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Bedford/St. Martin's
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: Written by Himself / Edition 2

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: Written by Himself / Edition 2

by Frederick Douglass, David W. Blight
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This second edition of Douglass's Narrative reprints this classic document together with speeches and letters, all in a volume designed for undergraduate students. An extensive introduction places the Narrative in its historical and literary contexts with annotations on needed background.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312257378
Publisher: Bedford/St. Martin's
Publication date: 12/28/2002
Series: Bedford Cultural Editions Series
Edition description: Second Edition
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 5.47(w) x 8.21(h) x 0.27(d)

About the Author

Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) was an African American abolitionist and social reformer, author, orator, and statesman. John R. McKivigan is Mary O’Brien Gibson Professor of History at Indiana University–Purdue University, Indianapolis. Peter P. Hinks is a well-published author of scholarly monographs and documentary volumes. Heather L. Kaufman is a research associate of the Douglass Papers.


Tuckahoe, Maryland

Date of Birth:


Date of Death:

February 20, 1895

Place of Death:

Washington, D.C.

Read an Excerpt

I WAS born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday. They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time. A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege. I was not allowed to make any inquiries of my master concerning it. He deemed all such inquiries on the part of a slave improper and impertinent, and evidence of a restless spirit. The nearest estimate I can give makes me now between twenty-seven and twenty-eight years of age. I come to this, from hearing my master say, some time during 1835, I was about seventeen years old.
My mother was named Harriet Bailey. She was the daughter of Isaac and Betsey Bailey, both colored, and quite dark. My mother was of a darker complexion than either my grandmother or grandfather.
My father was a white man. He was admitted to be such by all I ever heard speak of my parentage. The opinion was also whispered that my master was my father; but of the correctness of this opinion, I know nothing; the means of knowing was withheld from me. My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant—before I knew her as my mother. It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age. Frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is taken from it, and hired out on some farm a considerable distance off, and the child is placed under the care of an old woman, too old for field labor. For what this separation is done, I do not know, unless it be to hinder the development of the child’s affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child. This is the inevitable result.
I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four or five times in my life; and each of these times was very short in duration, and at night. She was hired by a Mr. Stewart, who lived about twelve miles from my home. She made her journeys to see me in the night, travelling the whole distance on foot, after the performance of her day’s work. She was a field hand, and a whipping is the penalty of not being in the field at sunrise, unless a slave has special permission from his or her master to the contrary—a permission which they seldom get, and one that gives to him that gives it the proud name of being a kind master. I do not recollect of ever seeing my mother by the light of day. She was with me in the night. She would lie down with me, and get me to sleep, but long before I waked she was gone. Very little communication ever took place between us. Death soon ended what little we could have while she lived, and with it her hardships and suffering.
She died when I was about seven years old, on one of my master’s farms, near Lee’s Mill. I was not allowed to be present during her illness, at her death, or burial. She was gone long before I knew any thing about it. Never have enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, I received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger.
Called thus suddenly away, she left me without the slightest intimation of who my father was. The whisper that my master was my father, may or may not be true; and, true or false, it is of but little consequence to my purpose whilst the fact remains, in all its glaring odiousness, that slaveholders have ordained, and by law established, that the children of slave women shall in all cases follow the condition of their mothers; and this is done too obviously to administer to their own lusts, and make a gratification of their wicked desires profitable as well as pleasurable; for by this cunning arrangement, the slaveholder, in cases not a few, sustains to his slaves the double relation of master and father.
I know of such cases, and it is worthy, of remark that such slaves invariably suffer greater hardships, and have more to contend with, than others. They are, in the first place, a constant offence to their mistress. She is ever disposed to find fault with them; they can seldom do any thing to please her; she is never better pleased than when she sees them under the lash, especially when she suspects her husband of showing to his mulatto children favors which he withholds from his black slaves. The master is frequently compelled to sell this class of his slaves, out of deference to the feelings of his white wife; and, cruel as the deed may strike any one to be, for a man to sell his own children to human flesh-mongers, it is often the dictate of humanity for him to do so; for, unless he does this, he must not only whip them himself, but must stand by and see one white son tie up his brother, of but few shades darker complexion than himself, and ply the gory lash to his naked back; and if he lisp one word of disapproval, “it is set down to his parental partiality, and only makes a bad matter worse, both for himself and the slave whom he would protect and defend.
Every year brings with it multitudes of this class of slaves. It was doubtless in consequence of a knowledge of this fact, that one great statesman of the south predicted the downfall of slavery by the inevitable laws of population. Whether this prophecy is ever fulfilled or not, it is nevertheless plain that a very different-looking class of people are springing up at the south, and are now held in slavery, from those originally brought to this country from Africa; and if their increase will do no other good, it will do away the force of the argument, that God cursed Ham, and therefore American slavery is right. If the lineal descendants of Ham are alone to be scripturally enslaved, it is certain that slavery at the south must soon become unscriptural; for thousands are ushered into the world, annually, who, like myself, owe their existence to white fathers, and those fathers most frequently their own masters.
I have had two masters. My first master’s name was Anthony. I do not remember his first name. He was generally called Captain Anthony—a title which, I presume, he acquired by sailing a craft on the Chesapeake Bay. He was not considered a rich slaveholder. He owned two or three farms, and about thirty slaves. His farms and slaves were under the care of an overseer. The overseer’s name was Plummer. Mr. Plummer was a miserable drunkard, a profane swearer, and a savage monster. He always went armed with a cowskin and a heavy cudgel. I have known him to cut and slash the women’s heads so horribly, that even master would be enraged at his cruelty, and would threaten to whip him if he did not mind himself. Master, however, was not a humane slaveholder. It required extraordinary barbarity on the part of an overseer to affect him. He was a cruel man, hardened by a long life of slave-holding. He would at times seem to take great pleasure in whipping a slave. I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood-clotted cowskin. 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. It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was a most terrible spectacle. I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents




A Note About the Text
Preface by William Lloyd Garrison, May 1, 1845
Letter from Wendell Phillips, Esq., April 22, 1845
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself


Caleb Bingham, "Dialogue Between a Master and a Slave," in The Columbian Orator 1797
Margaret Fuller, Review of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, New York Tribune, June 10, 1845
Ephraim Peabody, "Narratives of Fugitive Slaves," excerpt, Christian Examiner, July 1849
Nathaniel P. Rogers, "Southern Slavery and Northern Religion: Two Addresses" delivered in Concord, New Hampshire, February 11, 1844, as reported in Concord, N.H. Herald of Freedom, February 16, 1844
Frederick Douglass, "My Slave Experience in Maryland," an address delivered in New York City, May 6, 1845, as recorded in National Antislavery Standard, May 22, 1845
Frederick Douglass, "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" speech delivered in Rochester, New York, July 5, 1852


A Frederick Douglass Chronology (1818–1895)
Questions for Consideration
Selected Bibliography


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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 121 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Frederick Douglass was an amazing oralist and writer. In the 'Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass,' he brought this story to life. Every emotion that he felt, you feel. When slaves were killed by their overseers, his narration makes you feel as if you were right there with the same suspense and horror the other slaves felt. When he was a young boy and watched the barbaric beating of his aunt Hester, his details were so vivid. And, when he stated 'I was so terrified and horror-stricken at the sight, that I hid myself in a closet,' I wanted to be in that closet hiding with him. The articulation that he possesses is amazing. The fact that this story was written by a former slave, would allow you the impression that it would not be easy to decipher. This is not the case at all. His verbage was clear and easy to follow. This story was truly inspirational!
JoannaPA More than 1 year ago
Over the years many times I have heard reference to this book but had never read it. I picked it up out of curiosity and to be honest because it was on the bargain table, but this small book of the slave story and later writings, speeches and lectures of Mr. Frederick Douglass are a real treasure and a must read. His words and life cut to the heart as you hear him tell what he experienced as a man held in bondage. The terror, fear and brutal cruelty of the times and the daily suffering of slaves, men, women and children,is sad,unbelievable, but true. It also sheds a light on the attitudes and thinking of slave owners. Learning to read was the spark in young Frederick that set him on his long and hard path to freedom.I found it interesting to read about the different people and chance encounters that brought him to a free state and eventually to be able to speak so strongly and beautifully against slavery as an evil against God and against our fellow human beings. This narritive is a powerful and thought provoking read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book felt as cold water on my face. It made me aware of the profound impact of slavery in all the entities that were part of it. Slaves and masters became victims of the same pest. Through the chapters of this book we able to observe the mental deformation that slavery causes in slaveholders. Using very clear and full of emotions narrative, Frederick Douglas allow us to share, in some way, his journey towards freedom. Moreover, he also succeeds in communicating the greatness of his spirit, determination and faith. I truly recommend this book to everyone that wants to increase awareness in how we become blind to injustice and suffering.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
When i was assigned to read this for history my first thought was: ughh this is gonna make me fall asleep like the other books i have been forced to read BUT this actually turned out to be a good book I was appalled by the abuse that Frederick Doughlass had to go through as a slave and it is very interesting how he vividly remembers his time in bondage If you ever have the urge to read a book about the harsh realities of slavery, definately read this book
stipe168 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
well written, gets you really riled up and pissed off at America's treatment of human beings. righteous hair.
tw0h3dz on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Essential reading for any student of American history. Douglass writes with elegance, passion, and experience. His views on America's version of Christianity are, unfortunately, as true now as when he penned them in 1845; I can't recommend a quick read of the Appendix enough.
sgerbic on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Reviewed August 2006 I had often heard mentioned Frederik Douglass, I know he was asked to advise Lincoln twice and I have a nice portrait of this man taken at the Lincoln museum. Now I have so much more knowledge - to read his accounts of slavery are jaw-dropping. I want to travel to Maryland and look the descendants of these slave-owners and whip them. Douglass is very clear in his idea of Christianity - there is real Christianity that follows Gods teachings. Then there is the Christianity of the slave-owners, the hypocrisy of that time and place. To beat a slave and quote the Bible while doing it sounds so insane. Douglass gives us much detail in some accounts and leaves out much about his wife and what happened to many of the slaves he left. Now I am very curious to read what were the reactions after this book came out. Where are the descendants of Douglass now? I want to know more. 21-2006
markbstephenson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
As a corrective to the eloquent antebellum South Carolinian, William Gilmore Simms, it was good to read this even more compelling account published in 1845. It is good that this is required reading these days. Wish I had read it long ago.
juliabeth on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is an important work in any historical/cultural study of the time period and/or the institution of slavery. As a project by a man who was not allowed to learn to read, it is astounding. He is very thorough and reasoned and shares his reasoning meticulously; for example, why he does not give more details about his escape; and he is painstaking in his responses to expected critiques. Impressive.
herebedragons on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is an amazing piece of literature, something everyone should read. Douglass' account of his life as a slave, and then, after his escape, as a freeman is powerful. Difficult to read at times, in spite of the fact that he was a slave in Maryland, where conditions were relatively "good." I read this for a history class, but should probably have read it years ago. His writing is beautiful, and the story he tells needs to be read, and remembered.
Sean191 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
As much an American history book as anything else available. It's also overwhelming proof that oppression is surmountable. Douglass' story is well-worth the read both as a look back at part of the embarrassing legacy our country was built on, and a look at the type of people we should look at to lead us to a better future. Douglass had the will to persevere and overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles - slavery being the obvious, but the peripherals of slavery being perhaps more of a challenge. He had the will and the intelligence to learn how to read and write even when the society surrounding him took great pains to prevent him from doing so. Unfortunately, that strength of will seems to be a rarity in our contemporary society, no matter what race a person is.
janemarieprice on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Douglass¿s memoir really amazed me. I was expecting something more alone the lines of Uncle Tom¿s Cabin where the reader is brow-beaten with the message ¿ I think this style was needed in the time it was written but makes for a difficult read at times today. The memoir, however, is a very practical piece. He tells his story frankly, without delving into morality, because the simple facts of his life are enough for one to form an opinion. A really beautifully told story ¿ I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn¿t read it yet.
MorgannaKerrie on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I had to read this for one of my history classes. It was a very insightful look into the world of slavery.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a jaw dropping stpry that displays a great picture in your head. I thought that Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was a very informational book. It showed how rough it was in the 1800¿s. Frederick Douglass struggled through watching and receiving many beatings. His masters were treating him awful and he couldn¿t do much to anything about it. As the story goes on Frederick Douglass gets sent around to differnt farms to work. At all of the farms he encounters at least one enemy. Overall ths stroy is full of infomation and is very powerful
Guest More than 1 year ago
Reading sections of Douglass' narrative gave me chills and made me think about the way African Americans were treated by white masters. This book gave me ideas of the hardships the African Americans faced when shipped from town to town and master to master. The words in Douglass' speech at the anti-slavery convention show his intelligence and views of being an Abolitionist. I recommend this book to any person willing or wanting to learn about slavery of African Americans in the 19th century.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Part of my reading curriculum for my Oral Communications class, I loved it so much I had everyone in my family read it!!! Definitely recommend to those looking for a good book on slaves and slavery.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is such an inspirational story. It is well written and easy to read. You can feel the tension, dismay and sorrow as Mr. Douglas narrates the different things that he had to go through. His story show how faith, courage and determination made him a victor.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is definitely a must read book. I would recommend that every one, no matter what their race may be, should read this book. I found this book to be eye opening and heart wrenching. It really grabs your attention and make you want to read more. This book was written in such a way that I felt like I was being told the story personally instead of just reading it. I found myself rooting for Fredrick Douglass throughout the whole book. I think the part that touched me the most was the fact he never had to opportunity to know his mother. Me being a mother, I felt my my eyes water reading that. Frederick Douglass overcame so much in his life. He went from being a slave that did not know how to read or write to a free person that was (and still is) a much respected abolitionist. The story of his life is nothing short of amazing. I am really glad that I had to opportunity to read this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This narrative delivers a recondite and clear perspective on the obstacles that surround a person being a slave. Frederick Douglass certainly had his finger on the pulse of the time. Great narrative!!!