Study Guide

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Summary

By Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Summary

Douglass's Narrative is like a highway map, showing us the road from slavery to freedom. At the beginning of the book, Douglass is a slave in both body and mind. When the book ends, he gets both his legal freedom and frees his mind. And if the book is like a highway map, then the mile markers are a series of "epiphanies," or moments of realization, that he has along the way. These events are turning points in Douglass's life, but they also help show how he got there, and what he had to learn along the way.

The first epiphany is Douglass's realization about what slavery is. He's born a slave on Colonel Lloyd's plantation, but as a child he's mostly spared the worst kinds of suffering. He sees his Aunt Hester get beaten, for example, but he's too young to be whipped himself. Instead, he suffers without really knowing it. He never knows his father and only meets his mother a handful of times before she dies – and then, he isn't allowed to go to her funeral. But he doesn't really know for a long time that this isn't normal. So his first turning point is sort of simplistic, but also important: realizing that he is a slave and all that that entails.

The second stage of his life begins when the seven-year-old Douglass is sent to work for a new set of masters in Baltimore. Baltimore is a whole new world for him, with a lot of new experiences, but the most important thing he learns there is the power of education. He has this second epiphany when his master's wife starts teaching him to read, which gets her in big trouble with her husband. Douglass finds ways of educating himself, but the real lesson is that slavery exists not because the masters are better than their slaves, but because they keep their slaves ignorant. Douglass starts to suspect that if slaves managed to educate themselves, it would be impossible to stop them from becoming free.

As Douglass becomes a young man, he starts fighting to actually be free. When he talks back to his master, his master sends him to work for a notorious "slave breaker," Covey, who tries to destroy Douglass's spirit. For a while it works, and Douglass is reduced to the state of mind of an animal. This is the lowest point in his life. His third epiphany happens, however, when he decides that he'd rather die than be treated like a slave anymore. So the next time Covey tries to whip him, he stands up to him, and after a two-hour fight, Covey leaves him alone. Douglass vows never to be whipped again. And he never is.

After this, Douglass bounces from master to master, but he's always on the lookout for a way to escape to freedom. And after one failed attempt, he finally succeeds and makes his way first to New York, then to Massachusetts. But even after he's free, he discovers that his journey isn't over. This is his final epiphany: even after he acquires his own freedom, he realizes he can't rest until all slavery is abolished. He not only becomes an abolitionist activist himself; he writes the narrative of his life to teach others, white and Black, how to follow in his footsteps.

  • Preface

    • A lot of books begin with an introduction by some famous person, and you usually just skip them, right? This preface is a little different. It was written by William Lloyd Garrison, a prominent abolitionist leader and one of Douglass's first friends in the North, and we think it should be considered part of the book.
    • In 1845, a lot of white people didn't believe that a slave was capable of writing his own autobiography. William Lloyd Garrison's preface is there to help Douglass prove that he wrote the book on his own. This sort of paradox gives us a sense of Douglass's problem: in order to prove that he wrote the book on his own, he needs the help of a white guy to say that he did.
    • Garrison starts out by telling us about the first time he heard Frederick Douglass speak in public, at an anti-slavery convention. At first, Douglass didn't want to stand up and tell his story. This wasn't just because of stage fright. Douglass had never gone to school, and he was very sensitive about not having any training in public speaking. He was afraid of looking stupid in front of all those people.
    • Once he started speaking, however, Douglass turned out to be a natural. Garrison thinks that Douglass was as eloquent as American revolutionaries like Patrick Henry. Henry was the guy who said "Give me Liberty or give me death," and Garrison wants us to remember that famous quote. Henry and Douglass were both determined to either win their freedom or die trying.
    • Everyone was impressed by Douglass's speech, and Garrison and his friends tried to convince him to join their cause to end slavery. After all, he wasn't just a powerful and persuasive public speaker; he had both witnessed and experienced the horrors of slavery firsthand.
    • Garrison is impressed that Douglass has overcome all the obstacles in his path, and he goes on and on about what a genius Douglass is. Don't forget, Garrison wants to make sure we believe that Douglass wrote his book without help from anyone else. But he also wants us to remember that the most famous and visible Black man in the country is a former slave. This is another way of persuading us of the injustice of slavery: if a former slave can become as successful as Douglass, slavery must be wrong.
    • Garrison gives us a taste of what we're about to read. Just like a movie preview, he emphasizes all the juicy parts and assures us that they are all true.
    • Finally Garrison ends with a rousing appeal to the reader. He tells us that there is no middle ground with slavery: you can either be for the slaveholders or their victims – not both.
  • Letter from Wendell Phillips

    • Wendell Phillips is another famous abolitionist, and Douglass includes this letter as a kind of second introduction. There are three main things worth noticing:
    • First, Phillips points out how important it is that we are about to read a book about slavery that was actually written by a slave.
    • Second, Phillips wants us to notice that Douglass is still only a child when he starts to realize that slavery is wrong.
    • And finally, Phillips points out that Douglass was a slave in Maryland, the part of the South where slavery was supposed to be the least brutal. If Douglass's experience is as good as it gets, imagine how bad slavery must be elsewhere.
  • Chapter 1

    • Autobiographies tend to start with the details of your birth, the names of your parents, and that sort of thing. The trouble is that Douglass was born a slave, so he doesn't have much to work with. He doesn't know his parents or his birthday.
    • He's heard that his father was a white man, perhaps even his master, but he has no way of finding out for sure. He doesn't seem interested in finding out (and why would he, if his father was a rapist?).
    • He has met his mother – all of four or five times. She would walk twelve miles from the neighboring plantation to see him, though always at night so she could walk back and be ready to work by dawn.
    • When his mother died he wasn't allowed to go to her burial.
    • Douglass has no idea when his birthday is, or even what year it was. This is pretty common for slaves. When Douglass was an older man, by the way, he adopted February 14 as his birthday. He picked Valentine's Day, he said, because his mother had called him her "little Valentine."
    • Douglass likes to tell us about his own life in order to depict slave life as a whole. Talking about his own parents is a way of showing how slavery prevents slaves from ever having normal families. For example, slave children unlucky enough to have their white masters as fathers would get whipped by their own fathers and brothers and were often sold to strangers to appease the jealousy of their father's white wife.
    • Douglass predicts that so many children born of slaves and white masters will disprove the argument that slavery is justified by God's curse on Noah's son Ham, since before long, most slaves will be descended from both white and Black parents. (You can learn more about the Curse of Ham here.)
    • Douglass remembers watching his master whip his Aunt Hester. He describes the blood and the insane fury of the beating in gruesome detail. You can tell how traumatic the event was by the way he describes it, giving us a picture through the eyes of a horrified child too innocent to understand what was happening.
    • This event was a turning point for Douglass, the end of his innocence. As a much older writer, Douglass thinks back to the whipping and wonders whether there might have been something sexual in the way the overseer stripped his Aunt Hester naked before he whipped her. Her crime had been spending time with a slave from another plantation, and the master seems a little jealous.
  • Chapter 2

    • This chapter is filled with details about the plantation Douglass grew up on. It's a large plantation, with three to four hundred slaves. Douglass gives a lot of details about the kinds of food and clothing the slaves were given, which range from very little to none at all. Children were often naked, a rough wool blanket was all they had to sleep on, and the food was fit for hogs.
    • Because the slaves had to work so hard, no one had any trouble with insomnia. When they finished working in the fields they returned home to more work, not getting to sleep until the early hours of the morning. At dawn they had to be up and ready to be back in the fields or face the wrath of the overseer, the aptly named "Mr. Severe."
    • No one ever laughed at Mr. Severe's name, because he worked hard to live up to it. Douglass, who is eager to show us that he is a good Christian, is almost as offended by Mr. Severe's foul language as he is by his cruelty in punishing slaves at the slightest provocation.
    • When Mr. Severe dies, Douglass calls it a mercy from heaven. He is replaced by a man the slaves regard as a good overseer: Mr. Hopkins. Mr. Hopkins still whips the slaves, but at least he doesn't enjoy his job. (Apparently the standards for being a decent overseer are pretty low.)
    • Douglass describes how happy it made slaves to be selected to work in the "Great House Farm": Colonel Lloyd's plantation. It was the highest honor a slave could hope to achieve.
    • When slaves were happy or sad, they sang a particular kind of song. Some people claimed that these songs were proof of the slaves' contentment, but Douglass says they sang the most when they were the most unhappy.
  • Chapter 3

    • Douglass tries to lighten up the narrative by describing the lengths that Colonel Lloyd had to go to keep hungry slaves from stealing his fruit. All of his tactics failed until he hit upon the strategy of covering the fence around the orchard with tar. Any slave found with tar on his body was whipped for stealing.
    • As always, though, Douglass is also making a more serious point here. When he describes "the impossibility of touching tar without being defiled," he is also alluding to the abolitionist argument that one could not be involved with slavery without being defiled by it.
    • Colonel Lloyd was especially proud of his stables, horses, and coaches for riding, and Douglass describes the splendid style in which he kept them. He made sure his slaves took care of the horses in every possible detail, and Douglass describes how viciously he would whip them when he was unsatisfied with their work.
    • Colonel Lloyd was incredibly rich, and he owned so many slaves that many of them had never seen him. One day the Colonel met one of his slaves on the road and asked him whom he belonged to and how he was treated. The slave told him how hard he was worked and how little he got to eat.
    • Being a reasonable sort of person, the Colonel thanked the slave for being so honest and rewarded him. Just kidding – this isn't that kind of story at all. Colonel Lloyd was so angry that he sold the unlucky slave to a Georgia trader, and he never saw his family or friends again.
    • This sort of thing was quite common, Douglass says. And if you've ever heard of slaves being happy with their situation, he tells us, it's because of the danger of telling the truth. Afraid of getting into trouble more than anything else, slaves learned to pretend to be happy and well-treated.
    • On the other hand, some slaves really were proud of being owned by rich and powerful people. Sometimes they would even argue amongst themselves about whose master was the richest. Douglass doesn't think much of these slaves, but he points out that this kind of prejudice is just how people are: everybody wants to feel superior to someone else.
  • Chapter 4

    • Mr. Hopkins doesn't work out as overseer, so Colonel Lloyd replaces him with a Mr. Gore. (Hmm, Mr. Severe, Mr. Gore – we're detecting a pattern here.)
    • Being an overseer is a line of work that demands a sadistic personality. Mr. Hopkins wasn't sadistic enough, but Mr. Gore excels at his job.
    • When it comes to slaves, the rules are very simple: the slave is always wrong. Mr. Gore really, really believes in this rule, and the only way to avoid being convicted of a crime and punished for it is to not be accused in the first place.
    • Again, and we can't stress this enough, Mr. Gore is really good at his job. For example, Douglass tells the story of a slave named Demby who tried to escape from a beating Mr. Gore was giving him by jumping into a stream and refusing to come out. Mr. Gore warns Demby that he will shoot him if he doesn't come out of the water.
    • Demby doesn't come out of the water.
    • Mr. Gore shoots him.
    • Douglass notes that Mr. Gore wasn't punished for the murder in any way, not even for having destroyed valuable "property."
    • The lesson, it turns out, is that an overseer can be fired for not being cruel enough, but an occasional murder is just part of the job.
    • More than occasional, in fact; Douglass recounts three more times when an overseer murders a slave – for reasons that range from completely unjustified to completely unnecessary – to make another very simple point: the life of a slave can come to an end at any time, for no reason at all.
  • Chapter 5

    • As a child, Douglass didn't have much to do. He was too young to work in the fields, but there was no school for him, so mostly he just wandered around. (Thrilling.)
    • Children didn't get much in the way of clothing, but modesty wasn't the problem. Sometimes Douglass's feet were so frostbitten, he tells us, he could have put a pen in the cracks in his skin.
    • The food he remembers eating was similarly horrible. It consisted of a varied and nutritious diet of corn boiled into mush and served on a tray.
    • Douglass is excited when he gets a chance to leave the plantation and go somewhere else.
    • When Douglass discovers that his old master (Anthony) will be taking him to Baltimore, he immediately starts working to wash the "plantation scurf" off his body, so that people in Baltimore will not laugh at him.
    • We don't really know exactly what "plantation scurf" is, and we're not sure we want to. We'd venture to guess it has something that happens to people who work all day in the fields and then sleep on the ground.
    • In addition to higher standards of cleanliness, it turns out that going to Baltimore will also require that Douglass start wearing pants. No one is more pleased than the young Douglass himself, who celebrates by spending the day working to scrape off his mange, a skin condition common in pigs. You can learn more than you ever wanted to know about mange at this website.
    • The young Douglass takes a few minutes to count all the things he'll be sorry to leave behind when he leaves Colonel Lloyd's plantation forever. It doesn't take long.
    • He's psyched about going to the big city. In his entire life, he's never seen anything more exciting than the plantation's Great House, and from the stories he's heard, Baltimore is filled with stuff to see and do.
    • Looking back, Douglass sees this moment as another turning point in his life. If he had never left the plantation, he might never have had a chance to escape from slavery. Instead of writing this autobiography, he might still be a slave in Maryland.
  • Chapter 6

    • In Baltimore, Douglass's new mistress is Mrs. Auld, and she's a kind woman. Douglass has never seen anything like her before.
    • At first, he's not even sure how to behave. After all, for his entire life, Douglass has been taught that the proper way for a slave to act towards his masters is with what he calls "crouching servility." That means, roughly speaking, acting like a house elf in the Harry Potter series, full time.
    • This lady, however, is different. Not only does she let him look her in the eyes, she actually gets mad when he puts on his "crouching servility" act and starts bowing and shuffling around. And then she starts teaching him to read.
    • Douglass is confused by all this. But he doesn't have to worry about it for very long.
    • Mrs. Auld has never had a slave before, so she doesn't know that you're not supposed to treat them like human beings. When Mr. Auld catches her teaching Douglass his ABCs, he gives her a lesson. Teaching a slave to read isn't just a bad idea, it's against the law. If you teach a slave to read, he tells her, he won't be satisfied with being a slave any more, and then he'll be no good to anyone.
    • At first Douglass is bummed. He hadn't been all that pumped about learning to read originally, but now that he's not allowed to, he gets a whole new perspective on the matter. Part of it is just the forbidden fruit syndrome: if you want to make someone want to do something, just tell them they can't.
    • But there's more to it than that. Douglass has always been a little confused about how it was that white people were able to enslave Black people. Suddenly he has an answer. Slaves are kept down because they don't know any better.
    • Suddenly, Douglass sees this whole education thing in a new light: if he can learn to read, he reasons, he won't have to be a slave anymore.
    • Before Douglass sets off on his quest to learn to read, he makes some observations about the differences between slavery in the city and on the plantation. Slaves are treated better in Baltimore, and Douglass thinks he knows why: on the plantation, there isn't anyone to see how slaves are treated, but in the city masters would be ashamed to have a reputation for cruelty.
  • Chapter 7

    • Douglass learns a new lesson about slavery: it doesn't just brutalize the slaves, it also brutalizes the masters too.
    • "Brutalize" is one of Douglass's favorite words, because it means both to treat someone badly and to make someone into a brute. Even though it might seem nice to have someone who would do anything you told them to do, Douglass wants us to understand that owning a slave makes the masters into monsters.
    • Case in point: Mrs. Auld. While she used to be a nice person, it isn't long before she starts to become "brutalized" by owning a slave. Her husband used to have to remind her to be cruel to the slaves, but before long, she's even worse than he is.
    • While she had once been happy to teach Douglass to read, now nothing makes her fly into a rage faster than catching Douglass with a newspaper.
    • Douglass is not going to let this slow him down, though. He is convinced that learning to read is the way out of slavery.
    • He manages to do it by making friends with white kids in the street, who are more than happy to teach him the things they've learned in school. Sometimes he trades food for lessons, but he mostly just gets help from children who haven't yet learned that Black people aren't human beings. They haven't yet been brutalized by slavery.
    • Douglass's favorite book is called The Columbian Orator. It has a variety of speeches and orations (another word for speeches) on all sorts of topics. Not surprisingly, Douglass's favorite ones are the ones that deal with slavery.
    • One in particular that he remembers reading is a dialogue between a slave and his master. When the slave convinces his master to emancipate him, using only his powers of persuasion, Douglass takes notice.
    • This is pretty much the beginning of Douglass's career as an orator. Remember in the Preface when Garrison described the first time he saw Douglass speak in public? Before Douglass became famous for this book, he had been famous as a public speaker in the movement to abolish slavery.
    • Sometimes, though, Douglass wonders if learning to read wasn't more of a curse than a blessing. The more he learns, the more it hurts to know that he's a slave.
    • Douglass has heard the word "abolition" a bunch of times, and he's always been intrigued by it, since people use it to talk about slavery. But looking it up in the dictionary doesn't help him figure out its meaning. All it means is to abolish something.
    • Then one day, he figures it out while reading a newspaper: "Abolition" means putting an end to slavery, and an "Abolitionist" is someone who is working to make it happen.
    • Douglass hadn't realized there was a movement of people working against slavery. As you can imagine, he's excited to learn about it. And when an Irish dockworker encourages him to run away to the North, he learns that there are places in the world where a slave can be free.
    • Learning to write turns out to be a trickier proposition than learning to read. Since you need something to write with (and on), Douglass has to be even sneakier. But by challenging white boys to writing contests, he's soon on his way. Even though he always loses, the other boys end up showing him the right way to spell things.
  • Chapter 8

    • Douglass is just getting used to life in Baltimore when suddenly everything is turned upside down. His master Anthony dies without leaving a will saying where all his property is to go.
    • The problem is not that Douglass is expecting to inherit anything, of course. It's that Douglass is going to be inherited. Remember, he's considered property.
    • Before the slaves can be sold, however, they have to figure out how much each one is worth. So the slaves are marched out and lined up to be evaluated alongside all the cows, pigs, and horses.
    • Naturally, Douglass isn't particularly pleased at being treated like a piece of cattle. But the worst is yet to come. Once the slaves have been assigned dollar values, they are all divided up between the heirs and sent away to new homes. Families are divided and friends separated, never to see each other again.
    • The slaves are frightened to death of being bought by a harsh master. Douglass is particularly worried, since his time in Baltimore had showed him what it's like to be treated kindly. He is lucky and gets sent back to the family he'd been living with in Baltimore. Phew!
    • His grandmother, however, is not so lucky. After working like a dog her whole life, she now has to watch her children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren being sold away from her, never to be seen again. She never even gets a chance to say goodbye.
    • Grandmother herself was not valuable enough to sell. So instead of selling her, they simply turned her out into the woods to fend for herself. Not surprisingly, Douglass is quite angry about this.
    • For reasons that aren't too important, Douglass is sent from his master in Baltimore to another master out in the country. When he finds out, he wishes he had tried to escape, since it's much harder to escape in the country than in a big city like Baltimore.
  • Chapter 9

    • For the first time in the book, Douglass can give dates for events as they happen. He can therefore tell us that he moved to Master Thomas's plantation in March 1832.
    • Master Thomas is not a good man, as Douglass quickly finds out at meal times. His family only survives by begging and occasionally stealing just enough food to survive.
    • Master Thomas, in fact, is an unusually bad slave owner. Douglass thinks it might be because he wasn't born a slaveholder. Perhaps because he was born a poor man, he's even stingier than your average master.
    • The real problem with Master Thomas is his inconsistency. Sometimes he's strict and sometimes he isn't. The slaves never know what to expect from him.
    • We learn about two different kinds of Christianity: when Master Thomas gets religion, it only convinces him that anything he does must be praiseworthy. Douglass says he might even be crueler afterwards. On the other hand, some churchgoers are genuinely good. Douglass tells us about a preacher who convinces slave owners to emancipate their slaves. Our guess is that there weren't many of these.
    • Douglass is always walking a fine line when it comes to religion. All of his friends in the abolitionist movement were devoted Christians, so he's very careful every time he seems to be bashing religion. He even writes a special appendix to remind us that he isn't against religion, just religious hypocrisy.
    • And Master Thomas is definitely a religious hypocrite. He often beats his slaves while reciting scriptural verses as his justification. He is particularly cruel to slaves who aren't able to work. A slave child named Henny was crippled by an accident and was never able to do as much work as the others, so Thomas keeps trying to give her away. When no one will take her, he simply puts her out, probably to starve.
    • Douglass and Thomas quickly discover that they have one thing in common: they can't stand each other. Thomas thinks Douglass has been spoiled and made uppity by city living. Douglass pretty much agrees with this.
    • Douglass has learned that if he lets Master Thomas's horse escape, it always runs to the same place, Thomas's father-in-law's farm. He has also noticed that when he goes after the horse, Thomas's father-in-law will always give him something to eat. So let's just say that Thomas's horse has a way of running off whenever Douglass is particularly hungry.
    • Unfortunately, Douglass plays this trick one too many times, and Master Thomas catches on. He decides to rent out Douglass for a year, to be "broken" by a poor white farmer named Mr. Covey.
    • Douglass tries to look on the bright side: at least leaving Thomas's farm means he will get enough to eat.
  • Chapter 10

    • 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.
    • This is the longest chapter in the book, but it's also the climactic one.
    • 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 awesome 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.)
    • 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.
  • Chapter 11

    • Douglass begins this chapter by letting us know that the part of the story we've been waiting for has finally come: escape from slavery.
    • But even though he knows we've been waiting for this, he can't give us all the details. Remember, when this book was published, slavery was still legal, and the Underground Railroad, the organized effort to help slaves escape north, was still working in secret.
    • Since Douglass can't give us the details of his escape without revealing to the slaveholders how it was done, he decides not to tell us anything at all. So if you were waiting for an exciting story of a thrilling escape, don't hold your breath.
    • In later autobiographies, Douglass would tell the whole story: he disguised himself in the uniform of a sailor and used identification papers given to him by a freed Black sailor to take a train to New York. In this book, though, Douglass just tells us the date it happened: on September 3, he escaped to freedom in New York.
    • We expect Douglass to be really excited to be free. And at first, he is. But then reality sets in: he's in a strange place, he doesn't know anyone, and virtually anyone he meets could turn out to be an enemy trying to return him to captivity.
    • Freedom, in other words, is complicated.
    • A man named Mr. Ruggles helps Douglass find a place to stay, and together they plot his next move. The first thing he does is get married. He hasn't mentioned it until now, but he'd been planning to marry a free slave named Anna.
    • Ruggles helps him write to her, telling her to come to New York, and then they find a church that will make them man and wife.
    • After getting married, Douglass decides that New York is still too close to the South for his comfort. So he and his wife move to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he hopes to get a job working as a caulker.
    • Once again, Douglass has to depend on the kindness of strangers to help him. He keeps meeting people who loan him money to help him get on his feet. Douglass is trying hard to show us that it isn't enough to simply abolish slavery. Once slaves are freed, they need help creating new lives and livelihoods for themselves.
    • Douglass is surprised to find that people in Massachusetts seem to be pretty well-off. He expected them to be poorer than in the South, since they don't have slaves working for free. It seems that here, where people work for themselves instead of being forced to work, the shipyards run cleanly and smoothly.
    • When Douglass finally gets a job, he takes to his labor eagerly. For the first time, he is his own master. Even though he can't get a job as a caulker, he doesn't mind – he's working for himself.
    • Not long after he arrives, Douglass subscribes to The Liberator, an abolitionist magazine, and slowly starts getting involved with the cause.
    • In the last lines of the book, Douglass tells us a little about the anti-slaving convention that Garrison talked about in the preface. When the abolitionists asked him to speak, he says that at first he was shy.
    • But it wasn't just embarrassment, the way Garrison portrayed it. Inside, he tells us, he still felt like a slave, and he didn't have the courage to speak in front of all those white people. When he finally does get up the courage, it represents his final transformation from a slave to a free man.
  • Appendix

    • Douglass wants to make sure that people don't get the wrong idea about his views on religion, so he writes a short appendix to set them straight.
    • Basically he's got three main points:
      1. He's a dedicated Christian.
      2. Slaveholders who say they are Christians are, in fact, not Christians.
      3. Slavery and Christianity are opposed to each other.
    • There isn't much more to it than that, but it's still worth reading to get a sense for just how angry Douglass can get about religion. To drive the point home, he quotes lines from a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier called "Clerical Oppressors." The crux is, again, that Christians who own slaves are worse than hypocrites.
    • Finally, Douglass quotes a parody of a familiar hymn, "Heavenly Union," that he would sometimes sing at Abolitionist meetings. This is Douglass's Weird Al Yankovic moment. The original hymn was well known in white churches, but in Douglass's version, the joke is that none of the people singing it are actually part of any real union of humanity. When they go back home after church, they become slaveholders again.