The life and times of Frederick Douglass

Douglass’ book is a searing indictment of slavery. His entire autobiography is rife with the agony and cruelty inherent in the system of slavery. From his childhood years, he describes the dehumanizing effect of slavery – it separates families and strips them of their identity, rendering them mere commodities that belong to their masters. No filial bonds exist among slaves, as was the case with Douglass and his brothers and sisters, each of whom belonged to different masters.

He describes the death of his mother and how slaves die alone and without support, comfort or succor. His mother was a slave for another master and when she died, her children could not be near her, rather she had to die alone, at the home of her master with no kindness shown to her because she was no longer useful. The most despicable element of slavery which bothers him is the mulatto children who are born to white masters that deny their parentage. The slave mother bears the sole responsibility for the child and it is mistreated or sold to avoid the malice of the white wife of the master.

He believes that the institution of slavery quenches the honorable instincts in man that are refined and fostered by societal restraints, and gives rise to intolerable cruelty and inhumane instincts in slave holders, thereby rendering it unfavorable to the development of an honorable character. Slaves were so completely the property of their masters that they were sometimes treated even worse than the animals and all manner of injustice and cruelty was condoned and heartlessly encouraged. The rights of the slave to enter into relationships was also subject to the whims of the master, as Douglass illustrates through the experience of Esther, who was not free to pursue her relationship with her husband. The white man Covey purchased a slave for the sole purpose of breeding more slaves. The slave was bounds to the whims and caprice of  the master and the overseers. No dignity or kindness was extended to the slave and there was no respect for his  existence as an individual, as cited by the author in the example of an old Negro groom who was forced to go down on his knees in spite of his venerable old age and the respect he evoked among other blacks, in order to receive a beating at the hands of the whites. The attitude of abject and unquestioning servitude is drilled into the slaves from a very young age and he is forced to endure all injustice without a single protest, because saying anything in one’s defense would be construed as impudence and severely punished.

Douglass describes the miserable life of the slave, which is no more than drudgery and hard work from the crack of dawn up to late in the night, with scanty rations of coarse, uncooked food, a stringy blanket to protect themselves from the cold and the scantiest allowance for clothing. They had no prospects in their life, no hope of betterment, nothing to look forward to except toil and labor on a hungry stomach with a tired body and the terror of the overseer’s whip. He describes the sadness and agony in the slave songs, the cry of the helpless and the broken spirited, for relief from the cruelty of their masters. This is manifested in the songs that the slaves sing, in order to try and ease the pain of their suffering. Several murders of slaves occurred, for which no reasonable cause or conviction existed, yet these gruesome, horrible murders caused no more than a slight sensation in the community and the guilty murderers received no punishment form the law for taking an innocent life. Douglass cites the example of the wife of Mr. Giles Hicks who murdered her slave girl for having dropped off to sleep from tiredness and for having failed to wake up when her baby cried. No laws existed for the protection of the lives of slaves, neither was any evidence offered against the white slave masters since the slaves had no rights at all, so murdering a slave attracted no retribution or punishment from the law. On the contrary however, a slave who resisted his master was subject to the sentence of hanging according to the law of Maryland. Slavery was a man made institution born of the price and greed of men rather than dictated by God. Those slaveholders who professed to be religious were in fact, the worst and most cruel and malicious in their treatment of their slaves and Douglass cites the example of Thomas Auld who only became meaner and more cruel after his conversion.

Douglass states that crime on the part of slaves is justified since they are only stealing form their masters their rightful share of food and goods which are being denied to them through the cruelty and meanness of their masters. He describes the Lloyd’s house where the white masters lived in lavish luxury while the bare essentials of food and clothing were practically denied to the slaves whose sweat, labor and toil produced all the income that enabled them to enjoy such luxury. He also describes how he was forced to give his hard earned wages to his master Hugh Auld. Runaway slaves in particular were cruelly punished by their masters and forced to endure more torture and the castigation of their fellow slaves, for the attempt to escape only brought down the master’s wrath and watchfulness more strongly down on the other slaves. His plan to escape resulted in a similar fate, where one of their team members betrayed them and all the slaves were tied and led through the seats to mocking ridicule and then imprisoned and humiliated by being subjected to the insulting slave traders.

Douglas strongly condemns the institution of slavery because he feels that it is a dehumanizing institution, which converts even a fair minded white man into a cruel tyrant. In the absence of laws and restraints of society, even an honorable man is tempted to treat his slaves like chattel and forget that they are human beings. All the laws favored the white man and disregarded the slave’s right to even possess a name, right to have a family, right to read and write and the right to protect himself. The law was also against the slaves, supporting the white man’s oppression by providing him the freedom to do what he will with his slaves and supporting him through punishment by hanging for any slave who dares to resist his master. Douglass also feels that slavery strips away and crushes the spirit of the Negro, plunging him into an abyss of pain and suffering from which there is no respite until death. The institution of slavery is such there exists a hierarchy of power even among the Negroes which renders them powerless to jointly fight the white man’s oppression and pushes them into submission.

Douglass also opposes the accounts of those slaves who have publicly revealed the details of their escape routes, as only aiding the slave holder in a knowledge of the routes open to the slaves for escape. In crossing over the Mason Dixie line, the vehicle most often employed was the railroad from Baltimore to Philadelphia which became known as the underground railroad, because it was a network of anti slavery proponents among the whites and free colored people who helped other slaves to escape and make it north of the Mason Dixie line where they could live as free men. But the requirements were very stringent, even free colored people had to produce papers showing that they were free before they were allowed to board and the trains only moved during the day time. Steamboat regulations were also very stringent and there were slave catchers posted everywhere who kept their eyes peeled for advertisements about escaped slaves, so that they could apprehend them.

Douglass was finally able to escape to New York, but while he was there, he was approached by another fugitive slave whom he knew from the South and warned not to take up a job in the docks because his master would pursue him and catch him if he found out where he was. He warns him that even other slaves are not to be trusted and that there are  slave catchers and southerners everywhere looking out for runaway slaves, to send them back to their masters. Douglass was shelterless, homeless and without food and a job, forced to be on his own. Even though he was free man, he had to keep looking over his shoulder for fear of being caught. The Fugitive Slave Bill of 1850 provided rights over a slave to a white man as if he was a piece of property, and unless a fee was paid for his freedom which was accepted by the master, the slave could not be truly free and could be caught and taken back to his master, because he had not been emancipated by the payment of a fee.

Finally, he found a good man named Steward from the docks who put him in touch with David Ruggles, the Secretary of the New York Vigilance Committee in whose home he sheltered for a few days. His fiancé Anna also joined him there and they were married. Later, Douglass went to New Bedford where he stayed with another free colored man Samuel Johnson until he was able to find a job. He found that St Bedford was different from Baltimore and no one could take a fugitive from the community because the colored people there were all educated and stuck up for each other. He wanted to work as a calker but other whites would not work with him, so he worked at several lower paying jobs to support himself. He found that the practice of prejudice against the blacks existed even in St Bedford, where the colored people lived separately as an inferior part of the community. About five months after he came to St Bedford, Douglass was given a copy of the Liberator newspaper published by William Lloyd Garrison who was a fervent abolitionist. Douglass continued his private campaign against slavery for three more years, attending all anti slavery meetings and reading the Liberator faithfully. But at an anti-slavery convention organized by  Garrison, Douglass shone as he made a fervent speech and was approached to be the a part of the anti-slavery movement and work as a part of Garrison’s organization. He attended rallies and meetings and narrated his experiences. But his educated and cultured manner made people doubt that he had ever been a slave and Douglass was forced to reveal the details of names of his former masters and dates to establish the authenticity of his story. Since this put his life in danger, he went away to England for a while. The fair and equitable treatment that he received there only served to highlight the injustices of slavery that were practiced in his native land.

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