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[Detail] North Star, June 2, 1848. Edited by Frederick Douglass.

Collection Overview

The Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress, document the activities of the noted abolitionist, writer and publisher. Included within this collection are copies of Douglass's writings, correspondence with noted abolitionists including Henry Ward Beecher, Ida B. Wells, Gerrit Smith, and Horace Greeley, and scrapbooks documenting his activities. Also included is a biography of his wife of forty-four years, Anna Murray Douglass, written by their daughter, Rosetta Douglass Sprague.

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  • Expansion and Reform, 1801-1861
  • The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1877
  • Development of the Industrial United States, 1876-1915

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U.S. History


Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery in 1838 and became a leading abolitionist, as well as an orator, writer, editor, and public servant. The Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress includes many of Douglass’ speeches and letters, along with articles from two abolitionist papers that he edited and published—The North Star and Frederick Douglass’ Paper. In addition, the collection contains books presented to Douglass on various issues relating to African Americans in the post-Civil War era and congressional reports on civil rights. The books and manuscripts in the collection reveal Frederick Douglass’ interest in women’s suffrage and the plight of individuals and groups facing prejudice and discrimination. The collection also documents Douglass’ worldview through letters, papers, and diary entries relating to his tour of Ireland and Great Britain (1845), his tour of Europe and Africa (1886-87), and his service as U.S. minister to Haiti (1889-91). Drafts of Douglass’ autobiography are also included, with links to complete online texts of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1849 edition).

Although the papers span the years 1841-1964 (scrapbooks, books, and articles were added by Douglass’ descendants after his death in 1895), the bulk of the papers cover the period from 1862 to1895.  The Frederick Douglass Papers and the complete online autobiographies enhance the study of pivotal periods in U.S. history from the antebellum era through the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the post-Reconstruction era.

Readers should be aware that Frederick Douglass documented many instances of racial prejudice and violence in his papers and that some of the materials in this online historical collection contain language or negative stereotypes that may be offensive. Teachers should prepare students for their encounters with this material.

Slavery and Abolitionism in the Period of National Expansion and Reform, 1815-1860

Chapter XI of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave relates Douglass’ successful escape from Baltimore to New York in 1838. The chapter begins:

I now come to that part of my life during which I planned, and finally succeeded in making, my escape from slavery. But before narrating any of the peculiar circumstances, I deem it proper to make known my intention not to state all the facts connected with the transaction. My reasons for pursuing this course may be understood from the following: First, were I to give a minute statement of all the facts, it is not only possible, but quite probable, that others would thereby be involved in the most embarrassing difficulties. Secondly, such a statement would most undoubtedly induce greater vigilance on the part of slave-holders than has existed heretofore among them; which would, of course, be the means of guarding a door whereby some dear brother bondman might escape his galling chains.

From Chapter XI of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave

  • What reasons did Douglass give for not explaining exactly how he escaped from slavery? Do you think these reasons were compelling?
  • Look at Douglass’ second and third autobiographies. When did he decide to reveal the entire story of how he made his way to freedom? What explanation did he give for not revealing this information earlier? Do you think he made the right decision? Why or why not?

In New York, Frederick changed his name from Bailey to Johnson and married Anna Murray.  With his new wife, he moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where the couple soon changed their name to Douglass. In 1841 he was encouraged to speak to an antislavery meeting in New Bedford.  William Lloyd Garrison was so impressed by Douglass’ address that he persuaded him to go on the speaking circuit.  In 1845, after publishing his autobiography, Douglass toured Great Britain and Ireland as an abolitionist speaker.  In a letter to Garrison from Dublin dated September 1, 1845, Douglass described a confrontation on board ship after he was asked to speak. 

Yes, they actually got up a mob—a real American, republican, democratic, Christian mob,—and that, too, on the deck of a British steamer, and in sight of the beautiful high lands of Dungarvan! I declare, it is enough to make a slave ashamed of the country that enslaved him, to think of it.

From “General Correspondence 1841;1845,” (page 6)

U.S. newspapers, North and South, were critical of Douglass’ speaking about slavery in Britain.  Douglass wrote to Horace Greeley from Glasgow, Scotland, thanking him for the support and encouragement Greeley had offered in the New York Tribune.  In a letter dated April 15, 1846, Douglass wrote,

I am one of those who think the best friend of a nation is he who most faithfully rebukes her for her sins—and he her worst enemy, who, under the specious and popular garb of patriotism, seeks to excuse, palliate, and defend them.  America has much more to fear from such than all the rebukes of the abolitionists at home or abroad.

From “General Correspondence 1846” (page 30)

In these sentences, Douglass addresses an issue that has persisted throughout U.S. history. What is this question? How might someone taking the opposing position respond to Douglass? Think of at least two other times in U.S. history that this question has emerged and look for quotes representing the opposing points of view. Do you think this question has been controversial in other countries? Why or why not?

While Douglass was abroad, English friends raised money to “purchase” Douglass’ freedom from Thomas Auld of Maryland.  While in America, even residing in the North, Douglass was always faced with the possibility of being captured and returned to Maryland, as he explains in an essay written in 1846.  Read the letter Douglass wrote to his former master, published in the Liberator in 1848.  Douglass ends the letter with the words, “I am your fellow man, but not your slave.”  The collection also includes the bill of sale for Frederick Bailey (Douglass).

  • What was the tone of Douglass’ letter to Thomas Auld?
  • How did Douglass attempt to get Auld to consider the horrors of enslavement?
  • How did Douglass regard churchmen who trafficked “in the souls and bodies of men”?
  • What can you discern of Douglass’ character from this letter?

Douglass returned to the United States in 1847 and moved his family to Rochester, New York.

Using funds raised in England and Ireland, Douglass purchased a printing press.  Martin Delany, who had served as editor of an African American paper in Pittsburgh, joined in Douglass’ endeavor.  The two editors named their paper The North StarRead what Douglass said were the reasons for choosing that title.  The masthead of the paper proclaimed, “Right is of no Sex—Truth is of no Color—God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethren.”  Volume I, No. 1 explained the purpose for publishing the paper.

…“common sense affirms and only folly denies,” that the man who has SUFFERED THE WRONG is the man to DEMAND REDRESS,—that the man STRUCK is the man to CRY OUT—and that he who had ENDURED THE CRUEL PANGS OF SLAVERY is the man to ADVOCATE LIBERTY.  It is evident that we must be our own representatives and advocates, not exclusively, but peculiarly,—not distant from, but in connection with, our white friends.

From “Our Paper and Its Prospects,” The North Star, Dec. 3, 1847 (page 2)

  • What were other recommended titles for the newspaper?
  • Why did Douglass and Delany select the name The North Star?
  • What would you have advised the editors to name the paper?  Why?
  • How did the slogan on the masthead of the paper relate to the goals of the paper?
  • What was the reason for establishing an African American newspaper as the voice of abolition? Do you agree with this reasoning?

In the inaugural issue of The North Star, Douglass addressed a letter to Henry Clay.  Read this letter, in which Douglas responded point by point to assertions Clay had made in a speech at a mass meeting in Lexington, Kentucky, in mid-November 1847. In a second letter in the January 1848 issue of paper, Douglas addressed the following comment to Clay:

This speech we have just finished perusing and confess to some excitement.  We see in it a revival of that second enemy of the colored people, the Colonization Society, which, next to slavery, is the deadliest foe of the colored man, … unsettling his plans and improvements by teaching him to feel that this is not his home; disheartening and subduing his enterprise by causing him to feel that all effort at self-evaluation is in vain; that neither knowledge, temperance, patience, faith nor virtue can avail him anything in this land.

From “Henry Clay,” The North Star, Jan. 1848 (page 2)

  • What techniques did Douglass use to challenge Clay’s assertions in his Lexington speech?  How effective was Douglass’s rebuttal to Clay?
  • Why do you think Douglass was so adamantly opposed to colonization schemes?
  • Why did he accuse Clay of “mock sympathy and sham philanthropy”?
  • How did Douglass compare the two Clay speeches?

The pamphlet “The Constitution of the United States with all the Acts of Congress Relating to Slavery,” published in 1854, is among the public documents in the Douglass collection.  Along with other documents, the pamphlet includes the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and the Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854.

Douglass addressed the American Anti-Slavery Society meeting in New York on May 14, 1857.  In his speech, Douglass attacked the Supreme Court for its decision in Scott v. Sandford, which had been rendered two months earlier.  Read the speech and select excerpts to illustrate the depth of feeling aroused by the majority decision of the Court. 

The world is full of violence and fraud, and it would be strange if the slave, the constant victim of both fraud and violence, should escape the contagion.  He, too, may learn to fight the devil with fire, and for one, I am in no frame of mind to pray that this may be long deferred.

From “Two Speeches by Frederick Douglass; West India Emancipation. And the Dred Scott Decision,” (page 34)

  • What tone was set by Douglass’ address?
  • What hope or promise was offered in the speech?
  • What passages of the speech imply that slavery may only be overturned by violent confrontation?


Civil War and Reconstruction, 1860-1877

Read Douglass’ “Secession and War,”  in which he called for a commitment that the war would be fought to end slavery as well as to save the union.  He made an appeal for the use of African American troops from the very beginning of the war.  Early in 1863 the governor of Massachusetts announced the formation of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first African American regiment recruited in the North.  Frederick Douglass was asked to serve as a recruiter for this and other Negro regiments and immediately accepted and published his appeal “Men of Color, To Arms!” 

…with every exulting shout of victory raised by the slaveholding rebels, I have implored the imperiled nation to unchain against her foes, her powerful black hand.  Slowly and reluctantly that appeal is beginning to be heeded.

From “Men of Color, To Arms!”

Douglass traveled through New York and New England recruiting African Americans for service in the Union Army.  Read “Why a Colored Man Should Enlist” and his July 1863 address to a mass meeting in Philadelphia promoting enlistment.

  • What arguments did Douglass use to convince African Americans to enlist in the Union Army?
  • How did he respond to those who argued that African American soldiers should not enlist because of unfair treatment by the military?
  • What can you discern from Douglass’ articles and speeches on the importance of African American service in the military?

Douglass delivered a speech at Arlington National Cemetery on Decoration Day, 1871, in which he commemorated the unknown soldiers who died in the Civil War.  He concluded his speech with the lines,

…if now we have a united country, no longer cursed by the hell-black system of human bondage, if the American name is no longer a by-word and a hissing to a mocking earth, if the star-spangled banner floats only over free American citizens in every quarter of the land, and our country has before it a long and glorious career of justice, liberty, and civilization, we are indebted to the unselfish devotion of the noble army who rest in these honored graves all around us.

From “Address of Frederick Douglass at the Monument of the Unknown Dead, At Arlington, May 30, 1871”

Treatment of African American soldiers during the Civil War was another issue of concern to Douglass. On his first-ever visit to Washington, D.C., in August 1863, he met with President Lincoln to discuss three issues related to African American soldiers: (1) equal pay, (2) access to promotions when these soldiers performed bravely, and (3) retaliation against the south when captured African American soldiers were killed. Remembering the meeting years later, Douglass said:

I never shall forget how quietly and sympathetically Mr. Lincoln listened to what I had to say. I saw, when I came to the last proposition, the first he received with a smile of approval, the second also, but when it came to the third, that of retaliation, I got a peep into that good man’s heart. . . I could see that there was a vista of blood opening to him from which his tender heart shrank. He said, “If I could get hold of the men that murdered your troops, murdered our prisoners of war, I would execute them, but I cannot take men that may not have had anything to do with this murdering of our soldiers and execute them. No, Mr. Douglass, I don’t see where it would stop.”

From “Speech on the 79th Anniversary of Lincoln's Birth, Washington, D. C.”  (pages 16)

In 1865, Douglass made a speech in which he reflected on the two “important and instructive events in American history” that occurred during the year.

  • What were the two “important and instructive events” in 1865?
  • What comparison did Douglass use to explain the effect of Lincoln’s assassination on the American people? Do you think this was a good comparison? What other events in U.S. history might have had a similar effect?
  • What did Douglass see as the lessons of the Civil War?
  • Why did Douglass say that Lincoln’s death was an “unspeakable calamity” for African Americans? Given what you know about ensuing events, do you think he was correct? Why or why not?

In an undated Decoration Day speech in Rochester, Douglass presented a realistic portrayal of African Americans during Reconstruction and called for the nation to combat prejudice. Yet even more challenging times were to come in the post-Reconstruction era.

Race and the Rise of Industrial America, 1876-1900

When the last federal troops were withdrawn from Southern states after the Compromise of 1877 ended Reconstruction, white Southerners were determined to end African American participation in the political process and withhold basic civil rights. By the 1890s, they had enacted a series of laws that essentially reduced blacks to servitude.  These so-called Jim Crow laws flouted guarantees incorporated in the Constitution by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. The federal government abandoned enforcement of constitutional protections and stood aside as the efforts to ensure equal rights and due process of law were swept away by Jim Crow laws. Frederick Douglass used every method at his disposal to arouse the public to the virtual re-enslavement of African Americans. 

In a speech on the Convict Lease System   instituted throughout the South in the post-Reconstruction period, Douglass described the system as subjecting African Americans to a new form of slavery.  He explained the lease system in Southern states and, using the state of Louisiana as a model, wrote of the consequences of attempts made to escape:

 …Bloodhounds are used in La. for recapture, as in perhaps all of the Southern states, and the La. Bloodhounds are not educated to self-restraint.  Like their masters, they will tear a black convict to pieces in short order.”

Read more of Douglass’ speech about the Convict Lease System:

  • What was the Convict Lease System? What was its purpose?
  • Describe some of the abuses of the system that Douglass documented.
  • What did Douglass mean when he asked: “Which is the criminal, the ignorant, helpless, malformed individual, or the state that deliberately instigates and superintends the malformation?” How would you answer this question?

Lynching was an abusive and criminal tactic used by lawless gangs in the South.  Between 1882 and 1901, the annual number of lynchings in the nation usually exceeded 100.  A lynching was an illegal mob killing—usually by hanging—of a person accused or suspected of a crime. Despite pressure, Congress never passed an anti-lynching law.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964, however, provided for federal intervention in the event of harm to persons seeking their constitutional rights.

Ida B. Wells became one of the most inexhaustible advocates of an anti-lynching law.  In a   pamphlet, “A Red Record,” she exposed the problem of lynching and presented a clarion call for the nation to end the abuse. The title page included a measure of her rage in the statement, “Respectfully submitted to the Nineteenth Century civilization in the ‘Land of the Free and, the Home of the Brave’.”  A letter from Frederick Douglass addressed to Wells was included as the preface to the pamphlet: 

Brave woman! You have done your people and mine a service which can neither be weighted nor measured.  If the American conscience were only half alive, if the American church and clergy were only half Christianized, if American moral sensibility were not hardened by persistent infliction of outrage and crime against colored people, a scream of horror, shame, and indignation would rise to Heaven wherever your pamphlet shall be read….

From the “Preface” to “A Red Record”

In 1892 Douglass wrote an article for The North American Review in which he charged that lynchings, the acts of ignorant mobs, were condoned by wealthy and educated descendants of Southern rebels. The article aroused protest throughout the South and Douglass responded in a lecture titled “Lessons of the Hour.”

Not a breeze comes to us from the late rebellious states that is not tainted and freighted with Negro blood.  In its thirst for blood and its rage for vengeance, the mob has blindly, boldly and defiantly supplanted sheriffs, constables and police.  It has assumed all the functions of civil authority.  It laughs at legal processes, courts and juries, and its red-handed murderers range abroad unchecked and unchallenged by law or by public opinion…

We claim to be a highly-civilized and Christian country.  I will not stop to deny this claim, yet I fearlessly affirm that there is nothing in the history of savages to surpass the blood-chilling horrors and fiendish excesses perpetrated against the coloured people of this country, by the so-called enlightened and Christian people of the South….

From “Lessons of the Hour” ( pages 4-5 )

  • What factors do you think accounted for the federal government’s failure to pass an anti-lynching law?
  • What tactics did Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass, and others use to pressure the government to act?

In a speech on the occasion of the twenty-first anniversary of emancipation in the District of Columbia, Douglass assessed the current situation in Jim Crow America and celebrated the end of slavery in the nation’s capital.  Douglass called his remarks “The United States Cannot Remain Half-Slave and Half-Free,” recalling Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech.

Douglass repeatedly urged the labor movement to open its ranks to African American workers.  In an address to the Convention of Colored Men in Louisville, Kentucky, in September 1883, Douglass urged labor unions to freely enlist African Americans in their struggle to obtain an eight-hour day, better working conditions, and higher wages: 

The Labor Question—Not the least important among the subjects to which we invite your earnest attention is the condition of the labor class at the South.  Their cause is one with the labor classes all over the world.  The labor unions of the country should not throw away this colored element of strength.  Everywhere there is dissatisfaction with the present relation of labor and capital, and to-day no subject wears an aspect more threatening to civilization than the respective claims of capital and labor, landlords and tenants.  In what we have to say for our laboring class we expect to have and ought to have the sympathy and support of laboring men everywhere and of every color.

From “National Convention of Colored Men” (page 6)

  • Why did Douglass argue that it was advantageous for labor unions to enlist support from African Americans?
  • Conversely, why should African Americans support the unions?

Douglass was a loyal Republican and urged African Americans to support the party.  Read Douglass’ handwritten lament on the election of Grover Cleveland in the 1884 presidential election.  In the 1888 campaign, Douglass criticized calls for the formation of a Negro Democratic Party and urged African American voters to support Republican candidate Benjamin Harrison.

  • Why did Douglass support Republican candidates during Reconstruction and the post-Reconstruction era?
  • What arguments did Douglass use to urge African Americans to support the Republican Party?
  • How did Douglass regard the 1888 Democratic Vice Presidential candidate, Alan Thurman?
  • Research the outcome of the 1888 election. How was the result of the election tied to Douglass’ next position?
telegram from John W. Hutchinson

Telegram from the General Correspondence 1895, Feb. 22-26 file. Learn more about John W. Hutchinson by searching the Frederick Douglass Papers or the Music for the Nation collection at the Library of Congress.

Search the collection using the keyword Haiti to find a series of folders containing lectures, articles, and letters on the island republic and remarks regarding Douglass’ short tenure as United States Minister and Consul General to Haiti (1889-1891).

Frederick Douglass died in February 1895. Analyze the file of letters and telegrams sent in the days immediately following his death. Note who sent telegrams or letters and the topics of the various communications. What do these communications suggest about Douglass’ influence? The way in which people in various walks of life regarded him? What, if anything, can you discern about the aftermath of the death of a well-known American in the late nineteenth century?  What kinds of issues was his family required to deal with?


Critical Thinking

Chronological Thinking: Interpreting Data in the Frederick Douglass Timeline and a Biography of Anna Douglass

Use the Frederick Douglass Timeline to examine the influences that shaped Douglass’ life. Identify five events that you believe were particularly important in shaping later events in his life. Link each to a later event in Douglass’ life that was influenced by the earlier event. For example, what events were influenced by the young Frederick’s learning to read?

The daughter of Frederick and Anna Douglass, Rosetta Douglas Sprague, wrote a biography of her mother in 1900; the biography, “My Mother as I Recall Her,” was republished by Rosetta’s daughter Fredericka in 1923. In her introduction to the biography, Fredericka writes, “Too often are the facts of the great sacrifices and heroic efforts of the wives of renowned men overshadowed by the achievements of the men and the wonderful and beautiful part she has played so well is overlooked.”

Using the timeline, make a hypothesis about events or occurrences in Frederick Douglass’ life that necessitated sacrifice by his wife, Anna. Test your hypothesis by reading the biography of Anna Douglass. How accurate were your hypotheses?  What hardships and sacrifices did Anna Douglass and her children experience because of the public life her husband led?  If you were to create a timeline of the Douglass family, how would it be different from and similar to the Frederick Douglass Timeline?

Chronological Thinking: Reading a Family Tree Chronologically

A family tree is a graphic used to show a person’s genealogy—his or her family history. But a family tree is also a timeline of family life. While it is not as linear as a timeline, a family tree, when read from top to bottom and left to right, does provide a sense of the events in a family’s history.

Reading from top to bottom and left to right, examine the Frederick Douglass Family Tree.

  • What important events in the life of Frederick Douglass are recorded on the timeline? Make a simple timeline showing those events. If you read from top to bottom and left to right, are the events in roughly chronological order?
  • What does the family tree tell you about Frederick Douglass’ first marriage? Note as many facts as you can.
  • What does the family tree tell you about Frederick Douglass’ second marriage? Again, note as many facts as you can.
  • Which marriage can you learn more about using the family tree? Why is that true? What does that suggest about the shortcomings of family trees for providing insights into family life?
  • What other shortcomings does the family tree have as a source of information about family history?

Historical Comprehension: Reconstructing Events in Haiti During Douglass’ Tenure as Consul General

Frederick Douglass was not only a writer, publisher, orator, and activist, he was also a public servant. In the years following the Civil War, he held several government posts, including U.S. consul general in Haiti, a post he assumed in 1889. By 1891, Douglass had resigned from the position amid some controversy.

What happened in Haiti to cause controversy? Read a speech about Haiti that Douglass gave following his return from Haiti.  What can you glean about the events in Haiti from the speech? What was Douglass’ attitude about the controversy?  Check your hypothesis against the Frederick Douglass Timeline for the years 1877-1895. Why do you think the United States was interested in Mole St. Nicholas?  How could you determine if the criticisms of Douglass’ role in the negotiations had merit?

Historical Comprehension:  Reading Douglass’ Analysis of African Americans’ Exclusion from the World’s Columbian Exposition

Examine Douglass’ introduction to Ida B. Wells’ pamphlet “The Reason Why The Colored American is not in the World’s Columbian Exposition.”

  • In what context did Douglass write this introduction? That is, what was the stimulus for publication of the pamphlet? To whom was the introduction addressed?
  • What were the central questions Douglass addressed in the introduction?
  • What did Douglass mean by the statement, “Though it [slavery] is now gone, its asserted spirit remains”?  Was this a fair appraisal of the exclusion of the African American from the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893?  Explain your answer.

Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Comparing the Perspectives of John C. Calhoun and Frederick Douglass

John C. Calhoun was a politician from South Carolina, one of the leading defenders of the institution of slavery. While many apologists for slavery referred to it as a “necessary evil,” Calhoun, in an 1837 speech in the U.S. Senate, termed it a “positive good.”  Given this position, what hypothesis would you make about Frederick Douglass’ opinion of Calhoun?

Calhoun held a number of high offices in the U.S. government; at the time of the Mexican-American War, Calhoun was a member of the U.S. Senate. In the January 14, 1848, edition of The North Star, Douglass reported on a speech by Senator John C. Calhoun in which the South Carolina senator voiced opposition to the continuation of the Mexican War because the defeat of Mexico would result in “the incorporation of her people with those of the United States, would be a death-blow to our ‘free institutions.’”  In February Douglass wrote of the war, “…Pride and ambition, when once in full possession of the nation’s heart, and roused to action, cannot be easily expelled, by any means this side of national ruin.  We have given ourselves to the blind spirit of mad ambition….”

  • How did Douglass characterize Calhoun?
  • How did Douglass respond to Calhoun and his call for the end of the war with Mexico?
  • How do these two articles in The North Star reflect conflicting values held by Calhoun and Douglass?  Can you identify any points on which they agreed?

Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Identifying the Core Values of a Hypothetical  Douglass Administration

In an undated item, Douglass responded to a question posed to him regarding what he would do if he were president of the United States.  Read Douglass’ response.

  • Why did Douglass remark that the question was “a little absurd”?
  • What did Douglass identify as the central focus of any such administration?
  • What does this response reveal about Douglass’ values and aspirations?
  • Pick a major presidential decision that occurred during Douglass’ life. What alternative course of action might Douglass have chosen?  Explain

Historical Issue Analysis and Decision-Making: Frederick Douglass and John Brown

In August 1859, Douglass met with John Brown at Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and learned of the plan to raid the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Brown pleaded with Douglass to accompany him in the planned raid, but Douglass refused and attempted to dissuade Brown.  Read the lecture on John Brown “Delivered at Harpers Ferry and Sundry Other Places” (ca. 1890), in which Douglass spoke of his alleged involvement in the raid and his reference to a letter from Henry Wise, former governor of Virginia, to President Buchanan accusing Douglass of “murder, robbery, and inciting servile insurrection.”  Evaluate Douglass’ decision not to join Brown.

  • What was Douglass’ view of John Brown and the raid on Harpers Ferry? How did Douglas use the distinction between emotion and reason to justify his assessment?
  • How did Douglass explain his decision not to take part in the raid? What course of action do you think Douglass should have taken?  Explain your position.
  • How might history have changed if Douglass had agreed to join Brown at Harpers Ferry?

Arts & Humanities

Persuasive Language

A metaphor is a figure of speech in which two things are compared to suggest a similarity and thereby provide insight into the object of study. For example, someone explaining life to a child might say that life is a bowl of cherries, a box of chocolates, a journey, or a game of baseball. By providing an imaginative way to think about an object, event, or idea, a metaphor can be not only an aid to understanding but also a persuasive tool.  Another tool of persuasion is reference to authoritative sources, especially those sources that are held in high esteem by many people (such as the Declaration of Independence and Constitution).

Among the items in Frederick Douglass’ collection of speeches, articles, and books was a speech delivered in January 1864 by Montgomery Blair, Lincoln’s postmaster general between 1861 and 1864. The speech before the Maryland legislature supported Lincoln’s plan for reconstruction.  In the speech, Blair discussed a charge against King George III that was deleted from the Declaration of Independence:

…Slavery, as a great element of society, makes slaves of all associated with it, by the passions it inflames: the masters, by the ambition it inspires—the masses, with which it mingles, by the deadline contagion it spreads in a thousand forms. It is marked in the Declaration of Independence as the most virulent poison instilled by the king, to enfeeble for subjugation, the people on whom he made war, and it has proved the most potent ingredient that could be employed for the dissolution of the fabric of free government, which withstood the king’s attempt. If the virus he [George III] infused, which was strong enough amid the enthusiasm for new-born freedom, to stifle the voice of the Declaration of Independence, denouncing slavery, and has kept the free Government—the hard-earned prize of the revolutionary war—in tremor ever since, is it now, when it has been poured out with the nation’s blood in the fratricidal war, it forced on the country, again to be admitted into the system?

From “Speech by the Hon. Montgomery Blair, on the Causes of the Rebellion”  (page 17)

  • What case was Blair making about slavery? Why do you think he was making this speech to the Maryland legislature? Do you think this speech would be persuasive with the audience Blair was addressing?
  • What metaphor for slavery did Blair use? Do you think this was an apt comparison? Did it make Blair’s argument more persuasive? Why or why not?
  • Why do you think Blair included this reference to the Declaration of Independence? Is it effective in making his point?

In a farewell speech to the British in 1847, Frederick Douglass also talked about slavery and the Declaration of Independence. He said, in part,

Seventy years ago they went to war in defense of liberty, as they said. Sixty years ago they formed a constitution, over the very gateway of which they inscribed the words: To secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. In their Declaration of Independence, they made the loudest and clearest assertion of the rights of man ever promulgated by any nation on this globe: At the very same time, the very men who drew up that Declaration; the very men who famed the Constitution; the very men who adopted that Constitution, were holding their fellow man in bondage and were trafficking in their bodies and souls.

From the adoption of the Constitution of the United States onwards, everything good and great in the heart of the American people, everything patriotic, has been summoned to cover up this great national falsehood. They have done it by wrapping slavery up in horrid and deceptive words. When speaking of slavery, they call it “Peculiar institution,” “Social system,” “Domestic institution,” “Patriarchical institution.” They seem to be ashamed to call it by its right name.

From “Farewell Speech to the British People, London"

  • What case was Douglass making about slavery? Do you think this speech would be persuasive to the British audience to which it was given?
  • What metaphor did Douglass use?  Do you think this was an apt comparison? Did it make Douglass’ argument more persuasive? Why or why not?
  • Why do you think Douglass included the references to the Constitution and Declaration of Independence? Were they effective in making his point?
  • Which speech do you find more persuasive—Douglass’ or Blair’s? Explain your answer.

Think about a current issue that is important to you. Write a persuasive essay in which you use one or more metaphors to provide insight into the problem and refer to one of the founding documents to support your point.


Oratory was an important of American culture in the nineteenth century. Politicians, lawyers, ministers, and reformers were among those who relied on their public-speaking skills to entertain, inform, and persuade the public. Great orators, who were the celebrities of the era, appealed to the intellect, the imagination, and the emotions, and called upon the audience to take action. Frederick Douglass said of orators:

The function of the orator is high, but it is seldom higher or nobler than this. Where most successful, he resembles his audience as the wave words missing here? the ocean. His weight and volume this thought and beauty are borrowed from the sea of which he rises.

From “Abraham Lincoln, A Speech”  (page 4)

Douglass was in demand as a speaker throughout his adult life.  Read Douglass’ oration at the unveiling of the Freedmen’s Monument in Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C., April 14, 1876.  Compare that oration with Douglass’ speech at the services commemorating the 79th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth on February 12, 1888.

  • What techniques did Douglass use in his speech dedicating the Freedmen’s Monument? How did he appeal to the intellect, the imagination, and the emotions?
  • How did Douglass characterize Lincoln in this speech?  To what audience did Douglass address his critical remarks? Why do you think he chose this approach on the unveiling of the statue depicting a freed slave on his knees at the feet of “the great emancipator”?
  • How did the two speeches on Lincoln differ? Which, in your view, was most effective? Why?

Select one of the many public speeches in the collection and deliver a dramatic reading using excerpts from the selected speech. What insights into Douglass’ effectiveness as an orator did you gain by presenting parts of a speech orally

Writing a Life: The Obituary

An obituary is a published notice of someone’s death. It is intended to inform readers, whether they knew the deceased or not, about that person’s life.  An obituary begins with details of the person’s death—time, place, and cause. It then provides a mini-biography of the person, including information about the person’s birth, education, family life, career, and interests. The last paragraph of the obituary lists the survivors—parents, spouse, children, siblings, and other people close to the individual. A good obituary brings the person to life through quotes (from the subject and people who knew him or her) and telling details.

Search the collection using the keyword Frederick Douglass death to find obituaries that were collected in scrapbooks by members of his family.  One obituary included the following description of Douglass, accompanied by the portrait below:

The personal appearance of Mr. Douglass was rather imposing. He was tall, powerfully built and finely modeled, with a swarthy complexion and an abundance of white hair crowning a handsome face. Mentally, he was far above the average of mankind, being a writer of power and elegance, a thinker of influence and an orator of true eloquence.

From “Fred Douglass Dead” in “Douglas, Frederick (Death) – Folder 34 of 34,” p. 3

After researching the life and work of Frederick Douglass, write an obituary that highlights events in his life that you consider most noteworthy.  Include quotes from and about Douglass, as well as some personal details that you believe provide insight into his character. Be sure to note his surviving family members.

You may also want to write a eulogy. Eulogies and obituaries are both writings about people who have died, but the two have different forms and serve different purposes. A eulogy is generally presented orally, at the deceased’s funeral or memorial service. A eulogy is a tribute to the life and character of the person who has died; the speaker often shares favorite anecdotes and reflects on and expresses gratitude for his orher relationship with the deceased person. By acknowledging the significance of the deceased person’s life, the eulogy helps mourners in the grieving process. A eulogy for Frederick Douglass  is included in the collection.

Designing an African American Pavilion for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893

In 1893, Chicago hosted an international exposition, or world’s fair. Called the Columbian Exposition (to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World), the fair featured exhibits from 46 countries, displays of new technologies, and the introduction of many new consumer products.

African Americans hoped that the Columbian Exposition would both serve as a source of jobs for African Americans, and also provide an opportunity to showcase their achievements following the Civil War. Unfortunately, their hopes went unfulfilled, as no exhibit space was made available and few jobs at the fair went to African Americans. Frederick Douglass and journalist Ida B. Wells published a pamphlet titled “The Reason Why” to inform people about the exclusion of African Americans from the fair.

Douglass, a former ambassador to Haiti, was asked to serve as one of Haiti’s representatives at the exposition. He and Wells set up shop in the Haitian pavilion, handing out copies of “The Reason Why” to people who passed through. Thus, he was able to some make information about African Americans available to fair-goers.

Use information from “The Reason Why” to design an African American Pavilion for the Columbian Exposition of 1893. The pavilion can have several different exhibits; for example, it might include exhibits on the history of slavery, accomplishments of African Americans since Emancipation, discriminatory laws enacted in the United States, and the achievements of Frederick Douglass. Your design should list the exhibits, providing a brief description of each. It should also show how the exhibits would be laid out within the pavilion.

Letter Writing

With the advent of such technologies as the telephone, e-mail, and text messaging, many argue that letter writing is a lost art. In the nineteenth century, however, letter writing was an essential means of communication.

Use the Browse by Subject feature to find letters written by and to Frederick Douglass. Browse through at least ten letters. List the different purposes that the letters served (i.e., create a list of categories of correspondence).  What do you note about the style of writing in the various categories of letters? Are they different? If so, in what ways? Which of these purposes are still met by the writing of individual letters? How are other purposes fulfilled today? What is lost through the use of different technologies to communicate what was formerly communicated via letter? What is gained?