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Frederick Douglass, a former slave and eminent human rights leader in the abolition movement, was the first black citizen to hold a high U.S. government rank.
Frederick Douglass escaped slavery in 1838 and used his talents as a writer and orator to fight for emancipation. Douglass edited an abolitionist newspaper, recruited black regiments during the Civil War, and advised President Lincoln.
In 1863, Frederick Douglass enlists as a recruiting officer for an African American regiment in the Civil War. From "Biography: Frederick Douglass."
In the 1850s, Frederick Douglass allied with a passionate white Abolitionist named John Brown, who became a powerful symbol to Douglass for the violent overthrow of the slave system.
After testifying firsthand to the brutality of slavery at an American Anti-Slavery Society meeting in Nantucket, Frederick Douglass became an overnight success in the Abolitionist arena of public speaking.
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Elizabeth Cady Stanton asked the assembly to pass a resolution stating the goal of women's suffrage. Many attendees opposed the idea. Douglass stood and spoke eloquently in favor, arguing that he could not accept the right to vote as a black man if women could not also claim that right. The resolution passed. Douglass would later come into conflict with women’s rights activists for supporting the Fifteenth Amendment,
which banned suffrage discrimination based on race while upholding sex-based restrictions.
By the time of the Civil War, Douglass was one of the most famous black men in the country. He used his status to influence the role of African Americans in the war and their status in the country. In 1863, Douglass conferred with President Abraham Lincoln regarding the treatment of black soldiers, and with President Andrew Johnson on the subject of black suffrage.
President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect on January 1, 1863, declared the freedom of all slaves in Confederate territory. Despite this victory, Douglass supported John C. Frémont over Lincoln in the 1864 election, citing his disappointment that Lincoln did not publicly endorse suffrage for black freedmen. Slavery everywhere in the United States was subsequently outlawed by the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
Frederick Douglass was appointed to several political positions following the war. He served as president of the Freedman's Savings Bank and as chargé d'affaires for the Dominican Republic. After two years, he resigned from his ambassadorship over objections to the particulars of U.S. government policy. He was later appointed minister-resident and consul-general to the Republic of Haiti, a post he held between 1889 and 1891.
Douglass became the first African American nominated for vice president of the United States, as Victoria Woodhull's running mate on the Equal Rights Party ticket in 1872. Nominated without his knowledge or consent, Douglass never campaigned. Nonetheless, his nomination marked the first time that an African American appeared on a presidential ballot.
In 1877, Douglass visited his former owner, Thomas Auld. Douglass had met with Auld's daughter, Amanda Auld Sears, years before. The visit held personal significance for Douglass, although some criticized him for reconciling with Auld.
Frederick and Anna Douglass had five children: Rosetta, Lewis Henry, Frederick Jr., Charles Redmond, and Annie. Annie died at the age of 10. Charles and Rosetta assisted their father in the production of his newspaper The North Star. Anna Douglass remained a loyal supporter of Frederick's public work, despite marital strife caused by his relationships with several other women.
After Anna’s death, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white feminist from Honeoye, New York. Pitts was the daughter of Gideon Pitts Jr., an abolitionist colleague. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Helen Pitts worked on a radical feminist publication and shared many of Douglass’ moral principles.
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