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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass | Study Guide

Frederick Douglass

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Course Hero. "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Study Guide." July 28, 2016. Accessed November 27, 2022.


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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass | Preface and Letter | Summary



Preceding the text of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is a preface by William Lloyd Garrison and a letter by Wendell Phillips.

In the preface, Garrison recalls his first meeting with Douglass, which occurs at an antislavery conference in Nantucket, Massachusetts. A friend of Douglass's convinces him to speak. Despite his hesitancy, Douglass's speech about his life as a slave greatly impresses Garrison and the rest of the audience.

Garrison approaches Douglass and asks him to "consecrate his time and talents to the promotion of the [antislavery] enterprise." At first, Douglass hesitates because he feels he is not up to the task. However, after thinking it over, Douglass decides to give speaking a try. "Ever since that period," Garrison writes, "he has acted as a lecturing agent" for antislavery organizations. Garrison notes that Douglass has been successful and persuasive.

Garrison praises Douglass's demeanor. He adds that Douglass has a "union of head and heart, which is indispensable to ... winning ... the hearts of others." Garrison is especially impressed with Douglass because he has endured so much as a slave. "Nothing has been left undone to cripple their intellects," says Garrison of the way slaves are treated.

Garrison confirms that the entire Narrative was written by Douglass, saying that the text "is essentially true in all its statements." Garrison writes that while some people will not believe what they are reading, what Douglass relates is typical of how slaves are treated. Garrison notes that a slaveholder or overseer can do anything he wants to a slave and will not be convicted of any crime. Garrison, like Douglass, believes Christianity and slavery do not mix.

In his letter to Douglass, Wendell Phillips notes he is glad that Douglass is telling his story and that the facts about slavery will become well known. He is also greatly moved by Douglass's account and salutes the bravery it takes to come forward with such a testimony. "I shall read your book with trembling for you," Phillips states.

Phillips asserts that Douglass's narrative is truthful. He believes Douglass deserves praise for writing the book, which shows his bravery because it is "still dangerous, in Massachusetts, for honest men to tell their names." Finally, Phillips expresses his hope that "the tones shall reach every hut in the Carolinas."


William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, both white men, were widely respected and prominent abolitionists. Having their endorsements would raise the status of the book and its potential for sales.

There is a common theme in the preface and the letter. Both Garrison and Phillips vouch that Douglass wrote the book and that it is truthful. Their testimony was important because many slave narratives at that time were ghostwritten—that is, someone other than the named author wrote the text. While these former slaves' stories could be harrowing and disturbing, their lack of authorial authenticity diminished their truthfulness and ultimate effect on the reader. Therefore, the fact that Douglass wrote his Narrative himself is important. It attests to his education and eloquence and to the capability of black men, a point that Garrison brings up.

The need for Garrison and Phillips to vouch for the authenticity of Douglass's work is unfortunate. Douglass, despite being a free man, still needed the assistance of whites to publish his book.

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