Study Guide

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Preface

By Frederick Douglass


  • A lot of books begin with an introduction by some famous person, and you usually just skip them, right? This preface is a little different. It was written by William Lloyd Garrison, a prominent abolitionist leader and one of Douglass's first friends in the North, and we think it should be considered part of the book.
  • In 1845, a lot of white people didn't believe that a slave was capable of writing his own autobiography. William Lloyd Garrison's preface is there to help Douglass prove that he wrote the book on his own. This sort of paradox gives us a sense of Douglass's problem: in order to prove that he wrote the book on his own, he needs the help of a white guy to say that he did.
  • Garrison starts out by telling us about the first time he heard Frederick Douglass speak in public, at an anti-slavery convention. At first, Douglass didn't want to stand up and tell his story. This wasn't just because of stage fright. Douglass had never gone to school, and he was very sensitive about not having any training in public speaking. He was afraid of looking stupid in front of all those people.
  • Once he started speaking, however, Douglass turned out to be a natural. Garrison thinks that Douglass was as eloquent as American revolutionaries like Patrick Henry. Henry was the guy who said "Give me Liberty or give me death," and Garrison wants us to remember that famous quote. Henry and Douglass were both determined to either win their freedom or die trying.
  • Everyone was impressed by Douglass's speech, and Garrison and his friends tried to convince him to join their cause to end slavery. After all, he wasn't just a powerful and persuasive public speaker; he had both witnessed and experienced the horrors of slavery firsthand.
  • Garrison is impressed that Douglass has overcome all the obstacles in his path, and he goes on and on about what a genius Douglass is. Don't forget, Garrison wants to make sure we believe that Douglass wrote his book without help from anyone else. But he also wants us to remember that the most famous and visible Black man in the country is a former slave. This is another way of persuading us of the injustice of slavery: if a former slave can become as successful as Douglass, slavery must be wrong.
  • Garrison gives us a taste of what we're about to read. Just like a movie preview, he emphasizes all the juicy parts and assures us that they are all true.
  • Finally Garrison ends with a rousing appeal to the reader. He tells us that there is no middle ground with slavery: you can either be for the slaveholders or their victims – not both.