Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12
Curriculum Unit

From Courage to Freedom: Frederick Douglass's 1845 Autobiography (3 Lessons)



The Unit


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.

Preparation Instructions

  • Locate Douglass's 1845 Narrative at the EDSITEment-reviewed Library of Congress American Memory Project
  • Familiarize yourself with the history of slave narratives by reading William L. Andrews' "An Introduction to the Slave Narrative" found at the EDSITEment-reviewed UNC Chapel Hill's Documenting the American South website. This essay explains the purpose of the slave narrative as "to enlighten white readers about both the realities of slavery as an institution and the humanity of black people as individuals deserving of full human rights." The essay touches upon the popularity of the narratives before the Civil War and also notes specific characteristic traits of the slave narrative—traits which can easily be seen in Douglass's narrative. For example, the slave narrator portrays the plight of slaves as "a kind of hell on earth." "Hope contends with despair" and then "impelled by faith in God and a commitment to liberty and human dignity comparable to that of America's Founding Fathers," the slave narrator finds sanctuary and freedom in the North. Andrews's essay concludes by noting the influence of slave narratives upon modern black autobiography.
  • Obtain a concise overview of Douglass's life at the EDSITEment-reviewed National Park Service Links to the Past: American Visionaries—Frederick Douglass website. The site offers a complete overview of Douglass's life, whereas the 1845 Narrative itself ends with Douglass's freedom.
  • The EDSITEment-reviewed website Silva Rhetoricae has definitions and examples of the following persuasive appeals and rhetorical devices (click on the word to see in-depth definitions and examples):
    • Persuasive Appeals (overview)
    • Logos: appeal to reason
    • Ethos: appeal to one's own character
    • Pathos: appeal to emotion
    • Irony
    • Repetition (repetitio)

      Other terms that might be of use in the conversation include imagery, connotation, and denotation. Definitions and examples are available both at Wikipedia and Dictionary.com, available via the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library:
    • Imagery: (Wikipedia) (Dictionary.com)
    • Denotation—generally, the literal meaning of a word: (Wikipedia) (Dictionary.com)
    • Connotation—generally, the possible supplementary, implied meanings behind a literal meaning (Wikipedia) (Dictionary.com)
    • Wikipedia provides the following examples to describe the difference between Denotation and Connotation:
      • For example, the word "city" connotes the attributes of largeness, populousness. It denotes individual objects such as London, New York, Paris.
      • For example, a stubborn person may be described as being either strong-willed or pig-headed. Although these have the same literal meaning (i.e. stubborn), strong-willed connotes admiration for someone's convictions, while pig-headed connotes frustration in dealing with someone.

        Teachers may want to create a handout or a power point file for students with definitions and examples of persuasive appeals, repetition, irony, imagery, connotative and denotative language as found at these sites.
    Since Douglass does use the "n-word"—nigger—at times in his narrative, teachers may want to alert their students to that fact and perhaps give them some historical and cultural context for the word. When reading aloud, students should be given the option to say or not say the word—if they should encounter it—as they please. The classroom must be a comfortable place for all if Douglass's narrative is to be studied well and appreciated.
  • Read John Picker's introduction to spirituals and the essay on spirituals by Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay "Negro Spirituals" found at the EDSITEment-reviewed American Studies at the University of Virginia For a concise history of spirituals see also www.negrospirituals.com
  • To extend the lesson on spirituals, review the EDSITEment lesson plan Spirituals, which explores how spirituals play a role in African-American history, from the Underground Railroad to the Civil Rights Movement.

The Lessons

The Basics

Grade Level


Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Biography
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Essay
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Online research
  • Writing skills