American Portraits

Frederick Douglass and Identity: Resurrection to the Heaven of Freedom

In this lesson, students will examine events in the life of Frederick Douglass, studying a turning point when he determined not to remain a slave.

Founding Principles

Equality image


Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.

Liberty image


Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.

Private Virtue image

Private Virtue

The idea that only a knowledgeable and virtuous citizenry can sustain liberty.


Frederick Douglass knew little about his own identity. He did not know the date of his birth, his age, or who his father was, although he theorized that it was one of the white men on the plantation where he lived. He did not really know his mother, who was separated from him by many miles, and he only visited with her a few times before she died when he was a little boy. Like most slaves, he was not taught to read and had little hope for the future….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

To what extent are you cultivating the identity necessary to achieve worthy goals such as enhancing freedom in your own life and the lives of others?

Virtue Defined

Identity answers the question, “Who am I?”

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will examine events in the life of Frederick Douglass, studying a turning point when he determined not to remain a slave.


  • Students will understand how Frederick Douglass rejected the identity of “slave” and determined to take on the identity of a free man.
  • Students will analyze their own actions, goals, and ambitions to determine how identity contributes to achievement of worthy goals.


Frederick Douglass was one of almost 4 million slaves who lived in the antebellum South. Slavery was a violent system of repression that forced African Americans to work for white owners for no pay, and with no control of their lives. The system of owning human beings and their labor took away slaves’ rights, dignity, and identity by reducing people to the status of property. It took incredible courage for slaves to find ways to win their freedom, self-worth, and individual identity. Frederick Douglass successfully achieved his liberty and sought to lift all slaves out of bondage.


  • Antebellum
  • Bondage
  • Slave breaker
  • Languished
  • Brute
  • Underground Railroad

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

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Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • Describing his experiences under Edward Covey, Douglass later said, “…the dark night of slavery closed in on me, and behold a man transformed into a brute.” What do you think he meant by “the dark night of slavery?” What would it mean for you to be “transformed into a brute?”
  • What series of events led Douglass to recover the spirit of manhood and fight for his freedom and dignity?
  • In what ways did Douglass’s experiences as a slave contribute to his ability to fight for the freedom of others?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

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