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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

by Frederick Douglass
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In his Narrative, Frederick Douglass compares his life on a plantation to his life as an urban slave in Baltimore. How were they different?

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In his autobiography, Frederick Douglass elaborates on the horrors of institutionalized slavery both on the plantation as well as in an urban environment. Douglass describes in vivid detail the inhumane practices that took place on plantations, where slaves worked long, arduous hours in the fields from sunup to sundown and constantly feared for their life. Violence was an essential aspect of life for slaves on plantations, and they were subjected to severe beatings by their unscrupulous, callous masters. Slaves were often underfed and barely clothed on plantations, and their masters would use various forms of manipulation and intimidation to control them. Life for a slave on a plantation was dangerous, threatening, and extremely difficult.

According to Frederick Douglass, life for an urban slave was significantly more tolerable than life on a plantation. Unlike on the vast plantations, slaves were not required to engage in as much manual labor and enjoyed more privileges. Generally, urban slaves were allowed more freedom and were subjected to less violence. Douglass mentions that many urban slave owners did not want the reputation of being a violent, cruel master, and the proximity to neighbors prevented them from severely beating their slaves. Urban slaves were also better fed and clothed than plantation slaves. Many slaves were given the opportunity to learn a trade and earn money for their masters. The urban environment also allowed slaves like Douglass to interact with poor white citizens, which greatly benefited him. Douglass was able to receive reading and writing lessons from poor white children, which would not have happened if he were working on a secluded plantation.

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In general, Frederick Douglass believed that it was far easier to be a city slave than a slave on a plantation:

A city slave is almost a freeman, compared with a slave on the plantation. He is much better fed and clothed, and enjoys privileges altogether unknown on the plantation.

Douglass asserted that city slaves had better food and clothing and more freedoms than country slaves had. He explained that city life gave slave masters a "vestige of decency" and a "sense of shame" that prevented slave owners from "outbreaks of atrocious cruelty so commonly enacted upon the plantation." Baltimore's slave owners, generally, did not want to be known for cruelty. He admitted, however, that there were exceptions to this. He gave examples of some cruel slave masters in the city, such as Mr. and Mrs. Hamilton. Douglass described their slave, Mary:

The head, neck, and shoulders of Mary were literally cut to pieces. I have frequently felt her head, and found it nearly covered with festering sores, caused by the lash of her cruel mistress.

This graphic description further convinces readers that slavery, on the whole, is wicked. It does not matter where slavery takes place (city or country) or how much food or clothing is given to the slave; slavery is always wrong.

Douglass experienced less physical struggle while living in Baltimore. However, he did eventually leave. After Captain Anthony died, without a will, Douglass was summoned to Captain Anthony and Mrs. Lucretia (the captain's children). He had to be valued, since he was legally considered part of Captain Anthony's property.

Here again my feelings rose up in detestation of slavery. I had now a new conception of my degraded condition. Prior to this, I had become, if not insensible to my lot, at least partly so.

While living in Baltimore gave Douglass an imagined sense of freedom, returning to the country reminded him of his restraints. He was still considered another man's property, even after his time in Baltimore.

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Douglass was allowed a great deal more freedom in the city than as a plantation slave. His original slave mistress, Sophia Auld, started to teach him how to read, until she was warned by her husband not to do so. Even after she stopped instructing him in reading, Douglass bribed local boys into telling what the letters and words he saw around him were. He had access to these boys in the city, which he would not likely have had on the plantation. Douglass's life on the plantation was far more severe than his life in Baltimore, and, while being forced to do hard manual labor, he was under the supervision of strict and inhumane slave masters. When Douglass later returned to Baltimore, he worked as ship caulker. This trade enabled him to have a way to support himself when he had escaped northward. Life as an urban slave was less taxing physically and less severe than his life on the plantation.

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Douglass claims that while the life of an urban slave is by no means ideal, it is far more tolerable than life on a plantation. In Chapter 6, he makes the distinction:

...I observed a marked difference, in the treatment of slaves, from that which I had witnessed in the country. A city slave is almost a freeman, compared with a slave on the plantation. He is much better fed and clothed, and enjoys privileges altogether unknown to the slave on the plantation.

As important, masters in the city feel more constrained by the opinions of their peers, and are more reluctant to physically abuse slaves in the way a rural plantation owner would. The saying that "city air breathes free" did not exactly apply to slaves, but urban slaves had more opportunities to learn to read, acquire a valuable skill, and escape to the north than plantation slaves did. Douglass's time in the city changes his life, though it is also clear when he leaves Baltimore to go work on a plantation, that he does not have the stamina to work in the grueling conditions slaves there had to face. His struggles to survive as a field hand working for Covey lead to his determination to run away.

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