“Bad as all slaveholders are, we seldom meet one destitute of every element of character commanding respect.”
Published in 1845, Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself recounted the abolitionist’s experiences in bondage and as a fugitive slave in Maryland, New York, and Massachusetts during the first half of the nineteenth century. Marked by insightful analysis and sharp criticism of the institution of slavery, Douglass’s memoirs are generally considered the most significant of the slave narratives published in the United States before the Civil War. Written partially in response to accusations that no one as well spoken as Douglass could have begun life in bondage, the Narrative became a great success in its own time and launched Douglass onto the international stage. Its forthright account of the events of Douglass’s bondage and free life also endangered his continued liberty, a testament to the strength of Douglass’s antislavery convictions. The work remains studied for its primary account of the institution of slavery from the perspective of the enslaved and for its literary merit.
At the time that Frederick Douglass published his memoirs, the antislavery movement in the United States was on the rise. Slavery had been part of the nation’s society and economy since colonial days, although abolition had slowly crept through the North in the years following American independence as many of these states followed a pattern of gradual emancipation. Debate over the transatlantic slave trade in the US Congress had been banned for a period of twenty years under the US Constitution, but sentiment against the practice had risen sufficiently to cause it to be outlawed shortly after the expiration of the ban. The institution of the slavery was by then beginning to be challenged at the global level. Antislavery agitation had contributed to a British ban on the slave trade in 1807, and a slave rebellion in Haiti had established the first completely free nation in the Americas in 1804. Over the next few decades the practice of slavery further declined. Spain legally abolished slavery throughout its holdings in 1811, and Great Britain enacted an abolition measure in the 1830s that brought about the end of the institution throughout the British Empire by the end of the decade.
Slavery, however, persisted throughout the American South, where it was integral to the regional agricultural economy. The production of cash crops such as cotton was labor intensive, and the profitability of such activities thus benefitted greatly from the existence of a large unpaid workforce. Social practices and legal codes supported the stratification of free and enslaved society to ensure that African Americans lacked the ability to mount an effective widespread resistance to their position. Opposition to slavery thus stemmed largely from Northern activists. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, these antislavery voices had called for gradual emancipation processes and the end of the slave trade, hoping that Southern states would adopt measures like those used by Northern states to transition away from the culture of enslavement. As the growth of the cotton economy and the increase of African American repression in the nineteenth century solidified, however, antislavery activists led by William Lloyd Garrison became more radical in their demands for complete and immediate emancipation. Although abolitionists were something of a fringe movement, sectional conflict over the expansion of slavery westward with the spread of US territory toward the Pacific Ocean was very much a part of mainstream politics. Douglass’s Narrative was thus a firsthand foray into the most contentious issue of its time.
The son of an enslaved mother and a white father, Douglass was born in February 1818 near Euston, Maryland. Although laws barred enslaved African Americans from becoming literate, Douglass learned to read and white as a child under the tutelage of his master’s wife. After being transferred to plantation work as a teenager, the young man worked to educate his fellow slaves, garnering the ire of his master, who then moved him from place to place. In time, Douglass was assigned to a Baltimore shipyard in order to learn a trade. In 1838, Douglass escaped by wearing sailors’ clothing and showing papers given to a local freedman to secure passage to New York. Douglass married a free black woman and settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he continued to work in shipyards and became involved in the growing Massachusetts abolitionist movement.
From the early 1840s on, Douglass was a popular antislavery speaker who recounted details of his own experiences as a slave and criticized the legal and moral foundations of slavery. Yet his increasing notoriety carried personal risks, as Douglass’s status as a fugitive slave meant that he could legally be captured and returned to his former owner. To help forestall this possibility, Douglass concealed or altered many details of his personal history in his lectures. In 1845, however, Douglass revealed his complete story in his memoirs, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. The book was an instant success that sold tens of thousands of copies in the United States and was translated into French, German, and Dutch. To avoid capture, Douglass left the country soon after publication to embark on a lecture tour of the British Isles. There, Douglass’s supporters raised enough money to purchase the fugitive’s freedom and help him establish his own abolitionist newspaper, North Star, back in the United States.
Douglass was one of the nation’s most outspoken abolitionists during the 1850s, speaking out against the westward expansion of slavery and the harsh Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, among other measures. He also supported violent resistance to the institution of slavery, lending support to John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia. During the Civil War, Douglass was a leading voice calling for emancipation and for African American service in the Union Army. He remained a force for African American rights and social activism up until his death in 1895.
Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of the Frederick Douglass served multiple purposes, and as such may be read through several varying historical, anthropological, and literary lenses. Two of these purposes, however, are most relevant to the study of slavery in American history and society: Douglass’s personal history, and the role of the slave narrative in the promotion of antislavery sentiment both in the United States and in European nations, particularly the only recently emancipated British Empire. On the top level, the work served merely as a relatively brief autobiography of Douglass’s experiences as a slave, an escapee, and an abolitionist. Because Douglass never explained his motives for penning his autobiography, historians cannot be entirely certainly of his reasons. However the simple human desire to share one’s own story was likely one of them—especially as doing so helped establish Douglass’s bona fides to those doubtful of the abilities of one so recently out of slavery to present himself and his ideas so powerfully. In this respect the Narrative aims to provide verifiable names, dates, places, and other information to support the authenticity of Douglass’s personal history, a factor so drove the author sufficiently to cause him to risk his own continued liberty due to his status under the law as a fugitive slave.
The voices of former slaves were powerful ones in the abolitionist movement because of the deeply personal nature of their experiences with slavery. The acceptance of slavery as a society had hinged to an extent on a collective willingness to ignore the humanity of African Americans, and the efforts of individual former slaves to refute that stereotype were vital to winning over a sufficient Northern majority to the cause of emancipation. To achieve this end, antislavery activist Douglass unflinchingly describes some of the mental, emotional, and physical horrors inflicted upon the enslaved population by their owners. Equally, he challenges the notion of white superiority that underlay the entire institution. By emphasizing the weaknesses of his white masters and the strengths of his black peers, Douglass subtly encourages the reader to empathize with African Americans even across racial lines. Throughout the Narrative also runs an underlying distaste for the role of religion, which Douglass saw as a tool to support slavery and slaveholders, in American society.
The Narrative intertwines these themes as it lays out Douglass’s life story. The work begins by recounting the author’s childhood, first on a Maryland plantation, and, later, in a Baltimore home. It was during this period that Douglass learned to read from a relatively kindly mistress and began to develop an interest in the abolition movement. The excerpt reproduced here picks up the thread of the Narrative at about the time when Douglass—who remained uncertain of his exact date of birth or age throughout his life—was in his early teens in March of 1832. At this time, Douglass left the Baltimore home where he had spent much of his childhood to return to his master’s plantation in the eastern coastal region of the state. Although Douglass had known the family when he was a boy, as a teenager he had little idea what to expect of his seemingly new master or home, and that equally his master had little notion of what the young man had become. Nevertheless, Douglass states, it took little time for him to confirm that both his master and his wife “were well matched, being equally mean and cruel”—a statement of clear judgment against the typical slaveholder as exemplified by Douglass’s own master, Thomas Auld. Thus the author almost immediately links the facts of his early life with the antislavery rhetoric needed to persuade Northern minds.
Douglass goes on to support his evaluation with facts and details: his master let his slaves go hungry, something that Douglass experienced for the first time in several years; his master was inconsistent in his treatment of his slaves; and his master used religion to justify cruelty. Of these, Douglass first addresses the issue of poor feeding. Going hungry, he explains, was more difficult after becoming accustomed to having enough to eat. Further, he argues that failing to provide enough food for slaves was seen as a fault even among slave owners, pointedly emphasizing his own master’s “meanness” of character. In fact, slaves across the South supplemented their poor food supply to with fresh vegetables grown in small gardens and a black market of bartered goods conducted by the enslaved population. Douglass nods to this overall paucity of nourishment, acknowledging that although slave owners generally agreed that they should feed their workers enough food even it was of poor quality, “there are many exceptions.” The work done by slaves tended to be hard physical labor that left them with high caloric needs, but hunger was rarely seen as an adequate excuse for reduced labor output.
On his own plantation, Douglass says, he and the slaves who worked alongside him in the kitchen were provided with just a half-bushel of cornmeal each week, or roughly ten cups each day. The Aulds offered little meat or vegetables, so this meager supply of cornmeal forced the slaves to live on what was essentially a diet of gruel; it was, Douglass argued, insufficient to sustain life. As a result the work gang was forced to seek outside sources of food, calling on friends and neighbors to help them and resorting to theft when no other option seemed viable. Hunger kept morality at bay in the event of theft; Douglass, in fact, implies that his masters had no claim to oppose such action by their slaves because they had failed in their own moral duties as slave owners to ensure that their charges had access to basic nutrition. His master and mistresses’ stinting of food to their slaves particularly irked Douglass because he saw it as completely needless. Hunger spread throughout the plantation not because of an actual lack of food; “food in abundance lay mouldering in the safe and smoke-house,” he complains, noting that despite this existing bounty his master and mistress regularly beseeched God to send them more, even as they denied their slaves adequate nourishment.
Douglass uses this as a launching point from which to assault his master and mistress in general, again using his own personal experience as a model from which could be generalized the experiences of all slaves. His master, Douglass claims, lacked all redeeming qualities and had no characteristics that might have demanded the respect of his household; his slaves held such a low regard for him, Douglass claimed, that none even accorded him the title of “master,” instead referring to him by his name. “Our want of reverence for him must have perplexed him greatly,” Douglass admits, noting that this poor relationship likely caused his master to behave in a way that reinforced his slaves’ belief that he did not deserve their respect or obedience. Even the insistence of the mistress, who was by all objective accounts a somewhat nastier character than her husband, failed to persuade the household to act in the preferred manner. This disconnect stemmed from a number of personal failings that Douglass details in his Narrative. He declares his master’s primary personality trait to be “meanness,” reinforcing this categorization repeatedly throughout his description. Just as the master and mistress had been too stingy to give their slaves sufficient mood, Douglass found Auld’s overall approach to life to be a grudging one.
Historians have suggested that Douglass’s attack on Auld’s character in this segment of the Narrative and in similar passages in Douglass’s other autobiographies did not truly reflect Douglass’s complex personal feelings toward his former master. Many decades after the publication of the Narrative and general emancipation in the United States, Douglass visited his master, who was by then old and quite ill, unannounced while on a trip to the St. Michael’s area. This meeting moved Douglass deeply, a suggestion that the relationship between slaveholder and slave was not as clear-cut as Douglass implies in this passage. An emotional bond obviously existed between the two men, for Auld was apparently just as moved to see his former charge; the invitation to hold such a meeting had in fact come from the former master. Douglass, perhaps, felt the denials of physical and emotional care by his master especially deeply because of his personal sentiment. Certainly the sweeping rhetoric employed by the author to characterize his master as completely without redemption seems likely to have been designed to fill the purpose of persuading readers toward the antislavery cause, rather than to fully address Douglass’s own emotions during his enslavement; this lends that secondary purpose of the Narrative greater support than the top-level recounting of Douglass’s autobiography.
Next, Douglass begins an ongoing criticism of religion as a prop for the institution of slavery. Auld, he explains, found religion after attending a camp meeting of the type common during the contemporary Second Great Awakening, during which Protestant denominations such as Methodism enjoyed a general revival of support across the United States. Douglass presents the dichotomy between what religion might have made slaveholders do—charitably liberate their slaves or at minimum provide them with better living and working conditions—and what he perceived it to actually do—justify “cruel and hateful” behavior. Religion made slave owners such as Auld worse in character, Douglass argues, because religion provided them with a necessary moral justification and sense of salvation that enabled them to abuse other humans. Auld became a religious leader within the community, yet he and his fellow Christians failed to display the generosity of spirit that the faith called for in its teachings. As an example, Douglass explains that slaves still went hungry on the Auld plantation even as religious leaders had plenty to eat. Yet not all of the pious individuals in the community were subject to Douglass’s criticism. Mr. Cookman, for example, was respected by the Auld slaves; he was believed to support the cause of liberty and demonstrated an unusual level of interest and respect for the enslaved members of the household. In the Narrative, however, such a figure was the exception rather than the rule.
Douglass continues his attack on the white domination of black Americans by briefly recounting the dissolution of a Sunday school begun by a white resident of St. Michael’s for the purpose of helping local African Americans learn to read the Bible. After just a few meetings, the school was forcibly broken up by some of the town’s leading residents, who themselves professed great religious faith. An angered Douglass attacks the hypocrisy behind these actions, ironically calling St. Michael’s a “pious town” even as he describes the efforts of its residents to forbid the comfort of religion to the slaves who might well have clung to Christian messages of the value of worldly suffering in securing comforts in the next life. Although Douglass often spoke out strongly against the role of organized religion in supporting slavery during his adult career, as a young man he—like many other slaves—seems to have sought answers in religious faith. The denial of that privilege, perhaps incited by the contemporary religiously inspired rebellion of Nat Turner in nearby Virginia, seemed to Douglass to be a clear display of his master’s own meanness of spirit (McFeely 43).
Douglass next diverges from his own life story slightly to focus on the cruelty of his master as an exemplar of the barbarities visited upon slaves and, thus, again support the cause of generating antislavery feeling among Northerners. “I have seen him tie up a lame young woman, and whip her . . . causing the warm red blood to drip,” he recalls in vivid language. Not only was the subject of his master’s ire an enslaved woman, but also a weak one felled by lameness and burned terribly on her hands; this weakened state, Douglass notes, was the cause of his master’s intense feeling against the woman. Because of her disabilities, the woman—a cousin of Douglass’s—was able to perform only the most basic of work, and Auld’s desire to extract the maximum profit from his investment drove Auld to literally lash out against this expensive, but hardly lucrative, charge. “She was to master a bill of expense,” Douglass states scathingly. Auld’s anger pushed him to make this punishment a regular one, sometimes taking place twice a day; in time, Auld attempted to rid himself of what he saw as the burdensome woman by giving her to someone else—for such a slave would have almost no likelihood of being sold through the still-active domestic slave trade due to her disabilities. Eventually, the master set the young woman off the property and left her to fend for herself despite her obvious inability to do so. To add insult to injury, he kept the disabled woman’s mother on the plantation, forcing her to carry on with her work even though she, and the whole slave community, understood that her daughter’s fate was starvation and death in the wild.
Douglass further connects his condemnation of his master’s actions to the discussion of the ties between popular religion and justification for slavery. Here, Douglass says, was “one of the many pious slaveholders” who claimed to support the institution of slavery in order to protect members of what they viewed as the inherently weak and inferior African race. This justification was a common one in an era in which the lens of racism caused white Americans to rate the abilities of black Americans as naturally and necessarily unequal; they also believed that it was in fact the duty of white Americans to own slaves in order to look after them, in much the same way that a modern American farmer might care for livestock or a working dog. Douglass draws a clear and contemptuous parallel between this claim and the actual actions of the so-called pious slave owners like his own master, who professed their “charitable” desire to care for those they saw as lesser beings, even as they left the weakest among the slaves to suffer injury and death due to their very weaknesses.
Douglass’s time with Auld came to an end in early 1834, when Auld hired him out for free to a neighbor—Edward Covey—known for his abilities to break the spirit of young, headstrong slaves through physical abuse. The reasons for this change were numerous, but Douglass notes that it essentially came down to the fact that Auld “found me unsuitable to his purpose”—that is, that Douglass failed to materialize as an obedient, industrious slave willing to faithfully and unquestioningly follow his master’s instruction. The immediate cause of Douglass’s transfer was his seemingly careless handling of Auld’s horse, which gave Douglass an excuse to visit a nearby farm owned by the Auld’s father-in-law, who was known to feed his slaves well. Such efforts to slow work or manipulate orders into situations that met slaves’ needs were among the most common forms of slave rebellion during this period; slaves could not be charged with any greater crime than carelessness, but the deception allowed people who had no legal control over their destinies to exercise some small form of personal control over their day-to-day lives. The transfer to Covey allows Douglass to address the themes running throughout his Narrative. His near-constant battle with hunger in Auld’s household is named as a reason for Douglass’s willing acceptance of his assignment to a man known as a “nigger-breaker,” for at least he would be assured of having a full stomach; for readers, this implies that continual hunger forced slaves to tolerate near-certain abuse in exchange for subsistence. Douglass also concludes by again denigrating the role of religious belief as an aspect of slavery by singling out Covey, already presented as a man known for his harshness, as among the most pious of the community. Slavery, Douglass suggests, made monsters of slaveholders and near-animals of the enslaved.
Many historians regard Douglass’s Narrative as the finest American slave narrative; certainly, it has remained one of the best known. The slave narrative was an influential genre during the mid-nineteenth century because it allowed increasing numbers of former slaves to recount their experiences and make a case for emancipation directly to the literate Northern audience most able to assist the antislavery cause. Abolitionists widely regarded these narratives as a persuasive force within their movement that could win over moderates and inflame public outrage over the treatment of Southern slaves. The narrative form also offered certain advantages over the antislavery lecture; the greater length offered by books and pamphlets provided more space for expansive detail and rhetorical flourishes like those provided in Douglass’s own memoirs. Written works also could reach those who could not or would not attend abolitionist meetings in person. Thus Douglass’s presentation of the everyday human struggles facing a slave.
Although Douglass had a growing reputation as an antislavery activist and lecturer before the publication of his memoirs, it was this volume that helped catapult him to international notoriety. The work sold more than four thousand copies in the United States within a few months of publication; some thirty thousand copies had been sold in North America and Europe by 1850 (McFeely 116–17). Because Douglass’s Narrative contained actual names, dates, and places, his own slave identity became widely known, placing him at legitimate—and legal—risk for capture and re-enslavement. In part to avoid this possibility and in part to capitalize on his burgeoning success as an antislavery speaker, Douglass left the United States for Great Britain shortly after his autobiography’s publication; this helped generate further support for the American antislavery movement among European allies who had successfully fought for their own emancipation law some years previously.
The Narrative also helped solidify Douglass’s legitimacy at home. Rumors had spread during his American lecture tours that no former slave—and certainly not one who was as recently escaped from bondage as Douglass was—could possibly speak as thoughtfully and eloquently as he did. Printed testimonials introducing his Narrative asserted the veracity of his tale and the authenticity of its authorship; the level of detail and simple, straightforward language of the writing itself lent credence to Douglass’s life story. Although some detractors continued to question Douglass’s truthfulness or his ability to present his own autobiography without outside, white editorial assistance, many critics and readers recognized his Narrative as a strong literary force in support of the cries of the abolition movement.
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