Study Guide

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Slavery

By Frederick Douglass


William Lloyd Garrison

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.

Chapter 1
Frederick Douglass

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.

Chapter 2
Frederick Douglass

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.

Chapter 6
Frederick Douglass

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.

Chapter 7
Frederick Douglass

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.

Chapter 8
Frederick Douglass

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.

Chapter 10
Frederick Douglass

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.

Chapter 11
Frederick Douglass

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.