Frederick Douglass. One of the Greatest Men of America
When thinking about the greatest men and women of America that have left a memorable trace in the history of this country and the world, in general, dozens and even hundreds of names immediately come up in the mind. It seems to be an impossible task to choose just one person and then describe everything that this person has done for the sake of the nation and the international community. However, most of the names, immediately arising in the mind of a common American, are those of undeniably famous personalities known by everyone. When thinking about the anti-slavery movements, names of the state officials, equality movements, for instance, Martin Luther King, and other prominent stakeholders come to mind, yet the name of Frederick Douglass is frequently missing in the discourse, relating to discussion of the greatest men and women of America. Nonetheless, Frederick Douglass should be mentioned, as he is one of the most courageous and amazing personalities of the US history. Based on the overview of his biography and professional achievements, Frederick Douglass deserves to be called one of the greatest men of America and a live manifestation of the American Dream that this self-made man has managed to accomplish only thanks to his personal qualities and immense belief in freedom and human dignity for each and every human being.
Frederick Douglass’s accomplishments become even more striking if to compare them with the way he described his life in the three autobiographies that focus primarily on the period of his enslavement and years after the escape. The first published autobiography with a rather detailed description of his early life is called Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and is essential for comprehension of all his subsequent achievements that he managed to accomplish against all the external circumstances and childhood conditions. The book was published in 1845 after Douglass’s first speech at an anti-slavery meeting in Nantucket, that immediately became popular with abolitionists. Frederick did not receive any formal education in his early life and was taught to read and write by a compassionate white woman. His subsequent self-education was sporadic and anybody could hardly predict that he would later become the first African American governmental official at a high post immediately after the abolishment of slavery. Nonetheless, he was noticed during the meeting and was convinced to tell about his personal experience. Douglass was so passionate, convincing, and eloquent that William Lloyd Garrison became immediately captivated by the man and wanted to persuade him to publish his story, so that the entire America would know about the remarkable self-made man who escaped slavery and believed in the ideals of freedom and equality for all, irrespective of race, gender, ethnicity, and other factors. Hence, Garrison convinced Douglass to write his autobiography that, at once, brought the man national and even international recognition (Douglas vii). Garrison has also realized that Douglass could significantly contribute to the American abolitionist movement and planned to engage him into its activities, even though the humble man initially did not trust in his ability to do anything important, despite all his passion and belief in the cause (Douglass vii). The matter is that having spent the entire childhood and youth in slavery, Douglass was an extremely unconfident and humble man who did not think of himself as worthy of attention. Closer examination of his biography, even on the basis of his autobiographies, though prove otherwise, as Douglass had always been a person with immense internal strengths, unbreakable willpower, and passion that drove him in all his actions and motivated to attempt to escape in the search of a better life.
Prior to mentioning some of his most outstanding accomplishments, it seems reasonable to provide a brief overview of his biography. Hence, descriptions of Douglass claim that he was a well-built man, with a height of six feet and two inches, broad shoulders, well-developed musculature, wide-set eyes, handsome face, baritone voice, and passionate nature (McDonald 1). He was given the name of Frederick Augustus Washington Balley at birth by his mother, who was also a slave and was forced to abandon the boy almost immediately after labor (Douglass 1). The man was born in Tuckahoe, Maryland, approximately in February of 1818 (Douglass 1). The exact date is unknown because of the prevalent habit of slave owners to consider their slaves to be no better than the cattle that did not need to know the birth date or grow up in a full family. According to the man’s autobiography, “the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs”, which was a mean of keeping slaves subjugated and devoid of any coherent identity (Douglass 1). Childhood years were not easy for little Frederick because of the lack of mother’s presence in his life and constant presence of his father who was also his master. The father’s family was suspicious of a relatively light skin tone of the boy, which caused a lot of trouble and meaningless punishments for Douglas. Nevertheless, it did not break the boy and made him even stronger. During childhood and youth years, Frederick was very different from other slaves because of his inherent curiosity, inquiries into his family’s origin and whereabouts, desire to learn to read and write, and questioning the existing social order. The latter is evident from the following statement: “I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege” as white people, since all people were considered God’s creations, which meant for him that they all should be considered equal (Douglass 1). Therefore, it is evident that even as a child Douglass was keen on attaining independence and freedom, yet not only for himself, but for all people suffering from oppression.
The three autobiographies Douglass published during his lifetime describe all the horrible things and humiliations he had witnesses and went through, just like millions of other slaves throughout the entire country. One of the deepest wounds the man had carried throughout the entire life was the absence of mother in his life. Slave owners separated them early and entrusted his grandmother to care for the boy. His mother died when he was seven and he was even prohibited to attend her funeral, which made him furious about the injustice of the society (Douglass 3). Irrespective of all the atrocities he faced and witnessed, the man managed not to become angry and bitter and did his best to justify the behavior of his masters and explain it as an integral feature of the existing social order that all of them had to comply with (Douglass). Thus, he did his best to generalize his experience and reveal the origin of slavery as a social phenomenon. The man has learned to read and write at the age of 12, thanks to compassion of the master’s wife and earned money to save them for purchase of The Columbian Orator that subsequently impacted his vision of life and developed his public speaking abilities. It should also be noted that he was among the few slaves who had enough courage to stand up to their masters and refuse to receive daily beatings at the age of 16 (Fleming 5). Afterwards, Douglass felt that he “regained self-respect and self-confidence” that gave him the strength to fight against injustices in future (Fleming 5). Thanks to these qualities and realization, he managed to escape, the details of which are not given in the autobiography because of the fear for “greater vigilance on the part of slaveholders” that could prevent other slaves from successfully escaping (Douglass 86). Hence, in late 1830s, free Douglass moved to New Bedford and joined the abolitionist movement, which altered his entire life.
Upon obtaining freedom and becoming a public figure, Douglass had to leave the USA for some time because of the fear that he would be recaptured and sent back to the South. Therefore, he went to Ireland and Scotland to tour there with anti-slavery speeches (Brown 1). He claimed that he came there “because slavery is such a gigantic system that one nation is not fit cope with it” and advocated for international cooperation (Brown 1). He did not blame any particular person or group of people, as “The true problem is not the negro, but the nation” that was corrupt and had to be changed (Douglass 2). When touring abroad, Douglass’s supporters collected enough money to buy his freedom and he could finally return to his native country to continue his abolitionist activities. In the USA, he published magazines and newspapers, toured with speeches, personally met President Lincoln and even advised him during the Civil War; later, he was finally given high governmental posts after the war (Miller 40). Hence, he was appointed first the president of the Freedman’s Savings Bank and then a diplomat to the Dominican Republic and Haiiti. He was even nominated for the position of vice president, even though he did not know anything about it. President Lincoln was impressed with Douglass and his eloquence, as well as successful fight against slavery, which is evident from the following greeting during their first meeting: “I know who you are, Mr. Douglass…Sit down. I am glad to see you” (Miller 41). Douglass was brave not only in terms of his political views and civil rights activities, but also in his personal life. He was the first public figure of the African American descent who dared to marry a white and much younger woman, Helen Pitts, after the death of his first wife. Douglass died on February 20, 1895, in his mansion in Washington, D.C. from supposedly a heart attack or stroke and was then buried in Rochester, New York. However, his passion and his cause remained in the memories and hearts of Americans, many of whom look up to Douglass as one of the greatest men and the embodiment of American Dream.
Frederick Douglass is also known, thanks to his political and social activity. He “became an internationally renowned reformer, a major voice in the fight against slavery, a great orator, a newspaper editor, and advisor to presidents, a high officeholder, and the recognized leader of the American Negro” (Miller 2). His career, as a novelist, ended with publication of three autobiographies and a novel entitled The Heroic Slave that managed to question the fixed roles of slave, slave owner, and abolitionist (Hamilton 136). As mentioned above, Douglass sincerely believed that slavery was a vice of the society, rather than a consequence of the evil nature of slave owners. Therefore, he decided to visit his former slave master and attempted reconciliation after the end of the Civil War. When he met with Captain Thomas Auld, the latter was an old and sick man who was already dying in his family home (Douglass). In the essay dedicated to the meeting, Douglass wrote that both slave masters and slaves were “a victim of the circumstances of birth, education, law, and custom”, which is why he harbored no hard feelings against the old man (Douglass). Moreover, Douglass is known not only for his abolitionist activities, but also for his participation in human rights and gender equality movements. In fact, the man believed that freedom of all citizens and suffrage rights represented “the cause of human brotherhood as well as the cause of human sisterhood, and both must rise and fall together” (McDonald 4). This way, he advocated for eradication of all inequalities and discrimination existing in the US society.
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The genius and outstanding intelligence of the man can be seen from reading his speeches. Even though, he lacked formal education, all of his speeches were well-written and appealed to the audience in a powerful and impressive way. All of them concerned extremely topical issues, including slavery, women’s rights, freedom, equality, gender discrimination, basic human rights, etc. He realized that he was among the few public figures who had first-hand experience with slavery, as “the distance between this platform and the slave plantation, from which I escaped, is considerable – and the difficulties to be overcome in getting from the latter to the former, are by no means slight” (Douglass). Therefore, he served as a voice of millions of former slaves who needed reintegration into the society. His speech was delivered during the celebration of July 4, and is among the most striking and impressive speeches known up to date. It not only testifies to his unique rhetoric skills, but also reveals how deeply he comprehended the nature of issues, topical for the US society. He was courageous enough to challenge white Americans who came to listen to his celebratory speech and make them see the difference between their lives and those of slaves, as this day for the latter “reveals…more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery…” as “There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour” (Douglass). At the same time, he remained optimistic that the situation could change for better and significantly contributed to this change, so that each man and woman could be free and equal in the country, where relentless pursuit of American Dream can turn a former slave into a well-known public figure and governmental official.
Overall, it is evident that Frederick Douglass is one of the greatest men of the US history. Douglass’s life is remarkable not only because of his contribution to the abolitionist and civil rights movement, but due to his story as well. The matter is that the man managed to rise from slavery and poverty to become the first African American state official. His courage and sincere belief in everything he did deserve appreciation and admiration, as he conducted his public activities, aimed at promoting the abolitionist movement for many years in a constant fear of being recaptured as a fugitive slave and being sent back to the South. Ultimately, when his freedom was bought, thanks to donations of individuals impressed by his passion and public speaking skills, Douglass did not settle down to lead a peaceful life of a free man. On the contrary, he intensified his activities and played a key role in the US history of the 19th century. He can, therefore, serve as a role model for millions of people who believe that personal qualities, determination, and willpower can overcome all external circumstances and help implement the American Dream in real lives.
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