The Magazine

Parallel Lives

Frederick Douglass, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and the flight to freedom.

Jun 23, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 39 • By CLAUDIA ANDERSON
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Both were eventually thrust onto a wider stage when they spoke up extemporaneously in a public meeting. Gifted with intelligence and unusually handsome physique, each would become a sought-after speaker--he a leading abolitionist and one of the great orators of the 19th century, she an agitator for the rights of Muslim women in Europe and a sharp critic of Islam. Yet however prominent, both would long remain in physical danger--she in mortal danger--and would more than once cross the Atlantic in search of safety.


Books, of course, were not supposed to play a part in the life of any slave. But the young Frederick Bailey--the name he carried until his escape from slavery--learned to read. Sent from the plantation to Baltimore when he was eight to live with relatives of his owner and look after their young son, he was welcomed by his new mistress, Sophia Auld, who had never before had a slave. She treated him kindly, read him Bible stories, and taught him hymns. When he asked her to teach him to read, she did. Proudly showing off Frederick's accomplishment to her husband, she was smartly informed of the error of her ways.

In phrases that became a touchstone for Frederick, Hugh Auld explained to his wife that to teach a slave to read would "unfit him for slavery." The formal lessons ended, but the child already had the rudiments. Over the ensuing years, unobserved in his loft above the kitchen, he practiced reading and taught himself to write, studying Webster's speller and copying between the lines of his young charge's old exercise notebooks from school.

When he was 12, with 50 cents saved from polishing shoes, Frederick bought a copy of one of the most widely used school anthologies of the day, The Columbian Orator, first published in 1797. This book became his entire curriculum. He studied it, he later recalled, every chance he got. It could hardly have been better designed to prepare him for his calling.

An anthology of speeches, poems, sermons, and dramatic excerpts from eminent authors and now-forgotten contemporaries, The Columbian Orator exposed Frederick to Socrates, Cicero, Milton, Sheridan, Franklin, Washington, Napoleon, William Pitt, and more. It was compiled by Caleb Bingham, a Boston abolitionist and pious Congregationalist, who interspersed among the selections numerous dialogues and short articles of his own devising, the whole intended, Bingham wrote, to "inspire the pupil with the ardour of eloquence, and the love of virtue."

One of the first items to catch Frederick's eye was Bingham's "Dialogue Between a Master and Slave," in which a master confronts a slave who has been caught making his second attempt to run away. With his answers, the slave exposes slavery as an institution resting purely on force: the coercion required to steal from a man the freedom for which his "soul pants" and to reduce him to a beast. If a theme can be said to arise from Bingham's anthology it is the nobility of upholding above any other loyalty God's wisdom and justice and the natural rights of men.

The young Frederick was just as deeply influenced by the Bible, which he said fueled his hunger for knowledge. Converted at 13, he found a spiritual mentor in an old black man named Lawson, who told the young man that God had great plans for him and would put his talents to use. They prayed and read scripture together, and Frederick "saw the world in a new light." He wrote that he "loved all mankind--slaveholders not excepted; though I abhorred slavery more than ever." He does not say when he owned his first Bible, but a hymnal was among the few possessions he carried with him on his train ride north.

Between them, The Columbian Orator and the Bible armed Frederick with fundamental principles contrary to slavery, as well as with models of reasoned argument, vivid narrative, and powerful use of rhetoric that would nourish his mind for years to come.