Introductory Lecture and Objectives
On September 3, 1838, an American slave in Baltimore, Maryland, disguised himself in a sailor’s uniform and boarded a train with a free man’s papers. Less than a day later, the twenty-year-old fugitive was in New York City, a free man himself. Frederick Douglass would go on to become the most famous African-American of the nineteenth century. After his escape, he joined the abolition movement and used his life experience to speak persuasively against slavery and discrimination. In 1845, risking recapture and a return to slavery, Douglass published Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. The autobiography provides a detailed account of Douglass’s life as a slave, chronicling the cruel and degrading treatment he suffered, the triumph of his self-education, and his constant yearning for freedom.
In his narrative, Douglass recounts his experiences as a plantation slave and as a house slave in the city of Baltimore. In Baltimore, he developed the desire to read and write, thanks in part to lessons given by his master’s wife. Her lessons ended after Douglass’s master impressed upon his wife the danger of owning a literate slave. Forbidden from learning, Douglass taught himself in secret. He went on to share his knowledge with other slaves after he was sent back to rural Maryland. Convinced that Douglass’s experience in the city had made him unmanageable, his master sent him to live with Mr. Covey, a local farmer renowned for “slave breaking.” Overworked and beaten, Douglass admits that he nearly submitted—both emotionally and physically—to Covey’s harsh treatment. One day, however, he found the strength and spirit to fight back when Covey tried to punish him. After their fight, the farmer never touched the slave again. Douglass marks this successful act of resistance as a key moment in his resolve to be free. Back in Baltimore and working a trade in the shipyards, Douglass had another disagreement with a master, an incident which stirred in him the final determination to escape slavery.
Published only seven years after his escape, Douglass’s book sold well immediately. Although many firsthand accounts of slavery existed at the time, Douglass’s Narrative shone brightly among them because of his literary skill in exposing the routine horrors of slavery and the fraudulence of justifications made for its continuance. The unexpected even-handedness with which Douglass portrays his white oppressors lends credibility to his story. The intellect and learning evident in Douglass’s writing, however, caused some readers to disbelieve that he had truly lived his early life as a slave. As abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison observes in his preface to the book, Douglass’s intelligence strongly refuted the pro-slavery claim that people of African descent were naturally inferior to whites.
Douglass uses his powers of language to proclaim slavery’s soul-deadening effects on both master and slave. He laments the hardened heart of his once sweet Baltimore mistress as she must learn to willfully deny Douglass’s humanity. Envisioning his own grandmother’s last days, Douglass imagines her despair in being isolated from loved ones and left to die after a lifetime of servitude. He pities his overseer, Mr. Covey, for the man’s self-deceptive hypocrisy: Covey earnestly proclaims his Christian devotion and then torments his slaves with unchristian acts of violence and dishonesty. Douglass’s soliloquy on the white sails of Chesapeake Bay communicates the universal human longing for freedom.
After writing Narrative, Douglass went on to campaign for the election of Abraham Lincoln, and he lobbied for the inclusion of black soldiers in the Union army. He continued to speak in favor of rights for African-Americans, as well as to champion women’s rights. In his lifetime, Douglass served as an advisor to three US Presidents. After his first wife died, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white abolitionist almost twenty years his junior. Their union caused controversy even in their progressive social circle, but they remained together until his death in 1895. A man of exceptional courage, intelligence, and character, Douglass inspired thousands of people in his time, and he is celebrated today as an American hero.
Frederick Douglass’s noble character endures in Narrative, which he wrote to awaken the American conscience to slavery’s wicked inhumanity. The book’s importance as a historical work is clear, but Narrative continues to be read as literature for its powerful allegation that injustice against a few degrades an entire society. The spirit of Douglass’s impassioned argument for decency and equality lives on in the struggles for civil and human rights happening around the world today.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Describe the connection Douglass makes between education and freedom.
2. Explain Douglass’s views on the religious hypocrisy of Christian slave owners.
3. Identify the morally degrading and dehumanizing effects of slavery on both slaves and slave owners.
4. Summarize Douglass’s comparison of economic conditions in the free North and the slaveholding South.
5. Describe the effects on slaves of forced separation from family members and friends.
6. Explain Douglass’s idea that freedom had to be a state of mind for a slave before it could become a legal reality.
7. Identify the major turning points in Douglass’s life that led to his becoming a free man.
8. Explain the importance of honesty to Douglass and how honesty is evident in his narrative.
9. Identify the reasons Douglass withholds details of his successful escape.
10. Identify Douglass’s purposes in writing his autobiography.