A few years ago, I had an opportunity to re-read The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave . It had been a while since I read it as I had not taught American history in quite a few years. And, I am not sure if it is because I am older, or if it is because of the state of the world, but I cannot stop thinking about it and Frederick Douglass’s determination to better his life.

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery and as a young boy, was sent to Baltimore to work in the home of the plantation owner’s brother, Hugh Auld, and his wife, Sophia. This change of scenery would impact the man Frederick Douglass would become. When he first arrived, Sophia Auld taught him the alphabet. When Hugh Auld told his wife to stop teaching young Frederick, the wife’s attitude changed from being “the kindest woman he had ever met” to treating him rather harshly. But, the hunger for knowledge had begun.

As a child of about 8 years old, Douglass realized that he had to keep trying to learn to read and eventually write. From this young age, he realized that education was the way that he could change his destiny. Frederick Douglass worked hard, risking his own life in order to continue to learn to read. He would sneak opportunities to read the books in the house, and he would also trace the letters of the spelling and writing assignments that the Aulds’ son was working on. He also had the neighborhood kids, the ones he knew that were poor but had some education, teach him. He knew he would be punished and possibly sent back to the fields in the plantation if he was caught, but he also knew a life without being able to read or write would be worse.

By the time he was a teenager, Frederick Douglass could read and write. He was sent back to the plantation of Hugh Auld’s brother, Thomas. While there, he led church services and tried to teach some of the other slaves to read and write. He had learned by reading books that slavery was immoral and that it was the breaking of men that kept them from being free. It was education that could free a man from his bonds and give him purpose in his own life. Frederick Douglass writes about this in his first autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. 

After a failed attempt to escape while at the plantation, he was sent back to Baltimore. He then secured a deal to work on the nearby docks and keep some of his own earnings. Frederick Douglass also met a woman who would help him escape. He saved up money and then escaped, fleeing to New York. He married the woman who had helped them, and the couple settled in Massachusetts. It was here that he began his career as an orator, writer, and abolitionist.

He began speaking out against slavery, telling his own story. But, he was still at risk as he could be captured and sent back to his owner. He went to Europe to speak out against slavery. While in Scotland, he was overcome with emotion as he walked the same paths as Robert Burns, a Scottish poet, who had overcome class barriers to write poetry. He writes about it in a letter to friend and suffragette, Abigail Mott:

I have ever esteemed Robert Burns a true soul, but never could l have had the high opinion of the man or his genius. which I now entertain, without my present knowledge of the country to which he belonged-the times in which he lived, and the broad Scotch tongue in which be wrote. Burns lived in the midst of a bigoted and besotted clergy-a pious, but corrupt generation- a proud, ambitious, and contemptuous aristocracy, who, esteemed a little more than a man. and looked upon the ploughman. Such as was the noble Burns, as being little better than a brute. He became disgusted with the pious frauds, indignant at the bigotry, filled with contempt for the hollow pretensions set up by the shallow-brained aristocracy. He broke loose from the moorings which society had thrown around him. Spurning all restraint, he sought a path for his feet, and, like all bold pioneers, he made crooked paths. We may lament it, we may weep over it, but in the language of another, we shall lament and weep with him. The elements of character which urged him on are in us all, and influencing our conduct every day of our lives. We may pity him but we can’t despise him. We may condemn his faults, but only as we condemn our own. His very weakness was an index of his strength. Full of faults of a grievous nature, yet far more fault less than many who have come down to us on the page of hi story as saints. He was a brilliant genius, and like all of his class. did much good and much evil. Let us take the good and leave the evil- let us adopt his virtues but avoid his vices-Jct us pursue his wisdom but shun his folly; and as death has separated his noble spirit from the corrupt and corruptible dust with which it was encumbered, so let us separate his good from his evil deeds – thus may we make him a blessing rather than a curse to the world…

What I find most remarkable about Douglass’s reaction to speaking with Robert Burns’s relatives and learning about the man that he was and the times he lived is that he was open to learn about the poet, revise his ideas about him, and take the good without condemning the whole person for his faults.

Frederick Douglass learned to value education from an early age. George Ruffin, who wrote the introduction of Douglass’s third and last autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, noted that Douglass said that his education would never be finished and that one does not have to go to college to become educated. Anyone can acquire books any where and even he, after he had befriended Abraham Lincoln and had been instrumental in abolishing slavery in America, argued he was still learning and was becoming even stronger in his thinking as he got older. It is this spirit of esteem for education and working to better oneself, no matter what obstacles may lay in the path, that makes Frederick Douglass so relevant today. It is my wish that everyone would read his story and know that knowledge truly is power, and it is attainable to anyone who seeks it out.

Several of his works are available to read free online through Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/author/34510

Robert Burns