One of America’s greatest public figures, Frederick Douglass (1817–1895), was born into slavery in Maryland and worked as a field hand and servant until he managed to escape to New York City in 1838 at the age of twenty-one. Self-educated (he taught himself to read and write) and fiercely determined, Douglass transformed himself into one of the nation’s most formidable intellectuals and writers of his time. He served in a number of government positions, published his own periodicals, and was known as an outstanding orator and eloquent civil rights advocate. His life and career became a model for such powerful African American leaders as W. E. B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King Jr. Besides a large number of famous speeches (such as his 1852 Fourth of July oration), Douglass is also the author of the enduring American memoir The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, which first appeared in 1881.
The following excerpt comes from his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave. Written by Himself, which was published in 1845. At this time, slavery not only was still widely practiced in America but also had many defenders. Although abolitionism—the movement to abolish slavery—was gaining ground in northern states, the Civil War and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation were years away.