Frederick Douglass’ First Creative Dollar

Savvy History: Writer – Educator – Musician

It was difficult to research the financial life of Frederick Douglass because he was obviously well known for things far more important than his money. While people may think he is well known today, he was far more famous during his lifetime.

If how much he was photographed counts for anything, he was the most photographed American of the 1800s - photographed 160 times (more than any president).

At one time a licensed preacher, he is most famous as an orator, abolitionist, and overall social reformer. I first heard about him in 8th grade when our entire class read the autobiographical account of his escape from slavery. (You can read it online for free here if interested.)

The most revealing financial stories shared below revolve around his relationship with the English people. Less polarized than his American counterparts, their amazing moral and financial support for his cause aided Douglass in the quest for racial justice. In addition, he resourcefully used his early earnings to alter his life, escape slavery, and change the conscience of millions of Americans.

"We hold woman to be justly entitled to all we claim for man." - Frederick Douglass

Let’s start with some interesting facts about him:

Frederick Douglass' First Creative Dollar

The Amount: 50 cents (Worth around $13.93 in today’s money)

The Project: Polishing shoes

The Back Story

Creative earnings can definitely be subjective. While some would say Frederick Douglass’ early speeches were probably the first way he earned creative money, the choice of 50 cents for polishing shoes is because of the way he spent the money. 

At around the age of 12, Douglass was taught the alphabet by his slaveholder’s wife. When the slaveholder caught on to what his wife was doing, he demanded that she stop. But the fire had already been lit and Douglass continued to learn to read. 

In fact, he bought a copy of The Columbian Orator for 50 cents - a book used by the neighborhood white children in school. He prized this book and even took it with him as one of his few posessions when he escaped from slavery. 

Reading: Pass it On

For a time, Douglass taught other slaves how to read the New Testament. Forty plus slaves started attending Douglass’ weekly church services. White slave holder William Freeland didn’t mind, but other local slaveholders would eventually come with rocks and clubs to beat the crowd.

"These dear souls came not to Sabbath school because it was popular to do so, nor did I teach them because it was reputable to be thus engaged. Every moment they spent in that school, they were liable to be taken up, and given thirty-nine lashes. They came because they wished to learn. Their minds had been starved by their cruel masters. They had been shut up in mental darkness. . . . The work of instructing my dear fellow-slaves was the sweetest engagement with which I was ever blessed."

- Frederick Douglass

Money Earned, Money Taken, and Rage

At 20 years old, Douglass was really good at caulking and making boats watertight. His master trusted him to advertise for work on his own (and turn over the majority of the earnings).

"The thought itself vexed me, and the manner in which Master Hugh received my wages, vexed me more than the original wrong. Carefully counting the money and rolling it out, dollar by dollar, he would look me in the face, as if he would search my heart as well as my pocket, and reproachfully ask me, "Is that all?”...

Draining me of the last cent of my hard earnings, he would, however, occasionally—when I brought home an extra large sum—dole out to me a sixpence or a shilling, with a view, perhaps, of kindling up my gratitude; but this practice had the opposite effect — it was an admission of my right to the whole sum. The fact that he gave me any part of my wages, was proof that he suspected that I had a right to the whole of them.

- Frederick Douglass

European Crowdfunding and Buying Freedom

After escaping from slavery and publishing his autobiography at the urging of a friend, Douglass went to Liverpool to avoid recapture. Bouncing between Ireland and Britain for two years, he spoke to large crowds about slavery in America. Supporters such as Anna and Ellen Richarson took it upon themselves to raise money to purchase his freedom.

"Mr. Henry Richardson of New Castle upon Tyne England has sent me, by the last Steamer, one hundred and fifty pounds sterling to purchase the freedom of Frederick Bailey alias Douglass. At the present rate of Exchange this amounts in dollars to seven hundred and eleven 66/100 dollars.

- Walter Lowrie, an abolitionist middle man in negotiations allowing Frederick Douglass return to the US a free man

$711.66 = $23,696.34 in Today’s Money

With his legal freedom, Douglass was able to return to the states in 1847. In addition to purchasing his freedom, his English supporters provided him with the equivalent of $46,000 to start a newspaper that became known as the North Star - an abolitionist newspaper that reached into the hearts and minds of millions.

What are your thoughts about the financial life of Frederick Douglass? Were you surprised by the important role played by his British and Irish supporters?

If you are interested in the sources for this article, please check here, here, and here.