There are about six thousand records in existence of slaves who either wrote their own stories or told them to others. Of these works, commonly known as slave narratives, Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is nearly universally considered to be the most compelling and well written. Douglass went on to write two more autobiographies, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself (1881), to found several abolitionist magazines—most notably North Star—and to become the greatest African American orator and statesman of his age. However, he is primarily known for his first book, which he wrote before the age of thirty and despite the fact that he had never gone to school. Douglass’s autobiography came to be one of the most frequently taught books at American colleges and universities, where together with Moby Dick (1851), The Scarlet Letter (1850), and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851-1852) it was regarded as a seminal source for understanding the United States in the antebellum period of the nineteenth century.
Douglass’s story began humbly. Douglass describes how, as a young boy growing up as a slave in Talbot County, Maryland, he never knew his age or the identity of his father. Slave owners did not consider it necessary to tell slaves such facts or to try to keep families together. His mother, Harriet Bailey, was separated from him when he was an infant. Douglass saw her only four or five times during his life, and then only at night when she paid surreptitious visits from the plantation twelve miles away where she was sold; she always had to leave before her young son woke up, and she died when Douglass was seven.
It is possible that the man who owned Douglass, Captain Anthony, was his father. Owners often took sexual advantage of their slave women, and as a boy, Douglass saw his master beat his Aunt Hester out of jealousy because a slave from a neighboring plantation paid attention to her. The pain slaves experienced from mistreatment and beatings often led them to sing songs with “words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon” but which conveyed the depths of their hardship. Such songs were their only outlet for expression.
Throughout his childhood on the plantation, Douglass (who did not then have a last name and was simply known as Frederick) witnessed many acts of cruelty, ranging from unjust beatings to unwarranted and unpunished murder of slaves by white owners or their overseers. As a child, he owned only one shirt, had to sleep on the ground, and ate his meals of corn mush from a common trough. It was his good fortune to be sent to Baltimore to the home of Hugh Auld, a relation of Captain Anthony. There, he not only enjoyed better living conditions but also was closer to the North. Had he not been sent to Baltimore, Douglass might never have escaped slavery.
In Baltimore, Mrs. Auld began to teach Douglass his abc’s. When Mr. Auld discovered this, he was furious, telling her that teaching a slave how to read was the quickest way to “spoil” him. Deciding that anything his master deemed bad must be good for him, Douglass became determined to teach himself to read. He devised a way to trick other little boys into inadvertently giving him lessons by pretending to know more than they did and making them prove otherwise.
By the age of twelve, Douglass could read essays from a book of famous speeches he acquired. Reading, however, showed him for the first time the true injustice of his own position. For the first time, he realized that there were people opposed to slavery and that there were compelling arguments against the practice. He resolved to run away as soon as he was old enough and the right opportunity presented itself.
Along with understanding the potential power inherent in the ability to read—nothing less than “the power of the white man to enslave the black man”—Douglass also began to understand his own condition by reading essays on liberty. The passages in which he describes his awakened understanding are among the most stirring in all of American literature. A succession of metaphors follows the description of his first reading experiences: Slavery is a “horrible pit” with “no ladder upon which to get out”; preferable to his own condition is that of “the meanest reptile.” Perhaps no other work, fiction or nonfiction, so clearly demonstrates the effect of literacy in developing the associative powers of the thinking mind. Mr. Auld was, in a sense, correct when he says that learning to read and write would “spoil” a slave. Once Douglass developed a figurative capacity of language, he was forever unfit to serve slaveholders obediently. Everything in the world reminded him of the injustice of his own enslavement: “It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.”
Until he became old enough to escape, Douglass did his best to tolerate his condition. As a consequence of his small acts of rebellion, however, he was sent to a slave breaker, Mr. Covey, whose job it was to destroy the will of a slave and create an obedient worker and servant. During his first six months with Mr. Covey, Douglass was subjected to strict discipline and endless work. The slave breaker destroyed wills not just by working the slaves hard but by disorienting them and surrounding them with constant observation and deception. There were various ways in which Mr. Covey created an oppressive atmosphere, as when he told the slaves that he was leaving for town, only to return and spy on them. One day, Douglass fought back when Covey hit him; they fought for two hours, until both men were exhausted, but Douglass held his own. He resolved then that “however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.”
The first time he tried to escape, Douglass drew on his ability to write to forge protection papers for himself and several friends. They were caught and jailed, and Douglass was threatened with being sent to Alabama, from where escape was almost impossible. Instead, he was fortunately sent back to Baltimore, and it was determined that he should learn a trade. Douglass worked in a shipyard for one year and became a skilled caulker. When he contracted jobs on his own, earning six or seven dollars a week, he had to give the money to his master.
Douglass eventually escaped to the North. He did not provide details of his flight in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass because he did not wish to create additional obstacles for others who were trying to escape from slavery. He fled first to New York, from where he sent for the woman he planned to marry, a free black woman named Anna. Together, the couple moved to New Bedford, where they sought out the abolitionist Nathan Johnson, who advanced them money and helped them in other ways. Douglass changed his name to Johnson upon reaching New York, but because there were so many Johnsons in New Bedford, he accepted Nathan’s suggestion that he call himself Frederick Douglass. In New Bedford, Douglass found white abolitionists as well as blacks who abhorred slavery and tried to protect one another from being sent back south.
Moved by the abolitionist cause, Douglass stood up to speak at an antislavery convention in Nantucket. At first, still feeling like a slave, he was abashed at the thought of speaking to white people, but the words soon came more easily. Douglass became an influential abolitionist himself, which eventually led to his writing the story of his life under slavery.
Those who read the book are astonished that such a document could be produced by a man with no formal education less than seven years after escaping from slavery. In Douglass’s own time, this remarkable feat led to incredulity among his readership. All slave narratives were subject to charges of fraud from apologists for slavery, for which reason Douglass’s book and others open with testament letters from respected white abolitionists. Many of those who heard Douglass speak and found him to be as forceful an orator as he was a writer found it difficult to credit that he was so lately a slave. In an era marked by P. T. Barnum’s famous hoaxes, an era when even the best-intentioned Northern whites believed that African Americans were intellectually inferior to whites, Douglass faced skepticism on all sides. A strong motivation for publishing his story was to provide details of his life that could not be faked. When one early Southern detractor of the book claimed to have been acquainted with Douglass as a slave and to know that he was too uneducated to have written a book, Douglass replied by thanking him for substantiating the book’s main claim, that he was indeed an American slave.
Douglass’s accomplishments after escaping slavery fit well into the tradition of American self-sufficiency and success. By rising above the subjugating conditions of his early years, Douglass provided hope for others that through strength and self-reliance they, too, could achieve great things. His later autobiographies and writings testify to the persistence of prejudice as a limiting force on African Americans even after the end of institutionalized slavery, in the North as well as in the South. However, in the argument for the possibility of human achievement and for the liberty for all humans to pursue their potential, there is perhaps no more heroic example in American letters than Douglass provides in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.