After apologizing for his ignorance, and reminding the audience that slavery was a poor school for the human intellect and heart, he proceeded to narrate some of the facts in his own history as a slave, and in the course of his speech gave utterance to many noble thoughts and thrilling reflections. (Preface.4)
Partly, Douglass is just being humble. He's giving a speech in front of a big audience, and he's never had much practice or training for that kind of thing. So he wants to remind his listeners not to judge him too harshly. At the same time, though, when Douglass calls slavery a "poor school for the human intellect and heart," he's reminding people that while slaves might often not seem to be as smart or as well-spoken as white people, this isn't their fault. Instead, it's the fault of the masters who enslaved them. After all, while Southerners would often claim that black people should be slaves because they were born inferior, Douglass thinks this is backwards: slaves aren't born inferior, but rather it's slavery that makes them inferior.
I look upon my departure from Colonel Lloyd's plantation as one of the most interesting events of my life. It is possible, and even quite probable, that but for the mere circumstance of being removed from that plantation to Baltimore, I should have to-day, instead of being here seated by my own table, in the enjoyment of freedom and the happiness of home, writing this Narrative, been confined in the galling chains of slavery. (5.11)
There are many reasons Douglass might still be a slave if he had never left Colonel Lloyd's plantation, but his comparison of the chains and the writing table shows one of the most important: it was only after he went to Baltimore that it became possible for him to expand his horizons and learn to read and write.
"Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now," said he, "if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy." These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty--to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man. (6.3)
Mr. Auld accidentally teaches Douglass why it's so important that slaves be kept illiterate. If a slave learned to read, he would no longer be satisfied to be a slave. In Mr. Auld's mind, of course, this would "ruin" him. Douglass learns an important lesson here about how the slave-masters keep their slaves from rebelling and running away. White men only have the power to enslave black people if they can keep them from getting educated.
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. Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read. The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. (6.3)
When Mr. Auld prevents Mrs. Auld from teaching Douglass how to read, he's disappointed that his education has been interrupted. But even though it becomes more difficult to learn to read after that, Douglass learns something even more important from the experience: the power of education. The fact that Mr. Auld doesn't want him to read shows him that there's something valuable there, and makes him want to learn to read even more.
The plan which I adopted, and the one by which I was most successful, was that of making friends of all the little white boys whom I met in the street. As many of these as I could, I converted into teachers. With their kindly aid, obtained at different times and in different places, I finally succeeded in learning to read. (7.4)
When Mrs. Auld stops teaching Douglass to read, he has to find other ways to learn his ABCs, and he eventually does it by making friends with street kids. There's a certain irony in this. Mrs. Auld started teaching him to read before her husband "taught" her that the right way to treat slaves was as animals. So it turns out that his best teachers will be not grownups but children: white kids who haven't yet "learned" the lesson that Mrs. Auld has.
The first step in her downward course was in her ceasing to instruct me. She now commenced to practise her husband's precepts. She finally became even more violent in her opposition than her husband himself. She was not satisfied with simply doing as well as he had commanded; she seemed anxious to do better. Nothing seemed to make her angrier than to see me with a newspaper. She seemed to think that here lay the danger. I have had her rush at me with a face made all up of fury, and snatch from me a newspaper, in a manner that fully revealed her apprehension. She was an apt woman; and a little experience soon demonstrated, to her satisfaction, that education and slavery were incompatible with each other. (7.2)
When Mrs. Auld stops teaching Douglass, he learns a valuable lesson: education and slavery are incompatible. For Mrs. Auld, the more she learns about slavery, the more fearful and angry she becomes.
In moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity. I have often wished myself a beast. I preferred the condition of the meanest reptile to my own. Any thing, no matter what, to get rid of thinking! It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me. (7.6)
Douglass works hard for his education, but knowledge comes at a cost. While his learning makes him unwilling to be a slave (which ultimately leads him to his freedom), it also makes his life even harder to endure while he still is a slave. Sometimes he envies the slaves who are uneducated enough to be happy with their lot. The fact that Douglass wants to improve himself makes it all the more painful not to be able to do so.
We used frequently to talk about the fight with Covey, and as often as we did so, he would claim my success as the result of the roots which he gave me. This superstition is very common among the more ignorant slaves. A slave seldom dies but that his death is attributed to trickery. (10.22)
When Douglass achieves his victory over Covey, he attributes it to his vow to no longer be a slave. But the other slaves cannot accept this explanation; they decide that the root Sandy gave him must have been magic. In other words, one of the reasons the other slaves can't follow Douglass's example and stand up for their freedom is that they're too ignorant. Since they don't have the education he has, they superstitiously attribute his success to magic.
These dear souls came not to Sabbath school because it was popular to do so, nor did I teach them because it was reputable to be thus engaged. Every moment they spent in that school, they were liable to be taken up, and given thirty-nine lashes. They came because they wished to learn. Their minds had been starved by their cruel masters. They had been shut up in mental darkness. I taught them, because it was the delight of my soul to be doing something that looked like bettering the condition of my race. (10.23)
When Douglass starts a little school to teach the other slaves how to read, he notices that they don't come because they expect to get anything tangible out of it. In fact, they put themselves in great danger by coming to his school. But they still come, and Douglass reflects that this is because education is something that all human beings desire, even (or especially) when they've never had it.
In about four months after I went to New Bedford, there came a young man to me, and inquired if I did not wish to take the "Liberator." I told him I did; but, just having made my escape from slavery, I remarked that I was unable to pay for it then. I, however, finally became a subscriber to it. The paper came, and I read it from week to week with such feelings as it would be quite idle for me to attempt to describe. The paper became my meat and my drink. My soul was set all on fire. Its sympathy for my brethren in bonds--its scathing denunciations of slaveholders--its faithful exposures of slavery--and its powerful attacks upon the upholders of the institution--sent a thrill of joy through my soul, such as I had never felt before! I had not long been a reader of the "Liberator," before I got a pretty correct idea of the principles, measures and spirit of the anti-slavery reform. I took right hold of the cause. (11.17)
Reading an anti-slavery newspaper doesn't just teach Douglass that slavery is wrong; after all, he doesn't need anyone to tell him how messed up it is. Instead, reading the abolitionist Liberator gives him a cause, an ambition to do more than simply improve himself. He joins the abolitionist movement and starts working to abolish slavery as an institution.
An American sailor, who was cast away on the shore of Africa, where he was kept in slavery for three years, was, at the expiration of that period, found to be imbruted and stultified--he had lost all reasoning power; and having forgotten his native language, could only utter some savage gibberish between Arabic and English, which nobody could understand, and which even he himself found difficulty in pronouncing. So much for the humanizing influence of THE DOMESTIC INSTITUTION! (preface.7)
Defenders of slavery liked to claim that Africans brought to America were better off, that life in Africa was primitive and savage. In the preface, William Lloyd Garrison tells a story that seems to reflect this kind of thinking, but with a twist. He tells about a white sailor who was enslaved in Africa and who, as a result, lost his ability to speak and became like an animal. Garrison is suggesting that the place or race don't matter; it's the condition of slavery that takes away a person's humanity.
The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege. (1.1)
Sometimes it takes the mind of a child to see something so obvious that we've forgotten how to look. When Douglass is a child, he is confused about why he isn't allowed to know his own age, and it shows us something really basic about slavery: it doesn't make sense.
Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness. I have frequently found myself in tears while hearing them. The mere recurrence to those songs, even now, afflicts me; and while I am writing these lines, an expression of feeling has already found its way down my cheek. To those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery. I can never get rid of that conception. Those songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery, and quicken my sympathies for my brethren in bonds. If any one wishes to be impressed with the soul-killing effects of slavery, let him go to Colonel Lloyd's plantation, and, on allowance-day, place himself in the deep pine woods, and there let him, in silence, analyze the sounds that shall pass through the chambers of his soul. (2.10)
Douglass talks a lot about the "dehumanizing" effect of slavery. Here, as elsewhere, he emphasizes that slavery works by making human beings into brutes, or beasts. Yet he also wants to convince us that if we were to hear slaves singing, we would be instantly convinced of their humanity, and therefore of the injustice of slavery. The songs are so powerful, in fact, that all it takes is thinking about them to make a tear roll down Douglass's cheek.
The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work. That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon. (6.2)
As the saying goes: "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Douglass is talking about Mrs. Auld's transformation when she first starts to own a slave (him) and how that kind of "irresponsible power" corrupts her. She hadn't been a bad person up to this point, but having complete control over another human being transforms her from an angel into a demon.
Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me. When I went there, she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which she had not a tear. She had bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and comfort for every mourner that came within her reach. Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness. (7.2)
When Douglass is talking about how slavery changed his master's wife, Mrs. Auld, notice that he describes her transformation the same way he describes how slaves are "brutalized." She starts out a human being, with warm feelings and emotions, and becomes almost like an animal. Where she used to have sympathy for any person that was suffering, being a slave master hardened her heart until she became as cruel as a tiger.
We were all ranked together at the valuation. Men and women, old and young, married and single, were ranked with horses, sheep, and swine. There were horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children, all holding the same rank in the scale of being, and were all subjected to the same narrow examination. Silvery-headed age and sprightly youth, maids and matrons, had to undergo the same indelicate inspection. At this moment, I saw more clearly than ever the brutalizing effects of slavery upon both slave and slaveholder. (8.2)
"Brutalize" is one of Douglass's favorite terms for describing slavery, because it has two slightly different meanings for him. The more common meaning is simple: to treat someone badly. But it also means to transform someone into a brute (or a beast), to take away their humanity. Slavery does both of these things, but the image of slaves being lined up like animals to be inspected and sold helps Douglass illustrate the second meaning.
The holidays are part and parcel of the gross fraud, wrong, and inhumanity of slavery. They are professedly a custom established by the benevolence of the slaveholders; but I undertake to say, it is the result of selfishness, and one of the grossest frauds committed upon the down-trodden slave. They do not give the slaves this time because they would not like to have their work during its continuance, but because they know it would be unsafe to deprive them of it. This will be seen by the fact, that the slaveholders like to have their slaves spend those days just in such a manner as to make them as glad of their ending as of their beginning. Their object seems to be, to disgust their slaves with freedom, by plunging them into the lowest depths of dissipation. For instance, the slaveholders not only like to see the slave drink of his own accord, but will adopt various plans to make him drunk. One plan is, to make bets on their slaves, as to who can drink the most whisky without getting drunk; and in this way they succeed in getting whole multitudes to drink to excess. Thus, when the slave asks for virtuous freedom, the cunning slaveholder, knowing his ignorance, cheats him with a dose of vicious dissipation, artfully labeled with the name of liberty. The most of us used to drink it down, and the result was just what might be supposed; many of us were led to think that there was little to choose between liberty and slavery. We felt, and very properly too, that we had almost as well be slaves to man as to rum. So, when the holidays ended, we staggered up from the filth of our wallowing, took a long breath, and marched to the field,--feeling, upon the whole, rather glad to go, from what our master had deceived us into a belief was freedom, back to the arms of slavery. (10.17)
The slave masters gave their slaves a holiday at the end of the year as a way of appeasing them. By getting the slaves to spend their brief period of freedom drinking and acting like animals, they could trick the slaves into thinking their only options were to be a slave to alcohol or to human masters. Though he might be right about the masters' motivations, Douglass also sounds like he's picked up some religion from the abolitionist crowd he's running with: it was common in the mid-nineteenth century for really serious Christians to say that alcohol made drunkards into "slaves."
I was now getting, as I have said, one dollar and fifty cents per day. I contracted for it; I earned it; it was paid to me; it was rightfully my own; yet, upon each returning Saturday night, I was compelled to deliver every cent of that money to Master Hugh. And why? Not because he earned it,--not because he had any hand in earning it,--not because I owed it to him,--nor because he possessed the slightest shadow of a right to it; but solely because he had the power to compel me to give it up. The right of the grim-visaged pirate upon the high seas is exactly the same. (10.46)
Douglass wants to show us that slavery is no different than theft. There usually isn't money involved, so it isn't obvious that the master is taking something by force. But in this case, when one master pays Douglass wages and another takes them away, we can see much more visibly the fact that property is involved. When the money that Douglass has earned by his own hard work is taken from him, he can compare it to a pirate ship stealing by force on the high seas.
I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of this discipline tamed me. Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. 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! (10.5)
By using words like "tamed," Douglass shows us that being "broken" doesn't simply involve physical violence: Covey transforms Douglass from a human into an animal by breaking his spirit. All of the defining characteristics of a human being get pounded out of Douglass by force until he starts to act as mindlessly and thoughtlessly as a beast in the fields.
This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification afforded by the triumph was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me. (10.12)
There are several turning points on Douglass's road from slavery to freedom, but this is probably the most important. When he stands up to Covey, he feels as if he's been raised from the dead. This is the moment when he resolves that even though he's still a slave in the legal sense, he'll never again be a slave in his mind.
I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man. (10.45)
Douglass puts a lot of emphasis on the fact that slaves have to be tricked into accepting their enslavement. Since no person in his right mind would ever accept such a condition, there is only one thing for the masters to do: destroy the slaves' minds.
I could see no reason why I should, at the end of each week, pour the reward of my toil into the purse of my master. When I carried to him my weekly wages, he would, after counting the money, look me in the face with a robber-like fierceness, and ask, "Is this all?" He was satisfied with nothing less than the last cent. He would, however, when I made him six dollars, sometimes give me six cents, to encourage me. It had the opposite effect. I regarded it as a sort of admission of my right to the whole. The fact that he gave me any part of my wages was proof, to my mind, that he believed me entitled to the whole of them. (11.3)
When his master takes away the wages Douglass earns, he sometimes gives him a small part of it back. But Douglass is far from grateful; in fact, this makes him even more sure that he deserves to have all of it back. Douglass also wants to show us the impossibility of being a good slave owner: small favors only make the larger injustices sting even more.
As soon as he had taken his seat, filled with hope and admiration, I rose, and declared that PATRICK HENRY, of revolutionary fame, never made a speech more eloquent in the cause of liberty, than the one we had just listened to from the lips of that hunted fugitive. So I believed at that time--such is my belief now. I reminded the audience of the peril which surrounded this self-emancipated young man at the North,--even in Massachusetts, on the soil of the Pilgrim Fathers, among the descendants of revolutionary sires; and I appealed to them, whether they would ever allow him to be carried back into slavery,--law or no law, constitution or no constitution. (Preface.4)
Garrison is talking about a speech Douglass gave to an audience of abolitionists in the North, some time after he was free. So when he compares Douglass to Patrick Henry, he wants to remind the audience that Douglass didn't just get his freedom, he had to fight for it. (Patrick Henry, remember, is famous for saying "Give me liberty or give me death.")
But there's more to it than that. When he starts talking about "the peril which surrounded this self-emancipated young man at the North," he wants to remind us that the danger isn't over for Douglass. Even in the North, where he was free, Douglass could still be kidnapped by his former owners and taken back to the South to be a slave again. For Garrison, the fact that Douglass can't be safe even there in Massachusetts, where the Pilgrims landed and the Revolutionary War began, shows that slavery needs to abolished everywhere.
They say the fathers, in 1776, signed the Declaration of Independence with the halter about their necks. You, too, publish your declaration of freedom with danger compassing you around. In all the broad lands which the Constitution of the United States overshadows, there is no single spot,--however narrow or desolate,--where a fugitive slave can plant himself and say, "I am safe." (letter.7)
In his letter to Douglass, Wendell Phillips reminds us that even once he was free, Douglass ran a big risk in writing his story: at any time, he could be kidnapped and taken back down South and enslaved. And even though Phillips compares Douglass to the founding fathers (and he compares Douglass's book to the Declaration of Independence), he points out that the American freedom that the Declaration asserted doesn't do much good for a slave like Douglass.
"No Compromise With Slavery! No Union With Slaveholders!" (Preface.13)
William Garrison's preface to Douglass's book ends with this slogan. Though he is trying to stir people up, it's more than just a call to arms. Abolitionists in those days agreed that slavery was a bad thing, but they didn't always agree on what should be done about it. And while Douglass was always interested in the promise of the United States, the land of the free, Garrison was a radical abolitionist who believed that it was better to break away from the United States than share in the sin of slavery. So when he says that there should be "No Union With Slaveholders," he's saying it would be better for the northern states to secede rather than to remain part of a "union" with slave states. Not all abolitionists agreed with this, but Garrison was convinced that it was a sin to compromise with slavery at all.
What Douglass thinks is harder to say; Garrison was his friend and mentor when he wrote the Narrative, but they would have a falling out over the issue in later years. Ironically, it would be the slave states that seceded from the union, which is why Abraham Lincoln fought the Civil War, to defend the union – and why the northern troops were called the "Union" army. But in the 1840s, it was the reverse: only radical abolitionists like Garrison talked about secession.
A representative could not be prouder of his election to a seat in the American Congress than a slave on one of the out-farms would be of his election to do errands at the Great House Farm. (2.7)
Being selected to work in the Great House Farm instead of the fields was seen to be a great honor for a slave, but Douglass is being ironic here. After all, even a slave in the Great House is still a slave. And even though America is a country where almost anyone could grow up to be president, the highest honor a slave could ever hope to attain is to be a servant in a slightly nicer part of the plantation.
In coming to a fixed determination to run away, we did more than Patrick Henry, when he resolved upon liberty or death. With us it was a doubtful liberty at most, and almost certain death if we failed. For my part, I should prefer death to hopeless bondage. (10.26)
Remember Patrick Henry? He was famous for saying "Give me liberty or give me death" during the Revolutionary War. In the preface, Garrison already compared Douglass to Patrick Henry, but when Douglass brings up the reference he's saying that he and his slave friends are even braver than one of the fathers of the country.
Such will try to discredit the shocking tales of slaveholding cruelty which are recorded in this truthful Narrative; but they will labor in vain. Mr. Douglass has frankly disclosed the place of his birth, the names of those who claimed ownership in his body and soul, and the names also of those who committed the crimes which he has alleged against them. His statements, therefore, may easily be disproved, if they are untrue. (Preface. 10)
William Lloyd Garrison knows that Douglass's enemies will try to claim that Douglass's narrative wasn't true. (And they did.) Pro-slavery debaters would try to deny or downplay the horrors of slavery, so Garrison understood that all Douglass really had to do was tell the truth. By encouraging Douglass's opponents to try to disprove him, he showed that he and Douglass had nothing to fear from the truth.
You remember the old fable of 'The Man and the Lion,' where the lion complained that he should not be so misrepresented 'when the lions wrote history.' I am glad the time has come when the 'lions write history.' (Letter.1-2)
Phillips is reminding his audience of an old fable about a lion who complains that when humans write stories, they always make the lion into the villain. His point is simple: since history books are always written by the winners, the only people who had ever written books about slavery were white people – mostly white southerners who owned slaves. Douglass's book is significant because it's one of the most important examples of a black slave writing about his own experience of slavery.
After all, I shall read your book with trembling for you. Some years ago, when you were beginning to tell me your real name and birthplace, you may remember I stopped you, and preferred to remain ignorant of all. With the exception of a vague description, so I continued, till the other day, when you read me your memoirs. I hardly knew, at the time, whether to thank you or not for the sight of them, when I reflected that it was still dangerous, in Massachusetts, for honest men to tell their names! (Letter.7)
Wendell Phillips wants to remind us that Douglass's decision to tell the truth about his experience (and to publish under his own name) is a very courageous one. Even for freed slaves, telling the truth about their lives was dangerous precisely because it was so powerful. Not only would Douglass's enemies try to find him and kidnap him back into slavery, but identifying himself in print made it easier for them to do it.
Again, we have known you long, and can put the most entire confidence in your truth, candor, and sincerity. Every one who has heard you speak has felt, and, I am confident, every one who reads your book will feel, persuaded that you give them a fair specimen of the whole truth. (Letter.5)
Wendell Phillips makes the case that we should trust Douglass's story because of his character. If we know him to be a trustworthy person, he suggests, his book can be treated as true. But part of how we know that a person is trustworthy is our experience of the person himself: Douglass's audience can tell just from listening to him that he must be telling the truth.
This is the penalty of telling the truth, of telling the simple truth, in answer to a series of plain questions. (3.5)
Douglass is telling the story of a slave who made the mistake of telling his master (whom he didn't recognize) the truth about his poor treatment. The slave was severely punished, showing that slave owners aren't interested in the truth. Instead of admitting that slavery is an oppressive system, the slave masters require that their slaves flatter them. This is probably related to the ways slave owners treat religion, using their version of Christianity to make themselves feel better, rather than facing the truth about slavery.
The slaveholders have been known to send in spies among their slaves, to ascertain their views and feelings in regard to their condition. The frequency of this has had the effect to establish among the slaves the maxim, that a still tongue makes a wise head. They suppress the truth rather than take the consequences of telling it, and in so doing prove themselves a part of the human family. (3.6)
Because slaves can be punished for telling the truth when it isn't what their masters want to hear, they learn to keep quiet, lying if they have to. It's the slave master's inhumanity that forces the slave to lie; Douglass emphasizes that the slaves are only doing what is natural for normal people: staying out of trouble.
Mr. Gore acted fully up to the maxim laid down by slaveholders, -- "It is better that a dozen slaves should suffer under the lash, than that the overseer should be convicted, in the presence of the slaves, of having been at fault." No matter how innocent a slave might be -- it availed him nothing, when accused by Mr. Gore of any misdemeanor. To be accused was to be convicted, and to be convicted was to be punished; the one always following the other with immutable certainty. (4.2)
As Mr. Gore's conduct demonstrates, the rule for slaves is simple: the slave is always wrong and the master is always right. Douglass is showing us that slavery doesn't operate according to any principles of justice or fairness but is, instead, simply about power.
I may be deemed superstitious, and even egotistical, in regarding this event as a special interposition of divine Providence in my favor. But I should be false to the earliest sentiments of my soul, if I suppressed the opinion. I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence. From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace; and in the darkest hours of my career in slavery, this living word of faith and spirit of hope departed not from me, but remained like ministering angels to cheer me through the gloom. This good spirit was from God, and to him I offer thanksgiving and praise." (5.12)
Douglass has a high opinion of himself, and he knows that if he tells us that he always believed it was his destiny to be free, we might think he's a little arrogant or even crazy. But he tells us anyway, which shows us something important about him: he believes in the saying "To thine own self be true." And maybe he's right!
Just about this time, I got hold of a book entitled "The Columbian Orator." Every opportunity I got, I used to read this book. Among much of other interesting matter, I found in it a dialogue between a master and his slave. The slave was represented as having run away from his master three times. The dialogue represented the conversation which took place between them, when the slave was retaken the third time. In this dialogue, the whole argument in behalf of slavery was brought forward by the master, all of which was disposed of by the slave. The slave was made to say some very smart as well as impressive things in reply to his master--things which had the desired though unexpected effect; for the conversation resulted in the voluntary emancipation of the slave on the part of the master. . . . The moral which I gained from the dialogue was the power of truth over the conscience of even a slaveholder. (7.5)
What Douglass learns from this book is that, when it's given a chance to be heard, the truth will always win out. When the slave and the slave owner argue over whether slavery is justified, the slave has already won: if he's allowed to speak, he can tell the truth about slavery, and no argument can refute that. This helps us understand why Douglass associates slavery so closely with deception: the only way slave owners can defend slavery is by lying about it.
The holidays are part and parcel of the gross fraud, wrong, and inhumanity of slavery. They are professedly a custom established by the benevolence of the slaveholders; but I undertake to say, it is the result of selfishness, and one of the grossest frauds committed upon the down-trodden slave. They do not give the slaves this time because they would not like to have their work during its continuance, but because they know it would be unsafe to deprive them of it. This will be seen by the fact, that the slaveholders like to have their slaves spend those days just in such a manner as to make them as glad of their ending as of their beginning. Their object seems to be, to disgust their slaves with freedom, by plunging them into the lowest depths of dissipation. (10.17)
Douglass wants to show that the slave masters don't maintain their iron grip on their slaves by force alone. An important way they keep power is by deceiving their slaves into not understanding what slavery is. When they give their slaves a taste of freedom at Christmas, they trick them into getting drunk and degrading themselves, so that afterwards (when they're hung over) they associate those bad feelings with freedom and decide they don't want to be free at all. Slavery, in other words, depends on deception.
I remained firm, and, according to my resolution, on the third day of September, 1838, I left my chains, and succeeded in reaching New York without the slightest interruption of any kind. How I did so,--what means I adopted,--what direction I travelled, and by what mode of conveyance,--I must leave unexplained, for the reasons before mentioned. (11.5)
When Douglass escapes, he is still bound to a certain kind of secrecy. If he tells the truth about what happened and how he escaped, it could get the friends who helped him into trouble.
It was a most terrible spectacle. I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it. (1.8)
Notice how flat and unemotional Douglass's language is. He even admits that his language can't quite capture his experience. When he tries to describe his emotions on watching his Aunt Hester stripped naked and whipped mercilessly, he fails: no words he is capable of writing down can quite get the point across.
I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. At least, such is my experience. I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness. Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery. The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion. (2.9)
It was common for people who argued in favor of slavery to say that slaves were happy, pointing to the fact that slaves would often sing while they worked. But Douglass says that this is completely backward: slaves don't sing because they're happy, they sing because they're sad. The songs Douglass is talking about, by the way, are called "sorrow songs," out of which evolved the blues.
Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, I received the tidings of her death with the much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger. (1.4)
Is there any bond stronger than the one between mother and child? But Douglass barely spends any time with his mother; in fact, he tells us that he never saw her in the daylight. His mother is such a stranger that he doesn't feel any great loss when she dies. Douglass wants us to see that slavery doesn't just take people away from their families; it prevents them from even having families in the first place.
The frequency of this has had the effect to establish among the slaves the maxim, that a still tongue makes a wise head. They suppress the truth rather than take the consequences of telling it, and in so doing prove themselves a part of the human family. (3.6)
In telling us that slaves often had to lie in order to protect themselves, Douglass might seem to be criticizing those who lacked his courage to stand up for what was right, no matter what the consequences. But he wants to assure us that this doesn't make these slaves any less part of the human family; in fact, it is exactly this urge for self-preservation that makes them a part of the human family.
He was immediately chained and handcuffed; and thus, without a moment's warning, he was snatched away, and forever sundered, from his family and friends, by a hand more unrelenting than death. (3.5)
The greatest fear of slaves was not death, but separation from their families. It could happen in an instant, with no warning, and for no reason. Douglass is saying that when a slave's master decides to send him somewhere else, it's just as impossible to do anything about it as death itself.
The ties that ordinarily bind children to their homes were all suspended in my case. I found no severe trial in my departure. My home was charmless; it was not home to me; on parting from it, I could not feel that I was leaving any thing which I could have enjoyed by staying. My mother was dead, my grandmother lived far off, so that I seldom saw her. I had two sisters and one brother, that lived in the same house with me; but the early separation of us from our mother had well nigh blotted the fact of our relationship from our memories. I looked for home elsewhere, and was confident of finding none which I should relish less than the one which I was leaving. If, however, I found in my new home hardship, hunger, whipping, and nakedness, I had the consolation that I should not have escaped any one of them by staying. (5.6)
Just as he feels emotionless when his mother dies, Douglass doesn't really mind being sent away from the only home he has ever known. After all, it was never really a home for him anyway, so he determines to look for a real home somewhere else. In a way, Douglass might be provoking us to think about what a home really is; perhaps it's more than just the place where we live.
I lived in Master Hugh's family about seven years. (7.1)
Even though Douglass lives as a part of Master Hugh's family, he is in it without being of it. Slaves are inside the household without fully being family members.
The warm defender of the sacredness of the family relation is the same that scatters whole families,--sundering husbands and wives, parents and children, sisters and brothers,--leaving the hut vacant, and the hearth desolate. (Appendix.1)
In the appendix, Douglass shows his rage at religious hypocrites who preach one thing then do the complete opposite. His main example is all the religious people who preach sermons about the importance of family, then rip apart the families of the slaves they own.
The plan which I adopted, and the one by which I was most successful, was that of making friends of all the little white boys whom I met in the street. As many of these as I could, I converted into teachers. With their kindly aid, obtained at different times and in different places, I finally succeeded in learning to read. (7.4)
Douglass has to employ a lot of little tricks to learn how to read, but one of them isn't a trick at all. He discovers that while almost every white adult is his enemy, he can make friends with white children. They don't treat him differently because of his skin color, and they'll gladly share their education with him.
When we got about half way to St. Michael's, while the constables having us in charge were looking ahead, Henry inquired of me what he should do with his pass. I told him to eat it with his biscuit, and own nothing; and we passed the word around, "Own nothing;" and "Own nothing!" said we all. Our confidence in each other was unshaken. We were resolved to succeed or fail together, after the calamity had befallen us as much as before. We were now prepared for any thing. (10.36)
When Douglass and his friends first try to escape, Douglass uses his ability to write to forge passes for everyone. But when they are caught, these passes turn into a liability, and they have to destroy them. The only thing that keeps them safe is their confidence in each other and the power of their friendship. Because they can trust each other, they know that no one will give away the plot.
Let him be a fugitive slave in a strange land--a land given up to be the hunting-ground for slaveholders--whose inhabitants are legalized kidnappers--where he is every moment subjected to the terrible liability of being seized upon by his fellowmen, as the hideous crocodile seizes upon his prey!--I say, let him place himself in my situation--without home or friends--without money or credit--wanting shelter, and no one to give it--wanting bread, and no money to buy it,--and at the same time let him feel that he is pursued by merciless men-hunters, and in total darkness as to what to do, where to go, or where to stay,--perfectly helpless both as to the means of defence and means of escape,--in the midst of plenty, yet suffering the terrible gnawings of hunger,--in the midst of houses, yet having no home,--among fellow-men, yet feeling as if in the midst of wild beasts, whose greediness to swallow up the trembling and half-famished fugitive is only equalled by that with which the monsters of the deep swallow up the helpless fish upon which they subsist,--I say, let him be placed in this most trying situation,--the situation in which I was placed,--then, and not till then, will he fully appreciate the hardships of, and know how to sympathize with, the toil-worn and whip-scarred fugitive slave. (11.6)
Note all the animal metaphors Douglass uses. He's suggesting that because slaves can't trust anyone else – even after they've escaped to freedom – it's like living in a jungle, at the mercy of wild animals.
It is impossible for me to describe my feelings as the time of my contemplated start drew near. I had a number of warmhearted friends in Baltimore,--friends that I loved almost as I did my life,--and the thought of being separated from them forever was painful beyond expression. It is my opinion that thousands would escape from slavery, who now remain, but for the strong cords of affection that bind them to their friends. The thought of leaving my friends was decidedly the most painful thought with which I had to contend. (11.5)
One of the hardest things about becoming free is that Douglass has to leave his friends behind. Compare this to when he has to leave his family to go to Baltimore. Since he barely even knew them, the separation was pretty easy. But leaving his friends behind is one of the scariest thing he does in his life. He thinks a lot more slaves would try to escape if it didn't mean leaving all their friends behind.
I have been frequently asked how I felt when I found myself in a free State. I have never been able to answer the question with any satisfaction to myself. It was a moment of the highest excitement I ever experienced. I suppose I felt as one may imagine the unarmed mariner to feel when he is rescued by a friendly man-of-war from the pursuit of a pirate. In writing to a dear friend, immediately after my arrival at New York, I said I felt like one who had escaped a den of hungry lions. This state of mind, however, very soon subsided; and I was again seized with a feeling of great insecurity and loneliness. I was yet liable to be taken back, and subjected to all the tortures of slavery. This in itself was enough to damp the ardor of my enthusiasm. But the loneliness overcame me. There I was in the midst of thousands, and yet a perfect stranger; without home and without friends, in the midst of thousands of my own brethren--children of a common Father, and yet I dared not to unfold to any one of them my sad condition. I was afraid to speak to any one for fear of speaking to the wrong one, and thereby falling into the hands of money-loving kidnappers, whose business it was to lie in wait for the panting fugitive, as the ferocious beasts of the forest lie in wait for their prey. The motto which I adopted when I started from slavery was this--"Trust no man!" (11.6)
Even when Douglass escapes to freedom in the North, he can't rest easy. At any minute he might be stolen away back to the South and made a slave again, and he knows that anyone around him could be plotting to do it. As a result, he finds it very difficult to make new friends, and one of his worst problems is loneliness. Since anyone he meets could potentially betray him into slavery, he can't trust anyone he doesn't already know. The only way to stay safe is to be alone.
Sunday was my only leisure time. I spent this in a sort of beast-like stupor, between sleep and wake, under some large tree. At times I would rise up, a flash of energetic freedom would dart through my soul, accompanied with a faint beam of hope, that flickered for a moment, and then vanished. I sank down again, mourning over my wretched condition. I was sometimes prompted to take my life, and that of Covey, but was prevented by a combination of hope and fear. My sufferings on this plantation seem now like a dream rather than a stern reality. (10.6)
It's a small thing, but Douglass is talking about what a beast he's become and what an animal Covey has turned him into on Sunday. Southerners often defended slavery by talking about how they were bringing Christianity to slaves, but Douglass (who is a dedicated Christian) wants to show that the opposite is true.
You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip! You are freedom's swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron! O that I were free! O, that I were on one of your gallant decks, and under your protecting wing! Alas! betwixt me and you, the turbid waters roll. Go on, go on. O that I could also go! Could I but swim! If I could fly! O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute! The glad ship is gone; she hides in the dim distance. I am left in the hottest hell of unending slavery. O God, save me! God, deliver me! Let me be free! Is there any God? Why am I a slave? I will run away. I will not stand it. Get caught, or get clear, I'll try it. I had as well die with ague as the fever. I have only one life to lose. I had as well be killed running as die standing. (10.8)
This is one of the most famous passages in the book. There is a lot going on here, but one of the most important is that it's Douglass's crisis of faith, where he demands to know how God can exist if He allows Douglass to be a slave. But instead of turning against God, Douglass turns the problem around: since there is a God, he reasons, God will help him become free. From this point on, Douglass is sure that it's only a matter of time until he gains his freedom.
I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes,--a justifier of the most appalling barbarity,--a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds,--and a dark shelter under, which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection. Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others. (10.19)
Truth: Douglass got in some trouble for attacking the hypocrisy of Christians in the South, but he never backed away from that attack. Since his friends in the abolitionist movement were Christians, too, some of them thought he was attacking them instead of religious imposters. This passage tries to clarify the issue, explaining that his harsh criticism was not of all religion, but only for slave owners who pretended to be Christians, since it was impossible to be a true Christian and also own slaves. (In fact, he wrote the entire appendix just to explain that he was against hypocrites, not religion itself.)
He seemed to think himself equal to deceiving the Almighty. He would make a short prayer in the morning, and a long prayer at night; and, strange as it may seem, few men would at times appear more devotional than he. The exercises of his family devotions were always commenced with singing; and, as he was a very poor singer himself, the duty of raising the hymn generally came upon me. He would read his hymn, and nod at me to commence. I would at times do so; at others, I would not. My non-compliance would almost always produce much confusion. To show himself independent of me, he would start and stagger through with his hymn in the most discordant manner. In this state of mind, he prayed with more than ordinary spirit. Poor man! such was his disposition, and success at deceiving, I do verily believe that he sometimes deceived himself into the solemn belief, that he was a sincere worshipper of the most high God" (10.4)
Douglass has no time for slave owners who think they are Christians, and Mr. Covey (whom Douglass is talking about here) is a good example. Even though he seems like one of the most devoted Christians around, it's all an act. But here's the thing: even Covey is fooled! He isn't just a hypocrite, he actually thinks he is a Christian. And so, when Douglass doesn't want to pray with a man who believes owning slaves is a righteous thing to do, Covey is completely confused.
I find, since reading over the foregoing Narrative, that I have, in several instances, spoken in such a tone and manner, respecting religion, as may possibly lead those unacquainted with my religious views to suppose me an opponent of all religion. To remove the liability of such misapprehension, I deem it proper to append the following brief explanation. What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference--so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. (Appendix.1)
Douglass wants to be completely clear that he isn't against religion or Christianity in general: he's just against the kind of religion that justifies slavery. In fact, he also doesn't believe that "the slaveholding religion" is a religion at all.
Dark and terrible as is this picture, I hold it to be strictly true of the overwhelming mass of professed Christians in America. They strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. (Appendix.4)
One of the ways Douglass shows himself to be a true Christian (while slaveholders are not) is by quoting the Bible. The part about the gnat and camel comes from Matthew 23:24, where Jesus is rebuking the Pharisees for their hypocrisy.
I held my Sabbath school at the house of a free colored man, whose name I deem it imprudent to mention; for should it be known, it might embarrass him greatly, though the crime of holding the school was committed ten years ago. I had at one time over forty scholars, and those of the right sort, ardently desiring to learn. They were of all ages, though mostly men and women. I look back to those Sundays with an amount of pleasure not to be expressed. They were great days to my soul. The work of instructing my dear fellow-slaves was the sweetest engagement with which I was ever blessed. We loved each other, and to leave them at the close of the Sabbath was a severe cross indeed. When I think that these precious souls are to-day shut up in the prison-house of slavery, my feelings overcome me, and I am almost ready to ask, 'Does a righteous God govern the universe? and for what does he hold the thunders in his right hand, if not to smite the oppressor, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the spoiler?' (10.23)
Douglass ends by questioning how a righteous God (a God who does the right things) can really rule the universe, since He allows terrible things like slavery to exist. Yet he still continues to teach the other slaves to read (and to read the Bible). Perhaps Douglass's sense of right and wrong isn't simply limited to his belief in God?