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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

by Frederick Douglass

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What is Frederick Douglass's overall claim in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass?

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Writing before slaves were freed in the United States, Douglass' main objective in the Narrative is to dispel any notion that slavery is good for those enslaved. He point-by-point counters a Southern narrative that argued that slavery benefitted black people.

Pro-slavery whites pointed out that black people, when questioned, said they were happy with their situation. They also remarked that slaves were often singing, which was said to prove they were happy, asserted that slaves were well taken of with cradle-to-grave security offered by benign masters, and argued that Christianity insured that white slave owners treated slaves with compassion.

Using stories to illustrate each of his points, Douglass shows that black slaves only tell whites they are happy to avoid retribution, that they sing to mourn and lament their fate, and that owners who have gone to revival meetings and come back "converted" to Christianity feel even more emboldened to beat and mistreat their slaves, because it is Biblically sanctioned that slaves must obey their masters. As for the kind of cradle-to-grave care slaves get, Douglass graphically describes the frequent and brutal beatings his master, Mr. Auld, dealt out, and then discusses his own treatment as a child slave on the plantation. He never had a pair of shoes, no matter how cold it got ,and had only a single thin shift to wear, summer and winter. Most of the slaves were hungry because they were ill-fed, and they were expected to toil sun-up to sundown.

Douglass also describes the way it corroded his soul to not know his birth date, to be told he couldn't learn to read after the wife of his Baltimore owner started to teach him, and to realize that slavery was a condition he would never grow out of. He makes an eloquent case for slavery as an evil and indefensible institution, and he points out as well that it corrupts whites to have such immense power over other human beings.

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Douglass's really has two central claims in the Narrative. One is that slavery was an institution that corrupted whites and robbed (or attempted to rob) blacks of their humanity. Another is that slavery is an institution fundamentally based on violence, telling the story of the vicious beatings an aunt of his would often receive:

I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped...I was quite a child, but I well remember it. 

Douglass describes this memory as the "blood-stained gate" through which he entered slavery, and he is struck throughout at how the institution made tyrants of whites. Sophia Auld, described as "a woman of the kindest heart and finest feelings," nevertheless became "even more violent in her opposition than her husband himself" after her husband convinced her that slaves should not be taught to read. Having witnessed her transformation from a sympathetic to a hard-hearted mistress, Douglass concludes that slavery was as injurious to her soul as it was to his. Even Christianity was corrupted by slavery, he points out.

All of the violence and the degradation was intended, Douglass makes clear, to rob African-Americans of their humanity. But he makes it equally clear that slavery was not successful in achieving this aim. He talks of the ways in which black men and women struggle to hold their families together, and the importance of music as a way to express deep sadness. He cites literacy as a pathway to humanity and ultimately freedom, one which he ironically discovered when Mr. Auld made his feelings about black literacy known. Finally, he cites his altercation with Mr. Covey as an event that "revived within me a sense of my own manhood". Most enslaved people did not resist so openly, and fewer still ran away as Douglass did, but all, he makes clear, struggled to retain their humanity in the face of slavery's brutality.

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Douglass's central claim in his autobiography is that slavery is as harmful to whites as it is to slaves. He says of Sophia Auld, "Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me" (page 28). His evidence for this claim is that when he first meets her in Baltimore, she is a very kind woman. He writes:

"Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger‐like fierceness" (page 28).

The first step in her transition from kindness to cruelty is when she is instructed to cease teaching Frederick Douglass to read. Her husband tells her that instructing her slave in literacy will spoil him as a slave, and she stops teaching young Frederick. This is her first step from being a kind-hearted woman with generous tendencies to harnessing her natural instincts and instead becoming cruel. Frederick Douglass shows her fast transformation from generosity to hard-heartedness to show the pernicious effect slavery has on white slave owners. 

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Douglass' primary claim in his narrative is that a nation predicated upon individual freedom cannot allow slavery to exist.  His first hand accounts of the cruel nature of slavery and the thought processes of the various slave owners help to substantiate his assertion.  It is difficult to challenge the accuracy of the first hand account offered.  At the same time, Douglass' exploration of Christianity, and its hypocrisy when used to justify slavery, and the idea that the promise of freedom cannot be realized when a group of people are enslaved, helps to bolster the claims that slavery is America's "original sin."

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