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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

by Frederick Douglass
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What do you think of the way slaveholders sought to police thoughts and opinions of enslaved people, even enlisting spies among them, as is described in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave? There is a foiled plan to escape with Henry Harris, John Harris, Henry Bailey, and Charles Roberts. What goes wrong with that attempt? Why does that failed escape attempt make Douglass extra careful about trusting people?

The way slaveholders sought to police enslaved people, including by enlisting spies among them, shows their level of fear that the slaves would rebel. As Douglass points out, however, it was a successful strategy, and even he would lie and say his master was kind. In the escape plot, the men mentioned are betrayed by fellow slave Sandy Jenkins, who drops out at the last minute. This shows Douglass he has to escape alone or risk betrayal.

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The slaveholders, who were outnumbered by their slaves, sought to police the slaves by enlisting spies among them so that at the first sign of trouble or first finding of a troublemaker, they could take action. This shows the kind of mentality the slaveholders lived in and reveals their unease about enslaving people: they knew what they were doing was cruel, wrong, and likely to incite rebellion.

However, as Douglass himself points out, the strategy was effective. He states that slaves were so afraid of betrayal and the consequences, which they were repeatedly told could include beatings and being sold south, that they would not complain of their situation. He said that even he himself lied and said many times that his master was kind to him when asked, fearing reprisals if it got back that he had said otherwise.

When he and his friends Henry Harris, John Harris, Henry Bailey, and Charles Roberts try to escape, they also enlist a fifth confidant, Sandy Jenkins. He drops out at the last minute and says, too, that he had a "dream" that they were betrayed. They are later sure he was the spy who betrayed them, confirming to Douglass what he has learned all his life—that he must trust nobody, for fear of betrayal, and attempt to escape on his own.

It is interesting to think about this episode. As Douglass explains in his later version of his autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, none of the attempted escapees were beaten or sold south. This suggests that much of what the masters said was threat meant to intimidate and that when push came to shove, they needed their slaves, especially those who had proven good workers, too much to sell them south—or that they didn't want the other slaves to even know there was a plot to escape and get ideas. Fear drove the slave owners.

It is also interesting to note parallels between the behavior of the slave owners and what we know of other repressive regimes, such as the Nazis and Communist Russia.

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