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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass | Study Guide

Frederick Douglass

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass | Context


Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was published in 1845. Douglass had been speaking about his experiences since 1841, when he was first employed by William Lloyd Garrison as an abolitionist speaker for the American Anti-Slavery Society.

Abolitionist Movement

The abolitionist movement in the United States began to take shape in the late eighteenth century, when activists began lobbying to end the foreign slave trade in the United States. Though this goal was accomplished in 1808, the practice of slavery continued on American shores, particularly in the South.

Beginning around the early 1830s abolitionists mobilized once again, focusing this time on ending the practice of slavery outright. Many Americans in the North and South viewed the abolitionists as radicals. Other groups argued for slavery to be ended but were willing to accept that emancipation would be a gradual process.

The abolitionists wanted immediate, unconditional emancipation and strove to appeal to the individual American's conscience. They employed people who worked as missionaries to create local antislavery societies throughout the country. These local societies formed the American Anti-Slavery Society, which had nearly a quarter of a million members by 1838, mostly in the Northeast. The society's activities often attracted violent responses from people hostile to their message.

By the 1840s, when Douglass became involved with the movement, the group had splintered into various factions. The faction with which Douglass associated was led by Garrison.

William Lloyd Garrison

Garrison began publishing the abolitionist newspaper the Liberator in 1831. The majority of the paper's readers were free African Americans. Garrison also wrote a book on the topic called Thoughts on African Colonization. It inspired many people to join him in calling for the immediate abolition of slavery. Douglass became a reader of the Liberator shortly after he moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Garrison, one of 60 delegates who founded the American Anti-Slavery Society, believed slavery was a sin that must be abolished immediately. In the 1840s Garrison became convinced that a revolutionary change was needed in American spiritual values if emancipation was to be achieved. Garrison began advocating for women's rights as part of his demand for moral persuasion.

Garrison and Douglass met in 1841 at an antislavery convention in Nantucket, Massachusetts. Douglass was a speaker at the convention, and Garrison was impressed by his speech.

Douglass's Authorship

Douglass became a regular spokesperson for the American Anti-Slavery Society. Although he impressed and moved his listeners, many people began to doubt the truthfulness of his slave background. Critics contended that Douglass was a fraud, basing their opinion on the fact that he was so eloquent and erudite. Surely, a man who had escaped slavery only a few years earlier could not possess such skills.

It is for this reason that Douglass wrote Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. He hoped that having his story in print would convince critics of his genuineness. He included names, places, and dates that could be verified. Douglass also emphasized the fact of his authorship by placing the words "Written by Himself" prominently on the book cover.

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