The couple settled in New Bedford, Mass. He joined several organizations, including a Black church and regularly attended abolitionist meetings. He subscribed to William Lloyd Garrison’s weekly journal “The Liberator.” In 1841 he first heard Garrison speak at a meeting of the Bristol Anti-Slavery Society. At one of these meetings, Douglass was unexpectedly invited to speak.
After he told his story, he was encouraged to become an anti-slavery lecturer. Douglass was inspired by Garrison and later stated that “no face and form ever impressed me with such sentiments [of the hatred of slavery] as did those of William Lloyd Garrison.” Garrison was likewise impressed with Douglass and wrote of him in The Liberator. Several days later, Douglass delivered his first speech at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society’s annual convention in Nantucket. Then 23 years old, Douglass conquered his nervousness and gave an eloquent speech about his rough life as a slave.
In 1843, Douglass participated in the American Anti-Slavery Society’s Hundred Conventions project, a six-month tour of meeting halls throughout the Eastern and Midwestern United States. During this tour, he was frequently accosted, and at a lecture in Pendleton, Ind., was chased and beaten by an angry mob before being rescued by a local Quaker family. His hand was broken in the attack; it healed improperly and bothered him for the rest of his life.
He left the country to speak in Ireland and England for two years. After returning to the U.S., Douglass produced some abolitionist newspapers: “The North Star,” “Frederick Douglass Weekly,” “Frederick Douglas’ Paper,” “Douglass’ Monthly” and “New National Era.” The motto of The North Star was “Right is of no Sex—Truth is of no Color—God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren.” The abolitionist newspapers were mainly funded by supporters in England.
Douglass stood up to speak in favor of women’s right to vote.
In 1848, Douglass was the only African-American to attend the first women’s rights convention, the Seneca Falls Convention. Elizabeth Cady Stanton asked the assembly to pass a resolution asking for women’s suffrage. Many of those present opposed the idea, Douglass stood and spoke eloquently in favor; he said that he could not accept the right to vote as a Black man if women could not also claim that right. He suggested that the world would be a better place if women were involved in the political sphere.
“In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world.”
Douglass’ powerful words rang true with enough attendees that the resolution passed.
He later changed his beliefs on the Constitution to stating that the Constitution was an anti-slavery document. This reversed his earlier agreement with William Lloyd Garrison that it was pro-slavery. Garrison had publicly expressed his opinion by burning copies of the document. Further contributing to their growing separation, Garrison was worried that the North Star competed with his own National Anti-Slavery Standard and Marius Robinson’s Anti-Slavery Bugle. Douglass’ change of position on the Constitution was one of the most notable incidents of the division in the abolitionist movement after the publication of Spooner’s book The Unconstitutionality of Slavery in 1846. This shift in opinion, and other political differences, created a rift between Douglass and Garrison. Douglass further angered Garrison by saying that the Constitution could and should be used as an instrument in the fight against slavery.
On July 5, 1852, Douglass delivered an address to the Ladies of the Rochester Anti-Slavery Sewing Society, which eventually became known as “What to the slave is the 4th of July?” It was a blistering attack on the hypocrisy of the United States in general and the Christian church in particular.
Douglass believed that education was the key for African-Americans to improve their lives. For this reason, he was an early advocate for desegregation of schools. In the 1850s, he was especially outspoken in New York. The facilities and instruction for African-American children were vastly inferior. Douglass criticized the situation and called for court action to open all schools to all children. He stated that inclusion within the educational system was a more pressing need for African-Americans than political issues such as suffrage.
By the time of the Civil War, Dougl
ass was one of the most famous Black men in the country, known for his orations on the condition of the Black race and on other issues such as women’s rights. His eloquence gathered crowds at every location. His reception by leaders in England and Ireland added to his stature.
Douglass and the abolitionists argued that because the aim of the Civil War was to end slavery, African-Americans should be allowed to engage in the fight for their freedom. Douglass publicized this view in his newspapers and several speeches. Douglass conferred with President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 on the treatment of Black soldiers, and with President Andrew Johnson on the subject of Black suffrage.