While William Lloyd Garrison was convening a court of popular opinion in which to gain a hearing for his appeals on behalf of the slave, Frederick Douglass was still Frederick Bailey, a Maryland bondsman. In the summer and fall of 1834, as the Zion Hill household disintegrated and the first newspaper reports of the Matthias scandal began to appear, Bailey was waging physical and psychological battle with notorious “nigger breaker” Edward Covey.1 Then, in 1845, a decade after Gilbert Vale presented the “Simple Narrative of Isabella in the Case of Matthias” as “the Whole Truth—and Nothing but the Truth,” the Boston Anti-Slavery Office published the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself.
Almost as familiar as the Narrative's depiction of the enslaved Frederick Bailey's transformation into abolitionist author and orator Frederick Douglass is the scholarly account of Douglass's political and professional metamorphosis following the publication of his first book and subsequent lecture tour of the British Isles. Prior to the journey, the fugitive worked as an abolitionist lecture agent, giving speeches based on his life in slavery and documenting that experience with his popular Narrative. Afterward, Douglass, now an international celebrity, purchased his freedom, founded his own antislavery newspaper, reversed his position on the U.S. Constitution, rejected disunionism, broke with the Garrisonians, embraced political abolitionism, and published a second personal narrative, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855).2
Well-trodden as the path that bore Douglass from the Narrative to My Bondage and My Freedom may be, retracing it here in light of the antislavery movement's appeals to popular legal consciousness allows us to clear away one of its stumbling blocks, namely the apparent discrepancy between Douglass's retrospective account of his career as Garrisonian abolitionist and the historical record of his oratory and writing from 1841 to 1845. Meticulous reconstruction of Douglass's early career as an agent has effectively debunked “the standard view,” derived largely from My Bondage and My Freedom, that