From Courage to Freedom: Frederick Douglass's 1845 Autobiography

Frederick Douglass, circa 1860s.
Photo caption

Frederick Douglass, circa 1860s.

In 1845 Frederick Douglass published what was to be the first of his three autobiographies: the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. As the title suggests, Douglass wished not only to highlight the irony that a land founded on freedom would permit slavery to exist within its midst, but also to establish that he, an American slave with no formal education, was the sole author of the work. Written in the years following his 1838 escape from his Maryland slaveholder, the narrative reveals numerous instances of Douglass's courage on his journey from slave to free man. Douglass himself punctuates this route by sharing with the reader his tenacious and ingenious efforts at learning how to read and write, his risky physical opposition to a "nigger-breaker," and his escape to New York. These courageous acts pale, however, beside his most overt and possibly dangerous act: the publishing of his autobiography before his freedom had been purchased. Indeed, in 1845 Douglass was still legally a slave; at any time he could have been betrayed, hunted down, captured and returned to his master who, more than likely, would have sold Douglass further down South as punishment. It was not until 1847, while Douglass was traveling and lecturing in England that friends bought his freedom. For Douglass, however, his personal declaration of freedom and independence occurred two years earlier with his Narrative.

The Narrative in itself is remarkable for the views on slavery and slaveholders that Douglass bravely presents. First, Douglass asserts his humanity in the face of the dehumanizing institution of slavery. In doing so, he sets an example to other slaves to insist upon their humanity, and he persuades his reading audience to acknowledge this humanity, too. He claims as his intellectual birthright the opportunity to learn to read and write. He refuses to accept anything less than his own physical, spiritual, and intellectual freedom. Moreover, he never hesitates to criticize directly—often with withering irony—those who uphold slavery and those who prefer a romanticized version of it. Pitilessly, Douglass offers the reader a first-hand account of the pain, humiliation and brutality of the South's "peculiar institution." His is not an account of moonlight, magnolias, and happily singing workers. Instead, he points out the cruelty and the corrupting influence of power not only on the victim, but also on the perpetrator—the slave holder. Lastly, Douglass's Narrative is a courageous work because it confronts the misuse of Christianity in perpetuating the widely held belief in the slave owner's "God-given" right to own or sell other human beings.

In this curriculum unit, students will read Douglass's narrative with particular attention devoted to chapters 1, 2, 6, 7, 9, and 10. They will analyze Douglass's vivid first-hand accounts of the lives of slaves and the behavior of slave owners to see how he successfully contrasts reality with romanticism and powerfully uses imagery, irony, connotative and denotative language, strong active verbs, repetition, and rhetorical appeals to persuade the reader of slavery's evil. Students will also identify and discuss Douglass's acts of physical and intellectual courage on his journey towards freedom.

Guiding Questions

How does Frederick Douglass's skilled use of language paint a realistic portrait of slavery?


How successful is Douglass in persuading the reader of the evils that slavery inflicts on both slave and slaveholder alike?

Learning Objectives

Analyze and understand a specific type of historical and literary primary document, the slave narrative/autobiography.

Recognize and explain the use and effectiveness of precise word choice, imagery, irony, and rhetorical appeals.

Learn to look for and contrast instances of reality and romanticized myth by using the slave narrative as a source for historical study.