Frederick Douglass

February, 1818 — February 20, 1895

Politician, orator, and writer during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras

Frederick Douglass

A key figure of the Civil War era, Frederick Douglass was a powerful abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. Douglass escaped from slavery in Maryland in 1838 and authored a memoir of slavery, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which became a best seller upon its release in 1845 and launched his career as a political writer, speaker, and activist. He held multiple political offices and was the first black nominee for the office of vice president of the United States.1

The embodiment of humanism, Douglass actively supported racial equality for all, educational opportunity, immigrant rights, and women’s suffrage—he participated in the first Women’s Rights Convention in 1848 and signed the Declaration of Sentiments. Douglass’s passion for equality and social reform led him to a critical view of the church; he often argued that religion led to passive acceptance rather than action for justice and social betterment. Furthermore, he observed widespread pro-slavery rationalization among Christian leaders; in an 1852 speech he declared, “For my part, I would say, welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything! in preference to the gospel, as preached by those Divines! They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny, and barbarous cruelty, and serve to confirm more infidels, in this age, than all the infidel writings of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Bolingbroke, put together, have done.”2 Douglass’s keen intellect and fearless humanist activism made him one of the most revered figures in American history.

  1. David Howard-Pitney, “Frederick Douglass: Abolitionist and Political Leader,” in African-American Humanism: an Anthology, ed. Norm R. Allen Jr. (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1991), 15–17.

  2. Frederick Douglass, Oration delivered in Corinthian Hall, Rochester, July 5th, 1852. University of Rochester Frederick Douglass Project.