, or to have Miss Mott book an adjoining room.
Later, he developed close relationships – possibly romantic – with British abolitionist Julia Griffiths and German radical Ottilie Assing. Both women spent time living in the Douglass household, inspiring speculation and rumor.
But it was his marriage to white abolitionist Helen Pitts that caused a real firestorm of criticism. A descendant of John and Priscilla Alden, she graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1859. In her 40s when they met, Douglass hired her as a clerk and married her two years after Anna died.
Fast and furious came the denunciations. “The Venerable Colored Orator Takes a White Wife” screamed one headline. A Washington, D.C., newspaper called it a ‘national calamity.’ Many in the black community called him a traitor to his race.
To the criticism, Frederick Douglass replied, “This proves I am impartial. My first wife was the color of my mother and the second, the color of my father.”
End Notes to Fact About Frederick Douglass
Seven Fascinating Facts About Frederick Douglass owes much to Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight. This story was updated in 2023.