“Get Out the Vote” Spotlight – Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass championed many causes surrounding social justice and equality, including the burgeoning women’s rights movement and universal suffrage.

Frederick Douglass was an influential abolitionist, author and social reformer. Douglass was born into slavery circa 1818 in Talbot County, Maryland. He escaped to Philadelphia in 1838 with his partner Anna Murray, whom he had met in Baltimore the previous year. They eventually settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, an abolitionist center, and began their family. In New Bedford, Douglass regularly attended anti-slavery meetings and became a preacher. In turn, he developed impressive oratorical skills. 

For the rest of his life, Douglass was a champion of equal rights. In addition to his anti-slavery work, he fought for women’s rights and equal rights for Native Americans and Chinese immigrants. In 1848, Douglass attended the Seneca Falls Convention, the first women’s rights convention in the U.S. At Seneca Falls, Douglass spoke in favor of women voting before the suffrage movement had even truly begun. In his speech, he noted that he could not accept suffrage as a black man if women could not vote too. 

However, after the Civil War, his feelings shifted. Debate over the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed suffrage for black men, caused Douglass to split with some women suffragists. While Douglass argued that tying women’s suffrage to black men’s suffrage would hinder both movements, many white suffragists refused to support any legislation that divided them. Douglass still passionately supported women’s suffrage, though, and never abandoned the cause.

Visit the Maryland Room in Hornbake Library to view works by Frederick Douglass from our collections, including Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom: Part I – Life as a Slave. Part II – Life as a Freeman (1855), and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881).

On display in the exhibit Get Out the Vote: Suffrage and Disenfranchisement in America is The Equality of All Men Before the Law: Claimed and Defended, by William D. Kelley, Wendell Phillips, and Frederick Douglass, et. al. Boston, Press of Geo. C. Rand & Avery, 1865. This pamphlet contains three speeches by prominent abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, who said: “What I ask for the negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice.”

At the heart of the Special Collections & University Archives exhibit Get Out the Vote: Suffrage and Disenfranchisement in America are advocates and grassroots organizations who have fought for expanding the right to vote. Their individual and collective voices have driven major changes to American voting rights, moving the nation closer to the ideal of “one person, one vote.”

Visit the Maryland Room Exhibit Gallery in Hornbake Library to view the exhibit Get Out the Vote: Suffrage and Disenfranchisement in America or explore the exhibit online.

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