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Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895
Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: His Early Life as a Slave, His Escape from Bondage, and His Complete History to the Present Time
Hartford, Conn.: Park Publishing Co., 1881.


Frederick Douglass's first edition of Life and Times of Fredrick Douglass (1881) is the third of four autobiographies that he published. This version was preceded by Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845) and My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). Douglass' fourth and final autobiography is a second edition of Life and Times (1892).

The 1881 edition of Life and Times devotes special attention to the struggle for African American emancipation, citizenship and civil rights during the buildup to and aftermath of the Civil War, while leaving much of Douglass' childhood narrative unchanged from the earlier texts. Both versions of Douglass' Life and Times open with an introduction by George Lewis Ruffin, the first African American graduate of Harvard Law School. Ruffin hails Douglass as "our most celebrated colored man" and "the most remarkable contribution this country has given to the world," adding that "[p]lantation life at Tuckahoe as related by him is not fiction, it is fact; it is not the historian's dissertation on slavery, it is slavery itself" (p. xi, p. iii, p. vi).

Unlike My Bondage and My Freedom, the 1881 Life and Times is literally divided into two parts, the first describing Douglass' enslavement and the second describing his life as a free man. Like his previous autobiographies, Life and Times begins with Douglass' birth in Tuckahoe, Maryland. It retains many of the details added in My Bondage and My Freedom, but pares those details down in places. Nevertheless, the structure and content of the first twenty-one chapters of Life and Times—detailing Douglass' early life on Colonel Lloyd's plantation, his servitude in Baltimore and along Maryland's Eastern Shore, and his eventual escape from slavery—are similar or identical to the first twenty-one chapters of My Bondage and My Freedom.

While Douglass' previous autobiographies had not described his escape from slavery in great detail, the second section of the 1881 Life and Times begins with an explanation of Douglass' escape. After saving some money from his hired work in a Baltimore shipyard, Douglass acquires "free papers" from a friend whose "sailor's protection" vouched that he was a free American sailor (p. 198). These papers, as well as Douglass' costume, "a red shirt and a tarpaulin hat and black cravat, tied in sailor fashion," allow him to travel unmolested by train from Baltimore to Wilmington, Delaware, by steamer from Wilmington to Philadelphia, and by train from Philadelphia to New York City (pp. 198-201).

Chapters 2-7 of Part Two loosely correspond to the last four chapters (22-25) of My Bondage and My Freedom, which describe Douglass's marriage to Anna Murray and his change of name (from Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey to Frederick Douglass). They go on to discuss his work with William Lloyd Garrison's American Anti-Slavery Society; his speaking tour of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales; his manumission (purchased by friends in Great Britain); and his move to Rochester, New York, after his return to the United States. Douglass also describes the painful rift resulting from his argument with Garrison's followers over the legitimacy of the U.S. Constitution. "To those with whom I had once been in agreement and in sympathy," Douglass writes, "I came to be in opposition" (p. 266). The remaining twelve chapters in Part Two (Chapters 8-19) describe the buildup to the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and Douglass' involvement in the Lincoln, Johnson, and Garfield administrations.

Although Douglass had previously criticized (and campaigned against) Abraham Lincoln, because he suspected that Lincoln's support for abolition was lukewarm, Douglass praises Lincoln highly in retrospect. In a section titled "The Black Man at the White House," Douglass recalls his first meeting with the President: "Mr. Lincoln listened with patience and silence to all I had to say . . . He, by his silent listening not less than by his earnest reply to my words, impressed me with the solid gravity of his character" (p. 352). Later, he describes the Emancipation Proclamation as a manifestation of Lincoln's pragmatism: "The proclamation itself was throughout like Mr. Lincoln. It was framed with a view to the least harm and the most good possible in the circumstances" (p. 360). In summary, Douglass eulogizes Lincoln as "not only a great President, but a GREAT MAN—too great to be small in anything. In his company I was never in any way reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular color" (p. 365).

After Lincoln's "tragic death" and the end of the Civil War, Douglass turns to a new speaking career, for as he notes, "[t]hough slavery was abolished, the wrongs of my people were not ended" (p. 380, p. 384). Douglass therefore sets out to campaign for full citizenship and voting rights. In 1866 he serves as a Northern delegate to the National Loyalists Convention in Philadelphia, which advocates suffrage for women and African Americans. Through this convention and subsequent appeals, Douglass plays a key role in the passage and ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Douglass notes that the adoption of these amendments "opened a very tempting field to my ambition," as he was approached about running for the U.S. Congress from a southern state. However, he recalls that "[t]he thought of going to live among a people in order to gain their votes and acquire official honors, was repugnant to my self-respect" (p. 406). In 1870 Douglass moves to Washington, D.C., to take over the publication of The New Era (which he renames The New National Era), a newspaper which he hoped would "cheer and strengthen [African Americans] in the work of their own improvement and elevation" (p. 408).

Douglass also describes holding several positions of influence in the decade before the publication of the 1881 Life and Times. In 1871 President Grant appoints him to the District of Columbia's city council; in 1872 Douglass presides over a "national convention of colored citizens" and serves as a presidential delegate for the Republican party of New York (p. 423-424). In 1877 he is appointed U.S. marshal from the District of Columbia by President Hayes. These honors demonstrate the political heights to which Douglass had risen, but they also provide occasions for segregationists and white supremacists to find fault with Douglass and call for his removal. His national prominence also results in a number of disagreements with other African American leaders, some of whom call Douglass "a traitor to [their] race" and a convert to "the old master class" (p. 436). But Douglass nevertheless recalls his service in these various posts with fondness, noting that "I am bound to praise the bridge that carries me over it" (p. 435).

Perhaps the most compelling new material in the 1881 Life and Times is Douglass' recollection of his 1877 visit with his former master, Thomas Auld, for the first time since his escape from slavery. "[These] incidents . . . might well enough be dramatized for the stage," Douglass observes (p. 445). While visiting a friend in St. Michaels, Douglass receives a message from Auld "to tell me he would be very glad to see me . . . with which request I complied" (p. 447). The old man, stricken with palsy and near death, tells Douglass: "I always knew you were too smart to be a slave, and had I been in your place, I should have done as you did" (p. 448). Douglass also relates an emotional return to the Lloyd plantation, though the "present Col. Edward Lloyd" was regrettably away "on business" and therefore either unable or unwilling to host his now-famous visitor (pp. 451-452). However, the hospitality of Lloyd's young son Howard, as well as the Colonel's daughter, Mrs. Buchanan, was enough to convince Douglass that "a new dispensation of justice, kindness, and human brotherhood was dawning not only in the North, but in the South; that the war and the slavery that caused the war were things of the past, and that the rising generation are turning their eyes from the sunset of decayed institutions to the grand possibilities of a glorious future" (p. 456).

Douglass closes his 1881 Life and Times with recollections of prejudice that he had encountered as a traveling lecturer, and acknowledgments of the friends and benefactors whom he credits for at least part of his success. He concludes that "My joys have far exceeded my sorrows, and my friends have brought me far more than my enemies have taken from me" (p. 486). Douglass insists on the importance of "self-reliance, self-respect, industry, perseverance, and economy" and calls for African Americans "to make the best of both worlds—but to make the best of this world first because it comes first" (p. 488).

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; Smith, Johnie D., "Ruffin, George Lewis," American National Biography Online, 10 May 2008,

Patrick E. Horn

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