Frederick Douglass made his debut as a public speaker at an anti-slavery meeting in 1841, at about the age of 23. Many people in the North were quite ignorant about how horrible the conditions of slavery were in the South; they wanted to believe that terrible stories they heard were exaggerations, that it certainly wasn’t all that bad. For this reason, the most effective element at an abolitionist meeting was the presence of a former slave, whose scarred back displayed the physical abuse he suffered, while his personal story would reveal his psychological scars. While their stories were told many times over, a written narrative created a permanent record for future generations and allowed the story to be more widely dispersed. Slave narratives not only provide evidence of the very real cruelties of slavery, they also exhibit the human intellect and emotion of the black man. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was published in 1845, one of thousands of slave narratives published between the years of 1820-1860.
Frederick Douglass’s account follows the three-part format of the typical slave narrative: 1) a description of the narrator’s personal experience as a slave, 2) his “heroic journey” from slavery to freedom, and 3) the promotion of abolitionist ideas and goals. Of course the third part was the main purpose for the account. Douglass begins by telling how he was born into slavery and describes his childhood, followed by his experiences working for various households in Maryland. Gradually becoming more and more discontented as a slave, he decided to look for a way to escape. In 1838, he got the opportunity to work for hire and saved up a little money for a few months until he was able to leave Maryland. He escaped to New York where he became a free man, married, changed his name (his given name was Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey), and became involved in the abolitionist movement. In his Narrative, Frederick Douglass intentionally leaves out the details related to his escape in order to protect those involved.
When William Lloyd Garrison heard Douglass speak at the meeting in 1841, he was very impressed and knew that Douglass would be a powerful addition if he were enlisted as a regular spokesman for the abolitionist movement. Garrison writes,
I shall never forget his first speech at the convention—the extraordinary emotion it excited in my own mind—the powerful impression it created upon a crowded auditory, completely taken by surprise—the applause which followed from the beginning to the end of his felicitous remarks. I think I never hated slavery so intensely as at that moment…As a public speaker, he excels in pathos, wit, comparison, imitation, strength of reasoning, and fluency of language. There is in him that union of head and heart, which is indispensable to an enlightenment of the heads and a winning of the hearts of others.
In fact, Douglass was so eloquent a speaker that many of his listeners found it hard to believe he had been a slave. In his account, Douglass uses a variety of literary styles to reach individuals who would hear or read it. With his use of emotion, Frederick could touch his predominantly white, female audience. It was important that he build empathy and trust in his addresses in order to gain their understanding and support. With this in mind, many of the examples and accounts he gives are about children and women. His description of his childhood would especially affect mothers listening to his story. As a baby, Frederick was separated from his mother, never knew his father (although he suspected his father was his white owner), and never became attached to his siblings. His mother died when he was seven years old, and he wasn’t allowed to attend her funeral, but his attachment to her was so slight that Douglass says he felt her death “with the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger.” He never knew his birthday, which troubled him as a child, for he explains, “white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege.” He wasn’t whipped or worked hard until about age 14, but as a child he experienced neglect, hunger, and especially cold, was given very little clothing to wear, and no bed. He explains that,
children unable to work in the field had neither shoes, stockings, jackets, nor trousers, given to them; their clothing consisted of two coarse linen shirts per year. When these failed them, they went naked until the next allowance-day. Children from seven to ten years old, of both sexes, almost naked, might be seen at all seasons of the year. There were no beds given the slaves, unless one coarse blanket be considered such, and none but the men and women had these.
By sermonizing, Douglass reached the religious listeners, particularly those who called themselves Christian. A good example of this preaching style is in the Appendix, where Douglass makes a distinction between true Christianity and the American Christianity of his day:
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. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. Never was there a clearer case of “stealing the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil in.”
He compares the slaveholders who profess to be Christians with the Pharisees that Jesus called hypocrites, who had all the outward show of religion but none of the reality. Douglass points out the inconsistencies in the life of the so-called Christian slaveholders, who “profess to love God whom they have not seen, whilst they hate their brother whom they have seen.” His evaluation of the situation is quite pointed:
He who sells my sister, for purposes of prostitution, stands forth as the pious advocate of purity. He who proclaims it a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read the name of the God who made me. He who is the religious advocate of marriage robs whole millions of its sacred influence, and leaves them to the ravages of wholesale pollution. 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. We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the POOR HEATHEN! ALL FOR THE GLORY OF GOD AND THE GOOD OF SOULS!
These contrasts remind me of James’s question: Can the same stream bring forth both sweet water and bitter? (James 3:9-11). Douglass tells of one man he worked for named Covey, a very violent man who always managed to contrive reasons for punishing his slaves. Covey also had a reputation for being religious, “a member and class-leader in the Methodist church,” and Douglass almost pitied him because, he says, “I do verily believe that he sometimes deceived himself into the solemn belief that he was a sincere worshipper of the most high God.” Douglass observed that often the slave owners who were most religious were also the cruelest. He observes,
The religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes, a justifier of the most appalling barbarity… I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me… I have found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly of all others. It was my unhappy lot not only to belong to a religious slaveholder, but to live in a community of such religionists.
And so Douglass actually came to prefer a non-religious master over a religious one.
As he tells his story, Douglass illustrates how slavery dehumanizes the victim by obliterating his personal history, family ties, and geographical origin/connections. He shows how slavery corrupts every facet of society: religion, family, politics and government, and the mind and personal character of the individual. And slavery not only has a negative effect on the slaves, but on the slaveholders as well. One example he gives to illustrate this point is Mrs. Sophia Auld, who had never owned a slave before Frederick when he came to be her house boy at the age of eight. At first she was kind to him, but the corrupting influence of slavery soon took its effect on her, “divesting her of her heavenly qualities.” Douglass explains,
She had never had a slave under her control previously…but her kind heart had but a short time to remain such [as the] fatal poison of irresponsible power…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… the tender heart became stone, and the lamb-like disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness.
Mrs. Auld had begun to teach him to read, but now she became angry whenever she caught him trying to read anything. This was because Mr. Auld told her that once a slave learns to read he will become discontent with his condition, unmanageable and rebellious, and want to escape. This is exactly what happened with Frederick Douglass. After learning to read a little, Douglass explains, “I now understood…the white man’s power to enslave the black man. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom…I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read.” A few years later he befriended some poor neighborhood white boys who could read and paid them with bread to have them teach him. He remarked to them, “Have not I as good a right to be free as you have?” and they would try to comfort him with the idea that maybe someday something will happen to bring about his freedom. Douglass says that at that time (age 12), “the thought of being a slave for life began to bear heavily upon my heart…The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers.”
One of the main points Douglass makes is that education is the key to becoming a free and independent individual in society. Douglass saw that white men retained power over their slaves by keeping them ignorant, so he drew the conclusion that the path to freedom is knowledge and education. Douglass also recognized the importance of being able to articulate one’s thoughts and ideas. He felt he must speak on behalf of the slaves who had no voice in society. Douglass’s skillful use of language gained him credibility with the educated listeners. By using metaphors, poetic language, irony, allusions from history and literature, and quotes from sources like the Bible and Shakespeare, Douglass showed himself to be intelligent and teachable, proving to his audience that black men were as capable of learning as white men.
Frederick Douglass’s lectures in America and Great Britain and his writings helped to dispel a great deal of the ignorance, prejudice, and misinformation about both the horrors of slavery and the humanity of the black man that were prevalent at the time. He wrote two other autobiographical works, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881), before he died in 1895. By the way, Douglass doesn’t mention much about his personal faith or describe his conversion to Christianity, but he clearly valued and believed in the Bible and acknowledged the providence of God in his life. I did some googling to find out more about his religious affiliations and learned that he belonged to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AMEZ) and actually became an ordained preacher.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is a book I believe every American and every Christian should read. The work is quite short, but be sure to get a copy which includes the important Preface (by Garrison) and the Appendix. Douglass’s account gives us some insight into how black men, women and children were viewed and treated by much of society in 19th century America. It’s difficult for us in this day and age to understand the mindset and attitude of many white men towards black people (and those of other races as well). More than 150 years later, it’s so easy for us to look back and condemn the white Americans who accepted and bought into the institution of slavery, especially those who professed to be Christians. But don’t we have the same attitude about the Germans who called themselves Christians during Hitler’s regime and participated in the Holocaust? This should be a warning to us that there’s no telling the depth and extent of our depravity. We need to be humble and realize that in a different time and under different circumstances, we don’t know for certain how we would act. This terrible part of America’s history leaves an ugly stain that, Lord willing, will never be repeated.
The Bible teaches that every human life has value because it is created in the image of God and has a rational, eternal soul. We may well ask: how could Christians in 18th and 19th century America justify and rationalize the practice of slavery? Yet today, the common horrific practice of abortion remains a blight on our nation, as unborn babies are considered non-human property of another, having no soul or value other than what another person arbitrarily assigns to it. Individuals like Frederick Douglass were able to fight back, obtain their freedom, tell their stories, and speak out for the rights of their enslaved brothers and sisters. But who is there to tell the stories of the unborn, whose lives are taken from them before they even have a chance to speak for themselves? May we continue to fight for the abolition of this modern-day atrocity in our land.
Related Sites and Articles
- Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (www.gutenberg.org)
- Another Review of Douglass’ Narrative (wordwabbit.wordpress.com)
- Frederick Douglass Timeline (memory.loc.gov)
Frederick Douglass Biography (www.biography.com)
- Frederick Douglass – How a Slave Was Made a Man (www.artofmanliness.com)
- Anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass remembered in Waterford (irishtimes.com)
- Self-Made Men (www.artofmanliness.com)
- Religious Facts about Frederick Douglass (www.religionnews.com)