Frederick Douglass: an in depth look into the life of a great man
Robert B. Lewis V.
The molding of Frederick Douglass
How did the early years of Frederick Douglass’ life affect the beliefs of the man he would become? Frederick Douglass’ adulthood was one of triumph and prestige. Still, he by no means gained virtue without struggle and conflict. There was great opposition and hostility towards him. To fully understand all of his thoughts and beliefs, first one must look at his childhood. Frederick Augustus Bailey was born in February of 1818 to a black field hand named Harriet. He grew up on the banks of the Tuckahoe Creek deep within the woods of Maryland. Separated from his mother at an early age, he was raised by his grandparents Betsy and Isaac Bailey. Isaac and Betsy were not thought to be of relation. Isaac was a free man and a sawyer, while Betsy was an owned slave, but she kept her own rules. Her owner trusted her to watch over and raise the children of the slaves until they were old enough to begin their labor. She was allowed to keep her own cabin, and to farm food for the children and herself. It was not an easy job.
While all of the mothers were busy working in the fields of their master, Aaron Anthony, she was busy watching over their infants. Betsy Bailey was quite a woman. She was a master fisher, and spent most of her days in the river or in the field farming. She was very intelligent and physically able bodied. Most historians credit Frederick’s intelligence to his extraordinary grandmother. At the age of six, Frederick’s carefree days of running and playing in the fields came to an abrupt end. He was taken away from his grandmother to begin the toil and sweat of the field workers. Here he joined his older brother and sisters, Perry, Sarah and Eliza in the fields of Edward Lloyd. The slave head in charge of Frederick was the cruel cook, Aunt Katy. Although perhaps he deserved some of her wrath, being a very mischievous child, she was undoubtedly a little out of line. She took up a need to abuse him, mentally and sometimes physically. This may have sprouted from resentment against his mother.
One of Katy’s favorite acts of punishment was starvation. On one occasion when Frederick’s mother had come to visit, she had committed a terrible deed by interfering in Katy’s eyes. Later in life Douglass talked very fondly of his mother. He remembers her as having a natural genius, though unprotected and uncultivated.# Douglass was also very proud of her literacy. He never knew her in his older years, however, because she died when he was only seven or eight. Katy also resented Lucretia Auld, a resident of the house who had taken a liking to him, who gave him food when she wouldn’t. These were to her just more reasons to be hard on Frederick.
After being caught up around Master Lloyd’s house, Wye House, he was forbidden not to venture near there ever again. Young Douglass loved to watch the people, especially Lloyd. He was a wealthy former Governor of Maryland and a senator and also an ideal example of an exploiter of the very profitable slave system. It is quite feasible that the reason he was so interested in Lloyd was because of Frederick’s lack of a father. In fact many historians believe that Lloyd may very well have been the father of this young mulatto. Douglass later knew that his father must have been white which was the only way to explain the light shade of his skin.
After exploring the property on many occasions he began to spend time in the garden because he loved spending time with the fragrant smells and vibrant colors. Eventually he met with Lloyd’s young son Daniel. They became friends and Daniel began to smuggle Frederick in the house through the garden. In slavery it was very common, before puberty, for a slave child to play with the master’s children. By the time he was eight it was time for Douglass to pack up and move again. This time he was sent to Baltimore to live with Hugh Auld.
Auld was the brother of Aaron Anthony’s son-in-law, Thomas Auld. Hugh was the owner of a plantation and with him lived his wife Sophia and their son Thomas. Frederick and Thomas were about the same age and Douglass became his playmate as well as his guardian. Like he did earlier with Lucretia and Daniel at the Wye House, Frederick felt a sense of family. He became very close with Sophia and she began to treat him like he was a half brother to little Tommy. Throughout his childhood Douglass was always very alert to acts of kindness by whites and experiences like this and those back at the Lloyd Plantation fueled his disdain for slavery. They made him aware of human oneness and the inhumanity of slavery.
In urban Baltimore, a slave’s life was very different from that of a field hand. Here Douglass enjoyed various privileges and opportunities that were denied to plantation slaves. This new setting provided a rich environment that helped to develop his natural intellectual abilities and allowed him to be exposed to different and interesting people. City slaves were sometimes hired out to merchants and maybe the wages they earned would be used to buy their freedom, if the master allowed them to it. Soon he became interested in learning to read after hearing Mistress Sophia reading the Bible aloud. She readily agreed to teach young Frederick to read. This was a very bold move by Sophia because it was very dangerous to teach a slave anything.
Sophia taught him the alphabet and the basics of reading. She made an untimely mistake however. Mrs. Auld decided to share the news of Frederick’s progress with Master Hugh. He ordered her to cease these lessons at once. …Learning will spoil the best nigger in the world. If he learns to read the Bible it will unfit him to be a slave. He should know nothing but the will of his master, and learn to obey it…If you teach him how to read, he’ll want to know how to write, and this accomplished, he’ll run away with himself.# Recalling later Douglass named this speech as the first anti-slavery lecture he’d ever heard. After this Sophia became even more opposed to Frederick’s learning to read than Master Auld did himself. Douglass later had this to say of her, Nature made us friends, but slavery made us enemies.# this taught Frederick a very valuable lesson. If reading and writing were dangerous, if it was against the master’s will that he know more than he should, then education would be an essential means for Douglass to find a path from slavery to freedom. He was determined to prove Auld right.
Having that basic knowledge of the written language and his appetite wetted, Frederick set out to teach himself to read. This is one of the most amazing aspects of Frederick Douglass, that someone, especially a young slave, could teach himself to read. He learned to write by watching carpenters initial timber to designate where it was to be used. He copied script of spelling books and the Bible, and challenged his playmates to spelling matches. His resentment for slavery grew with the knowledge he gained from reading more and more. Douglass also began to realize that there were alternatives to the physical deprivations, injustices, and dehumanizing effects of slavery.
No longer bound to his master’s world, he began to gain his own opinions on issues and became much more independent. Near age thirteen Frederick read a dialogue between a runaway slave and his master out of The Columbian Orator, which also contained many powerful speeches that criticized slavery. In the dialogue he read the slave argues against the owner’s claims to enslave him and convinces him to set him free forever. It made Frederick want to learn to write well even more so he could write to his master, Lloyd. Auld had been right when he said it would be Douglass unfit to be a slave, because he now found that he was feeling anguish of having a free mind trapped in a slave’s body. Later he said of this, I almost envy my fellow slaves in their stupid indifference…I wished myself a beast, a bird, anything rather than a slave.# Although he was in bondage now however, he was intent on winning his freedom. Douglass had the desire, the arguments to justify his freedom, and movements to give him hope.
He never stopped believing that the universe we live in is a moral one. He compared the struggle between slavery and freedom to similar conflicts that occur in nature. Like the great forces of the physical world, fire, steam and lightning, they had slumbered in the bosom of nature since the world began.# During the 1850s Douglass moved beyond Garrison’s philosophy of nonresistance and said it was a slave’s moral right to overthrown their oppressors. Douglass accomplished many feats worth noting. In the 1860s he was the stationmaster and conductor of the Underground Railroad in Rochester. He helped raise two regiments of black soldiers during the Civil War, the 54th and 55th Massachusetts. After the war he fought for enactment of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution. He became U. S. marshal for the District of Columbia in 1877 and recorder of deeds in Washington D. C. in 1881. He was also the U. S. minister to Haiti from 1889 to 1891. Frederick Douglass stood at the center of the crisis black intellectuals faced at the end of the Civil War and thereafter. He was the most influential of all the black leaders throughout the mid 19th century.