As it was practiced in America, slavery was a far more brutal animal than it had been in other countries and other times. Slavery in Ancient Greece for example did not extend to the children of the family, did not give the owner the rights of life and death and frequently had provisions by which the slave, who was not typically differentiated by the color of his skin, could obtain his freedom. However, slavery in America was a life-time condition that was quickly extended to include successive generations and handed the power of life and death into the hands of the owner. To keep them in their place, slaves were forbidden to be taught how to read or write, they were separated from their families at even very young ages and were regularly physically and emotionally beaten as a means of keeping them in line. All of this had the effect of reducing these people to the survival instincts of animals, reinforcing concepts held by the white people as well as the slaves that this menial labor was all they were capable of – higher thought was clearly beyond the capacity of their more primitive brains. Proving that this was not the case, though, was Frederick Douglass, the first black man to appear on a presidential ticket in America. An escaped slave from Maryland, Douglass toured the country and the world telling his story and illuminating the various ways in which black people are kept in their dark imprisonment through no fault of their own and with little hope of discovering a means of true escape. In his early narrative Frederick Douglass: Life of an American Slave, the author details his early life and education in such a way that he illustrates both the dehumanizing effects of slavery as well as those factors that operated to inspire him to ‘become a man’ rather than remaining in the role of a slave. This narrative, as well as the speeches and work Douglass did to increase awareness of the true condition of the slave, did much to convince the white people of the world that black people had equal potential when given equal opportunity.
Although his exact birth date is unknown, Douglass believed he was born sometime in February of 1818, already a slave on a Maryland farm. He died on February 20, 1895. The name he was given at birth was Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, but he later changed it as he discovered more information about his probable parentage. “He spent his early years with his grandparents and with an aunt, seeing his mother only four or five times before her death when he was seven” (People and Events, 2008). Today’s common perception is that slavery, at least the brutal form of it, was confined mostly in the south on the big plantations yet Douglass witnessed many brutal beatings on the Maryland farm that was his home during his first seven years. In addition, he was often required to endure cold and hunger in his northern home as the owners kept most of the products generated by the slaves for their own comfort and well-being. By the time he was eight years old, Douglass was sent to Baltimore where he worked for a ship’s carpenter and illicitly learned to read and write. Although his wages were collected and sent to his master before he ever saw them, it was during this first stay in Boston that Douglass became aware that not everyone bought into the idea of slavery (People and Events, 2008). However, by the time he was 15, his probable white father and somewhat protector Douglass Aaron Anthony died and Douglass was sent to the farms again. Having developed a somewhat dangerous sense of independence, Douglass was cruelly beaten every day by the ‘slave breaker’ Edward Covey until he couldn’t take it anymore (People and Events, 2008). After beating up Covey and attempting to escape, Douglass was caught and sent back to Baltimore as a slave. However, in Baltimore, Douglass was able to gain the identification papers of a sailor friend of his and make a second, and this time successful, escape attempt on September 3, 1838 (McElrath, 2008).
He settled as a free man quickly in New Bedford, Massachusetts, changing his name to Douglass and establishing a household with his new wife, a free black woman from Baltimore named Anna Murray (Biography Resource Center, 2001). The couple eventually had five children together. Beginning in 1841, Douglass began speaking before abolitionist groups about his story and what he’d learned about slavery and its effects on the human mind. He began writing in 1845, producing Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave and touring the world on speaking engagements encouraged by William Lloyd Garrison and partly to escape threats of being reclaimed as a fugitive slave (McElrath, 2008). Finally assured of his freedom, Douglass returned to the United States in 1847 and moved his family to New York where he became the publisher for a weekly paper called North Star (McElrath, 2008). Throughout the Civil War, he spent his energies in recruiting black soldiers to fight for the Union Army and began speaking for women’s rights as well as black freedom. He was also the first black man to hold official position and title within the U.S. Government. “From 1877 to 1881, he was the U.S. Marshall of the District of Columbia, from 1881 to 1886 he served as the recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia and from 1889 to 1891 he was the minister to Haiti” (McElrath, 2008). In 1872 he was nominated to be vice-president of the United States on the Equal Rights Party Ticket, making him the first black man to appear in the presidential race (McElrath, 2008). Douglass died of heart failure at his home on February 20, 1895 having left behind him an amazing career of activism and a rare and valuable collection of impressions and understandings of slavery as seen through the eyes of a man who had experienced it directly in all its horrors and degradations. Everything he did continued to force white people to see the actions they were involved in that were keeping the black people from making any significant contributions, thus adding to the perception that they were only fit to be slaves.
Douglass’s biography highlights these ideas by illustrating with personal experience his struggles to overcome slavery and the elements that were in place to prevent him from doing so. Douglass sadly informs the reader that he is uncertain of his age or the day he was born and, although his mother died when he was seven years old, he was relatively unaffected by the news as he had been separated from her since infancy. “Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, I received the tidings of [my mother’s] death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger” (Ch. 1). The important element of these early chapters is the way in which the slave is created from birth, separated from his family to destroy any natural human feelings of attachment and support and cruelly treated to keep him always in fear. By the time he was seven, he had learned of the death of his mother, watched his aunt brutally whipped and had taken his own place at work in the fields. With no sense of love, togetherness or even survival support, Douglass illustrates the necessary descent into bestial thinking centered solely on surviving one more day. This included performing in degrading fashion toward the masters as a means of receiving the cast-off rewards of an extra crust of bread or the avoidance of a beating.
The move to Baltimore, to work as a slave for his master’s brother in the shipyards, is an eye-opening experience for the young slave as it is here that he first encounters a woman from the north, unfamiliar with the various subtle strategies that had been developed by the slave-owning southerners to keep their slaves in line. She treated this little boy with kindness, showed him a house of love and support even though it was necessarily restricted by his position and introduced him to the concepts of reading and writing. In Chapter 4, he details how Mrs. Auld taught him the alphabet and how to put together small words before being reprimanded by her husband for giving a slave the information he needed to cause a rebellion. “Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master” (Ch. 6). The close connection thus made by his master between education and freedom functioned like a key in a lock for the young boy as he realized this was one of the primary ways in which black people remained oppressed. The realization spurred him to continue learning how to read on his own and to pass this knowledge along to as many black people as he could get interested.
The remaining chapters of Douglass’s first book detail his return to the brutal forms of slavery of the south under first one, then another master who were particularly cruel. Although his ‘education’ in Baltimore had awakened his humanity and intellect, this enlightened state was recognized upon his return to Maryland and he was put under the ‘care’ of the slave breaker Covey. Covey’s brutal tactics worked on his body, mind and spirit to reduce Douglass back to the level of animal. “My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!” (Ch. 10). Within this chapter, Douglass illustrates for the uninformed white reader how it is the effects of this brutality on the mind and spirit rather than the body that is the source of the slaves’ enslavement. Only when he is finally pushed beyond the limits of endurance is he able to overcome the shackles of slavery in his mind and determine to be free. For the rest of his life, he worked diligently to bring freedom to his race, even playing a significant role in bringing about the Emancipation Proclamation from President Abraham Lincoln. “The Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect on January 1, 1863, was a decisive moment in the relationship of Douglass and Lincoln. Once having been issued, the slavery system was doomed. Douglass had persuaded Lincoln to make the pronouncement, and once having done so, the course of the war and the future of the nation were profoundly changed” (Frederick Douglass, 2010). Rather than a natural inclination towards laziness or a mental inability to process complicated information, the slaves’ condition is the result of the conditioning experienced throughout his lifetime without the benefit of education or training in something better.
At the time this book was published, Douglass’s writings served to break open the subject of slavery. His book functioned as a mental encouragement to other slaves to overcome the internal bonds that have been placed upon them through the institution and practice of slavery, as long as someone among them could read. Coupled with the speeches he gave throughout the north with the abolitionist movement, it also served to open the blind eyes of the north to the psychological conditioning that was occurring in the south to keep an entire race of people oppressed. He eloquently illustrates his intimate understanding of the various issues that must be overcome for a slave to become a ‘free man’, many of which have the propensity to continue even when there is no master standing over them and illustrates this difficulty for future readers who would otherwise have little conception of these issues. In expressing these ideas, he captures the danger of a mindset in limiting a person’s potential, regardless of race or gender. These are timeless concepts that continue to keep the minimum wage earner trapped within their own ignorance and misery and the female trapped within the timeless conception that a woman’s place is as homemaker and child-bearer. These may be only mental states, rather than physical as Douglass suggests freed slaves often experience, but they are very real. In telling his own story, Douglass incited the nation, black and white, to take a closer look at the true limitations of the black race and encouraged them to stand up and make a change for the better.
Biography Resource Center. (2001). Gale Group. Available May 23, 2010 from
Douglass, Frederick. (2001). Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Yale University Press.
“Frederick Douglass: American Abolitionist.” (2010). American Civil War. Available May 23, 2010 from
McElrath, Jessica. (September 30, 2008). “The Life of Frederick Douglass.” African-American History. About.com. Available May 23, 2010 from
“People and Events: Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895.” (2008). Africans in America. New York: Public Broadcasting Station (PBS). Available May 23, 2010 from