The man we know today as Frederick Douglass was born on a Maryland farm in 1818 to a white man he never met and a black mother he never saw after the age of seven. He escaped to freedom when he was twenty, joined the abolitionist movement, and rose to become not only one of the nation’s foremost opponents of slavery, but also one of the most insightful intellectuals of 19th-century America. His curiosity and intellectual persistence drove him to ask profound questions about issues ranging from the origin and nature of slavery to the philosophical implications of photography. He was a writer of immense skill whose grasp of history, political philosophy, literature, and law was extraordinary—all the more so considering that he had no formal education. As an activist and orator, Douglass sought to turn American society toward the virtues he embraced and worked tirelessly to embody: independence, integrity, and self-mastery. Along the sometimes daunting path of his life, Frederick Douglass discovered—in a sense, created—his own manhood.
When he was seven, Douglass was sent to live in Baltimore with Hugh and Sophia Auld, relatives of the man who “owned” him. At first, he found city life more agreeable than life on the plantation. But that changed quickly after he asked Sophia to teach him to read. When Hugh learned what she was doing, he flew into a rage. Literacy, he roared, would ruin a slave by awakening in him a longing for freedom and motivating him to run away. Even as a young boy, Douglass instantly recognized this outburst as “the first decidedly anti-slavery lecture to which it had been my lot to listen.”1 The maintenance of illiteracy was essential to the perpetuation of slavery.
So Douglass kept up his reading lessons on the sly, tricking neighborhood white children into teaching him. He later explained:
When I met with any boy who I knew could write, I would tell him I could write as well as he. The next word would be, “I don’t believe you. Let me see you try it.” I would then make the letters which I had been so fortunate as to learn, and ask him to beat that. In this way I got a good many lessons in writing.2
In 1831, Douglass spent some coins he had saved on a copy of The Columbian Orator, an anthology meant for students of elocution, which included passages from famous speeches about freedom. Douglass devoured the book as well as reports in Baltimore newspapers about the growing agitation over slavery. Congressman John Quincy Adams was then denouncing slavery in the House of Representatives, and local papers reprinted his speeches. William Lloyd Garrison, who had recently been jailed in Baltimore for his fiery attacks on slavery, also began publishing his own abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, that year. Douglass had once wondered what the word “abolitionist” meant when he saw how it threw master Hugh into fits. Now he knew. “I had a deep satisfaction in the thought that the rascality of slaveholders was not concealed from the eyes of the world,” he later wrote of this discovery. “I was not alone in abhorring the cruelty and brutality of slavery.”3
When he was fifteen, the Aulds sent Douglass to live with Hugh’s brother, Thomas, in the small town of St. Michaels, Maryland. Thomas was far crueler than Hugh had been, and Douglass came to loathe him in short order. He was, Douglass thought, “incapable of a noble action.”4 He kept his slaves hungry and was alternately swaggering and petty. When he converted to Methodism not long after Douglass’s arrival, the young man held out hope that it would soften his master’s harsh treatment. But instead of making Thomas more humane, his newfound religion had the opposite effect. He became even more heartless and commanding, and starved Douglass and the other slaves more often.
Douglass began talking back, refusing to call Thomas “Master,” and taking food from the pantry. Fed up with Douglass’s intransigence, Thomas leased him to Edward Covey, a nearby farmer. Covey was able to hire slaves at a discount rate in exchange for his own peculiar service; he specialized in breaking slaves’ spirits. . . .