4. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845)

In his 1872 tribute to personal initiative, “Self-Made Men,” Frederick Douglass makes the following allowance for the infirm: “Vast acquirements and splendid achievements stand to the credit of men of feeble frames and slender constitutions.” The extent to which this concession to physical delicacy convinces depends not a little on one’s familiarity with the speaker’s biography. Justly celebrated for his eloquence, Douglass knew from personal experience when words alone failed to suffice. More to the point, behind nearly everything Frederick Douglass wrote or said lay a more than implicit willingness to fight for the principles he espoused.

The fight, on one key occasion, is quite literally joined. The turning point in Douglass’s 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, concerns the author’s encounter with a slave-breaker named Mr Covey. (One of the useful, if deeply vexing legacies of Douglass’s writing is the immortalization of some of the nation’s least savory characters, along with their uniquely repellent professions.) Like all of the limited men who persuaded themselves they were the “owners” of the most self-possessed orator in the history of American letters, Mr Covey’s leverage with Frederick Douglass consists of little more than brute force. At first, this seems to be enough. As Douglass tells us, “Mr Covey succeeded in breaking me.” But in breaking Frederick Douglass, Mr Covey  inadvertently strengthens some part of the slave that remains beyond the reach of his viciousness. And then Mr Covey goes too far. After a beating that nearly kills him, Douglass comes to a decision. “I resolved, for the first time, to go to my master, enter a complaint, and ask his protection.”

The reader, expecting perhaps a kind of vague uniformity of antebellum barbarity, may be surprised that such recourse even existed for the enslaved. But the institution’s very perversity ensured that it was largely a makeshift affair, its rules arbitrary and homemade, its guilty enforcers subject to their own wavering caprice. One is struck, reading the Narrative, by the varieties of slavery to which Douglass is exposed. Plantation-life is notably more brutal when compared to the Baltimore home of Mr and Mrs Hugh Auld, where Douglass lives in a townhouse and surreptitiously teaches himself to read. The difference is not negligible. “A city slave is almost a freeman,” Douglass writes, “compared with a slave on the plantation.” One can guess the discrepancy’s source before Douglass names it: “He is a desperate slaveholder, who will shock the humanity of his non-slaveholding neighbors with the cries of his lacerated slave.”

It is hardly amazing to find slavery assuming a more outwardly civilized form where there are more people around to take note of it. The movement to ban slavery from the District of Columbia around the time of Douglass’s writing seemed to have as much to do with the opprobrium of visiting dignitaries as it did with the consciences of legislators or their constituents’ agitation. In the countryside, where neighbors are few and far between, the brutality Douglass details extends beyond laceration into outright lawlessness. Of the three murders examined in the third chapter of the Narrative, the last tersely demonstrates the casual depravity of an institution whose equation of men with beasts makes beasts of the men who administer it. An elderly slave is caught fishing beyond the boundaries of his master’s plantation and for his trespass is shot dead. Writes Douglass, “I speak advisedly when I say this, that killing a slave, or any colored person, in Talbot County, Maryland, is not treated as a crime, either by the courts or the community.”

Typically the most egregious offenses come at the hands not of the masters but of the so-called overseers, the odious middle-managers of southern plantations. In the early chapters of the Narrative, Douglass runs through a murderer’s row of seedy superintendents. There’s the aptly named Mr Severe, fond of whipping mothers in front of their children until the children plead for their mother’s release. This brute is followed by a Mr Hopkins, who “was called by the slaves a good overseer” because “he whipped, but seemed to take no pleasure in it.” The departure of Mr Hopkins opens the door for Mr Gore, a man who kills a slave in cold blood because the slave had become “unmanageable.” “His horrid crime,” writes Douglass, with telling dispassion, “was not even submitted to a judicial investigation. It was committed in the presence of slaves, and they of course could neither institute a suit, nor testify against him; and thus the guilty perpetrator of one of the bloodiest and most foul murders goes unwhipped of justice, and uncensored by the community in which he lives.”

The omissions of autobiography invariably suggest the book we think we would like to read. Much has been made of the Narrative’s neglect of sexual development in what is, after all, a coming-of-age story. A sentence suffices for Douglass’s wife Anna; she is pulled on stage only to be pulled swiftly off it. But this is the misreading of nineteenth-century reticence by a post-Victorian audience. If Douglass’s sensitivity to racial double-standards made him twice the gentleman of his contemporaries, that did not make his contemporaries any less genteel or his reserve anything other than typical. Far more significant is the almost palpable restraint Douglass brings to slavery’s most gruesome assaults. On a second read of the Narrative, I was surprised at how little space was accorded to corporal punishment considering how much room it assumes in the memory. Few words are needed to convey great horrors. On the other hand, consider the lack of economy and repetitive delay-tactics with which Douglass gears himself up to describe a particularly savage beating.

I remember the first time I ever witnessed this horrible exhibition. I was quite a child, but I well remember it. I never shall forget it whilst I remember any thing. It was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant. It struck me with awful force.

The incident in question concerns the beating of Douglass’s Aunt Hester, which the author describes with a clinician’s precision and detachment.

Before [my master] commenced whipping Aunt Hester, he took her into the kitchen, and stripped her from neck to waist, leaving her neck, shoulders, and back, entirely naked. He then told her to cross her hands, calling her at the same time a d—d b—h. After crossing her hands, he tied them with a strong rope, and led her to a stool under a large hook in the joist, put in for the purpose. She now stood fair for his infernal purpose.

One can almost feel Douglass pausing at the end of every sentence in order to regulate his pulse before proceeding. The balance sought by chroniclers of atrocity sets the gory facts against the danger of indulging a prurient readership. The clarity with which Douglass writes about the violence he witnessed suggests an awareness of the perils of sensationalism. I also had the sense that his interests as a writer were more polemical than anecdotal. The details of the Narrative are journalistic – what the slaves ate – rather than literary – what the slaves talked about over supper. If his characters are thin, that’s because their author is more interested in what makes them typical than in how they spoke or thought. This tendency toward parable makes the author a mysterious figure in his own autobiography. Humor, desire, sin, error; the usual grist for personal narrative are all curiously absent. Douglass’s theme is injustice; the subject is slavery; and he is the living example.


“Above your national, tumultuous joy,” the orator famously intoned on July the Fourth, 1852, “I hear the mournful wail of millions, whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are today, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them.” That wail, loud enough in 1852, reached klaxon-like decibels in South Carolina less than a decade later, when the nation finally fulfilled Douglass’s own prophecy from the same speech: “The time for such argument is passed. . . . It is not light that is needed, but fire.” As always, Douglass’s eloquence is stiffened by a willingness to leave eloquence aside in order to disarm the unpersuadable. The David and Goliath associations of Frederick Douglass’s showdown with the slave-breaker Mr Covey – hinted at by the author himself – break down when the overseer’s cravenness is measured against Douglass’s iron will. Douglass was fighting the institution of slavery, but Mr Covey himself was not slavery. Mr Covey was a provincial sadist who had succeeded in temporarily breaking the spirit of a man who was manifestly his superior by every measurement save for the nineteenth century’s warped racial pecking order.

When Douglass fails to secure protection from his master against Covey, he returns to the slave-breaker determined to fight back. With scarcely any pretext, Mr Covey corners Douglass in the stable and tries to tie him up for a flogging. Douglass chokes him. Covey calls for help. Help does come, in the form of a hapless white worker, but to little avail. Douglass has the upper hand. Covey, writes Douglass, “asked me if I meant to persist in my resistance. I told him I did, come what might; that he had used me like a brute for six months, and that I was determined to be used so no longer.” Covey never beats Douglass again. It is a quiet but significant victory. “I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.” A sort of countdown begins, of which Douglass’s masters also seem to be aware, on how long such a man could be kept in bondage.

The story of Frederick Douglass’s escape to freedom is related elliptically in the Narrative. The author’s apology for his evasiveness startled me a little with its reminder that Douglass was at the time of publication still a fugitive. He is understandably concerned for the safety of those who assisted him. “Were I to give a minute statement of all the facts, it is not only possible, but quite probable, that others would thereby be involved in the most embarrassing difficulties.” But the logistics of escape are beyond the Narrative’s necessary scope. Douglass is not writing a thriller or a how-to manual for his brothers in bondage, an article which would “do nothing toward enlightening the slave, while [doing] much towards enlightening the master.” The Narrative’s interest lies in the hypocrisy of a country founded on liberty, which has nevertheless institutionalized the captivity of one caste of its citizens by another. The method by which Douglass exposes this hypocrisy is the close observance of slavery’s tragic consequences: misery for the enslaved, corrosive cognitive dissonance for the slaveholder.

It would be a mistake to pigeonhole the Narrative as merely an historical document. The psychological acuity of the writing transcends its uniquely hellish context. For me, the most memorable episode in the Narrative, aside from the fight with Mr Covey, concerns Douglass’s return to Hugh Auld in Baltimore. In comparison with what went before, the circumstances could hardly be more peaceful. Douglass is given the opportunity to learn a trade, shipbuilding, and he is treated with relative gentleness by his master. Here is yet another variety of slavery to which Douglass is subjected: wage-earning. As it happens, slaves could “hire themselves out,” with their master’s permission, almost like regular workers. However, the wages Douglass earns are a sham, for he is required to turn over every cent to Master Hugh: “Not because he had any hand in earning it . . . but solely because he had the power to compel me to give it up.”

But Hugh is no ordinary master and Douglass, as we sense Hugh knows, is no ordinary slave. Hugh’s humanity prompts him to regularly remit to Douglass some portion of his own wages “to encourage me.” The amount of the remittance, we understand, is often generous by slaveholder standards; one can imagine a contemporary reader admiring Master Hugh’s beneficence and a lesser writer than Douglass overlooking its speciousness. “I regarded it as a sort of admission of my right to the whole,” Douglass writes. More than that, he fears that in accepting this pittance, he is allowing his master to pay the wages of a guilty conscience. The richness of Douglass’s writing lies in this kind of first-hand rebuke, a refusal to allow complacency to shore up the wrong side. Anticipating John Rawls’ veil of ignorance by nearly a century, Douglass points out that “there is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.” We do our forebears the injustice – and the people they subjugated the great wrong – to suppose that slavery’s prevalence blinded them to its inhumanity. It is not hard to imagine that it persisted for as long as it did, not in spite but because of widespread cognizance, even among slaveholders, of its immorality – and with an awareness that a great reckoning was merely being forestalled.