Back to Inquiry Set

8.9.8 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by himself. Boston: Published at the Anti-Slavery Office, No. 25 Cornhill, 1849

Douglass, Frederick, 1818-1895
Library of Congress

Douglass, Frederick, and William Lloyd Garrison. Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave. Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1849. Pdf.

A key way that abolitionists of the 1830s and beyond sought to bring about an end to slavery was to argue that slavery was cruel and unnatural. What does Frederick Douglass argue about his experience with his mother that may have convinced his audience that slavery was bad for individuals and families? How might the negative experiences of slave families be harmful to the broader society?

Frederick Douglass, like many people born into slavery, was separated from his mother at a very young age. He never knew the identity of his father, a white man. His aunt and grandparents helped raise him, and he only interacted with his mother a handful of times before she died when he was seven. Enslaved people had no legal rights to marry and stay with one another or their children. Slave owners regularly sold and moved individual slaves regardless of their family ties; in some cases slaves were sold or moved because of their familial relationships to discourage resistance and runaways. During the religious revivalism of the 1830s in New England, many Americans became more and more troubled by the practices of slavery. A wider market of books appealed to people’s sentiments and emotions, and an expanding number of women read these works. Douglass, who escaped from slavery in 1838 at the age of 20, arrived in New York in time to participate in and help lead the charge for the “modern” form of abolitionism that called for an immediate end to slavery. As evidence of Douglass’s significance to the cause, during the Civil War President Lincoln admitted Douglass to the White House to discuss the conditions of black soldiers and the enslaved.

"Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, I received the tidings of [my mother's] death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger" (Chapter 1, page 3).