Documenting the American South Logo
Collections >> Library of Southern Literature, North American Slave Narratives >> Document Menu >> Summary

Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895
Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself. His Early Life as a Slave, His Escape from Bondage, and His Complete History to the Present Time, Including His Connection with the Anti-slavery Movement; His Labors in Great Britain as Well as in His Own Country; His Experience in the Conduct of an Influential Newspaper; His Connection with the Underground Railroad; His Relations with John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid; His Recruiting the 54th and 55th Mass. Colored Regiments; His Interviews with Presidents Lincoln and Johnson; His Appointment by Gen. Grant to Accompany the Santo Domingo Commission—Also to a Seat in the Council of the District of Columbia; His Appointment as United States Marshal by President R. B. Hayes; Also His Appointment to Be Recorder of Deeds in Washington by President J. A. Garfield; with Many Other Interesting and Important Events of His Most Eventful Life; With an Introduction by Mr. George L. Ruffin, of Boston
Boston: De Wolfe & Fiske Co., 1892.


The 1892 edition of Life and Times of Fredrick Douglass is the last of the four autobiographies that Douglass published in his lifetime. It was preceded by Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and the first edition of Life and Times of Fredrick Douglass (1881).

The 1892 Life and Times is divided into three sections, with the first devoted to "His Early Life as a Slave," the second to "His Escape from Bondage," and the third to "His Complete History to the Present Time." The first two sections are almost entirely unchanged from the 1881 edition, but the third section is entirely new. Like the 1881 edition, the 1892 Life and Times opens with an introduction by George Lewis Ruffin, the first African American graduate of Harvard Law School, who hails Douglass as "our most celebrated colored man" and "the most remarkable contribution this country has given to the world" (pp. 24, 17).

While Douglass' account of his birth, childhood, escape from slavery and early career as an abolitionist remains almost entirely unchanged from the original Life and Times, in the 1892 edition Douglass revises Chapter 19 of the previous text's second section. Whereas the 1881 Life and Times had concluded with a concerned call for African Americans to live frugally and save more than they spend, the 1892 edition provides a more hopeful outlook: "it is the faith of my soul that [a] brighter and better day will yet come" (p. 616). Douglass explains that his renewed optimism is based in part on the 1890 census, which revealed that African Americans "are no longer four millions of slaves, but six millions of freemen" (p. 617). This fact belied the dire predictions of slavery advocates who had argued that if emancipated and left to their own devices, African Americans would "die out" (p. 617). This hopeful development provides a transition into the new material which Douglass adds as the third and final section of his 1892 Life and Times.

The new material in the 1892 edition begins with what might be called a writer's introspection. Douglass recalls the difficulties of authorship, noting that "writing for the public eye never came quite as easily to me as speaking to the public ear," and states that he is at times "embarrassed by the thought of writing so much about myself when there [is] so much else of which to write" (p. 619-620). In retrospect, Douglass envisions his life's work as stemming from a twofold moral obligation: first, to "make slavery odious and thus to hasten the day of emancipation," and, after Emancipation, to represent African Americans, who "though free, are yet oppressed" (p. 620). That work included, among other things, giving abolitionist lectures, serving as President of the Freedman's Bank, publishing multiple newspapers, and perhaps most importantly, serving as an example of a free, successful, and scholarly African American who defied the racist stereotypes of his day. Therefore, Douglass resolves in this final autobiography that the story of his life "shall be finished by the hand by which it was begun" (p. 622).

Douglass goes on to recall the honors of presiding over the inauguration of President Garfield as a U.S. Marshal and of his selection as the first African American Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia. Garfield had promised Douglass that he would appoint an African American ambassador to "a post of honor in a white nation," but this plan is interrupted by Garfield's assassination (p. 633). Douglass does not say much about the presidency of Chester A. Arthur, but he discusses the administration of Grover Cleveland at length. Because Cleveland was a Democrat, some felt that Douglass should resign his post as Recorder of Deeds when the Republican Arthur administration ended, but Douglass notes that Cleveland seemed less eager to see him step down than "some of my Afro-American brethren [who] desired me to make room for them" (p. 645).

After the death of his first wife, Anna, Douglass is criticized "by white[s] and black[s] alike" for marrying a white woman, Helen Pitts, in 1884. "People who had remained silent over the unlawful relations of the white slave masters with their colored slave women loudly condemned me for marrying a wife a few shades lighter than myself," Douglass writes (p. 647). However, Douglass notes that President Cleveland "never failed . . . to invite myself and wife to his grand receptions . . . [and was no] less cordial and courteous" to them than to any other honored guests (p. 647).

Following the end of federally enforced Reconstruction in 1879, Douglass becomes concerned that the nation is heading in the wrong direction. He describes his dismay that the Republican Party has grown weak-willed and "allowed the country to drift (like an oarless boat in the rapids)" (pp. 650-651). Douglass excoriates the U.S. Supreme Court for its ruling on the Civil Rights Cases of 1883, which hold that Congress lacks the authority to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment against private parties and individuals. "[T]his decision has inflicted a heavy calamity upon [African Americans]," Douglass writes, noting that their rights were quickly forgotten when "the black man's arm" was no longer "needed to defend the country" (pp. 659, 652).

Douglass also describes a tour of Europe and Egypt that he takes with his wife. His notes from Egypt reveal an old man grappling with questions of mortality and spirituality; he notes that "[i]n such loneliness, silence and expansiveness, imagination is unchained and man has naturally a deeper sense of the Infinite Presence than is to be felt in the noise and bustle of the towns and men-crowded cities" (p. 707). Douglass' travels also reaffirm his identity as an American, as he notes that "I have lived to see myself everywhere recognized as an American citizen," and he is finally permitted to "walk the world unquestioned, a man among men" (pp. 713, 716).

In 1889, Douglass is named Minister Resident and Consul General to the Republic of Haiti by the newly elected Republican President, Benjamin Harrison. At the time, the U.S. Navy was intent on creating a coaling station for American warships in Haiti, and this intention caused the Haitians to receive Douglass with some suspicion. Between the threatening presence of the U.S. Navy looming over his negotiations and his own ambiguous feelings about his mission, Douglass cannot convince the Haitians to agree to the construction of a coaling station. Douglass includes a lengthy excerpt from an article he had previously published in the North American Review, which explains that he had never been "charged with the duty or invested by any authority by the President of the United States, or by the Secretary of State, to negotiate with Haiti for a United States naval station . . . in that country" (p. 732). When the Haitian government denies the U.S. request, Douglass bristles at the tone of American newspaper editors who place the blame on his "color, indifference, and incompetency" despite the fact that Douglass was never vested with the power to negotiate on his own (p. 745).

At the end of his final autobiography, Douglass looks back fondly on his life's work, judging that "although it has at times been dark and stormy, and I have met with hardships from which other men have been exempted, yet my life has in many respects been remarkably full of sunshine and joy" (p. 752). On this positive note, the story of Douglass' life is, as he had hoped, "finished by the hand by which it was begun" (p. 622).

Works Consulted: Andrews, William, To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986; Blassingame, John W., and others, Eds., The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series Two, Vol. 1, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999; Douglass, Frederick, Autobiographies, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ed., New York: Penguin Books, 1996; "Home Again From Haiti: Arrival Of Rear Admiral Gherardi And His Flagship," New York Times, 17 May 1891; Smith, Johnie D., "Ruffin, George Lewis," American National Biography Online.

Patrick E. Horn

Document menu