Frederick Douglass

Page Smith

[Excerpted from, The Nation Comes of Age, Volume Four of A People's History of the Ante-Bellum Years, published by McGraw-Hill, 1981, pp. 578-588]

Of the numerous ex-slaves who made effective public speakers, Frederick Douglass emerged as by far the most powerful and eloquent. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, that indefatigable champion of the rights of women, who began her public career as an abolitionist speaker and often shared a platform with him, wrote of one such occasion, "He stood there like an African prince, conscious of his dignity and power, grand in his proportions, majestic in his wrath, as with wit, satire, and indignation he portrayed the bitterness of slavery.

Undoubtedly Douglass was the most dramatic personal embodiment of the ex-slave. In his classic autobiography, he told of his childhood and youth as a slave who, as his master's son, enjoyed special privileges. With twenty or thirty other black children, Fred, as he was called, went to learn the Lord's Prayer from an old black preacher, Uncle Isaac Copper, who switched his charges when they were dilatory. "Everybody in the South," Douglass wrote, "seemed to want the privilege of whipping somebody else. Uncle Isaac, though a good old man, shared the common passion of his time and country.

"A man's character always takes its hue, more or less," Douglass wrote, reflecting upon the effects of slavery on Southern whites, "from the form and color of things about him. The slaveholder as well as the slave was the victim of the slave system. Under the whole heavens there could be no relation more unfavorable to the development of honorable character than that sustained by the slaveholder to the slave. Reason is imprisoned here, and passions run wild."

It was so with Douglass's master. "Even to my child's ye he wore a troubled and at times a haggard aspect. …He seldom walked alone without muttering to himself, and he occasionally storm d about as if defying an army of invisible foes. …He was evidently a wretched man at war with his own soul and all the world around him. I have seen my old master when in a tempest of wrath, and full of pride, hatred, jealousy and revenge, he seemed a very fiend."

The slaves on Frederick Douglass's plantation received "as their monthly allowance of food, eight pounds of pickled pork, or its equivalent in fish. The pork was often tainted and the fish were of the poorest quality." With this they got a bushel of unbolted Indian meal and a pint of salt; "this was the entire monthly allowance of a full-grown slave, working constantly in the open field from morning till night every day in the month except Sunday." The yearly allowance of clothing was equally meager -- two tow-linen shirts, on pair of linen trousers for summer and woolen trousers and a woo en jacket for winter, a pair of yarn stockings, and "a pair of shoes the coarsest description." Children under ten had two shirts per yea , no trousers, no shoes -- and when the shirts wore out they went naked.

The fare in the Great House was, by comparison, lavish beyond description. Beef, veal, mutton, venison, "chicken of all breeds, ducks of all kinds, wild and tame … guinea fowls, turkeys, geese, and peafowIs ... partridges, quails, pheasants, pigeons . . . rock perch, drums, crocus, trout, oysters, crabs and terrapin with every kind of vegetable and fruit -- figs, raisins, almonds, grapes from Spain, wine and brandies from France, teas of various flavors from China, and rich, aromatic coffee from Java, all conspiring to well the tide of high life, where pride and indolence lounged in magnificence and satiety."

As a child Douglass had a protectress in the daughter of his first master, Miss Lucretia Anthony, who gave him bread for singing and "sympathy when I was abused by the termagant in the kitchen," a black woman. The half-naked slave children were like a pack of animals. Their food was cornmeal mush, which was place in a large tray on the kitchen floor, "or out of doors on the ground, a id the children were called like so many pigs, and like so many pigs would come, some with oyster shells, some with pieces of shingles, but none with spoons, and literally devour the mush. He who could eat fastest got the most."

The days between Christmas and New Year's were the slaves' holiday. Frederick Douglass described how the time was spent on his plantation. "The sober, thinking industrious [slaves] would employ themselves in manufacturing corn-brooms, mats, horse-collars, and baskets, and some of these were very well made." They might be used or sold to provide a few dollars income. "Another class spent their time in hunting opossums, coons, rabbits, and other game. But the majority spent the holidays in sports, ball-playing, wrestling, boxing, running, foot races, dancing, and drinking whisky, and this latter mode was generally most agreeable to their masters. …Not to be drunk during the holidays was disgraceful. The fiddling, dancing, and 'jubilee beating' was carried on in all directions. …0nce in a while among a mass of nonsense and wild frolic, a sharp hit was given to the meanness of slaveholders:

We raise the wheat,
Dey gib us corn;
We bake de bread,
Dey give us de crust;
We Sift the meal,
Dey gib us de huss;
We peel de meat,
Dey gib us de skin;
And dat's de way
Dey takes us in;
We skim de pot,
Dey gib us de liquor,
And say dat's good enough for nigger."

"These holidays," Douglass added, "were … used as safety-valves to carry off the explosive elements inseparable from the human mind when reduced to the condition of slavery. But for these the rigors of bondage would have become too severe for endurance, and the slave would have been forced into a dangerous desperation."

Frederick Douglass tells us that to sing as he or she worked was virtually required of slaves: "A silent slave was not liked, either by masters or overseers. 'Make a noise there! Make a noise there!' …. were words usually addressed to slaves when they were silent. This and the natural disposition of the Negro to make a noise in the world, may account for the almost constant singing among them when at their work." But on "allowance days," days without work when the slaves collected their allowances of food and clothes, "they would make the grand old woods for miles around reverberate with their wild and plaintive notes," Douglass wrote. "They were indeed both merry and sad. Child as I was those wild songs greatly depressed my spirits. …I did not," he added, "when a slave, fully understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. …They breathed the prayer and complaint of souls overflowing with the bitterest sadness."

Miss Lucretia married Thomas Auld, and young Fred was sent to Baltimore to be a servant in the house of Thomas's brother Hugh, where he found another amiable mistress in "Miss Sophia -- kind gentle and cheerful" -- the wife of his new master. Sophia had never owned a slave and took an immediate liking to the bright, handsome young black boy. Deeply devout, Miss Sophia was "much given to reading the Bible and to chanting hymns of praise when alone." Hearing her read the Bible aloud awakened Fred's curiosity "in respect to this mystery of reading, and aroused in me a desire to learn." Douglass asked his mistress to teach him and she, in all innocence, undertook to do so. Soon he had mastered the alphabet and learned to read a few words and Sophia Auld, delighted at his quickness, boasted of him to her husband. "Master Hugh was astounded beyond measure and, probably for the first time, proceeded to unfold to his wife the true philosophy of the slave system. …" She was forbidden to give Douglass any further instruction. In the first place it was against the law. Beyond that it was "unsafe"' "if you give an nigger an inch he will take an ell. Learning to read will spoil the best nigger in the world. 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. …If you teach him how to read, he'll want to know how to write, and this accomplished, he'll be running away with himself."

Years later Douglass made a remarkable analysis of the subtle but profound change produced in the Auld household by Hugh Auld's edict. Her husband had, in effect, ordered her to treat the young black slave, for whom she had obviously come to feel an affection akin to that she felt for her son, as less than human -- as, in Douglass's words, "a chattel," a piece of property -- but "she felt me to be more than that. I could talk and sing; I could laugh and weep; I could reason and remember; I could love and hate. I was human, and she, dear lady, knew and felt me to be so."

In the struggle between her conscience and her duties as a wife, Mrs. Auld changed from a happy, loving mother to her own son and guide and protector of her black charge, to a repressed and sometimes cruel mistress. "Conscience cannot stand such violence," Douglass wrote. "If it be broken toward the slave on Sunday, it will be toward the master on Monday. It cannot long endure such shocks. It must stand unharmed, or it does not stand at all. As my condition in the family waxed bad, that of the family waxed no better." Mrs. Auld "finally became even more violent in her opposition to my learning to read than was Mr. Auld himself. Nothing now appeared to make her more angry than seeing me, seated in some nook or corner, quietly reading a book or newspaper. She would rush at me with the utmost fury, and snatch the book or paper from my hand."

But Douglass was not to be denied access to the alluring world that he had glimpsed in his initial efforts to read. He enlisted his young white playmates. He carried with him a copy of Webster's Spelling Book, "and when sent on errands, or when my playtime was allowed me, I would step aside with my young friends and take a lesson in spelling." With the money he made blacking boots, Douglass bought, for fifty cents, The Columbian Orator. In it was the story of a young slave who engages in a dialogue with his master on the evils of slavery and persuades him to set him free. It also contained "Sheridan's mighty speeches on the subject of Catholic Emancipation, Lord Chatham's speech on the American War, and speeches by the great William Pitt and by Fox. …I had now penetrated to the secret of slavery … and had ascertained their true foundation to be the pride, the power, and the avarice of man." And knowing, he became stubbornly resolved to be free whatever the cost. Mrs. Auld, of course, could not know his thoughts; she could only perceive that they grew daily further apart, and thus she grew harsher and more unhappy and blamed the young slave for her unhappiness and the changed nature of the life of the household, now tense and strained where it had been happy and open. In Douglass's words, "Poor lady ... she aimed to keep me ignorant and I resolved to know, although knowledge only increased my misery. . . . It was slavery, not its mere incidents that I hated. . . . She had changed, and the reader will see that I, too, had changed. We were both victims to the same Overshadowing evil, she as mistress, I as slave. I will not censure her harshly." The whole literature of slavery has not a wiser nor more penetrating analysis of the psychological effects of slavery on slaveholders themselves.

More and more Douglass heard the word "abolitionist" used with anger, always in connection with slavery. "This made the term a very interesting one to me. If a slave had made good his escape, it was generally alleged that he had been persuaded and assisted to do so by the abolitionist. If a slave killed his master, or struck down his Overseer, or set fire to his master's dwelling, or committed any violence or crime out of the common way, it was certain to be said that such a crime was the legitimate fruit of the abolition movement." Finally, in the Baltimore American Douglass found the key to the riddle. The American reprinted some of the petitions that John Quincy Adams had tried to submit to Congress and the young slave discovered that "I was not alone in abhorring the cruelty and brutality of slavery. …I saw that there was fear as well as rage in the manner of speaking of abolitionists, and from this I inferred that they must have some power in the country. . . . Thus the light of this grand movement broke upon my mind by degrees, and I must say that ignorant as I was of the philosophy of the movement, I believed in it from the first, and I believed in it, partly, because I saw that it alarmed the consciences of the slaveholders."

As early as his thirteenth year, Douglass recalled, he felt in his "loneliness and destitution" the longing for some one to whom I could go as father and protector. Hearing a white Methodist minister named Hanson preach "was the means," he wrote, "of causing me to feel that in God I had such a friend. He thought that all men, great and small, bond and free, were sinners in the sight of God; that they were by nature rebels against his government; and they must repent of their sins, and be reconciled to God through Christ."

Heretofore, as represented by the slaveholders, God had appeared to Douglass to confirm the slave system; now he had another vision of God's mercy and justice and underwent the classic experience of conversion. "I loved all mankind, slaveholders not excepted, though I abhorred slavery more than ever. I saw the world in a new light. …I gathered scattered pages of the Bible from filthy street-gutters, and washed and dried them, that in moments of leisure I might get a word or two of wisdom from them." A pious old black man named uncle Lawson became Douglass's "spiritual father." The old man told the young one "that the Lord had great work for me to do, and I must prepare to do it; that he had been shown that I must preach the gospel. …He fanned my already intense love of knowledge into a flame by assuring me that I was to be a useful man in the world. When I would say to him, "How can these things be? And what can I do? His simple reply was, "Trust in the Lord!" When I told him, 'I am a slave, and a slave for life, how can I do anything?' he would quietly answer, 'The Lord can make you free, my dear; all things are possible with Him; only have faith in God. "Ask, and it shall be given you." If you want liberty, ask the Lord for it in faith, and He will give it to you.'"

In 1833, Thomas Auld, who had inherited Douglass from Lucretia at her death, ordered him back from Baltimore and brought him to the home of his second wife, Rowena Hamilton, at St. Michaels on the Eastern Shore of Maryland -- "an unsaintly, as well as unsightly place," in Douglass's view. The Hamilton plantation was an abode of desolation where the most barbarous cruelties were inflicted for the slightest offenses. There, the proud and rebellious young Fred, who now had escape constantly on his mind, was in constant conflict with his master. Finally, he was farmed out to a man named Edward covey, "who enjoyed the reputation of being a first-rate hand at breaking young Negroes." A steady supply of slaves was sent to him by their masters to be made tractable. "Cold, distant, morose, with a face wearing all the marks of captious pride and malicious sternness … with a pair of smallish, greenish-gray eyes set well back … the creature presented an appearance altogether ferocious and sinister. …" Here Douglass, experiencing every day the most degrading punishments and hostility, came to despair of ever gaining his freedom. When he was too ill to stand and complained of a terrible headache, Covey, declaring, "If you have got the headache, I'll cure you," took a hickory slab and struck him so hard on the head blood flowed down Douglass's face.

When he had recovered his health, Douglass vowed to himself that, come what may, he would never again allow Covey to beat him. The next time the slave breaker came after him to administer a whipping, Douglass grappled with him. "The fighting madness had come upon me," he wrote, "and I found my strong fingers firmly attached to the throat of the tyrant, as heedless of consequences at the moment, as if we stood as equals before the law. The very color of the man was forgotten. I felt supple as a cat, and was ready for him at every turn. Every blow was parried, though I dealt no blows in return. I was strictly on the defensive, preventing him from injuring me, rather than trying to injure him. I flung him on the ground several times when he meant to have hurled me there. …He held me, and I held him. . . . My resistance was entirely unexpected and Covey was taken all aback by it. He trembled in every limb. 'Are you going to resist, you scoundrel?' said he. To which I returned a polite 'Yes, sir.'" The enraged Covey called to his cousin, Hughes, for help and when he tried to come to his assistance, Douglass kicked Hughes in the stomach and "sent him staggering away in pain." Now Covey was clearly frightened "and stood puffing and blowing, seemingly unable to command words or blows." So they struggled on, neither man willing to yield in a terrible contest of muscles and will. The minutes stretched into two hours and finally Covey loosened his grip on Douglass and said, "Now, you scoundrel, go to your work …"

For the remaining months that Douglass was hired out to Covey, the white man never touched him again. "This battle with Mr. Covey," Douglass wrote, "undignified as it was ... was the turning-point in my 'life as a slave.' It rekindled in my breast smoldering embers of liberty. I was nothing before -- I was a man now. It recalled to life my crushed self-respect, and my self-confidence, and inspired me with a new determination to be a free man. A man without force is without the essential dignity of humanity. Human nature is so constituted, that it cannot honor a helpless man, though it can pity him, and even this it cannot do long if signs of power do not arise. …I had reached the point at which I was not afraid to die. This spirit made me a freeman in fact, though I still remained a slave in form. When a slave cannot be flogged, he is more than half free. He has a domain as broad as his own manly heart to defend, and he is really 'a power on earth.'"

Slowly, under almost inconceivable disadvantages, Douglass's plans for escape took shape. He had now to be doubly on guard, for master developed a kind of sixth sense for a potential runaway. Many of the had "learned to read, with great accuracy, the state of mind and heart of the slave. …Unusual sobriety, apparent abstraction, sullenness, and indifference -- indeed any mood out of the common way --- afforded grounds for suspicion and inquiry." Douglass recruited five other slaves, all older than himself, though vigorous young men. Every Sunday night they met to consider the means of escape. As the leader, Douglass carried a heavy burden of responsibility. Maps were almost impossible to come by. "I knew something of theology," Douglas wrote, "but nothing of geography. I really did not know that there was a State of New York, or a State of Massachusetts. I had heard of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey, and all the southern states, but was utterly ignorant of the free states."

The scheme determined on at last was simple enough. The six men on the Saturday night before the Easter holiday were to steal one of the canoes, "launch out into the Chesapeake Bay and paddle with all our might for its head, a distance of seventy miles." Then they would be beyond Baltimore and they would travel north at night following the North Star. Douglass wrote each of them a pass and signed his master's name. But before they could leave, someone betrayed them, and their master, accompanied by constables, came down on them as they were working in the fields a few days before the day of flight. One of the slaves, ordered to cross his hands to be tied that he might be conducted to jail, refused, and in the fierce struggle that followed to subdue him Douglass and the others were able to destroy the passes which would have incriminated them. After jailing them for a week, their masters, unable to persuade any of them to confess, and lacking sufficient evidence, brought them back to St. Michaels. Douglass was separated from his friends and for a time feared he was to be "sold south" - to Georgia or Alabama -- the fate most dreaded by slaves in the upper South. But Thomas Auld decided to send him back to his brother Hugh's in Baltimore, to be apprenticed as a carpenter in the Baltimore shipyards.

Working in a Baltimore shipyard, "at the call of about seventy-five men," Douglass discovered a new dimension of American society -- the prejudice of white working men toward black men, slave or free. "Hullo, nigger! come turn this grindstone," ..." I say, darkey, blast your eyes! why don't you heat up some pitch?" Douglass learned the hard way "the conflict of slavery with the interests of white mechanics and laborers. . . . The slaveholders," he wrote, "with a craftiness peculiar to themselves, by encouraging the enmity of the poor laboring white against the blacks, succeeded in making the said white man almost as much a slave as the black man himself. The difference between the white slave and the black slave was this: the latter belonged to one slaveholder, while the former belonged to the slaveholders collectively. . . . Both were plundered, and by the same plunderers. The slave was robbed by his master of all his earnings, above what was required for his bare physical necessities, and the white laboring man was robbed by the slave system of the just results of his labor, because he was flung into competition with a class of laborers who worked without wages. The slaveholders blinded them to this competition by keeping alive their prejudices against the slaves as men-not against them as slaves." The slaveholders c6nveyed the impression "that slavery was the only power that could prevent the laboring white man from falling to the level of the slave s poverty and degradation. . . . The feeling was, about this time very bitter toward all colored people in Baltimore, and they -- free and slave -- suffered all manner of insult and wrong."

It was this spirit that made Douglass's work a grievous burden to him. His fellow apprentices "began ... to talk contemptuously and maliciously of 'the niggers,' saying that they would take the 'country,' and that they 'ought to be killed.'" When they struck him, Douglass, physically a match for any of them, struck back. Finally four of them set on him with bricks and staves and almost killed him Fifty white workers witnessed the assault on Douglass and "no one said, 'That is enough,' but some cried out, 'Kill him! kill him! kill he damned nigger! knock his brains out! he struck a white person.'"

Douglass's master, more angry at the damage to his property than at his slave's wounds and bruises, tried to have charges brought against the apprentices, but the constable told him that no white men would testify to the assault and that Douglass's own testimony was inadmissible since he was a slave.

Hereafter Douglass, having mastered the elements of caulking a ship's planks, worked more and more as an independent contractor, finding his own jobs and paying his wages to Hugh Auld. There were other young slaves and some free blacks working in the shipyards and throughout the city on the same basis, and a group of them formed the East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society to read and discuss books and to debate issues of the day. Although his situation in Baltimore was far better than it had been on the Hamilton plantation, the fact that Douglass found his own jobs and was paid for his skilled labor only increased his determination to be free. His escape was a comparatively simple matter. Every free slave in Baltimore was required to carry identification papers which had a description of the individual and which had to be renewed periodically. It was a common practice for slaves to borrow the papers of a free black whom they resembled, use the papers to make their way to freedom, and then mail them back to their owner. It was a great risk for a free black to lend his papers for such a purpose since the punishment was severe if the subterfuge was discovered, but many gladly took the chance.

Douglass borrowed the papers of a free black sailor whom he resembled only slightly and dressed himself in a sailor's costume. Thus attired, he waited until the train to Philadelphia was already pulling out of the station and then jumped aboard, trusting that the conductor would only give a cursory glance at his papers. On the train and on the ferry crossing the Susquehanna, Douglass saw three or four men he knew but they either failed to see him or simply kept their peace. Twenty-four hours later he was in New York, a free man.

What we call today the consciousness of the slave has been endlessly explored and speculated on by historians. The life of the slave, his or her daily activities, the character of plantation life in the various sections of the South, the habits and outlook of white Southerners are all "documented," as historians like to say, in almost overwhelming detail. Frederick Douglass's autobiography alone is a document of incomparable richness in what it tells us of the thoughts and emotions of a black man, who, if he was typical of his fellow slaves in certain essential matters, was clearly unusual if not unique in others.