Harper’s Weekly November 1883 cover story of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass is the most conspicuous American of African descent, and his career is a striking illustration of the nature of free popular institutions. Born a slave, he is to-day, by his own energy and character and courage, an eminent citizen, and his life has been a constant and powerful plea for his people. Over infinite disadvantage and prejudice, his patience, intelligence, capacity, and tenacity have triumphantly prevailed, and in himself he is a repudiation of the current assertions against the colored race. Mr. Douglass’s address at the late Colored Convention showed a comprehension of the situation of the colored people in this country which justified the regard in which he is held, and which explains the leadership that he has held so long.

Its tone toward his people is not that of flattery and sentimentality, but of rebuke and exhortation; and he understands, if no other colored man perceives, the immense and crushing power of that prejudice which overwhelms a race whose color is an ineffaceable sign and suggestion of prolonged servile bondage.

The story of Mr. Douglass’s early life has been told by himself with a simplicity and power which make his autobiography one of the most striking and unique books in our literature. There is no closer and more intimate view of slavery as it was fifty years ago, and it is impossible to read it to-day as a tale of recent American life without incredulity. No man who directly or indirectly, by sophistry, or evasion, or resolute refusal to know the truth, sustained the system of slavery, can read the narrative of Frederick Douglass without sorrow and remorse. Three books contain the most complete and vivid picture of American slavery in its details, in its spirit, and in its influence upon master and slave, and upon industry and society. These are Douglass’s narrative, Olmstead’s Sea-board Slave States, and Mrs. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Careful study of these reveals the nature of the malign power with which good men at the South as elsewhere were called to contend.

Frederick Douglass was born in Talbot County, Maryland, sixty-five or sixty-six years ago. Like all slaves, he was not permitted to know his age, but he supposes, from the conversations of his master which he overheard, that he was about seventeen years old in 1835. His master was probably his father, and he was at different times a field hand and hired out to mechanical work in town. He was partially taught to read by a kind mistress, whose husband “stopped the nonsense” as soon as he knew it, and he taught himself by stealth to write. He was undoubtedly a very clever boy, and it was perhaps an instinctive apprehension that his cleverness might make his fellow-slaves troublesome which caused him to be frightfully flogged and abused in the hope of breaking his spirit. Fortunately the savage treatment stimulated rather than subdued his manhood, and when living near Baltimore in 1835 he organized a party of his comrades to attempt to escape. The scheme was betrayed, and he expected to be sent to Alabama; but this doom was averted, and, waiting patiently a little while, on the 3d of September, 1838, he quietly left Baltimore by a railroad train, and soon after reached New York, at two o’clock in the morning.

He was working in a ship-yard at the time, and observing a sympathy for his race among the sailors, he thought that he could disguise himself as a sailor and so escape. He had caught the air and the vocabulary of sailors, and carefully dressing himself and carrying a “protection,” which he does not say how he procured, and knowing that if he offered to buy a ticket he would be exposed to a searching examination, he jumped on the train after it was in motion. The disguise was so good that men who knew him did not recognize him. The conductor, passing through the cars, asked for his free papers, and Douglass, with a sailor’s air, showed his protection, and said that he did not carry his papers to sea, from which he had just returned. So the slave became a freeman, and the most powerful witness against the woes of the house of bondage found his tongue.

In 1841, at an antislavery convention at Nantucket, Mr. Garrison first saw Mr. Douglass, who had vaguely heard of the abolitionists, and was curious to know what they proposed to do. He was persuaded to address the convention, and after apologizing for his ignorance, the slave of three years before spoke with such force and eloquence that Mr. Garrison said that he had never hated slavery so intensely as at that moment. From that time Mr. Douglass was one of the most popular and powerful of the antislavery orators, and his life was devoted to arousing public sentiment, that the liberty which he had gained for himself might be secured for his fellow victims of slavery. He shared the fate of all the antislavery pioneers. He was denounced, mobbed, and pursued, and the very fact that he was a living example of the abuses of his race seemed to give peculiar malignity to the hatred with which he was regarded. If such men were slaves, how unspeakable was the wrong of slavery to humanity! Isaiah Rynders, who says in a recent statement that he “got mad with Garrison because he was an infidel,” replied to a speaker in one of the antislavery meetings who cited Douglass as evidence of the equality of the races, “That won’t do; he is half white, and that accounts for him.”“Oh,” retorted Douglass, “then I am only your half-brother,” which, Captain Rynders adds, was “as good a shot as ever I got in my life.”

In later years Mr. Douglass has been an editor, a popular lyceum lecturer, and a devoted Republican orator. He was a Republican Presidential Elector in New York, and he has been Marshal of the District of Columbia. His address, of which we have spoken, at the late Colored Convention, was the wisest word that has been spoken for his race for many a year. He is still a Republican, but he exhorts his brethren to subordinate party attachment to their own welfare. Mr. Douglass is one of the most interesting figures in the country, and no American career has had more remarkable and suggestive vicissitudes than his.
George William Curtis.

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