In the 1860 census, the United States claimed just under four million slaves. Knowledge of slavery’s legacy of suffering and injustice has been a vital facet of the American consciousness ever since. Perhaps no one has written so powerfully, or personally, on the subject than Frederick Douglass. Douglass, who learned the alphabet illegally from his master’s wife and successfully escaped to the north on his third attempt, went on to be one of the most important figures in the abolitionist movement. This collection features three autobiographical works from the great reformer, writer, and orator, including the rhetorical tour de force, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. 150 years later, reading Frederick Douglass remains one of the best ways to learn about slavery in the United States.
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Frederick Douglass was born a slave in the winter of 1818 (as he states in the opening lines of his Narrative, “by far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs”). His master’s wife taught him the alphabet, though it was illegal to teach slaves to read. After Douglass was cut off from this source, he continued in secret to read all the newspapers, pamphlets, and books he could find. After repeated failed attempts, he escaped north by train to a safe house in Pennsylvania.
Douglass published his masterful Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 1845, which was a critical and commercial success. Not being legally free, his fresh celebrity led him to flee to Ireland. Shortly after, British supporters purchased his freedom. After two years abroad he returned to America and began producing several abolitionist newspapers, including The North Star. He became one of the most famous black men in America and devoted his life to the abolitionist cause and suffrage for both black people, and women. Douglass suffered a massive heart attack or stroke on February 20, 1895, hours after receiving a standing ovation at a meeting of the National Council of Women.