Self-Made Hero

The Mind of Frederick Douglass

by Waldo E. Martin Jr.
University of North Carolina Press, 333 pp., $27.50

Frederick Douglass was not only the most famous Afro-American of the nineteenth century; when he died in 1895 he was one of the best-known Americans of any race. A eulogist plausibly compared his international reputation to Lincoln’s. No other black spokesman before Martin Luther King, Jr., was able to appeal to whites on behalf of racial justice and equality with so much force and effect. Part of his prestige and influence came from his skill with the written and spoken word; he was a great orator at a time when elocution was highly valued and a forceful writer whose three autobiographies (published in 1845, 1855, and 1881) rank with the best written by Americans. But it was more the substance than the style of his autobiographical writings that made him such a remarkable and intriguing figure. At a time when most whites viewed blacks as inherently inferior to themselves, he rose from the depths of slavery to such a height of Victorian eminence that he challenged this prevailing assumption in a dramatic fashion. Racists did, however, have a solution to the Douglass problem; they simply attributed his undeniable intelligence and character to his white father.

Douglass was born on the eastern shore of Maryland in 1818, the son of a slave woman and an unknown white man (probably his master). Sometimes the slave offspring of white fathers were treated with special consideration, but this does not seem to have been the case with Douglass. His earliest years were spent happily enough at the isolated cabin of his elderly grandmother, but at the age of six he was sent to the great plantation where his master was serving as a steward for one of the largest landowners on the eastern shore. Here he viewed some of the incidents of brutality that he later recorded in his autobiography; personally, however, he suffered from chronic hunger rather than physical abuse. His greatest deprivation was the loss of a mother he had rarely seen: she died after paying him one brief visit in his new home.

Douglass was saved from a life of plantation drudgery, at least temporarily, when he was consigned to the household of a shipwright in Baltimore. Here he received kind treatment, especially from his mistress, who served for a time as a kind of surrogate mother. She started to teach him to read but was then induced to give up the effort in the face of strong public sentiment against making slaves literate. Douglass found ways to continue his education surreptitiously. Eventually he came to possess a copy of The Columbian Orator, a collection of famous speeches in defense of liberty which included an attack on black enslavement. From this great source of Enlightenment and American Revolutionary rhetoric, Douglass derived his basic ideas and the elements of his own oratorical style.

When Douglass was fifteen, a change in his ownership restored him to a plantation, where he faced the dismal prospect of spending the rest of his life as…

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