Born a slave in Maryland in 1818, Frederick Douglass became one of the most famous men in nineteenth-century America. After his daring escape to New York City in 1838, he championed civil rights and fought to end slavery.
Defined as property by law, slaves had no rights. Their masters had power over every aspect of their lives. Slaves lived in constant fear of harsh physical punishment and separation from family and loved ones by being sold “down south.”
Sophia Auld, Hugh Auld's wife, instructed Douglass in reading at first, but Mr. Auld soon stopped the lessons, because learning to read would "forever unfit him to be a slave."
Frederick Douglass then embarked on a secret and illegal program of self-education, reading newspapers, the Bible, and speeches from the Columbian Orator.
The summer of 1833 was a turning point in Douglass’s life. The “rebellious” young Douglass was sent to the farm of a vicious “slave breaker,” Edward Covey.
In July, after a fierce fight with Covey, from which Douglass emerged unbeaten, he vowed never to spend another day in slavery without fighting to be free.
Douglass asserted that the ability to read and write enabled him to comprehend the full meanings and horrors of slavery and gave him a fierce thirst for freedom.
His life is a testimony to the power of learning. Education opened his mind and heart to the larger world, where there were people who opposed slavery.
In an extraordinary display of forgiveness, Douglass wrote to Hugh Auld, his former master: “I love you, but hate slavery.”
Although Douglass harbored a certain kind of love for Auld, a paternal figure to him in many ways, he despised the institution of slavery, which Auld would be forever associated with.
Read the letter on the Gilder Lehrman website.
Developed by The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.