• Exploring American History

Frederick Douglass is a free man


The slave once known as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey went through a metamorphous of sorts in the process of becoming Frederick Douglass – a powerful orator who helped ignite a fire in America’s antislavery movement. As he pressed on, he reached new heights no one ever thought possible for a former slave. Now well educated, Douglass was known by the company he kept, in addition to the books and periodicals he read. The powerful speaker played a vital role in the abolitionist movement that caught fire across the northern United States.


During the years 1844 and 1845, Douglass left the speaking circuit to concentrate on writing his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. In the story, he revealed his true name, the names of his former owners and the places he lived. He did so to convince the doubting Thomases in the crowd what he said about being a former slave was true. In doing so, he also put himself in grave danger. Due to the fact he was a fugitive, he now ran the risk of capture by slave traders who would love nothing more than to return this strong young man to Thomas Auld and collect a handsome sum. Since Douglass established a large number of friends over the past four years and had been an active participant in the abolitionist movement, the likelihood of his capture was low; however, the possibility still existed.


After his autobiography was published, Douglass settled his family for a short time in Lynn, Massachusetts. Their enjoyment here was short-lived, however, because trouble quickly began to raise its ugly head. Douglass’s autobiography stirred up a hornet’s nest among Southern slave owners. Because Douglass’s whereabouts could now be traced, not only was he in danger of capture but Anna as well, due to the fact she assisted in a fugitive’s escape.


The couple’s friends urged Frederick to flee the country, but he refused to go. He feared if he left, his family would be without protection or provision. Many friends within the antislavery movement promised to watch over the family. Eventually, they were able to convince Douglass of the need to leave. With a heavy heart, he kissed his wife and children goodbye and crossed the pond to safety in England. The trip to safety, however, was not without its problems.


Before he arrived in England, trouble brewed aboard ship. Passengers from Louisiana and Georgia learned Douglass was a passenger and became enraged with the fact he enjoyed almost equal privileges as them. They attempted on two occasions to register their protest of the matters but to no avail.


1. Onboard ship, the mob threatened to throw Douglass overboard. When the captain was made aware of the situation, he threatened to lock the entire mob in chains until the end of the trip.


2. Upon arrival in England, the same group of protestors carried their complaints to the British newspapers. Instead of gaining the sympathy and retribution they sought, the stories inspired every abolitionist throughout England to welcome the famous orator with open arms.


England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, Douglass visited almost every large town within the four countries. On occasions he traveled alone; at other times, friends such as William Lloyd Garrison accompanied him.

No matter where Douglass went, he was treated as an equal which was quite a change from back home. He now gave serious thought to moving Anna and the children to England. “To this, however, I could not consent. I felt that I had a duty to perform – and that was, to labor and suffer from the oppressed in my native land.” Thus, Frederick Douglass chose to return to America. Before his departure, however, a wonderful event took place.


While Douglass was in England, a Quaker woman named Ellen Richardson, with the help of her sister-in-law, worked diligently to raise the necessary funds to purchase Douglass’s freedom. After making contact with the Auld family in Maryland, the price for Douglass’s freedom was settled on - £150 (more than $700 in American currency). The price was paid and papers were signed. Frederick Douglass could now return home safely because he was truly a free man.



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