Key Thinker: Frederick Douglass

Key thinker: Frederick Douglass (1818–1895)

Frederick Douglass (1818–1895)


Frederick Douglass (born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey) was born into slavery to a Black mother and white father in Talbot County, Maryland ( He was separated from his mother as a child and spent most of his early years with his maternal grandmother. Douglass’ mother passed away when he was 7 years old. He had only met her a handful of times as she worked on a plantation several kilometres away ( Douglass briefly lived and worked on a plantation, where he was first exposed to the brutalities of slavery, but was eventually sent to Baltimore to work for Hugh and Sophia Auld, relatives of his former owner.

Douglass credits Sophia Auld with teaching him the alphabet. But their lessons stopped when her husband, who believed that enslaved people should remain illiterate, found out about them ( Left without a teacher, Douglass taught himself to read and write with the help of poorer white children that he played with. From 1832-33, Douglass worked for two notoriously abusive slave owners. Exhausted by the physical and mental abuse, Douglass confronted one of them, Edward Covey. Their confrontation ended in a physical fight which Douglass won ( By this time, Douglass had already started educating other enslaved people which, of course, angered his owners.

In January 1834, Douglass, who by that point had been sold again, planned to escape the plantation along with four other enslaved men. When their plan was uncovered, Douglass was sent back to Baltimore, where he went to work again for the Auld family ( Douglass worked as a skilled labourer on a shipyard, but was still forced to give up most of his wages to his owner ( In 1838, Douglass finally escaped from slavery with the help of a young free Black woman called Anna Murray (, whom he would later marry in New York. He settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts that same year.

Like Sojourner Truth (see Chapter 2 on Sojourner Truth), another formerly enslaved activist, Douglass quickly rose to prominence as a leader and spokesperson in the abolitionist movement and, later, the Civil Rights movement ( Douglass not only spoke out against slavery but offered powerful arguments for the inclusion of Black people in US society. Douglass wrote three autobiographies, The Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass, an American Slave, Written By Himself (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1852), and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881). The Narrative made Douglass famous across the United States, Great Britain, and Ireland, where he fled in 1845 to avoid arrest. The proceeds from the book allowed him to purchase his freedom (

Douglass worked closely with radical abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison (see Key thinker: William Lloyd Garrison) and his American Anti-Slavery Society, though they eventually broke with each other over disagreements about their respective views on abolition. Douglass instead grew closer to John Brown, who stayed with him while planning his effort to start a slave revolt by taking over the US arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia ( During the American Civil War (see Key Concept: Civil War or Slave Rebellion?), Douglass recruited Black men to fight on the side of the Union (‘the North’) against the Confederacy (the slave-owning ‘South’) ( During the period of Reconstruction following the Union’s victory in the Civil War, Douglass successfully advocated for the legal abolition of slavery and the granting of citizenship rights and suffrage for formerly enslaved people.

In 1872, Douglass and his wife moved to Washington D.C, where he was given prestigious posts at Howard University and the Freedman’s Bank, a private savings bank for newly emancipated communities, which eventually failed ( As racial conflict came back to the fore in the post-Reconstruction period, especially in the South (see 30.4. The Statesman’s Philosophy), Douglass continued to tour across the United States. Following his wife Anna’s death in 1882, Douglass married the white activist, Helen Pitts ( In 1889, Douglass was appointed as US minister resident and consul general to the Republic of Haiti, but he resigned his position in 1891, owing to disagreements with the US government’s official policy on the autonomy of Haiti. Douglass died in his home in Washington D.C. in 1895. He was 77 years old.


Douglass’ early writing is influenced by his perspective as a fugitive enslaved person, who was constantly at risk of being re-enslaved (see 30.2. Slavery and Freedom). While Douglass is today considered a canonical political thinker, this was not always the case. Many white abolitionists initially dismissed his ambitions to develop a moral and legal theory which drew on his experiences of slavery. In one of his first recorded public speeches, Douglass argued that white abolitionists had little knowledge of the actual day to day experience of slavery; their knowledge, he insisted, was purely theoretical and ‘disembodied’ (see 30.2.1. The Fugitive’s Philosophy). Instead, Douglass asserted the value of embodied knowledge, which had hitherto been ignored as insufficiently rational. Douglass’ argument that a specific Black subject position gave him a specialized vantage point from which to analyse slavery, prefigures similar claims made by feminist standpoint theory (Collins, 2008 & Harding, 2004).

Douglass’ legal theory is based on his belief in the idea that all humans have ‘natural rights’ (see Key Concept: Natural Rights), including the right to freedom and self-determination. While slave owners attempted to strip enslaved people of their natural rights, it could not entirely stop the enslaved from realising that slavery is unjust and a violation of their natural rights. By reclaiming enslaved people’s humanity and dignity (see Key Concept: Dignity), Douglass is pushing back against a tradition of political thought, from Plato (see Chapter 2 on Plato) to David Hume, which argued that enslaved people lack the capacity for reason (see 30.2.1. The Fugitive’s Philosophy), and therefore cannot qualify as citizens. Instead, he takes founding ideals of the US Constitution seriously and follows them to their logical conclusion (see 30.3.2. The Promise of the US Constitution). Enslaved people, too, should experience the freedom that was promised to citizens of the nation. And they, too, will have to fight for it.

Douglass emphasizes enslaved people’s ability to resist throughout his writing and speeches. Recalling his fight with Covey, he argues that enslaved people’s use of violence to resist the slaveholder’s unjust violence allows the enslaved to re-establish their sense of self (see 30.2.2. Activating Freedom). Because the violence of the slave owner goes against the enslaved person’s natural right, the retributive violence unleashed by the enslaved restores the natural order of things and is therefore legitimate. Every one of us, Douglass argued, has a natural duty to dismantle unjust institutions and build more just ones (see Key Points: 30.2. Douglass). For Douglass, violent insurrection is a valid political tool (see 30.3.1. Heroic Violence). Frantz Fanon (see Chapter 28 on Frantz Fanon) makes a similar argument regarding the use of anti-colonial violence to reclaim the humanity of the colonized subject. Douglass’ argument that the oppressed must fight for their own freedom and self-determination was echoed by the national liberation movements that emerged throughout the global south in the 1950s and 60s.

Douglass’ demand for universal suffrage included women, which was a radical position for his time (see 30.3.3. Suffragists, Natives, and the Constitution). Douglass’ perspective on women’s rights was most likely influenced by suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton (see Key thinker: Elizabeth Cady Stanton in Chapter 2 on Sojourner Truth). While Douglass continued to advocate for women’s suffrage throughout his life, he questioned some white women’s commitment to the cause of Black men’s suffrage due to their association with white men who were already enfranchised (see 30.3. The Freedman’s Philosophy). But Douglass wasn’t particularly attentive to the unique political concerns that anyone who was both Black and a woman faced. Black women suffragists like Sojourner Truth, who had been marginalized in the movement, more astutely analysed their predicament and foregrounded their own agency as political subjects.

Douglass’ reputation as a political thinker of the oppressed is complicated by his racism towards Indigenous people (see 30.3.3. Suffragists, Natives, and the Constitution) and his late-life support for US Imperialism (see 30.4.1. (Re-)Colonizing the Caribbean). As consul general in Haiti, Douglass was tasked with helping the US claim Santo-Domingo (today the Dominican Republic) on the eastern part of the Hispaniola island. Douglass even included a passage lamenting the US failure to establish a foothold in the Caribbean in his memoir, and suggested that Cuba should become part of the United States. Douglass’ project of freedom and self-determination had become too closely tied up with the project of US Empire towards the end of his life. Douglass is today remembered as a complex and contradictory political thinker, whose advocacy for abolition and civil rights changed the course of US history.

Further Reading

Douglass, F. (2017) Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave, written by himself: authoritative text contexts criticism. Second edition. Edited by W.L. Andrews and W.S. McFeely. New York: W.W. Norton & Company (Norton Critical Editions).

Douglass, F. (2014) My bondage and my freedom. New Haven: Yale University Press. 

Douglass, F. (1892) Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Park Publishing Company. 

Douglass, F. et al. (2018) The speeches of Frederick Douglass: a critical edition. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Harding, S. (2004). The feminist standpoint theory reader: Intellectual and political controversies. Routledge. 

Collins, Patricia Hill (2008) Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Conscious ness and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge.

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