Frederick Douglass on Education

Written by Kerry Ellard on January 28, 2022

Frederick Douglass was a devoted adherent of the “Yankee” tradition of education, albeit an informal version of it. While Douglass was almost entirely self-taught, he followed this democratized classical model, which was designed to produce self-reliant and self-governing citizens.

Douglass knew from experience just how effective this model was in achieving this.

How did the young Douglass manage to educate himself while held in slavery by a man who forbade him from becoming literate?

First, by rushing through his errands so that he would have time left over to solicit reading instruction from white children playing in the streets of Baltimore.
Then, by getting his hands on a copy of a popular school reader called The Columbian Orator, written by teacher Caleb Bingham. Douglass, then in his early teens, was living in the busy city of Baltimore.
As his biographer David W. Blight describes the experience:

“That Douglass would embrace and later celebrate the language in this book is also not surprising. The Columbian Orator was much more than a stiff collection of Christian moralisms for America’s youth. It was the creation of a man of decidedly antislavery sympathies, one determined to democratize education and instill in young peoplethe heritage of the American Revolution, as well as the values of republicanism. Caleb Bingham’s eighty-four entries were organized without regard for chronology or topic; such a lack of system was a pedagogical theory of the time designed to hold student interest. It held [Douglass] in rapt attention. The selections included prose, verse, plays, and especially political speeches by famous orators from antiquity and the Enlightenment. Most of the pieces address themes of nationalism, individual liberty, religious faith, or the value of education. The reader as a whole reflected, as Bingham intended, New England’s long transition from seventeenth-century Calvinism to nineteenth-century evangelical, freewill doctrine, from Puritan theocracy to the Revolutionary era’s separation of church and state. As Douglass tackled the pages of The Columbian Orator in his early teens, whether he grasped the contexts or not, he would have repeatedly encountered irresistible words such as “freedom,” “liberty,” “tyranny,” and the “rights of man.” Well before he read any serious history, he garnered and cherished a vocabulary of liberation. Among the most striking features of the collection were eleven dialogues, most of them originally written for the book by David Everett, Bingham’s associate in Boston. They were both serious and comical, aimed at the ethical imagination of young people and laced with moral tales about human nature, truth telling, and reversals of fate where underdogs outwit their oppressors.”


“Above all,” Dwight concludes, “what Douglass found in this book was an elocution manual.”


“[The Columbian Orator] drew upon the ancients to demonstrate a variety of practical techniques for effective oratory…The primary aim of oratory, said Bingham, was to create ‘action’ between speaker and audience. ‘The perfection of art consists in its nearest resemblance to nature,’ the educator argued. True eloquence emerged when the orator could train his voice to ‘follow nature.’ Bingham provided specific examples of such elements of speech making as cadence, pace, variety of tone, and especially gestures of the arms, hands, shoulders, and head. Young Frederick was enthralled, and though he could not yet know it, his life’s vocation, his true calling, appeared as a saving grace. Gaining knowledge—through experience, and now so importantly through reading, and slowly, through what he called the ‘art of writing’—became young Douglass’s reason for living.”


Yet arguably more important than the lessons in oratory was a particular dialogue included by Bingham:

“A dialogue Douglass read— between a slave and his master—struck him deeply. With a ‘spirited defense’ the slave successfully argued against the institution of slavery and his master ‘seeing himself to be thus vanquished at every turn in the argument; he generously and meekly emancipates the slave, with his best wishes for his prosperity.’ An intelligent dialogue, for this slave, brought him freedom by ‘penetrating even the heart of the slaveholder, compelling him to yield up his earthly interests to the claims of eternal justice.’ Slavery, Douglass realized, was not the black man’s inherent state. The more Douglass read, the more he detested slavery as knowledge opened his eyes ‘to the horrible pit.’He studied in the evenings and learned about the abolitionist movement through antislavery petitions in the newspaper.”


The Self-Made Man

After escaping to New England in the 1830s, where he became active in the abolitionist movement and gained fame in the anti-slavery literary and newspaper culture of 1840s, Douglas began articulating his views on education.

By the outbreak of the Civil War, when Douglass was already known as a representative example of the 19th-century American “self-made man,”

he showed that he valued formal education more than many others who went by that label. For decades after the war, he gave lectures insisting that “there never was a self-educated man who, with the same exertion, would not have been better educated by the aid of schools and colleges.”

Even this view, however, may have related less to the content of the education than it did to his impression that college training produced citizens more confident in their own judgment, and with a greater ability to demonstrate their capacity to others’ satisfaction. “A man may know much about educating himself,” Douglass explained in a lecture, “but little about the proper means of educating others.” As a result, a self-made man was “liable to be full of contrarieties. He may be large, but at the same time awkward; swift but ungraceful; a man of power, but deficient in the polish and amiable proportions of the affluent and regularly educated man.”

Douglass’s concerns here probably reflect the fact that he wished to participate in American life at the highest level, which meant interacting with men who had received an elite education.

In any event, during the Reconstruction era, Douglass clearly identified with the “Yankee” tradition of the formally educated Massachusetts elites who made up much of the Radical Republican faction. This tradition held that integrated public schooling was necessary to establish the belief in the political equality of all citizens necessary to republican self-governance. Indeed, this was one of the main purposes of education, in their eyes, as I explained in earlier pieces such as “Lincoln on Education.”


As Douglass put it, “let the colored children be educated and grow up side by side with white children, come up friends unsophisticated and generous childhood together, and it will require a powerful agent to convert them into enemies, and lead them to prey upon each other’s rights and liberties.” Integrated education provided “many opportunities for removing prejudices and establishing the rights of all men.” This belief gave Douglass a strong reason to favor formal schooling. Like Massachusetts education pioneer Horace Mann, Douglass believed that only a centrally organized and broadly accessible, even compulsory, system of public education could ensure that students from all backgrounds intermingled and internalized the same norms.


Indeed, shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, and before the war had even ended, Douglass had promoted a vision of post-war education in his newspaper. This vision was firmly in the Yankee tradition, and naturally assumed a Union victory:

Douglass hoped the New England schoolhouse would replace every Southern whipping-post: “Schools for the education of [millions of black Americans] will be required…slavery has ‘stood athwart the pathway of knowledge and progress’ and ‘kept the nation from fully becoming what it was meant to be.’ The institution of slavery inhibited Americans—both slave and master—from bettering themselves for their Republic.”


One scholar’s summary of Douglass’s views on education, and her suggestions as to what modern Americans should take from it, are a fitting conclusion to this piece. Particularly interesting is how she integrates the shades of Deweyan thought that Douglass increasingly anticipated after the war with the Yankee tradition.

“For Douglass, an integrated and universal education encouraged ‘forms of moral responsibility that are essential to civic life,’ ‘responsible behavior because educated people [. . .] are less likely to behave immorally,’ and “the development of stronger bonds of civic education by bringing (or forcing) citizens together into a public space where they must interact with one another.’ Providing universal education to the black man was a necessary act of justice and preservation. Douglass urged a manly education, with Lincolnian characteristics as the foundation of such education.

…While Congressional debates have changed since Reconstruction, Douglass’s thoughts on education retain their currency today. Education provides moral and intellectual benefits to the individual, his/her community, and country. Douglass ‘believed education was crucial for the development of free and responsible citizens.’ Thus, for Douglass, a thriving Republic requires public schools to place civic education at the forefront of instruction. Such education should emphasize students’ common nationality as opposed to “any measure that authorizes or deepens one’s self- identification in predominantly racial terms.”


Further Reading on Frederick Douglass’s Life and Education


  1. See note 2, below, and David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition) (“With hardly any formal schooling, although a good deal of reading in his prairie farming background, the twenty-two-year-old Abraham Lincoln studied with relish the classical and Enlightenment-era oratory in The Columbian Orator during his first winter (1831–32) in New Salem, Illinois…’All men,’ [Douglass] said with his well-honed Protestant ethic, “however industrious, are either lured or lashed through the world.” The lecture is at times knitted together by lines that read like platitudes in a young man’s advice manual. ‘A man never knows the strength of his grip till life and limb depend upon it. Something is likely to be done when something must be done.’…Like Emerson, Douglass’s embrace of individualism called for finding motivation, truth, and one’s own character from within one’s own ‘soul.’ Douglass may have borrowed actual words as well as ideas from Emerson’s classic essay ‘Self-Reliance.’”) Blight, David W.. Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (p. 805). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.) (Emphases added; internal citations omitted.) As Blight notes, however, Douglass did not necessarily agree with all of Emerson’s philosophy. Nor did he necessarily agree with all of the assumptions of the “Yankee” educational tradition, at least for black Americans in the antebellum years, though arguably these disagreements were over means and not ends. See Emily Hess, “’It Must Develop Men’: Frederick Douglass and Education in Nineteenth-Century America,” Expositions, Vol. 8, No. 2, Villanova University, 2014, https://expositions.journals.villanova.edu/article/view/1842 (“We needed more to learn how to make a good living,’ he wrote [Harriet Beecher] Stowe, ‘than to learn Latin and Greek.’ Douglass later favored classical education but black education in antebellum America needed to serve immediate financial ends and prove the black man could flourish in freedom, develop a sound work ethic, and become a productive citizen in society. This type of education extended a powerful argument for the abolition of slavery. “The most telling, the most killing refutation of slavery,” Douglass wrote, “is the presentation of an industrious, enterprising, thrifty and intelligent free black population.” In other words, the free black population of the North held the heavy responsibility of proving their race capable and worthy of freedom.” (Emphases added; internal citations omitted.)
  2. See, for example, Hess, “'It Must Develop Men’: Frederick Douglass and Education in Nineteenth-Century America” (“…Frederick Douglass fostered a clear vision of education that would not only improve his race but also provide an intelligent, virtuous, and moral citizenry that ‘the proud fabric of freedom’ could rest ‘as the rock of its basis.’ He considered this both a necessity and act of justice. From his own experience, Douglass found education a vital component for full emancipation. Enlightenment made man ‘fit to be free’ and capable of self- government. Ultimately, Douglass sponsored an integrated education that resurrected the materials of reason from Lincoln’s Lyceum address. Such education would elevate the black man to disprove stereotypes, overcome prejudice, and demonstrate his capacity for citizenship. This article examines Frederick Douglass’s education while enslaved, his road to enlightenment, what he considered an appropriate education for the emancipated race, and why the federal government should provide a universal and integrated education.”) (Emphases added; internal citations omitted.)
  3. See Hess, “'It Must Develop Men’: Frederick Douglass and Education in Nineteenth-Century America” (“In March of 1826, Douglass was sent to Baltimore to live with and serve Hugh and Sophia Auld. The following year, after Mr. Auld forbade his benevolent wife from helping young Frederick learn the alphabet (because it was ‘unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read’), Douglass understood ‘the white man’s power to enslave the black man’ and ‘the direct pathway from slavery to freedom’ was education. Thus, ‘the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn more. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress.’ At a young age Douglass understood that ‘education and slavery were incompatible with each other.’) (Emphases added; internal citations omitted.)
  4. See ibid. (“Once his lessons with Mrs. Auld ceased, Douglass sought out young white schoolchildren in town to learn more of the alphabet. Few helped however, because, as Douglass knew, providing education was promoting freedom. It was ‘almost an unpardonable offense to do anything, directly or indirectly, to promote a slave’s freedom in a slave state.’”)See also Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, and note 3, above.
  5. See Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.
  6. Ibid. Blight continues: “In “Dialogue Between the Ghosts of an English Duelist, a North American Savage, and Mercury,”Englishman is revealed as the greater “savage,” while the Mohawk Indian, respected for his cultural differences, achieves the higher virtue. With such stories about democratized education and ethnic pluralism, it was as if Frederick Bailey had landed in a modern multicultural classroom in the midst of a slave state. He read many speeches, and especially one dialogue, ‘repeatedly.’ ‘Dialogue Between a Master and a Slave’ is to modern eyes a naïve and simplistic exchange between a slave owner and his bondman; but it profoundly affected Douglass as he read its improbable conclusion. If we can imagine our way into a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old’s sensibility, what Douglass discovered in this story was that slavery was subject to “argument,” even between a master and a slave.” (Emphases added; internal citations omitted.)
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid. (Emphases added; internal citations omitted.)
  9. Hess, “'It Must Develop Men’: Frederick Douglass and Education in Nineteenth-Century America.” (Emphases added; internal citations omitted.) While the description of this dialogue given by Douglass’s biographer in note 6, above, portrays it less favorably, there is no doubt that Douglass found it convincing, and the belief that slaveholders or supporters of slavery could be persuaded of the practice’s immorality through argument was common in that era. This was a central conviction of many abolitionists and early Republicans, and the contemporary record indicates that it was not as absurd or childish a belief as Blight suggestions. Hess provides additional context on how Douglass saw the issue over the course of his life: “Douglass worked as an itinerant abolitionist speaker for William Lloyd Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society for a number of years after his escape. As he recalled in one of his autobiographies, ‘All that the American people needed, I thought, was light. Could they know slavery as I knew it, they would hasten to the work of its extinction.’ Like the articulate slave in The Columbian Orator, Douglass believed the United States simply needed an exposition of the horrors of slavery from an articulate, intelligent black man. He soon realized, however, a grander education would be necessary. The Civil War, according to Douglass, served the purpose as an ‘apocalyptic education’ for the United States. Historian David Blight notes, ‘only small numbers of Americans would have willed emancipation in 1861; none could stop it in 1864–1865.’ Douglass considered President Lincoln one of the war’s best students. He continued to recruit black soldiers for the Union cause, in part, because he was ‘so well satisfied’ with Lincoln and ‘the educating tendency of the conflict.’ Moreover, Douglass urged black men to enlist for the Union during the Civil War to demonstrate to all of society their capacity to reason: ‘you are a man [. . .] if you were only a horse or an ox, incapable of deciding whether the rebels are right or wrong, you would have no responsibility, and might like the ox go on eating your corn.’ But, instead, “manhood requires you to take sides.’” (Emphases added; internal citations omitted.)
  10. See note 11, below, and Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (“…the New York Tribune instructed its readers that Douglass ‘became the representative man of his race . . . by virtue of self-help . . . [and] self-education.’”)
  11. See ibid. (“One of Douglass’s fullest expressions of the doctrine of self-reliance, though it is much more, was his famous speech ‘Self-Made Men,’ delivered dozens of times from 1859 to the early 1890s. The lecture reflected the culture and political economy of the Gilded Age; he appears to have carried it along with him on many of his speaking tours…He lampooned the ‘haughty manner’ of Yale boys, but never learning itself.”)
  12. Quoted in ibid.
  13. In the 1950s, the Supreme Court used these arguments, in a modified form and without credit, to establish the right to non-segregated public education. See Michael W. McConnell, "Originalism and the Desegregation Decisions," 81 Virginia Law Review 947 (1995), https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=12624&context=journal_articles
  14. See Hess, “'It Must Develop Men’: Frederick Douglass and Education in Nineteenth-Century America” (“The Republican Party considered universal education so important to the reconstruction of the South that it became an integral condition for admittance back into the Union.”) See also footnote 2 in Kerry Ellard, “The Revealing Historical Differences Between Northern and Southern Education in America, Part I: The Northern Education Tradition,” Montessorium.
  15. See Hess, “'It Must Develop Men’: Frederick Douglass and Education in Nineteenth-Century America” (“After successfully ratifying the 13th amendment, many Republicans wondered what could replace antislavery ‘as the leading Republican idealistic issue.’ The Republican Party decided to promote public schools, especially for emancipated blacks, so they would be “worthy of the responsibilities of citizenship and suffrage.’” (Emphases added; internal citations omitted.)
  16. Ibid. (Emphases added; internal citations omitted.)

Kerry Ellard

Kerry Ellard earned a B.S. in Communication and a B.A. in Political Science from Boston University, and a J.D. from Boston College Law School. During school and after graduation, she worked in law, education, and government. Most recently, she has worked as a tutor, independent historian, and sociological analyst. Kerry lives in Boston, where she enjoys playing with her dog and attending concerts.