The Orator: The Life of Frederick Douglass (February 14, 1818-February 20, 1895), Part 2

After escaping from slavery and settling In New Bedford, Massachusetts, Frederick Douglass worked odd jobs and became active in the local abolitionist community. He attended various anti-slavery meetings and made his public speaking debut in Lynn, Massachusetts in October 1841, recounting his own experience as a slave.

His eloquence as a speaker and his poignant life experiences earned him the respect of fellow abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, who published the most influential anti-slavery newspaper of the day, The Liberator. Garrison’s admiration for the young Douglass was so great that he initially became a mentor to the young man, and Douglass became the leading agent of Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society. He spoke at churches and in lecture halls throughout New England, New York State, and even Europe. Douglass’ eloquence was so profound that many doubted that he had ever been a slave. To quell these doubts, Douglass wrote the first of his three autobiographies, this one called Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which became a best seller.


Engraved Portrait of Frederick Douglass by Alexander Hay Ritchie (1855)

Douglass’ forceful testimony of his own experience in slavery raised fears among his friends that his former master might seek to reclaim him and drag him back into slavery. To ward off the threat, Douglass left for a speaking tour of Great Britain and Ireland (of which experience we will hear more in a future post) in 1845. While he was gone, British and American abolitionists raised funds to pay Douglass’ last master, Thomas Auld, $1,250 to manumit Frederick Douglass, legally releasing him  from the yoke of slavery.

From the beginning of his public speaking career, Douglass’ rhetoric was supremely powerful and moving. His rhetoric is still effective, even more than 170 years later. In his maiden speech at Lynn, Massachusetts, Douglass exposed the pain of enslaved people and the hypocrisy of slave owners:

“… But though they [abolitionists] can give you [slavery’s] history – though they can depict its horrors, they cannot speak as I can from experience [emphasis in original]; they cannot refer you to a back covered with scars, as I can; for I have felt those wounds; I have suffered under the lash without the power of resisting. Yes, my blood has sprung out as the lash embedded itself in my flesh. And yet, my master has the reputation of being a pious man and a good Christian. He was a class leader in the Methodist church. I have seen this pious class leader cross and tie the hands of one of his young female slaves and lash her on the bare skin and justify the deed by quotation from the Bible.”

The pain of Douglass’ story is even sharper when one realizes the female slave in question was his cousin Henny, who was disabled.


Corinthian Hall (1866), the site of many of Frederick Douglass’ Rochester speeches.
Built in 1849 and razed in 1929, it was located on Corinthian Street, behind the Reynolds Arcade.
It played host to balls, concerts, fairs, plays and lectures.

Although principally known as an anti-slavery speaker, Douglass did not limit himself to that topic. His first speech in Rochester, on March 5, 1848, was on the “Principles of Temperance Reform.” He was a popular and forceful advocate of temperance, women’s rights, and the opposition to capital punishment. There was no public issue of the day on which he did not bring the force of his words and personality to bear, including that of Irish independence.  We will hear more on the latter in our next posting.  [To Be Continued]

-Christopher Brennan


For Further Information:

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (Boston: Published at the Anti-Slavery Office, 1845).

Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1855).

Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Boston: De Wolfe & Fiske Co., 1892).

Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One: Speeches, Debates and Interviews, Volume 1, 1841-1846, ed. John W. Blassingame (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979).

“Douglass (Bailey), Frederick,” in The Encyclopedia of New York State, ed. Peter Eisenstadt (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2005), 467-468.

William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991).

Published in: on February 14, 2018 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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