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The Lives of Frederick Douglass

Posted by W. Caleb McDaniel on January 9, 2013

In honor of the premiere of The Abolitionists on PBS this week, I decided to publish a very old essay of mine on Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, two of the featured characters in the film. This essay originally appeared in 2004 on my old blog, where it appeared in two parts. For this version I have made some slight changes, added a few pointers to primary sources that have since been digitized, and fixed a few broken links.

Many Americans are familiar with the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, published in 1845; it is certainly the most famous personal narrative of slavery ever written. (In 2002, the City of Baltimore sponsored a city-wide reading of the Narrative, which the mayor lauded as an “example of perseverance and determination.”) But fewer readers are aware that Douglass wrote another autobiography in 1855, entitled My Bondage and My Freedom. Probably even fewer are aware that a third autobiography was published in 1881, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.

The most notable feature of the second autobiography is that by 1855, Douglass had more “bio” to “graph.” Seventeen years had passed since his escape from slavery in Maryland, and ten years separated him from the book that made him a celebrity. In that decade, he had established himself as a lecturer on the antislavery circuit, toured Great Britain to much acclaim, received funds from British friends to purchase his freedom, and founded his own newspaper in upstate New York. My Bondage and My Freedom covers these new events as well as most of the same episodes that were in the Narrative. But these episodes in Douglass’s life as an enslaved Marylander are almost always embellished with greater detail in his second book. More detail was partly a retort to skeptics who doubted the authenticity of the Narrative. But the richer detail of the second book is even more important as an example of Douglass’s incisive and innovative thinking about the problem of slavery.

The Narrative had a mostly propagandistic function: it was intended as an exposé of slavery’s brutality. My Bondage more directly exposed Douglass’s inner experience in slavery. And it illuminated the connections between that experience and his thought. The narrative logic of the first book assumed that readers would infer antislavery conclusions from the episodes it related. The second book complicated and multiplied the possible conclusions that a reader could reach. For one thing, it corrected what some readers might have perceived in the Narrative as an antislavery argument based prima