Item #2708 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. FREDERICK DOUGLASS.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

“Sincerely and earnestly hoping that this little book may do something toward throwing light on the American slave system, and hastening the glad day of deliverance to the millions of my brethren in bonds—faithfully relying upon the power of truth, love, and justice, for success in my humble efforts—and solemnly pledging my self anew to the sacred cause.” –Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

“In reading your life, no one can say that we have unfairly picked out some rare specimens of cruelty. We know that the bitter drops, which even you have drained from the cup, are no incidental aggravations, no individual ills, but such as must mingle always and necessarily in the lot of every slave. They are the essential ingredients, not the occasional results, of the system.” –Wendell Phillips to Frederick Douglass, (published in the Introduction to the Narrative)



Frederick Douglass, born enslaved around 1818, escaped to the North in 1838. After settling in Massachusetts, Douglass began reading The Liberator and met William Lloyd Garrison. Upon hearing Douglass speak at an anti-slavery convention in Nantucket in 1841, Garrison and his Anti-Slavery Society hired Douglass to travel the country speaking about the injustices and brutalities of slavery. Douglass spent the next few years giving hundreds of anti-slavery speeches but frequently encountered hostility from Americans who did not believe that he, such an eloquent and intelligent man, had grown up enslaved.

Prior to the publication of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, it was common for whites (both masters and abolitionists) to write stories on behalf of those who were in bondage. Douglass set out to change that with his memoir and treatise on abolition.

In his pivotal text, Douglass acted as both the narrator and the protagonist, progressing from an uneducated and oppressed enslaved man to a worldly, articulate and rational political commentator. Douglass wrote his Narrative both to authenticate his story, and to share his indictment of slavery with a wider audience. He focused on the relentless abuses and dehumanizing impact of slavery as well as the hypocrisy of a slave-holding nation that proclaimed liberty and justice for all. Douglass’s intention was to use his own experiences to convince the reader that slavery was politically and morally wrong.

The revolutionary nature of his narrative led white abolitionists, Garrison and Wendell Phillips, to advise Douglass against publication, fearing details in the work would lead to his recapture. Phillips said, “I shall read your book with trembling for you…They say the fathers, in 1776, signed the Declaration of Independence with the halter about their necks. You, too, publish your declaration of freedom with danger compassing you around…there is no single spot—however narrow or desolate—where a fugitive slave can plant himself and say, ‘I am safe.’” Douglass would not be deterred. He believed his story was as much about the act of writing freely as it is about freedom.

Douglass’s Narrative begins with a preface from Garrison and a letter from Phillips. Douglass was grateful for their support but resented that their introduction was needed to give the book public credibility. Phillips addressed his letter to his “dear friend” Douglass, and referred to the old fable of “The Man and the Lion,” in which the lion states that he would no longer be misrepresented if he (not the man) could tell his side of the story. As a writer and activist, Douglass embraced his role as “the lion” by writing about his efforts to gain an education, escape from bondage, and end the brutal system of slavery.

The first edition of the first book by Frederick Douglass, a classic of American literature, became an international best seller. Five thousand copies were sold for 50 cents each within four months of its first printing in May 1845. By 1850, almost 30,000 copies had been sold, including English, French and Irish editions. Along with his public lectures, “the Narrative made Frederick Douglass the most famous black person in the world” (Blight 16) and gave him the liberty to begin more ambitious work on the issue of slavery. In 1847 Douglass broke from Garrison, moved to Rochester, and started a black newspaper, The North Star. He proudly and passionately devoted his immense talent to ending slavery and gaining equal rights for African-Americans and pushed members of the African-American community to forcefully and persistently participate in the struggle. Less than a month before his death, when a young black man asked for his advice, Douglass replied without hesitation: “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!” (Holley 23).

The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was a turning point not only for the anti-slavery movement but for Douglass’s own work agitating the American conscience. As an orator, author, journalist, and publisher, Douglass dedicated over two-thirds of his life fighting for African-American rights, women’s rights, temperance, peace, land reform, free public education, and the abolition of capital punishment. His Narrative fueled not only the abolitionist movement of the 19th century but also the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century.

While Douglass believed fiercely in America’s founding principles, he understood that democracy was a work in progress and partnered with reformers and politicians to bring about change. His personal relationship with President Abraham Lincoln helped to make emancipation a central cause of the Civil War and almost one hundred years later, in 1961, President John F. Kennedy reflected, “The life of Frederick Douglass is part of the legend of America. As a successful fighter for freedom a century ago, he can give inspiration to people all around the world who are still struggling to secure their full human rights. That struggle must go on until those rights are everywhere secured.” (Dyson). Douglass’s public fight against injustice began with his lectures and his Narrative and he continues to serve as a symbol of the universal desire for freedom and human rights.

Provenance: The copy features the signature “Susan C. Cabot” on the title page. Born in Boston, Susan Copley Cabot (1794–1861) was an active abolitionist, contributing columns to the Liberty Bell and speaking at the annual meeting of the American Antislavery Society at least once in 1855—on the topic of “What Have We, as Individuals, to Do with Slavery?”. In a letter dated 12 May 1858, famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison describes traveling from Boston to New York with Cabot and others, perhaps to that year’s American Antislavery Society meeting, and so they appear to have been close in their work to bring emancipation to the US.

Boston: Published at the Anti-Slavery Office, 1845. First edition. 12mo. xvi, 125 pp. Illustrated with an engraved portrait frontispiece of Douglass. Original brown cloth, stamped in blind and in gilt; custom box. Repairs to cloth on the spine (most notably about 1.25 in of new cloth at the base), light wear to cloth on boards. Mild offsetting on title from frontispiece (as usual), a few pages with some spots, but overall very clean. The first edition is famously prone to wear and this is one of the nicest copies we’ve seen.


Frederick Douglass. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845.

Frederick Douglass. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Edited by David W. Blight. Boston: Bedford Books, 1993.

Connie Dyson. “Frederick Douglass: Abolitionist, Journalist, Reformer, 1818–1895.” National Civil Rights Museum, February 2, 2016.

Roy E. Finkenbine. “Douglass, Frederick.” Oxford African American Studies Center. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Joseph W. Holley. You Can't Build a Chimney from the Top. New York: William-Frederick Press, 1948.

Noelle Trent. “Frederick Douglass.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 29 Mar. 2023.

Louis Ruchames, ed. The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975, IV, pp. 527–29.

Price: $28,000 .

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