Life & Times of Frederick Douglass: Summary & Explanation

Instructor: Margaret English

Meg has taught language arts in middle school, high school and college. She has a doctorate in Educational leadership

This lesson discusses 'The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass', which was published in 1892. It is a final, cumulative autobiographical work and contains recollections of his childhood in slavery, his eventual escape, and his many achievements as a freed Black man.

The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass Collection

Frederick Douglass was a prolific writer. The 1892 edition of The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass was the fourth in a series of autobiographies. The first was The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave published in 1845. This work was followed by My Bondage and My Freedom in 1855. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass was published in 1881 and reissued in 1892. Both the 1881 and 1892 versions include an introduction by George Ruffin, the first African American graduate of Harvard Law School. He refers to Douglass as 'our most celebrated colored man'. Although today such an epithet seems racist, it was then regarded as politically correct.

In the 1881 edition, Douglass advised fellow African Americans to live frugally. Frugality to Douglass likely meant the preservation of resources such as courage, tenacity, and common sense in addition to material goods. Such 'frugal living' would indeed improve their chances of survival. Indeed, the 1890 census revealed that the Black population was growing, perhaps even due to Douglass's 'frugal' living advice. The myth that the Black race would die out without slave masters to care for them was debunked. According to Douglass, the census revealed that there 'are no longer four millions of slaves, but six millions of freemen.' The 1892 edition included a more hopeful message. Douglass's frugal living message became less important and he began to suggest that Black people seek a voice and learn to express themselves.

The Life and Times, Always Positive

In the final version, Douglass sums up his life experience in the final chapter with these words: 'Although it has at times been dark and stormy, and I have met with hardships from which other men have been exempted, yet my life has in many respects been remarkably full of sunshine and joy.' The work is comprehensive and, not surprisingly, very long at over 700 pages. Divided into three parts, Life and Times covers three main phases of Douglass's life.

Life and Times Section I: Early Life as a Slave

Douglass describes his very early memories with an adult vocabulary. He recalls his loving grandmother and fleeting glimpses of his mother. Of his father, he knew nothing. Douglass's account of plantation life is detailed and descriptive. Once, when he was weak from a fever, Douglass received a violent beating: 'He dealt me a heavy blow on my head which made a large gash, and caused the blood to run freely, saying at the same time, 'If you have got the headache I'll cure you.'

Life and Times Section II: Escape From Bondage

In this section Douglass explains that escaping slavery was not easy. Few slaves had knowledge of geography. 'Slaveholders sought to impress their slaves with a belief in the boundlessness of slave territory and their own limitless power.' Even if a slave escaped hired kidnappers were prevalent, especially on the borders. 'At every gate through which we had to pass we saw a watchman, at every ferry a guard, on every bridge a sentinel, and in every wood a patrol or slave-hunter. We were hemmed in on every side.' Eventually, through perseverance and a series of lucky encounters, Douglass escaped slavery and travelled to New York.

Life and Times Section III: Complete History to the Present

At first, Douglass dug cellars, shoveled coal, unloaded ships, cleaned cabins, and moved refuse from the backyards of wharves. Douglass said: 'This was an uncertain and unsatisfactory mode of life, for it kept me too much of the time in search of work.' Fortunately, Douglass met the owner of a large candle making company who offered him long-term employment. The work was hard, but Douglass was used to such work. 'My duty here was to blow the bellows, swing the crane and empty the flasks in which castings were made; and at times this was hot and heavy work.' Douglass got along with the other workers even though they were white.

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