Abolitionist Activities


Anti-Slavery convention in Nantucket


William Lloyd Garrison portrait c.1850

The summer of 1841 was a turning point in Douglass’ career. Frederick was invited by William Coffin, the general agent for the Massachusetts Antislavery Society, to speak at a convention in Nantucket
organized by leading abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison was the founder of the Massachusetts
Anti-Slavery Society and editor of the Liberator. Coffin had heard him speak in the school church and invited Douglass to say a few words about his life experience as a slave. He approached the platform with embarrassment and apologized for his ignorance, reminding the audience that slavery was a poor school. He then started narrating particular incidents of his life in bondage adding his own reflections and insights. Douglass impressed the audience and mostly William Garrison who did not hesitate in offering him a job as an agent for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Thus was the beginning of a lifetime as a public orator, abolitionist, and civil rights leader.


Increasing antislavery sentiment


The Liberator was published in Boston by William Lloyd Garrison. It was published continuously for 35 years, from January 1, 1831, to December 29, 1865.

Antislavery sentiment was once confined to a small minority in the north, however starting in the 1850’s, it spread dramatically. Legal developments such as the Compromise of 1850 that included the Fugitive Slave Act and a religious awakening help us understand the dramatic shift in popular opinion in the north.

In order to make himself familiar with the abolitionist movement Douglass subscribed to the Liberator and read every issue. He also had the chance to attend several abolitionist gatherings.

The following are Frederick Douglass’ most important abolitionist activities until the emancipation proclamation went into effect on January 1st, 1863. After the Proclamation he advocated for the inclusion of black soldiers in the Union Army. During the reconstruction years he campaigned for African American civil rights, desegregation of schools and the right of suffrage for African Americans and women.


1841 to 1845  Touring the Country

Douglass toured the country as an agent of the Massachusetts Antislavery Society.

1841 – His first duties were to travel with George Foster to secure subscribers to the Anti Slavery Standard and The Liberator and lecture eastern counties of Massachusetts.

1842 – Douglass was part of the group called to advocate equal rights for a proposed constitution of Rhode Island.

1843-1845  – As an agent of the Antislavery Society, toured New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania.


1845-1860 The Power of Oratory


Douglass’ first autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was published in 1845.

Douglass’ oratory became more polished and his eloquence attracted crowds everywhere he went. Because he was intelligent and well versed, people were starting to doubt of the veracity of his stories so he decided to write his autobiography. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass sold 5,000 copies within four months of publishing and 6 editions were published in the next 4 years.

1845 – Published his first autobiography The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. He had to flee America and sought refuge in England.

1846 – Attended the World’s Temperance Convention in Convent Garden. His object was to arouse the sentiment of the British against slavery in America.

1847 – With $2,500 raised from friends, Frederick started his own abolitionist paper The North Star, later renamed Frederick Douglass’ Paper.

1848 – Douglass participated in the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls.

1850 – With the power to reach a wider audience Douglass’ objective was to influence public opinion through his publication. He was vocal about the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the annexation of Texas with the purpose of increasing the number of slaveholders, the Dred Scott Case and the repeal of the Missouri Compromise as well as the consequences of the War with Mexico to the antislavery movement.

1858 – Douglass aided John Brown with plans to induce slaves to escape. He offered Brown a place to stay while preparing his plan of action and raising funds to equip his men with uniforms and ammunition. However Brown’s plan to attack Harper Ferry was unknown to Douglass. Brown was executed and Douglass fled to Canada and later to Britain. All individuals having contact with Brown were captured and not given a fair hearing. In Britain he networked extensively and lectured on slavery shaping British public opinion against slavery in America.


1860-1863 – Policy Making


Douglass met with President Lincoln advocating for an African American regiment in the Civil War.

Douglass influenced policy making at the highest ranks of government.

1860 –  Douglass met with President Lincoln to discuss the role of blacks in the civil war. He felt that military service was important in order to secure the rights of citizenship and suffrage. Soon after, Massachusetts received permission from Lincoln to raise two colored regiments, the Massachusetts 54th and 55th regiments. Douglass assisted in recruiting. His sons, Charles and Lewis, were the first to enroll. He also assisted in raising 10 regiments in Pennsylvania.

1861 – In an interview with President Lincoln he advocated for equal treatment, pay and protection of black soldiers as well as rewards with promotions.

1863 – Douglass wrote several editorials and articles in his publication Douglass’ Monthly and attended numerous recruitment meetings. The popular editorial “Men of Color To Arms” was used in a recruitment poster. In “Why should a colored man enlist?” Douglass listed nine reasons to enlist in the Union Army. “Should the negro enlist in the Union Army?” was an address at Meeting for the Promotion of Colored Enlistment and published in Douglass’ Monthly.


Underground Railroad

Throughout the years Douglass was one of the many supporters of the Underground Railroad that helped fugitive slaves find their way north of the country or to Canada. He was connected with the branch that had its main stations in Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, New York, Albany, Syracuse and Rochester. Douglass dispatched passengers from Rochester to Canada.

After the Emancipation Proclamation his employment with the Anti Slavery Society ended. However, Douglass continued to fight for equal rights and full citizenship for African Americans. He lectured widely for the passage of Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.

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