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Frederick Douglass Civil Reforms in United States Essay

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Frederick Douglass


One of the key figures in the United States in the nineteenth century was Fredrick Douglass (c. 1817–1895). Fredrick Douglass was born to a slave woman in 1817. This automatically made him a slave. It is thought that his father was the white owner of his mother (Lee, 13-30). Douglass is most famous for escaping from the shackles of slavery in the year 1838 and becoming one of the key leaders and advocates for the abolition of Slavery in the United States. He revered by the African American community and Americans in general for his fight against slavery. Long after his death, U.S. Civil Rights Movement leaders referred to him in their speeches and used his fight to inspire Americans to fight for the rights of African Americans. This paper looks at the life of Fredrick Douglass and his massive contributions to the abolitionist movement and women's suffrage in the U.S. The paper particularly focuses on Fredrick Douglass' works and the works of other authors that mention or focus on him.

Contributions towards abolition movement

Fredrick Douglass published many books and letters in support of the abolitionist movement. His works and speeches were primarily arguments against slavery. They highlighted the ills of slavery and why slavery was wrong. The main objective of his works and speeches was to show that slavery is unjust, immoral, ungodly, unnatural, and cruel. He made his arguments very in his speeches as a member of the American Anti-Slavery Society that was led by Garrison. He also made them clear in his autobiography, which he called the Narrative. This autobiography was the first of two. His second autobiography was called My Bondage and My Freedom. In it, he expanded his arguments as the tension between the Union and the Southern states increased over the issue of slavery and trade before the Civil War (Sundstrom). According to Douglass, the main intention of his articles and speeches and books was to expose to everyone how evil slavery was (Douglass, 192). Douglass stated in his biographies that his fight against slavery commenced while he was still under bondage. He noted that he was driven to rebel against slavery because of its cruelty, unnaturalness, and injustice.

According to slavery apologists, blacks deserved slavery because they were not human. Slavery apologists regarded blacks as degenerated human species. Some of them also regarded blacks as beasts. The argument that blacks are not full human beings was first infamously made by Sepulveda in the 15TH century and excellently countered later by Bartolomé de las Casas (Fredrickson, 36). Despite being countered, the argument remained popular in colonies. It was used by slave traders to justify the capture and use of Africans as slaves and the inhuman conduct they had been subjected to. Thomas Jefferson argued against the argument in one of his works (Jefferson: Query 14). Douglass made it his mission to point it that Africans/ blacks are complete and rational humans. He mocked those who thought otherwise by use of examples. In one of his speeches, he refused to argue that Africans are human to ridicule the idea that they were not.

And instead of arguing that Africans were not beasts, he argued that they had been brutalized and made beasts through slavery. He made it clear that blacks are human and pointed out the hypocrisy of slavery apologists by asking several rhetorical questions. For example, he asked why specific laws existed to limit the actions of blacks if they were beasts and incapable of making their own decisions. He also asked why the slave owners and masters wanted to convert slaves to Christianity, and yet they did not believe they were human. Douglass also asked why the slave owners did not want converted slaves to attend religious gatherings. The purpose of asked all these questions was to reveal the hypocrisy of slave owners and slavery apologists. To show that blacks were fully human, he also pointed out that slave owners banned their education and yet at the same time, made a profit from the skills and the inventions made by blacks.

Douglass argued that the claim that Africans were beasts was premised on the fact that everyone guilty knew they were fully humans. And that the claim was just made to justify inhuman actions. He also pointed out that the claim that Africans were beasts was made to subvert the natural goodness of Africans through their brutalization and the natural goodness of slaveholders and innocent whites. According to Douglass, Slavery was a poison that affected American society. This argument is a reference to a similar argument made by Jefferson in Notes on the State of Virginia (Jefferson, Query 18).

Because blacks are human, Douglass argued that they were entitled to all-natural rights that the United States made clear in its Constitution and Declaration of Independence. He argued that slavery was a clear subversion of natural rights because it subjugated the slaves and brutalized them. He also argued that slavery turned men into beasts against God's law and cited Bible passages to prove the same (Sundstrom). Douglass was an active participant and witness of the second Great Awakening. He embraced its message of the liberation of Christians from sin and believed it was connected to the liberation of blacks from the sinful practice of slavery. Douglass was also of the idea that slavery was not consistent with America's national narrative of equali8ty and its founding documents. He also argued that it was not consistent with the country's historical, social, economic, and political…

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…the Second Great Awakening.

Douglass believed civil rights were only given when fought for. He believed in the republican civic tradition of participation to earn one's status or rights as a citizen (Gooding-Williams, 162-209). Many societies resist providential justice. This is why there had been resistance to the abolition of slavery. Therefore, Douglass believed that the process of ending slavery required to protest and agitation. He also believed in the need for military intervention if this was required. Douglass, being a firm believer in Christianity, longed for God to set things right in America but at the back of his mind, and as one can tell from his works, he knew actual action was needed. This was Douglass' conception of providence.

There are arguments that Douglass' conception of natural law shows providence and destiny. There are also arguments that his view of natural law is not based on the supernatural but the cosmological ontological-theological determination. That somewhat things are driven by the progress of history (McCarthy, 131-165). This is one of the reasons why some argue; he was relatively silent on the destructive actions of the United States on Native American tribes and groups. However, these arguments do not remove from the fact that Fredrick Douglass was a leader of the African American fight against slavery and for equal rights. This is why Wilson characterized him as a Moses figure who, on behalf of black Americans, received the natural law for his people and led them on an exodus/ journey from slavery, a departure to a better life, and more rights and freedoms.


Fredrick Douglass was the son of a slave woman who escaped from slavery and became a leading figure in the abolition movement and the women's suffrage movement. He rejected slavery and racism and believed in protests as the solution to getting blacks the same rights and freedoms as other Americans. However, he believed that violence or force was an option on the table if the situation called for it. Douglass did not stop fighting for the rights and freedoms of black people either before or after the United States Civil War. He believed that he could not rest until the freedoms and rights of black people were given. He was of the idea that time and progress could eventually reveal the backwardness of slavery and lead to its abolition. He just saw himself as a catalyst in the whole process. Douglass learned to read under a great threat of danger. He learned a lot from reading a lot and became a great leader known for his publications and speeches. It is from him that many U.S. Civil Rights Movement leaders got the inspiration to lead and to ensure equal rights and freedoms for everyone. For his tremendous contributions to the…

Sample Source(s) Used

Works cited

Douglass, Frederick. "The Civil Rights Case." speech at Lincoln Hall, Washington, DC 22 (1883): 1950-75.

Douglass, Frederick. "The meaning of July Fourth for the Negro." Frederick Douglass: Selected speeches and writings (1852): 188-206.

DuBois, Ellen Carol. Feminism and suffrage: The emergence of an independent women's movement in America, 1848-1869. Cornell University Press, 1978.

Fredrickson, George M. Racism: A short history. Princeton University Press, 2002.

Gooding-Williams, Robert. In the shadow of Du Bois: Afro-modern political thought in America. Harvard University Press, 2009.

Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. Penguin, 1999.

Lee, Maurice S., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Frederick Douglass. Cambridge University Press, 2009.

McCarthy, Thomas. Race, empire, and the idea of human development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

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