Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Chapter 10 Summary
The confrontation with Covey is one of the most famous parts of the book, and we're building toward that climax. From the moment Covey shows up, it's as if there were ominous music playing in the background, Darth Vader style. This is one really, really bad dude.
Get some popcorn. This is the longest chapter in the book, but it's also the most exciting one. It's even got a climactic fight scene.
First of all, things change immediately when Douglass arrives at Covey's plantation. For the first time in his life, Douglass is made into a field hand and has to do the kind of back-breaking physical labor that he's always managed to avoid in the past.
He isn't very good at his new job, so it isn't long before Covey finds an excuse to beat the living daylights out of him.
One day, Douglass is driving a cart and he loses control of the oxen. The cart overturns, breaking a wheel and injuring the animals.
At first, Covey doesn't seem to get that angry – it's almost as if he's not surprised. Maybe he gave Douglass a team of wild oxen on purpose? Maybe he wanted him to screw up?
In any case, when Douglass tells Covey what happened, Covey whips him until the sticks he's using break in his hands.
This is what "breaking" Douglass means. Douglass has been whipped before, but this whipping is only the beginning. Over the next six months, he is whipped at least once a week, so regularly that he doesn't have time to heal from his previous beating before he gets beaten again.
There isn't any point to the beating except to break his will and spirit. It doesn't make Douglass a better worker. On the contrary, working in the fields is hard, physical labor, and the fact that he's always healing from injuries probably makes him a less effective worker.
But Covey's entire life is built around punishing slaves for trying to shirk their work. Douglass says that Covey was always looking for an excuse to whip his slaves, and he always manages to find one. He's cunning enough to see through whatever tricks the slaves might try to pull, but he also likes to hide in the grass to catch workers taking breaks when they are supposed to be working. Douglass wants us to notice that because Covey is always watching his slaves and beating them for not working hard enough, he doesn't actually do any work himself!
Covey also forces the slave women he owns to have children with men who aren't their husbands. Douglass is shocked by this: having sex outside of marriage is adultery, and he expects his readers to be shocked by this too. But since Covey is a poor man, he's trying to build up a stock of slaves by breeding them, the way you would breed animals.
As the months pass, Douglass starts to break under the strain. When he first came to Covey's farm, he had been a little "unmanageable," as he puts it. But after months of constant work and beatings, his mind starts to weaken. Covey is "taming" him.
It's not a coincidence that Douglass is using words like "taming" to describe his state of mind: the purpose of "breaking" him is to make him more like a beast of burden than a human being. And it's working.
On Sundays, Douglass sits under a tree like a zombie instead of going to church. For Christian readers in the nineteenth century, this would be an especially big deal, since it was really important to go to church regularly. But this is just one example of the "beast-like stupor" Douglass is sinking into. By treating him like an animal, Covey is turning him into one.
As he sinks deeper and deeper, Douglass suddenly has an epiphany (a sudden moment of realization). One Sunday, he looks out at the sails on the Chesapeake Bay and suddenly bursts out with a big speech.
Partly he's angry at the sails for being free. The contrast between them is striking: while Douglass is a man transformed into an animal, the ships are free to go wherever they please.
Mostly, though, it's a striking passage because we suddenly hear Douglass's voice. Remember that moment in the preface when Douglass stands up at the abolitionist convention and everyone is shocked by his public speaking ability? He's pretty good here too.
He's passionate and angry, but he also sounds like he's giving a speech. There are a lot of rhetorical questions, for example, and a lot of little flourishes that just kind of sound like a formal speech. This is important because it shows that Douglass is still a human being.
Anyway, it's one of the most important passages in the book, and it's worth reading carefully. We also provide some thoughts in the "Quotes" section, but here's the gist:
A. Slavery is horrible.
B. Those sailing ships are free.
C. I want to be free too.
D. How can I become free?
He doesn't have an answer yet. But this moment in the book isn't about having a plan; it's about finally saying to himself that nothing matters but being free. Even if he isn't free now, he will simply hold on until he is, and he'll do everything he can to make it happen.
He's had the chance to try to run away before, but he never did. Now he decides that nothing else matters, and that he's not going to let any more opportunities pass him by. He vows that a better day is coming and that he will be strong until it arrives.
Now Douglass gives us signs that something is up, that something is about to change. We get one of the most famous lines in the book: "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man" (10.10).
Everything is about to change from this point on. After six months, Covey has pretty much succeeded in turning Douglass into an animal. But now, Douglass tells us, we're going to see how that animal turns back into a human being.
One day, the usual happens: Douglass screws up some farm work (he faints in the heat) and Covey gets angry and gets ready to pound him.
At first, Douglass simply lies on the ground. Covey tells him to get up, but Douglass is too weak, and after pounding on him for a few minutes, Covey leaves him there.
After a few minutes of rest, Douglass decides that he's being treated poorly and gets up. He has a plan: he'll go back to his old master and beg for his help.
This turns out to be a terrible plan. He walks the seven miles back to his old master, but, even though he's obviously being systematically beaten to death, his old master sides with Covey. He tells Douglass that he deserved to be beaten and praises Covey for being a good manager of slaves.
Douglass is exhausted, so his master lets him stay the night, since he couldn't possibly walk the seven miles all the way back to Covey's plantation. But early the next morning, he sends Douglass on his way.
Douglass suspects he's in for it when he gets back to Covey's farm, and he's right. As soon as he comes into sight, Covey comes dashing out with a whip in his hand. Douglass runs into the woods and hides. After searching for him for a while, Covey gives up and goes back the house to wait.
While Douglass is trying to decide what to do, he meets another slave named Sandy in the woods. After talking it over, Sandy gives him a special root and tells him that it will protect him if he wears it on his right side. Douglass isn't superstitious, but he decides to give it a shot. What the heck, he figures. It's not like he's got a better idea.
When Douglass gets back to the farm, at first it seems like the root is working. Covey is on his way to church and when he sees Douglass, he simply greets him and gives him a job to do without mentioning what happened the day before.
On Monday, though, things are different. While Douglass is in the barn saddling the horses, Covey sneaks up on him and manages to tie up his legs before Douglass notices.
Covey thinks he's won. But this time, Douglass does something he's never done before: he fights back! Douglass grabs Covey by the neck and Covey doesn't know what to do. Two of his white servants come when Covey calls, but neither wants to help him subdue Douglass. Covey is on his own.
Douglass and Covey fight it out for two hours. Eventually, Covey gives up and leaves. As he's going, Covey tells Douglass that if he hadn't resisted, he wouldn't have whipped him so badly. But Covey is just trying to save face. He didn't manage to whip Douglass at all!
This is another turning point for Douglass. He says it's like being raised from the dead: paradoxically, he comes back to life just when he decides he would rather die than be a slave. And it isn't just a moral victory: from that point on, Covey doesn't mess with him anymore.
At first Douglass doesn't understand why Covey doesn't simply take him to the local police. Eventually, he decides that Covey must be afraid for his reputation. If people knew that one of his slaves had fought him and won, he would lose the respect of his neighbors.
When Christmas comes, Douglass has a holiday. All the slaves get the six days between Christmas and New Year's day off from work, and Douglass says that if the slave masters ever took this vacation away, there would be a slave rebellion.
The masters encourage their slaves to spend their Christmas vacation drinking and partying. The idea is that the slaves will drink so much (and get so hung over) that they will be glad to see the holiday end. In other words, if the masters can make the slaves disgusted with their own freedom, they won't want to be free any more.
After his year at Covey's farm is over, Douglass gets hired out to a new master, Mr. Freeland. He's a much better master than Covey. Maybe the name "Freeland" is a clue?
What Douglass likes most about Mr. Freeland is that he doesn't pretend to be religious. There's nothing Douglass hates more than religious hypocrites like Covey. He goes on to tell us stories about some local slaveholders who make a lot of noise about being Christian but don't practice what they preach.
Since Freeland lets the slaves do whatever they want in their free time, Douglass sets up a little school and starts teaching other slaves to read. They mostly have to hide this from their masters, who would prefer that they spend their Sundays drinking or getting into trouble. Learning to read is strictly against the rules.
Douglass says Mr. Freeland was the best master he ever had until he became his own master. And even though he enjoys living with Mr. Freeland, he's starting to want to live "upon free land." He resolves to try to escape to freedom and gets together with a bunch of other slaves to figure out a way to do it.
Their biggest problem is their own ignorance. They don't know much about the north, and even less about Canada. And everywhere they look, they see Southerners on the lookout for escaped slaves.
There are a lot of dangers they can see, but there are just as many they can only imagine. Their biggest problem is getting up the courage to take a risk without even knowing what they're up against.
After a lot of talk, they come up with a plan: they decide to steal a canoe and row north as far as the rivers will take them, pretending to be fishermen.
Since Douglass can write, he writes a pass for each slave and signs it in the name of that slave's master. A pass is a note giving a slave permission to travel.
Douglass is the leader of his group, but he's worried the other slaves will lose their nerve. He spends all his time trying to keep everyone's spirits up.
When the day finally comes to depart, though, something is wrong. Each of the slaves involved in the plot is seized and tied up. One of the group must have confessed their plan to the masters. Douglass thinks he knows who it is, but he doesn't say who.
Douglass manages to throw his pass in the fire when no one is looking, and all the slaves refuse to admit they were trying to run away.
After a few weeks in jail, the masters all decide that Douglass was the cause of the mischief, and he is sent back to work for Mr. Auld.
He expects that Mt. Auld will sell him further down South as punishment, but for some reason he doesn't, and Douglass never learns why. Instead, he sends him to Baltimore, where Douglass is rented out to a ship-builder.
This is a lucky break: instead of being sent farther away from freedom, Baltimore is closer. And Douglass gets to learn the trade of ship-building while he's at it.
The work is hard, but Douglass doesn't mind too much. In fact, he likes that black and white workers work side by side on the docks.
Eventually, though, this tiny bit of equality gets him in trouble. The white carpenters start to resent having to work with black workers, and they start a fight.
When Douglass fought Covey, he made a vow that he would never let anyone beat him again. So when the white carpenters decide they want to throw down, Douglass is happy to oblige.
There are a whole bunch of opponents this time, however, and Douglass discovers that he's outmatched. After he gets kicked really hard in the eye, he begins to rethink his position and decides that perhaps running away from this fight would not technically be breaking his vow.
So he runs away.
For once, Douglass's master takes his side. When Douglass comes home with a ruptured eye, Master Hugh is enraged and goes to the shipyard to try to find the carpenters who beat Douglass up. However, no one will admit to having done or seen anything. So Hugh has Douglass start working at his own shipyard, as a caulker. (A caulker, in case you were wondering, is a person who makes a ship watertight. Aren't you glad you know?)
Douglass quickly becomes very good at his job –so good that Master Hugh starts renting him out to other shipbuilders for very high wages. It ticks Douglass off that when he gets home every week from working as a caulker on someone's ship, he has to give all his wages to his master, Mr. Hugh.