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Biography of Frederick Douglass

Born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland, Frederick Douglass (1818-95) became one of the most influential human rights activist of the nineteenth century, as well as an internationally acclaimed statesmen, orator, editor, and author. The most famous African American opponent of slavery, Frederick Douglass's life spanned nearly the entire nineteenth century. He lectured on issues of civil rights, gender, and race, with a power that continues to resonate into the twenty-first century.

He began his public speaking career aligned with the Garrisonian abolitionists, narrating his experiences as a slave. The popularity of his speaking engagements led to the publication of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, American Slave (1845), the first of his three autobiographies, in which he told the harrowing tale of his childhood as a slave, and for the first time revealed actual names and locations. Following a two-year (1845-46) lecture tour of Great Britain, Douglass returned to the United States, settled in Rochester, New York, and began publication of what would be the first of four newspapers: The North Star (1847-51), Frederick Douglass' Paper (1851-60), Douglass' Monthly (1859-63), and the New National Era (1870-74).

Having shifted his tactics from the non-political and non-violent methods of the abolitionist followers of Boston newspaper editor William Lloyd Garrison, Douglass came to endorse political abolitionist agitation. He also supported the violent antislavery tactics of John Brown and had to flee again to Great Britain briefly following the failure of the Harpers Ferry raid in 1859. Douglass gave his endorsement to the Republican Party only after Abraham Lincoln had made emancipation a Union goal in the Civil War.

He took an active role in the recruitment of African American soldiers for the Union Army, including two of his own sons (Charles and Lewis Douglass). After Emancipation, and the subsequent disbandment of abolition societies, Douglass's public role changed dramatically. He continued to struggle for African American equality, but within established channels rather than outside them. He also campaigned actively for the Woman Suffrage movement, whose first public a meeting in Seneca Falls, New York, he had famously attended.

After moving to Washington D.C. in the early 1870s, Douglass held a variety of positions in the federal government (under several different Republican administrations), including Minister-Resident and Consul-General to Haiti from 1889 to 1891. Other posts included serving as president of the Freedman's Bank, and U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia.

Throughout the latter period of his life, he continued to maintain a very active speaking schedule, and remained a leading human rights advocate until his death. Indeed, he spent the morning of the day he died (February 20, 1895), speaking at a women's rights rally in Washington, D.C.