Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave


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An updated edition of a classic African American autobiography, with new supplementary materials

The preeminent American slave narrative first published in 1845, Frederick Douglass’s Narrative powerfully details the life of the abolitionist from his birth into slavery in 1818 to his escape to the North in 1838, how he endured the daily physical and spiritual brutalities of his owners and driver, how he learned to read and write, and how he grew into a man who could only live free or die. In addition to Douglass’s classic autobiography, this new edition also includes his most famous speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” and his only known work of fiction, The Heroic Slave, which was written, in part, as a response to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143107309
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/28/2014
Edition description: Updated
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 56,023
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) was an antislavery lecturer, a journalist, a writer and publisher, and the bestselling author of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, followed by My Bondage and My Freedom, and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.

Ira Dworkin is the associate director of the Prince Alwaleed Center for American Studies and Research and Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at The American University in Cairo.


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

List of Illustrations
Frederick Douglass: A Brief Chronology
A Note on the Text

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

Appendix A: European Editions
  1. Title page and frontispiece from the first Dublin edition (1845)
  2. Preface from the first Dublin edition (1845)
  3. Title page and frontispiece from the second Dublin edition (1846)
  4. Title page and frontispiece from the third English edition (1846)
  5. Title page and frontispiece from the Dutch translation (1846)
  6. Title page from the French translation (1848)
Appendix B: Douglass’s Correspondence, 1845–46
  1. To Richard D. Webb, Belfast (6 December 1845)
  2. To Richard D. Webb, Belfast (24 December 1845)
  3. To Richard D. Webb, Perth, Scotland (20 January 1846)
  4. To Richard D. Webb, Dundee, Scotland (10 February 1846)
  5. To Maria Weston Chapman, Kilmarnock, Scotland (29 March 1846)
  6. To Richard D. Webb, Glasgow (16 April [?] 1846)
  7. To William Lloyd Garrison, Glasgow (16 April 1846)
  8. To Richard D. Webb, Glasgow (25 April 1846)
Appendix C: Douglass’s Speeches and Writings
  1. “I Have Come to Tell You Something about Slavery,” Pennsylvania Freeman (20 October 1841)
  2. “Speech of Frederic [sic] Douglass, a Fugitive Slave,” National Anti-Slavery Standard (23 December 1841)
  3. “I Stand Here a Slave,” Liberator (4 and 18 February 1842)
  4. “The Antislavery Movement: The Slave’s Only Earthly Hope,” National Anti-Slavery Standard (18 May 1843)
  5. “Your Religion Justifies Our Tyrants, and You Are Yourselves Our Enslavers,” Herald of Freedom (16 February 1844)
  6. “I Will Venture to Say a Word on Slavery,” National Anti- Slavery Standard (22 May 1845)
  7. “Frederick Douglass in behalf of George Latimer,” Liberator (18 November 1842)
  8. “No Union with Slaveholders,” National Anti-Slavery Standard (25 July 1844)
  9. “The Black Man Was No Less a Man because of His Color,” Pennsylvania Freeman (22 August 1844)
  10. “Slavery and the Annexation of Texas to the United States,” Liberator (12 December 1845)
  11. “The Folly of Our Opponents,” The Liberty Bell (1845)
  12. “To My Old Master,” North Star (8 September 1848)
  13. Letter to Harriet Tubman, Rochester (29 August 1868)
Appendix D: Family
  1. Portraits
  2. Letters from Rosetta Douglass to Frederick Douglass (1845–46)
  3. Letter from Annie Douglass to Frederick Douglass, Rochester (7 December 1859)
  4. Letters from Frederick Douglass to Harriet Bailey / Ruth Cox (1846–47)
  5. Jane Marsh Parker, “Reminiscences of Frederick Douglass” (6 April 1895)
  6. Rosetta Douglass Sprague, My Mother as I Recall Her (10 May 1900)
  7. Lewis Henry Douglass, undated and untitled handwritten statement (c. 1905)
Works Cited and Select Bibliography

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 343 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
In reading Frederick's narrative it truly teaches you about the life inside slavery and how powerful the faith of a person can be to escape the evil of the world. He writes so well and I will always remember his story because it has inspired me.
Rubyrasc More than 1 year ago
This Narrative was amazing. His writing was clear and easy to understand. I could not put this book down and read it in one day because it takes you back to that time and paints a vivid picture of the horrors of slavery. This special book will stay close to my heart forever and I will definitely pass it down to my future children. Although it is a bit short, it is worth it and makes a great addition to any book lovers book shelf!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Our assignment in English class was to find a book written by an American author before World War II. In order to find a book, I went to Barnes and Noble. The man that helped me find a book recommended many books, but this one stood out in my mind. He said that this book was very interesting and eye-opening. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, and American Slave is about a colored man named Frederick Douglas and his life journey as a slave. The book goes into detail about the events Frederick had to overcome like learning to read and write, the horrible sites he had to see, and the tough situations he had to go through. This book is a fairly easy read and hooks the audience in a touching and thrilling way. This non-fiction narrative is a great book that allows readers to understand and walk in the shoes of slaves centuries ago. It makes readers think about their own lives and how lucky they are to have what they have. "You will be free as soon as you are twenty-one, but I AM A SLAVE FOR LIFE!" (page 44)
Jackkeg More than 1 year ago
To not have read this book is to have missed an important part of our history. The writings of a former slave with the perspective that knowledge brings and the expressions of freedom heretofore unknown. A moving read and a true picture of the life of the average slave in the south. Not for the faint of heart.
GeoffreyC More than 1 year ago
This was the first first-person narrative on slavery I had read. Douglass' writing style is great. He presents his material in a factual, yet riveting manner. I could not put this book down. I learned so much more about the era than I ever have through textbooks.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a short interesting read, easy enough to finish while on a plane ride. The book highlights some of the various details in Douglass's life as a slave. If you're looking for more detail, I would suggest starting with this book, then moving on to Douglass's other narrative (later published) "My Bondage. . ."
Guest More than 1 year ago
My name is Jane, and I am a student at Parkview High school. I have been taught about slavery in many past history classes. As I read this book about Frederick Douglass, my view of slavery was moved tremendously. Douglass explains the horror and cruelty of slavery in every chapter of this book. As a child, he witnessed a brutal whipping that his aunt encountered. From this point on, he realizes what slavery truly is and how it dehumanizes African Americans. Douglass was moved from being a plantation slave to a house slave when he was under the age of 10. He enjoyed the life as a house slave because he was treated more like a human-being. However, this did not last long. The mistress, Mrs. Auld, who taught him how to read and write also turned into a cruel slave owner when Mr. Auld showed her the dangers of educating a slave. Douglass, however, continued to learn how to read and write. By his consistency, Douglass accomplished his dream and became a free man. The topic of slavery should not be lightly comprehended. Although, I am not able to put my feet in Douglass' shoes, he truly is an inspirational writer that not only touched me but the hearts of thousands across the world.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In this very exquisite slave narrative by Frederick Douglass, the reader is immersed into a first-person perspective account of slavery. Frederick Douglass was a writer and speaker who was very involved with abolitionism. Douglass was born into slavery under his mother Harriett Bailey. Like most slaves living back then, Frederick Douglass was separated from his mother at a young age. Controversially, his father is implied to be his master Captain Anthony. At just seven years old, Douglass was sold to the distant relative of Captain Anthony, Hugh Auld, who lives in Baltimore, where Douglass lives a more leisurely life than before at first. Auld¿s wife Sophia has never owned a slave since Douglass and therefore had no idea how it worked, so she was surprisingly more sympathetic toward him however, as time goes on, Sophia become less kindlier and eventually becomes crueler along with her husband. In correlation with this, Douglass learns how to read and becomes more aware of the evils of slavery and abolitionism. After the ending of Captain Anthony¿s family line, Douglass is sent to serve Thomas Auld. Douglass becomes unmanageable and uncomfortably resistant as a slave. Then, he was sent to Edward Covey, who was known for breaking slaves to a point where any resistant is futile by means of cruel punishment. However, there was a huge fight between Covey and Douglass later on that result in Covey leaving Douglass alone. Douglass is then sent to William Freeland and begins educating other blacks and plots an escape but is betrayed by a friend and gets sent back to Thomas Auld who sends him back to Hugh Auld to learn ship caulking. In Baltimore, he experienced many racist situations with his coworkers, sometime turning violent. Even through these trials and tribulations, he earns a very decent profit that he turns to his master. Bit by bit, he receives what money he can make in his free time and escapes to New York and ends up marrying Anna Murray, a woman of Baltimore decent. Douglass¿s life is then written into this biography.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This narrative is a fundamental element in the history of our nation, in one of its darkest times. Douglass is sold and 'broken in' to the slave lifestyle very cruelly, being whipped and beaten. When he is 'broken in' he loses all previous desire to try and escape from his fate, and becomes apathetic to everything. Only when he is sold again, this time to a kinder keeper, does he realize that if he can share the education he learned as a child, and pass it on to others he can start an escape plan. Due to his knowledge he receives a higher position, and eventually begins to earn wages for the work he carries out. Now saving all the money he earns, he is able to buy his own freedom, escape to New York City, and get married. The narrative highlights the fact that it was only though the un education of slaves that white owners felt they had the power. If one became educated, like Douglass, they were able to escape, gain support, or buy their way out of from their oppressive lives.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Personally, this was not the most exciting book I have ever read on slavery but I do thin it is important to let one express their opinion, especially first hand knowledge. Frederick gives a detailed tale about his life, but it is not one that I had fun digging into. This book is good to be taught in the classroom as a fundemental part to share apart of one's own culture and experiences with the rest of the world, but I do think this book is over rated a bit.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The autobiography of an African American slave before the Civil War. Beautifully, simply told. Last few pages a disappointing screed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The amazing story of someone born in chains, self educated, who educated others and wanted freedom so bad -- he attained it. Who became an orator for the Abolitionist Movement. This is a man who squared shoulders with Lincoln on the Emancipation Proclamation. This story describes how he helped himself, his race, and his Nation.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a great read, but it wouldn't hurt to have some of the imperfections corrected...sometimes it gets a bit confusing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I reckamend this book for every person
Mzdooly More than 1 year ago
This book demonstrated faith, strength, and ambition. Enjoyed this book alot.
cookiebookie More than 1 year ago
As a devoted, long term scholar of the Civil War era I find this book invaluable. For the scope of the time leading up to the war itself this work sheds a great light. That Frederick Douglas triumphed over such painful beginnings is another of a long line of such stories but is important for any civil war library for what it brings to the discussion on "why", "who for" and the "worth" of that great struggle toward eventual emancipation. This particular edition was affordable and adequately presented.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book Frederick Douglass, gives us a descrpitive image on how they were threated. The book is so emotional and it mke us appreciate our freedom that we have now..And it makes you feel proud for his accomplisments and depress for his losses. I recomend this book to every one...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Good read
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book, written so thoughtfully and articulately describes the horrific existence and unthinkable life those in slavery had very little choice but to endure. The courage required to escape to freedom cannot be adequately appreciated without personally experiencing it. Douglass vividly paints the picture from his first hand experience and this is a captivating account if our country's worst hour....
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Frederick Douglas was a Baaad Dude! This book was totally awesome. I gave it to my kids to read. It should be required reading for High School Lit.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ok, I'll read it on your "recommendation". Love history shnarker.
Kerstin Sweeney More than 1 year ago
I read this in college and its a really good book. Most of the time school's give you boring books to read but i enjoyed this one a lot. It makes you understand what slaves went through, and how much he had to overcome inn his life.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It was a good and informative read. I found out just how resilient a man (slave) can be in order to succeed even under the worse circumstances and this can be applied to life today - just when you think things can't get any worse, they sometimes do, but you gotta keep fighting - great book cl10801
Sir_Robert More than 1 year ago
A really good book, one I enjoyed reading cover to cover.
Cavjei More than 1 year ago
One of the most famous slave narratives, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, details the life of one of the most active abolitionists to have ever lived. It is the moving story of how one man lived, up until his decision to flee northward. An excellent read, overall.