How does Douglass portray slaveholders?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I think that one of Douglass' strongest points is that he depicts slaveholders as being afflicted by the institution of slavery.  This condition causes them to be sadistic and unspeakably cruel.  In Douglass' writing and thought, slaveholders are cast in this light.  Sophia Auld is an example of someone who became morally corrupt due to slavery.  Douglass points out how Auld had been kind and decent to him precisely because she had never owned slaves before.  Yet, as she becomes a victim to the institution of slavery, her moral bankruptcy accelerates and she becomes as cruel as any slaveowner:  'The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work.’’  Such a depiction reveals how slavery can dehumanize both the slave and the person who owns slaves.

Yet, this is not to say that Douglass shows slaveowners to be victims who have lost their souls.  Edward Covey is shown to be an individual of the slave owning institution who knows very well what he is doing.  He is clearly abusive and clearly a perpetrator of evil.  He sneaks up on slaves, earning the nickname "snake."  Covey is cruel in the way he treats and "breaks" slaves.  While Auld might be seen as a victim of the institution of slavery, Douglass still regards her as part of the problem.  Covey is the embodiment of the problem.  In this light, Douglass is able to show that there can be different variations on the same theme of cruelty that exists within the slaveowning community.