Victor Nuovo: Frederick Douglass, the experience of slavery
Editor’s note: This is the 45th in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
Frederick Douglass (1818–95) was born into slavery, but this pernicious institution could not contain him. Self-educated, except for a brief moment of kindness by a mistress who taught him the alphabet, he escaped slavery and became an influential public orator, journalist and author, a master of the English language and a leading public intellectual. If it were not for the color of his skin, he would dominate the intellectual history of 19th century America. Few figures in the history of this nation stand equal to him; there are none who stand above him.
Among his writings are three autobiographies; the first published in 1845, the second in 1855, and the third in 1893. They provide a thoughtful yet vivid account of what it was like to be a slave.
Frederick Douglass was born in Maryland; his mother was a slave named Harriet Bailey. He did not know his father or his birth date. Rumor had it that his father was a white man — his master or his overseer. In keeping with the practice of slaveholding, he was removed from his mother’s care while still an infant. The practice was designed to prevent the growth of parental affection and attachment, of mother love among slaves. He was nursed by another woman, also a slave. He recalls that his mother was hired out to a neighboring farm 10 miles away.
She died when he was only seven years old. Of her death he wrote: “I received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger,” and adds, “I do not recollect of ever seeing my mother by the light of day.” Yet he did recall night visits from her and felt her mother love. “She would lie down with me, and get me to sleep, but long before I waked she was gone.” On one occasion, she brought him a cake in the shape of a heart, a Valentine. In a subsequent autobiography, he comments, “the pains she took, and the toil she endured to see me, tells me that a true mother’s heart was hers, and that slavery had difficulty in paralyzing it with unmotherly indifference.”
Douglass’ comment is a profound condemnation of the institution of American slavery, whose practices were designed to deprive slaves of their humanity and to destroy all human feeling in them except fear. There is nothing redeeming in the practices of American slaveholders; whoever claims otherwise is either deluded or a liar.
When he was eight years old, Douglass’ old master died and he became the property of Thomas Auld, who loaned him to his brother Hugh and his wife Sophia Auld to be a playmate for their young son. He was deeply touched by the kindness of his new mistress and by her tenderness towards him, especially when he was in her son’s company. She would often read the Bible to them; on one occasion he asked her to teach him to read; she complied, and began by teaching him the alphabet and spelling. He learned quickly, and all went well until this was discovered by his new master. He ordered his wife to stop at once, and proceeded in the most vulgar terms to lecture her in “the true philosophy of the slave system.” In sum, he said that learning spoils a slave.
“If he learns to read the Bible it will forever unfit him to be a slave. He should know nothing but the will of his master, and learn to obey it.”
He added, as though to mitigate the harshness of his words, that learning would only make a slave unhappy. Sophia Auld took her husband’s words to heart, and their affect on her behavior and her character was tragic. She became more violently opposed to his reading than her husband. If ever she found him reading, she “would rush at me with the utmost fury,” and snatch away the book or paper from his hand. All her tenderness towards him vanished. Her kindness was replaced by suspicion; she often spied on him whenever he was by himself.
The most revealing parts of Douglass’ autobiographies are his analyses of the grim psychological affects of slavery on slaveholders. Their characters became deformed, they ceased to be whole persons.
Douglass returned to the household of Thomas Auld, who then sent him to work on the farm of Thomas Covey, who was reputed to be a “negro breaker”; there he was repeatedly flogged. He fled the “tyrant’s lash” and went into hiding; but finding no way of escape, he returned. It was a Sunday, and on his return he met Covey and his wife on their way to Church, “dressed in their Sunday best — looking as smiling as angels.” He was greeted benignly. But on Monday, everything was back to normal. While he was in the stable tending to the horses, Covey “sneaked into the stable, in his peculiar snake-like ways,” and seized him. He was planning to bind him up and whip him. Douglass resisted. There was a struggle, and he saw fear in the face of his master. Covey called for help, but other slaves, and a hired hand, gave none. After two hours, Covey gave up the struggle and declared a hollow victory. “Now, you scoundrel, go to your work; I would not have whipped you half so hard if you had not resisted,” but in fact, “he had not whipped me at all.” And he never tried again. Douglass was 16 years old.
The following year, he was “hired out” as a field hand to a Maryland farmer, William Freeland, a more enlightened master, who allowed him more personal freedom, which he used to teach other slaves to read, without his master’s knowledge. Douglass later wrote that Freeland was “the best master I ever had, until I became my own master.” This soon followed.
When he was 18, he was returned to the Baltimore household of Thomas Auld, who promised him his freedom at age 25 if he learned a trade. He was apprenticed to the master of a local shipyard, and learned to caulk wooden ships. But he didn’t wait for Auld to keep his promise.
In Baltimore, he met Anna Murray, a free Black woman and with her help he planned his escape to freedom. He made the acquaintance of a retired sailor, a Black freedman, who loaned him his papers, and on Sept. 3, 1838, Frederick Douglass, approximately 20 years old, became his own master, travelling by train from Baltimore to Wilmington, Del., and by steamer to Philadelphia, and thence to New Bedford, Mass., where he could practice his trade. But he would accomplish much more.
Postscript: Douglass’ autobiographies have been collected in a single volume by the Library of America. Also recommended is “The Portable Frederick Douglass,” edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. One should also read the “Narrative of Sojourner Truth,” Douglass’ contemporary; Truth (1797–1883) was born into slavery in Ulster County, N.Y., and was freed in 1827 by state law; also there is the recent film “Harriet” about Harriet Tubman (1822–1913), who escaped from slavery and then led many other slaves to freedom; during the Civil War she served as a spy in the Union Army.
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