Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass is one prominent example of how these trends: helping and protecting runaway slaves; and establishing international antislavery support networks to help put pressure on the United States to abolish the institution, came together. (2) Douglass was born a slave in Maryland in 1818 and escaped to New York in 1838. He later moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, with his wife.

After escaping from slavery, Douglass soon came to the forefront of the abolitionist movement as a gifted orator and a powerful narrator of his experiences as a slave. Douglass’s commanding presence and powerful speaking skills electrified his listeners when he began to provide public lectures on slavery. He came to the attention of William Lloyd Garrison and others who encouraged him to write his story. In 1845, he published his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave Written by Himself , in which he told about his life of slavery in Maryland. It was perhaps the most powerful and famous piece of African American literature from the nineteenth century. It was so widely read that it was reprinted in nine editions and translated into several languages. In it, Douglass identified by name the whites who had brutalized him, and for that reason, along with the mere act of publishing his story, Douglass had to flee the United States to avoid being murdered. (11) He traveled to Great Britain and met with famous British abolitionists like Thomas Clarkson, drumming up moral and financial support from British and Irish antislavery societies. He was neither the first nor the last runaway slave to make this voyage, but his great success abroad contributed significantly to rousing morale among weary abolitionists at home. (2)

British abolitionist friends ultimately bought his freedom from his Maryland owner, and Douglass returned to the United States. He began to publish his own abolitionist newspaper, North Star , in Rochester, New York. During the 1840s and 1850s, Douglass fought to bring about the end of slavery by telling the story of his life and highlighting how slavery destroyed families, both black and white. (11)

In this excerpt from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass , he explains the consequences for the children fathered by white masters and slave women:

“Slaveholders have ordained, and by law established, that the children of slave women shall in all cases follow the condition of their mothers… this is done too obviously to administer to their own lusts, and make a gratification of their wicked desires profitable as well as pleasurable… the slaveholder, in cases not a few, sustains to his slaves the double relation of master and father… Such slaves [born of white masters] invariably suffer greater hardships… They are… a constant offence to their mistress… she is never better pleased than when she sees them under the lash, … 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, … 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 … and ply the gory lash to his naked back.” (11)

Other abolitionists also spread word of the horrors of slavery in an attempt to win more supporters for their cause. A prominent example of this is Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin , or Life Among the Lowly . Stowe, a white woman from a pious Connecticut family, had strong moral convictions that slavery as an institution was evil and unnatural. Her book depicted the harsh conditions in which slaves lived, the danger they were willing to place themselves in to escape, and the detrimental ways in which the institution of slavery effected slave owners.Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a success in the North, selling more than 300,000 copies in the first nine months of its publication, and more than a million copies by 1853. Nonetheless, it was met with protest and alarm in the South. (12)

The Underground Railroad

Many American abolitionists also took an active role in opposing slavery by supporting the Underground Railroad. Though illegal under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, participants such as former slaves Harriet Tubman, Henry Highland Garnet, Alexander Crummell, Amos Noë Freeman, and others put themselves at risk to help slaves escape to freedom. (12)

The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses used by nineteenth-century black slaves in the United States to escape to Northern free states and Canada with the aid of abolitionists and those sympathetic to their cause. The term is also applied to the abolitionists—black and white, free and enslaved—who aided the fugitives. Some routes led to Mexico or overseas. The network was formed in the early nineteenth century and reached its height between 1850 and 1860. One estimate suggests that by 1850, 100,000 slaves had escaped via the “Railroad.”

The origins of the Underground Railroad go back to the Compromise of 1850, passed by Congress after the Mexican-American War, which created a more stringent Fugitive Slave Act. The Fugitive Slave Act compelled officials of free states to assist slave catchers if there were runaway slaves in the area and granted slave catchers national immunity when in free states to do their job. Additionally, it made it possible that free blacks of the North could be forced into slavery even if they had been freed earlier or never been slaves at all because suspected slaves were unable to defend themselves in court and it was difficult to prove a free status. As a de facto bribe, judges were paid more ($10) for a decision that forced a suspected slave back into slavery than for a decision finding the slave to be free ($5). Thus, many Northerners who would have otherwise been able and content to ignore the persistence of slavery in the South chafed under what they saw as a national sanction on slavery, comprising one of the primary grievances of the Union cause during the Civil War.

Map of northern U.S. (1830 - 1865) from the eastern seaboard - Maine to North Carolina) west to Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri. Lines, concentrated mainly in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and in eastern Pennsylvania depict routes of the Underground Railroad.
The various routes to freedom on the Underground Railroad.Figure 6-5: Underground Railroad by Unknown is in the Public Domain .

The escape network of the Underground Railroad was not literally underground or a railroad. It was figuratively “underground” in the sense of being a covert form of resistance. It came to be referred to as a “railroad” due to the use of rail terminology in the code used by its participants. The Underground Railroad consisted of meeting points, secret routes, transportation, safe houses, and assistance provided by abolitionists and sympathizers. Individuals were often organized in small, independent groups. These small groups helped to maintain secrecy because individuals knew some connecting “stations” along the route but few details of their immediate area. Escaped slaves would move north along the route from one way station to the next. “Conductors” on the railroad came from various backgrounds and included free-born blacks, white abolitionists, former slaves (both runaways and manumitted), and Native Americans. Churches often played a role, especially the Society of Friends (Quakers), Congregationalists, Wesleyans, and Reformed Presbyterians, as well as certain sects of mainstream denominations such as the Methodist church and American Baptists.

To reduce the risk of infiltration, many people associated with the Underground Railroad knew only their part of the operation and little to nothing of the whole scheme. Written directions were discouraged for the same reason. Additionally, because many freedom seekers could not read, visual and audible clues such as patterns in quilts, song lyrics, and star positions provided directional cues along the way. Conductors moved the runaways from station to station. Often the conductor would pretend to be a slave to enter a plantation. Once a part of a plantation, the conductor would direct the runaways to the North. Slaves would travel at night around 10 to 20 miles to each station or “depot,” resting spots where the runaways could sleep and eat. The stations were out of the way places such as barns and were held by “station masters” who would provide assistance such as sending messages to other stations and directing fugitives on the path to take to their next stop. There were also those known as “stockholders” who gave money or supplies for assistance.

Three slaves — a man, woman, and child — escaping to freedom on a horse in low light. The woman, seated last on the horse, looks worriedly behind her.
Figure 6-6: A Ride for Liberty – The Fugitive Slaves by Eastman Johnson has no known copyright restrictions.

Due to the risk of discovery, information about routes and safe havens was passed along by word of mouth. Southern newspapers of the day were often filled with pages of notices soliciting information about escaped slaves and offering sizable rewards for their capture and return. Federal marshals and professional bounty hunters known as “slave catchers” pursued fugitives as far as the Canadian border.

The risk was not limited solely to actual fugitives. Because strong, healthy black people in their prime working and reproductive years were treated as highly valuable commodities, it was not unusual for free blacks—both freedmen and those who had never been slaves—to be kidnapped and sold into slavery. “Certificates of freedom”—signed, notarized statements attesting to the free status of individuals—easily could be destroyed and thus afforded their holders little protection. Under the terms of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, when suspected fugitives were seized and brought to a special magistrate known as a “commissioner,” they had no right to a jury trial and could not testify on their own behalf. The marshal or private slave catcher needed only to swear an oath to acquire a writ of replevin for the return of property.

Estimates vary widely, but at least 30,000 slaves, and potentially more than 100,000, escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad. The largest group settled in Upper Canada, called Canada West from 1841 and known today as Southern Ontario, where numerous black Canadian communities developed. Upon arriving at their destinations, many fugitives were disappointed. Despite the British colonies’ abolition of slavery in 1834, discrimination was still common.

With the outbreak of the Civil War in the United States, many black refugees enlisted in the Union Army, and while some later returned to Canada, many remained in the United States. Thousands of others returned to the American South after the war ended. The desire to reconnect with friends and family was strong and most were hopeful about the changes emancipation and Reconstruction would bring. (12)


As the 1850s progressed, abolitionist reform took a backseat as armed mobs protected runaway slaves in the North and fortified abolitionists engaged in bloody skirmishes in the West. Culminating in John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, the violence of the 1850s convinced many Americans that the issue of slavery was pushing the nation to the brink of sectional cataclysm. After two decades of immediatist agitation, the idealism of revivalist perfectionism had given way to a protracted battle for the moral soul of the country.

For all of the problems that abolitionism faced, the movement was far from a failure. The prominence of African Americans in abolitionist organizations offered a powerful, if imperfect, model of interracial coexistence. While immediatists always remained a minority, their efforts paved the way for the moderately antislavery Republican Party to gain traction in the years preceding the Civil War. It is hard to imagine that Abraham Lincoln could have become president in 1860 without the ground prepared by antislavery advocates and without the presence of radical abolitionists against whom he could be cast as a moderate alternative. Though it ultimately took a civil war to break the bonds of slavery in the United States, the evangelical moral compass of revivalist Protestantism provided motivation for the embattled abolitionists. (2)