The Abolishment of Slavery in America

1.  How does Frederick Douglass learn to read? Why does literacy become so important to him?

2.  How do slave narratives recast the American ideal of the “self-made man” to fit African Americans?

3. How does Frederick Douglass, for example, build on and transform the legacy of Benjamin Franklin?


The Abolishment of Slavery in America





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The Abolishment of Slavery in America

“This is a world of compensations; and he who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave” is a famous quote by Abraham Lincoln. The origins of slavery in America can be traced back to the 17th century, when the first Africans were brought to the British colonies in North America. According to Simard, enslaved people were used primarily as domestic servants or skilled laborers, but as the demand for labor in agriculture increased, slavery became more widespread (13). By the mid-19th century, slavery had become entrenched in the economy and social structure of the Southern states, with cotton and tobacco plantations relying heavily on enslaved labor. Enslaved people were subjected to harsh and inhumane conditions, with long hours of back-breaking work in the fields, inadequate food and clothing, and constant violence and punishment from their enslavers. Families were often torn apart as enslaved people were bought and sold like commodities, and their children were often taken away from them and sold to other plantations (Simard 14). Enslaved people were also denied education and the right to practice their religion, and their cultural traditions and languages were often suppressed. Thus, slavery was practiced in America, whereby Africans were brought to America to work as enslaved people.

The abolitionist movement, which called for the immediate end of slavery and African Americans’ full rights and freedoms, gained momentum in the mid-19th century. According to Douglass, the publication of slave narratives, such as Frederick Douglass’s “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,” helped to expose the brutal realities of slavery and challenge the dehumanizing ideology that underpinned it. The Civil War fought from 1861 to 1865, ultimately led to the abolition of slavery with the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (Douglass 10). However, the end of slavery did not immediately lead to the full realization of African American rights and freedoms. The period of Reconstruction that followed the Civil War was marked by violent resistance from white supremacists, who sought to maintain their power and control over African Americans. Jim Crow laws, which enforced racial segregation and discrimination, were implemented in the Southern states, and African Americans were denied their basic civil and political rights (Douglass 10). The Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century, led by African American activists such as Martin Luther King Jr., helped to challenge and dismantle the system of segregation and discrimination. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were landmark pieces of legislation that outlawed racial discrimination and ensured African Americans the right to vote (Douglass 13). The history of slavery in America is a dark and painful chapter in the country’s past; some of the people who fought for its abolishment were Frederick Douglass and Benjamin Franklin.

How does Frederick Douglass Learn to Read, and Why does Literacy Become Important to Him?

One of the most compelling aspects of Douglass’s story is how he learned to read and write, which played a pivotal role in his quest for freedom and social justice. According to Blight, born into slavery in Maryland in 1818, Douglass was denied access to education and was forbidden from learning to read or write (5). However, he was determined to acquire knowledge and Literacy, which he believed was the key to his liberation. He found a way to learn how to read and write by observing the white children in his neighborhood and paying close attention to the letters they used to spell words. He would often sneak away during his free time and hide in alleyways and other secluded places, where he would practice writing letters in the dirt (Blight 8). Douglass’s thirst for knowledge led him to strike up a friendship with the wife of one of his enslavers, who began teaching him to read and write in secret. However, after the husband learned about Douglass’s lessons, he stopped them, believing that literacy would make Douglass too aware of his oppression and too dangerous to control (Blight 9). Despite this setback, Douglass continued to pursue his education by bribing poor white boys to teach him and exchanging food for reading lessons with other enslaved children. Thus, Frederick Douglass, a prominent African-American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, and writer, is best known for his powerful speeches and autobiographical narratives that exposed the harsh realities of slavery in the United States, which was a result of his education.

How do Slave Narratives Recast the American Ideal of the “Self-made Man” to Fit African Americans?

The American ideal of the “self-made man” is deeply ingrained in the nation’s history and culture. According to Sinha, the “self-made man” ideal means that anyone, regardless of social status, can succeed through hard work, determination, and individual initiative (14). However, this ideal was not equally accessible to all Americans, particularly African Americans who were enslaved and denied basic rights and freedoms. Slave narratives, written by African Americans who had escaped or been freed from slavery, recast the American ideal of the “self-made man” to fit the experiences and struggles of black people in the United States. Sinha also stated that in slave narratives, African Americans challenged the idea that success and achievement were solely the results of individual initiative and hard work. Instead, they emphasized the role of systemic oppression, exploitation, and violence in denying black people the opportunity to pursue their dreams and aspirations. They recounted the brutal conditions of slavery, the constant threat of punishment and violence, and the psychological and emotional toll of being treated as property rather than as human beings (Sinha 13). Their narratives showed that achieving success and independence was not simply a matter of personal ambition but also required overcoming significant structural barriers and injustices. Slave narratives emphasized the importance of community and collective action in achieving freedom and success. African Americans highlighted the role of family, community, and other forms of support in surviving slavery and navigating life’s challenges as free people (Sinha 16). They demonstrated the resilience and resourcefulness of black people in the face of overwhelming obstacles. They illustrated how the support and solidarity of others were essential to achieving success and independence (Sinha 11). Thus, slave narratives challenged the American ideal of the “self-made man” by showing that African Americans were not passive victims of oppression but active agents in their liberation.

How does Frederick Douglass build on and Transform the Legacy of Benjamin Franklin?

Douglass built on and transformed Franklin’s legacy, using his example to advocate for the abolition of slavery and the rights of African Americans. According to Preston, Frederick Douglass and Benjamin Franklin are two of the most prominent figures in American history (16). Both were self-made men who rose from humble beginnings to become renowned writers, speakers, and activists. While they lived in different eras and faced challenges, their legacies intersect significantly. Preston also stated that, like Franklin, Douglass was a self-made man who valued education, hard work, and self-improvement (16). He saw in Franklin an example of what an individual could achieve through perseverance and determination, and he sought to follow in his footsteps. Douglass even modeled his famous narrative, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,” on Franklin’s autobiography, using a similar structure and tone to tell his story of self-discovery and liberation. However, Douglass’s use of Franklin’s legacy went beyond mere imitation. He transformed Franklin’s ideas and ideals to fit his own experiences and the struggles of African Americans in the mid-19th century (Preston 15). Whereas Franklin championed individualism and personal responsibility, Douglass emphasized the role of systemic oppression and structural barriers in denying black people the opportunity to achieve success and independence. He rejected the idea that individual initiative and hard work were sufficient to overcome the pervasive and entrenched racism in American society (Preston 15). Thus, Douglass built on and transformed Franklin’s legacy, using his example to advocate for the abolition of slavery and the rights of African Americans.


In conclusion, the history of slavery in America is a dark and painful chapter in the country’s past. It was a system of forced labor that denied millions of Africans their basic human rights and subjected them to violence, exploitation, and discrimination. While the end of slavery was a significant milestone in the struggle for African American rights and freedoms, the legacy of slavery and racism continues to shape American society today. It is essential to acknowledge and confront the lasting effects of slavery, such as systemic racism, inequality, and social injustice. The conversations and actions needed to address these issues are ongoing, and every American must work towards a more just and equitable society. We must continue to learn from the history of slavery, educate ourselves and others about its impact, and strive towards a future that upholds the values of equality, justice, and freedom for all. Only by acknowledging and addressing the past can we build a better future, recognize and value the experiences of all individuals, and work together to create a more just and equitable society.




Blight, David W. Frederick Douglass: prophet of freedom. Simon & Schuster, 2020.

Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: His Early Life as an enslaved person, His Escape from Bondage and His Complete Life Story. E-art now, 2018.

Douglass, Frederick. The speeches of Frederick Douglass: a critical edition. Yale University Press, 2018.

Korkh, O. M., and V. Y. Antonova. “Formation of the” Self-Made-Man” Idea in the Worldview of the Renaissance and Reformation.” Anthropological Measurements of Philosophical Research 21 (2022): 94-102.

Preston, Dickson J. Young Frederick Douglass. JHU Press, 2018.

Simard, Justin. “Citing slavery.” Stan. L. Rev. 72 (2020): 79.

Sinha, Manisha. “The self-made man: The long and eventful life of the most photographed American of the nineteenth century.” TLS. Times Literary Supplement 6051 (2019): 12-14.







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