Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

by Frederick Douglass


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In one of the most influential works of the abolitionist movement, famed African American orator Frederick Douglass recounts the harrowing experiences of his life as a slave, and his determination to escape to the North as a free man.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781788289474
Publisher: Arcturus
Publication date: 05/28/2018
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 286,176
Product dimensions: 4.90(w) x 7.30(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Frederick Douglass was born in Maryland as a slave.

He taught himself how to read, and eventually escaped from servitude in the northern states.

Douglass became an important public speaker and writer in the abolitionist movement.


Tuckahoe, Maryland

Date of Birth:


Date of Death:

February 20, 1895

Place of Death:

Washington, D.C.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"He is my friend." —Abraham Lincoln

“He experienced…the tyranny and circumscription of an ambitious human being who was classified as real estate.”—W.E.B. DuBois

“This narrative contains many affecting incidents, many passages of great eloquence and power…Who can read [it], and be insensible to its pathos and sublimity?” —William Lloyd Garrison

Reading Group Guide


The compelling autobiography of an extraordinary man born into slavery, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is also a powerful inquiry into the question of what it means to be human. From the opening sentences of the narrative, Douglass delineates the context from which this question emerges—the fact that slave owners typically thought of slaves as animals. Douglass does not know how old he is, and he quickly asserts that this is not unusual, since most slaves "know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs" (p. 47). It is instructive that this initial comparison of slaves to animals does not serve to express something about the minds of the slave owners; instead, it expresses something about the minds of the slaves that is the consequence of being born into an environment constructed and carefully maintained by their owners. In an environment that does not permit the idea that slaves are human, the only perspective available to them is that of their owners. Their own perspective therefore becomes an additional barrier to thinking of themselves as human.

Learning to read and write is essential to the process whereby Douglass comes to see himself as human. As he describes it, the acquisition of these skills is inseparable from the dawning of self-consciousness. Reading gives Douglass access to a new world that opens before him, but the strongest effect of his literacy is the light it casts on the world he already knows. His anguish is so great that he "would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing" (p. 84). It allows him to see his "wretched condition, without the remedy" (p. 84). Self-consciousness, the trait that most distinguishes humans from animals, produces such despair in Douglass that he confesses he often wished himself a beast.

Douglass portrays the breadth of slavery's ability to dehumanize through his insights into the mentality of slave owners. Douglass suggests that if slaves are made rather than born, the same is sometimes true of slave owners. The mistress who began teaching him to read and write "at first lacked the depravity indispensable to shutting [him] up in mental darkness" (p. 81). Under the influence of her husband and, more generally, the institution of slavery, "the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness" (p. 82). The mistress not only stops teaching Douglass to read and write, but she is even more vigilant than her husband in preventing him from learning. The transformation of his mistress raises the question of how much of the behavior of slave owners toward their slaves was learned and how much was internally motivated. Douglass would have us believe that the mistress was the victim of her circumstances, yet the brutality other slave owners seemed to come by so easily makes it difficult to determine whether the behavior was learned or inherent.

Edward Covey undoubtedly counts among the slave owners who play the role as if born for it; his harsh treatment breaks Douglass "in body, soul, and spirit" (p. 105). Following his eloquent lament for the freedom he cannot have, represented by the ships sailing on Chesapeake Bay, Douglass writes, "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man" (p. 107). The first part of this statement could refer to the methods employed by Covey, if not to all the owners at whose hands Douglass suffered. The second part refers to the story that follows, in which Douglass resists the whipping Covey intends to give him for disobeying. They fight for two hours, with Covey "getting entirely the worst end of the bargain" (p. 113). Douglass is never whipped again, and he describes this incident as "the turning-point in [his] career as a slave" and says that it "revived within [him] a sense of [his] own manhood" (p. 113). Douglass emphasizes the importance of literacy in developing his sense of himself as human. Is he suggesting, though, that his refusal to submit to Covey's punishment was ultimately more important than his ability to read and write in shaping his sense of self?

In a letter that prefaces the narrative, Wendell Phillips, social activist and friend of Douglass's, recalls "the old fable of 'The Man and the Lion,' where the lion complained that he should not be so misrepresented 'when the lions wrote history'" (p. 43). As Phillips observes, Douglass's narrative is history written from the perspective of those who previously had no voice. The very existence of the narrative makes it a testament to its author's humanity and, therefore, a document of revisionist history. However, what gives Douglass's narrative its universal relevance is his acute awareness of the complexities of human psychology. He observes that slaves usually spoke of themselves as content and of their masters as kind, concluding that slaves "suppress the truth rather than take the consequences of telling it, and in so doing prove themselves a part of the human family" (p. 62). Douglass is ever mindful that our humanity encompasses our failings no less than our capacity for nobility.



Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in rural Maryland in 1818. Sent to work in Baltimore, he was taught to read by the mistress of the house and regarded this achievement as a turning point in his life. Another such point was his violent resistance to a beating by the man to whom he had been bound as a field slave at age seventeen. Three years later, he escaped to the North, married, and worked menial jobs until his debut as an orator at an antislavery convention in 1841.

To expand his audience and to document the authenticity of his story, Douglass published his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, in 1845. The book was critically acclaimed and sold well both in the United States and in Europe. Douglass left for England later the same year, where he spent two years writing and lecturing. He returned to the United States after abolitionist friends purchased his legal emancipation.

From 1847 to 1863, Douglass published his own weekly paper, The North Star, leading to a break with his mentor William Lloyd Garrison. Douglass also produced a number of other periodicals, as well as two extensions of his narrative—Life and Times of Frederick Douglass and My Bondage and My Freedom. In 1848, he played a prominent role at the women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, and he was a lifelong supporter of the women's suffrage movement. During the Civil War he was an adviser to President Lincoln and recruited blacks, including his own sons, for the Union army. He was appointed to several government positions, including recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia and United States minister and consul general to Haiti. Douglass died in 1895.


  • Why does Douglass believe "Slavery proved as injurious to [his master's wife] as it did to [him]" (p. 81)?
  • After his confrontation with Mr. Covey, what does Douglass mean when he writes "however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact" (p. 113)?
  • Why is Douglass able to "understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs" (p. 57) sung by slaves only when he no longer is a slave himself?
  • When Douglass writes, "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man" (p. 107), what does he understand a man to be?
  • Douglass describes knowledge as "valuable bread" (p. 83) and the Liberator, an anti-slavery paper, as his "meat and drink" (p. 151). How does literacy sustain him?
  • How is Douglass able to maintain his religious faith when that of his owners is used to justify their treatment of him?
  • Why does Douglass consider holiday celebrations as part of the "inhumanity of slavery" (p. 115)?
  • Why does Douglass describe the sails on Chesapeake Bay as "so many shrouded ghosts" (p. 106)?
For Further Reflection
  1. To what extent should a piece of autobiographical writing be regarded as "factual"?
  2. Can literacy be a curse as well as a blessing?

Related Titles

Book of Job
This Old Testament book, notable for its poetic language, questions why God allows the righteous to suffer.

Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)
This autobiographical work not only documents the horrors of slave life, but also provides a perspective on the suffering specific to female slaves.

Martin Luther King, Jr., "I Have a Dream" (1963)
The civil rights leader's most famous speech, one of the finest in modern oratory, projects his vision for an American nation worthy of the ideals that inspired its creation.

Henry David Thoreau, "Civil Disobedience" (1849)
This highly influential essay, in which the author explains why he cannot pay a poll tax to a government that tolerates slavery, remains a touchstone for social and political activism.

Richard Wright, Native Son (1940)
This novel challenges both blacks and whites to face the reality of race relations in the United States.

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (Illustrated + FREE audiobook link + Active TOC) 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 68 reviews.
HistoryGuySP More than 1 year ago
I am a high school Social Studies teacher. Each year when I teach about the Reform Period (1820-1860), I require my students to read the "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass." The abolitionist movement is the most visible element of the Reform Period, and Douglass is a giant among men in the movement. If you want to learn about what life was really like for African Americans trapped in the institution of slavery then this is your book. When my classes read this book, we read one chapter a day for eleven consecutive days. The book is not all that lengthy, and when presented in this fashion it allows them the opportunity to slowly filter all of what Douglass is relating about his topic. Douglass does an excellent job of getting his readers to understand how "ignorance" is used as a tool of slavery. He also vividly conveys how male and female slaves alike are victimized by their masters. Lastly, and most importantly I believe, he conveys how slavery creates a perversion of Christianity. This book is a classic and more Americans should find time to read it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I had to read yhis book for summer reading and i loved it. I reccomend to anyone wondering how it was to be faced with impossible situations and overcome them with just the right mind set. Just great!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
this was the most intriguing book about Fredric Douglas.It is a great read and I hope that other young people become involved with learning more about a man like Fredric Douglas. -Caiti
AnnieBM More than 1 year ago
Douglass' poignantly recounts his life as a slave and his coming to freedom. Throughout his Narrative he demonstrates a sensitivity to himself and to those around him including insight into human behavior and its effects on character. In his appendix Douglass clarifies his comments concerning religion -- Christianity -- words which resonant even today. This Narrative is more than historically significant and an unveiling the reality of American slavery. It portrays much of the psychological impact of slavery on slaveholders as well as slaves, provides an insightful critique of religious practice and justification, and shares generously of his journey to claim freedom and manhood. I consider this a must read for citizenship for all Americans. Highly recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book allows you to go into the deepest darkest thoughts of an american slave as Frederick Douglass vividly and intensively describes the lifestyle of a slave in both the south and the north. The book allows the reader to get a point of view on why slavery should have been ended from a slave who unfortunately had to participate in the harmful acts of slavery. From the beginning of the book to the end, Frederick Douglass does a fantastic job at proving that African Americans at the time could indeed be knowledgeable  
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found this account of Fredrick Douglas' life solid and thoroughly written. It should be required reading in all schools and a research guide for anyone seeking insight into, not only Mr. Douglas' life, but also what life was like for African American's at this time in American history.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The most authentic look at past events is through the eyes of someone who lived it. Fredrick Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland and illegally taught himself to read and write. He escaped and 20 years before the Civil War he wrote of his personal experiences in an attempt to open people's eyes and hearts to the plight of his brethern who were, literally, in chains. If you want to understand where we are now by seeing where we've come from, this clear, consise account of slavery is highly recommended.
mom2McKenna More than 1 year ago
Frederick Douglass was elegant and eloquent. When you give serious consideration to the incredible circumstances he overcame to achieve success in the 1800s, it is truly impressive and inspiring. He wrote with honesty and honor. It is a shame that most Americans know nothing of this man or his works. Whether you are history buff or not, everyone should read this book as there are lessons to be learned by us all.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. It gave me an important look into American history. It is a story that we can all learn from, and that everyone should have a chance to read.
Anonymous 12 months ago
bookworm12 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is Douglass¿ actual account of his time as a slave and his escape. It¿s heartbreaking to think of all he went through and then to remember that this happened to thousands of slaves. I was amazed by his strong will and determination; it never faltered. No matter what happened to him, he failed to break. His ¿masters¿ are the ones who gave up in the end. He was such a brave individual, they didn¿t want to cross him and lose face in front of their other slaves. One of the most astounding things in the book is that Douglass gives no details of his actual escape. He says he can¿t explain how he did it because he might be giving away an escape route another slave is about to take. This really drove home the point that he wrote this when slavery was still very active. What an incredibly courageous man. Even though he was born into slavery, at no point did he say, well this is just my life. He looked at his impossible situation and thought, how can I change this? It was inspiring! If he can change his life, in that time period, what excuse do we have?
touchthesky on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Definitely the most interesting and intriguing autobiography. I had to read this for one of my college history classes and was surprised that it wasn't boring at all. Douglass' writing is beautiful.
teagueamania on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
One of the most worthwhile American history books you can read, written by a completely self-taught slave, who reveals our current education system as a farce, much as he did the governmental, religious, and social structure of his time for accepting chattel slavery. Short and easy to find free online.
meggyweg on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I had to read this for a college history class, but I would have read it for pleasure too. I can certainly why it is a classic. Douglass's story, like all slave narratives, is compelling, and you have to admire him for what he'd been through and what he accomplished in spite of his origins. On top of all that, he was a genuinely gifted writer. The book is clear, concise and thought-provoking. I would recommend this for high school and up. It's short enough to appeal to those with limited attention spans.
cmbohn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is the short biography of Frederick Douglass. He writes about his life as a slave, how his mother died, how he learned to read, how he was beaten and starved, and how he decided to escape. He enlarged on this story later, but in this version of the story, he doesn't give any details of his flight to freedom. But you certainly get a vivid and horrible picture of slavery. I thought his words about the religious hypocrisy of his former masters was especially illuminating.After reading this, I was surprised really that more slaves did not make the attempt to escape. He says that he never had any idea of escape until after he learned to read and realized what else was out there in the world. That may have been one reason. Douglass himself says that he almost changed his mind when he realized that his escape would mean the loss of contact with all his friends. I'm sure that such ties to friends and family was another reason that most slaves stayed put.After reading this, I was motivated to read more about Douglass and what happened to him after he wrote this book. He was a very eloquent, even passionate man fighting for the cause of freedom and equal rights for both women and for slaves. This is a great story for young people to read, as it would help them understand how brutal slavery really was. Also important today, when there are still horrible acts of violence and injustice all around the world.
doowatt34 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I used to hear negative things about frederick bailey, johnson douglas but after reading his first narrative autobiography I thought of him as a brave, intellegent, thought ful and wise young man. I was truly fascinated by the way that he tricked the young boys in his baltimore neighborhood into teaching him how to read, the way he gave his master the beat down of his life, the type of planning that he did to get things done, the strength and courage that it took to stand up to rouge cowards, and his constant analysis of his condition as well as his friends, family and colleagues. Although the total narrative was very focused on the events of his life you cannot help but wonder about other things that made the civilization, look astoundingly backwards.Things such as the proletariate violence, the child abuse, the rape of woman, the wonton murder and the labor practices. By the way the narrative explains the work practices, the freedman, the working class were as much in bondage as the slave. There had to be high unemployment and when the slaves were eventually emancipated everyone who was not wealthy and didn't own anything was without a doubt emancipated also, else headed for the same plight as the people in bondage...I enjoyed this narrative....
deanc on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In 1845, only a few years after escaping the clutches of slavery, 27-year-old Frederick Douglass published this poignant account of his life through the auspices of the Anti-Slavery Office of Boston. The book was influential in advancing the cause of abolition in ante-bellum America. He describes his early years as a slave, which includes his account of learning to read by stealth with the help of white school-age boys he met in his Baltimore neighborhood. The more he read the more he learned of the world of freedom and, consequently, the more he yearned to be free. Repeatedly in these pages, Douglass reveals his contempt for so-called ¿Christian¿ slaveholders. He wrote, ¿For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others.¿ He went so far as to say that he could see ¿no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity.¿As with most of the Dover Thrift Editions, this copy does not include an index or footnotes, but that doesn¿t diminish the powerful impact of this little book.
atyson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book has a reputation as one of the most reliable and uncompromised first-person accounts by an American slave - which is why I picked it up. The book was written as a response to scepticism about the author's slave origins due to his literacy. The routine cruelty of slaveholders and their overseers is probably what anyone would now expect to hear. But it is the restrained and level-headed description of this cruelty that really gives the narrative its power. A couple of vivid points the author impressed on me: that slaveholders with pronounced Christian beliefs were invariably the most inhumane; and the sense of isolation and mistrust he found on his escape to 'freedom' in New York. This is surely some kind of definitive contribution to literature of the human condition.
ritabk1966 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Frederick Douglass writes in detail about his early life as a slave and how he was determined to learn to read and escape slavery. It is an inspiring and fascinating read.
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The detail of events was eye opening and theperils of what slaves went through was horrifying. A must read for Black History.