The Nineteenth century was a very tumultuous time in American History. There was a war going on, political strife was at hand and nation was purely divided. The division was over the biggest commodity at the time, slaves. During this time slavery was rampant in the South and some parts of the Midwest as more states were entering the union. Slaves who managed to escape their masters were making their way to the North, but in many states there were no laws protecting slaves that had escaped. The United States was one of last countries that was continuing the use of slaves. By the middle of the nineteenth century the importation of slaves from Africa had become illegal but the buying and selling domestically was at an all time high. The dehumanization of these people had hit in all time low when procreation was forced in order for plantation owners to have more slaves. They were known through the nation as chattel and that is exactly how they have been treated since the beginning of the slave trade.
The issue of slavery was on everyone’s mind and the abolitionists movement was formed. One of the pillars of this movement was indeed Frederick Douglass. Douglass drew from his own experiences as a former slave to impact a nation. Having been born into slavery himself, Douglass knew first hand the day to day strife of a slave in the South. He vividly describes his life as a slave and the atrocities that he witnessed as child and as a man. “I remember the first time I ever witnessed this horrible exhibition. I was quite a child, but I well remember it. I never shall forget it whilst I remember any thing. It was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant. It struck me with awful force.”(Douglass 1) His very early years in a plantation in Maryland laid the foundation for his work.
Douglass was able, however, to escape the harshness of his potential future as field hand by being sent to Baltimore to work in the house of his second master. There he learned to read and write and gave him an advantage, education. “It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty — to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.”(Douglass 2) He felt that through education there was no stopping a black man from being free. This became a major turning point in his life. His master has given him a lesson he would never forget, how the white man was keeping the black man down. “ “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master — to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.”(Douglass 3) The idea that a black man can be free through education himself his life’s mission. From that moment forward he began to do just that.
Douglass continued to read even against the wishes of his masters. He read books, newspapers whatever he seemed to get his hands on. He even traded bread with the poor white children for knowledge. Upon his trips through the city he came across a newspaper that spoke about the abolitionists movement. “After a patient waiting, I got one of our city papers, containing an account of the number of petitions from the north, praying for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, and of the slave trade between the States. From this time I understood the words abolition and abolitionist, and always drew near when that word was spoken, expecting to hear something of importance to myself and fellow-slaves.”(Douglass 4) It continued to say that the North was where slaves would be free.
Well, it took Douglass seven years from his first move to Baltimore to be free and it certainly wasn’t easy. He went through his share of cruelty and despair but this was only making him stronger and braver to fight the issue that haunted him all his life. He that slavery needed to be abolished but in turn he also knew that slaves need to be educated. It wasn’t enough for Douglass for his people to be free, but what would happen after they were free. “I have never approved of the very public manner in which some of our western friends have conducted what they call the underground railroad, but which, I think, by their open declarations, has been made most emphatically the upperground railroad. I honor those good men and women for their noble daring, and applaud them for willingly subjecting themselves to bloody persecution, by openly avowing their participation in the escape of slaves. I, however, can see very little good resulting from such a course, either to themselves or the slaves escaping; while, upon the other hand, I see and feel assured that those open declarations are a positive evil to the slaves remaining, who are seeking to escape. They do nothing towards enlightening the slave, whilst they do much towards enlightening the master.”(Douglass 5) He clearly felt more harm was being done by this because it seemed to be so publicly done. The idea of the underground railroad was a passage for the slaves in the South to escape to the North. We must keep in mind, however that masters did come after runaway slaves and there were no laws protecting an escaped slave. Douglass knew very well the punishment for such an act. “We owe something to the slaves south of the line as well as to those north of it; and in aiding the latter on their way to freedom, we should be careful to do nothing which would be likely to hinder the former from escaping from slavery. I would keep the merciless slaveholder profoundly ignorant of the means of flight adopted by the slave.”(Douglass 6)
Douglass made his way to New York where the abolitionist movement was in great force. He met others that were very much part of the movement . He managed to rise from his past to become a pillar for his people and most of all for the abolitionist movement. He set forth his mission to abolish slavery and make the horrors he witnessed to be known by all. His inspiration and work is still revered in our modern world because we have come a long from the time slavery but unfortunately ignorance and racism is still out there. His message, however, is timeless. Education being the key to end ignorance.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New York: Dover Publications, 1995. Questia. 22 Apr. 2007