The Lion of All Occasions: The Great Black Abolitionist Frederick Douglass
by Manisha Sinha
First published in “Frederick Douglass at 200” (Winter 2018), the fiftieth issue of History Now, the online journal of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
On February 24, 1844, the Liberator printed an admiring report on Frederick Douglass’s “masterly and impressive” speech in Concord, New Hampshire. The fugitive slave was the master of his audience. Douglass, the writer fantasized, was like “Toussaint among the plantations of Haiti. . . . He was an insurgent slave, taking hold of the right of speech, and charging on his tyrants the bondage of his race.” In the two decades before the Civil War, a new generation of African American abolitionists, most of them fugitive slaves, came to dominate the movement. Of these the most famous was undoubtedly the great black abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The trajectory of his triumphant career illustrates how self-emancipated slaves came to lead the effort to end slavery.
Born Frederick Bailey in Maryland in 1818, Douglass was the son of an enslaved mother and an unknown white father, most probably his master, Aaron Anthony. Like many border state slaves, he experienced slavery in all its variety, urban and rural, as a house slave, an abused field hand, and a slave for hire. Douglass’s escape in 1838 was facilitated by free blacks and by his fiancée, Anna Murray. In New York, Douglass and Murray were assisted by African American abolitionists such as David Ruggles, who helped run a vigilance committee to aid fugitives and free blacks who had been kidnapped, and Reverend James W. C. Pennington, who married the couple. Douglass settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, amidst an anti-slavery interracial community. He adopted the name Frederick Douglass and became an avid reader of the Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist Boston newspaper. Discovered by Garrison for his talent and efficacy as a speaker at a meeting in Nantucket in 1841, Douglass soon became known for his extraordinary lectures on his experiences in slavery and remarkable escape.
When questioned about his education in later life, he said, “I have often been asked where I received my education. I have stated that I was graduated from the Massachusetts abolition university” led by “President Garrison.” 
Along with Abby Kelley and Wendell Phillips, Douglass emerged as one of the foremost orators of Garrisonian abolition. (He joined the movement after it had split between Garrisonian and evangelical and political abolitionists over politics, religion, and women’s rights in 1840.) Douglass gave speeches that were an abolitionist sensation. “My back is scarred by the lash — that I could show you. I would I could make visible the wounds of this system upon my soul,” he said in one of his early speeches. One of the most effective lecturing agents of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, Douglass participated in the “one hundred conventions” campaign held in Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana in 1843−1844. After his break with Garrison in the 1850s, Douglass recalled that he had been asked simply to tell his story, but he developed a wide-ranging repertoire that indicted southern slavery, northern racism, and the government, and he lampooned proslavery Christianity by mimicking the “Slaveholder’s Sermon.” Douglass resented white condescension but remembered that the abolitionist William White probably saved his life when he was assaulted by an anti-abolitionist mob in Indiana, and that some white abolitionists had suffered with him in contesting segregated public transportation. Indeed, all was not accolades, as Douglass broke his right hand in the Indiana fracas, endured the abolitionist baptism of being pelted with stones and rotten eggs, and was subjected to racist aspersions that he could not possibly have been a slave. It was to answer these suspicions and to capitalize on the popularity of his lectures that Douglass published his best-selling slave narrative in 1845, to rave reviews.
To Douglass’s iconic narrative belongs the credit for making the slave’s indictment of slavery the most effective weapon in the abolitionist arsenal and for popularizing the genre. The opening testimonials by Garrison and Phillips were common in abolitionist literature and not restricted to black authors, as is often assumed. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written By Himself, with its riveting portrayal of family separation and slave torture on the one hand and the brotherhood and resistance of slaves on the other, is a classic first-person account of slavery. Detailed in its pages are Douglass’s struggle for literacy — “the pathway from slavery to freedom” — and his violent showdown with the slave breaker Covey that “revived within me my sense of manhood.” Yet as in his speeches Douglass was able to interweave a broader political, moral, and religious indictment of slavery that tied the cause of the slave to that of humanity and freedom. His narrative’s extraordinary success made Douglass an instant celebrity, and he capped his fame as a fugitive slave abolitionist with a triumphant lecture tour of the British Isles, where he told audiences that he was “an outlaw in the land of my birth.” Since he had revealed his identity and that of his erstwhile masters in his narrative, he was in danger of re-enslavement.
Douglass’s star turn in Ireland and Britain made fugitive slave abolitionism an international sensation. His letters in the Liberator and the popularity of the British edition of his narrative documented his success. While slaveholders sought to keep the reality of slavery hidden from the world’s view, Douglass noted, quoting John C. Calhoun’s stricture to leave the South alone, that abolitionists sought to lift that veil. On his way to England, he observed that his speeches circulated among the passengers of his ship along with the letters of James Henry Hammond, another South Carolinian planter politician and proslavery ideologue. In one of his first speeches in Dublin, he stated, “I am the representative of three millions of bleeding slaves.” The title of one of his speeches, “International Moral Force Can Destroy Slavery,” encapsulated his appeal. At the World Temperance Convention he called out the racial exclusion practiced by the American temperance movement. He lectured against accepting slaveholders’ contributions to the Free Church of Scotland — “send back the money” — and against including American slaveholding churches in the newly formed Evangelical Alliance in London. At events featuring other speakers, Garrison reported that Douglass was the lion of all occasions. Douglass gave more speeches during his eighteen-month tour than any other American abolitionist on the tour. In England he emerged as a bona fide abolitionist leader. Douglass encountered subtle and open racism alike, some imputing that he was an imposter, while the send-back-the-money campaign was met with large posters demanding that Douglass himself be sent back.
Douglass’s fame put his freedom in jeopardy. In Britain the abolitionist Quakers Anne and Ellen Richardson raised more than sufficient money to purchase his freedom. Numerous American fugitive slaves had purchased their freedom with British assistance. Douglass, however, was no ordinary fugitive but a leading light of the movement, and his self-purchase aroused considerable controversy. When abolitionist newspapers expressed discomfort at a deal that seemed to recognize property in man, Garrison leapt to Douglass’s defense, calling it “The Ransom of Douglass.” Abolitionists, he wrote, were against compensating slaveholders as a “class” for emancipation, but they had always helped ransom individual slaves, conveying the illegitimacy of slaveholding as kidnapping. Few of Douglass’s critics, he continued, endangered their own freedom in the manner that they demanded of fugitive-slave abolitionists. Douglass raised sufficient funds in Britain to start publishing the North Star in Rochester in 1847, dedicated to his “oppressed countrymen.” Its title was resonant of fugitive-slave abolitionism, the most dynamic wing of the movement. The paper became the voice of black abolitionism, and Douglass’s autobiography, which he expanded in 1855 and 1881, became, as one scholar has put it, the “great enabling text” of other fugitive slave narratives.
Garrison’s continued praise of Douglass reveals that he was not resentful of Douglass’s success or of his attempt to fashion himself as an independent spokesman of abolition. Garrison not only wished him well but also frequently reprinted material from Douglass’s newspaper and solicited subscriptions for it. The break came in 1851, when Douglass publicly announced at the annual American Anti-Slavery Society meeting in Syracuse, New York, that he had changed his mind about the Constitution and now agreed with political abolitionists that it was anti-slavery. Garrison condemned the Constitution as a proslavery document. Douglass’s conversion was not opportunistic but a result of his growing closeness to Gerrit Smith, whose donations sustained his paper, and to New York’s black political abolitionists. His actions were also a well-considered response to the growing potential of political anti-slavery. To reduce the Douglass–Garrison breach to a simple matter of race trivializes the serious political differences between the two men. The quarrel developed personal overtones. Garrison blamed the British evangelical abolitionist Julia Griffiths, Douglass’s editorial assistant, for causing unhappiness in Douglass’s home. Douglass, who had until then been respectful of Garrison, was outraged that he had “seen fit to invade my household.”
By 1855 Douglass had become a political abolitionist. To him belongs the last word on the abolitionist debate over the Constitution. Douglass held that the original intent of the founders, many of whom, he well knew, were slaveholders, was irrelevant. Instead, he treated the Constitution as a living, breathing document whose democratic promise must be redeemed and extended by subsequent generations. Slavery was abolished through political action, as Douglass predicted, but in the midst of the enormous bloodletting of the Civil War, as Garrison had warned when he condemned the Constitution’s recognition of slavery as a “covenant with death” and an “agreement with hell.”
Douglass also opposed black abolitionist Martin Delany’s advocacy of emigration as a solution to the plight of blacks. Delany gave a classic formulation of the position of African Americans in the United States: they were “a nation within a nation.” But Delany’s critique of entrenched racism influenced him. In his famous “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” speech of 1852, Douglass proclaimed, “This Fourth is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn,” accusing the American republic of crimes against black people that would shame “a nation of savages.” The next year Douglass gave one of his most brilliant (and relatively unknown) speeches, “A Nation in the Midst of a Nation,” adopting Delany’s formulation. The history of black people, he said, using the Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell’s allusion to Irish history, may be traced like the blood of a wounded man in a crowd.
To Douglass, the Republican Party, like the Free Soil Party before it, was the source of both hope for attacking slavery through mainstream politics and despair over its relatively backward position on racial equality. When New York went heavily Republican in the 1860 elections but defeated a black suffrage amendment, he complained that the “black baby of Negro Suffrage was thought too ugly to exhibit on so grand an occasion.” The despondent Douglass even briefly contemplated emigrating to Haiti, but once the war commenced, he immediately changed his plans. The Civil War, as Douglass insisted, was an “abolition war.” When the Lincoln administration did not move immediately on emancipation, Douglass like other abolitionists kept up a storm of criticism to push the President toward abolition and black recruitment in the Union Army. Douglass remarked that there was no point in fighting the slave power with just one hand, the white, while the black hand remained tied. He became an avid recruiter for the Union Army, with his own son serving in the famed Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth.
At the end of the war and with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, Douglass opposed Garrison’s attempt to disband the American Anti-Slavery Society. The work of abolition, Douglass declared, would not be complete until “black men” had been admitted to the “body politic of America.” The American Anti-Slavery Society was disbanded with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment giving black men the right to vote in 1870. With the fall of Reconstruction, the attempt to establish black citizenship and an interracial democracy after the war, Jim Crow, racial violence, debt peonage, and disfranchisement made a mockery of black freedom. To Douglass, Ida B. Wells’s campaign against lynching continued the abolitionist crusade for black liberation. His last speech was against the new “Southern Barbarism.”
Manisha Sinha is the James L. and Shirley A. Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut. She was born in India and received her PhD from Columbia University where her dissertation was nominated for the Bancroft Prize. At the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she taught for more than twenty years, she received the Chancellor’s Medal, the highest honor bestowed on faculty, and the Distinguished Graduate Mentor Award. She is the author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (2016), winner of the 2017 Frederick Douglass Book Prize, and The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina (2000). Her research interests lie in the transnational histories of slavery and abolition and the history and legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
 Frederick Douglass, Speech at the Wendell Phillips Club, Boston, Massachusetts, September 11, 1886, Boston Morning Journal, September 13, 1886, p. 2
 Frederick Douglass, “Irish Christians and Non-Fellowship with Man-Stealers: An Address Delivered in Dublin, Ireland, on October 1, 1845,” Dublin Evening Packet and Correspondent, October 4, 1865.
 Frederick Douglass, “The Liberator, Anti-Slavery Standard, Pennsylvania Freeman, Anti-Slavery Bugle — William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass; or, A Review of Anti-Slavery Relations,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, December 9, 1853, pp. 2–3, reprinted in the Liberator, December 16, 1853.
 Frederick Douglass, “Equal Suffrage Defeated,” Douglass’ Monthly, vol. III, no. VII (December 1860), p. 1.