What would you say freedom means to Frederick Douglass?

2 Answers

akannan's profile pic

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

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Through his actions and ideas brought out in his Autobiography, I would say that Douglass defines freedom as "positive liberty", the ability to be an active agent of his own destiny.  Throughout the work, I think we see Douglass seeking to utilize his freedom in a manner that enhances his autonomy.  This desire for control of self leads to his desire to seek a life outside of slavery and define freedom in this "positive" manner.  I think that the challenge will be to find examples of Douglass using his freedom to be a more active agent of his own sense of consciousness.  His gain in literacy skills could be one such example, while another one could be the entire concept of his escape.  We can even extrapolate this to after his life as a slave in examining the elements of his life that show his desire to actively seek to change the circumstances around him.  In seeking to define this notion of freedom with examples from the text, I think we have moved Douglass' work from merely a sample of great writing, but rather a transformative piece of art that can allow us to see what can be from what is as we inherit Douglass' legacy of being our own authors of autobiographies and active agents of the world in which we inhabit.

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jameadows | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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To Frederick Douglass, freedom is not just physical freedom but also intellectual and emotional freedom. When his slave mistress, Sophia Auld, is reprimanded severely by her husband, Hugh Auld, for teaching the young Douglass to read, Douglass understands that true freedom comes from the ability to read and think. He knows that the slave owners are afraid of having their slaves read because the ability to read and think for themselves will make them unfit to be slaves. He writes, "from that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom," and he finds ways to learn to read so he can have intellectual freedom.

Douglass also knows freedom is the ability to resist one's oppressors. When he takes on his cruel overseer, he feels that the moment is vital to his path to freedom. He says, "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man." When Mr. Covey attacks him, he decides to fight back, and it is his self-confidence and belief that he has the right to resist that help him achieve freedom. He writes,

This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood.

After he resists Mr. Covey, Douglass has the confidence and determination to escape to the north and become free in mind and body.