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Frederick Douglass: How Slavery Affected Both Slaves and Slaveholders

African-American Slaves Dancing and Singing (1970) – Public Domain

In Frederick Douglass’s account of his transformation from a slave to a free man, he reveals, through instances from his own life and that of others, the dehumanization that accompanies the institution of slavery. He recounts how, from the very first moments of childhood, a slave is regarded by the white community as nothing more than a commodity; an object to be bought and sold against its will and which is completely stripped of its humanity. While Douglass harshly condemns the actions of the slaveholders, he expresses a belief that this institution inflicts damage not only on the slaves, but also on the white masters. Their sense of sympathy and morality becomes perverted as they carry out increasingly brutalizing acts on their slaves.

The Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery around the year 1818 in Maryland. After escaping slavery and moving to Massachusetts at about the age of twenty, he became exposed to the antislavery newspaper,the Liberator, and eventually began attending abolitionist meetings. Due to his success as an orator, revealing to the crowds the true horrors of slavery by retelling his own experiences, he quickly rose to become one of the most influential speakers and leaders of the abolitionist movement.  His memoir and antislavery treatise, The Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, was published in 1845 and became one of the most significant slave narratives of that age.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

The humiliating position of the slaves under the law of that period is among the most visible signs of their treatment as a subhuman group. The law that stated that any children born from a slave mother would be regarded as slaves, regardless of the status of the father, is one example of this. This was purposely arranged by the slaveholders in order to “make a gratification of their wicked desires profitable as well as pleasurable”, according to Douglass. This was a form of humiliation and objectification because it meant that white masters were at liberty to father children from black slave mothers without being held responsible for them, and even to profit from this situation by enslaving their own children. Such a perverted arrangement led to the distortion of natural parent-child relationships. It is often the case that the master must sell his own children or he will be forced to “not only whip them himself, but must stand by and see one white son tie up his brother.

Perhaps the clearest example of dehumanization in the law which Douglass recounts in the narrative can be seen when he states that “killing a slave, or any other colored person in Talbot County, Maryland, is not treated as a crime, either by the courts or the community”, which is clear evidence of the extent to which the slaves are deprived of the most essential human rights. To prove this, he recounts the story of Demby, the slave who was shot by Mr. Gore for refusing to answer his calls. This savage crime “was not even submitted to judicial investigation” because it “was committed in the presence of slaves, and they of course could neither institute a suit, nor testify against him”, which highlights the fact that the slaves are invisible to the eyes of the law and community. Although they witness a clear transgression, their testimonies are invalid because the law does not acknowledge them. Not only does Mr. Gore escape punishment by the law, he is “uncensured by the community in which he lives”. Therefore, neither the justice system nor the community regard his actions as criminal or morally unacceptable and the root cause of this lies in the fact that the masters simply did not view the slaves as their human equals. The attitude of the white community is reflected in “a common saying, even among little white boys, that it was worth a half-cent to kill a “nigger,” and a half-cent to bury one.” Another instance that illustrates the slaves’ inhuman status in the law can be seen when, at the death of Douglass’s old master they are divided between the heirs, like the rest of the “property”. Douglass describes the objectification they are subjected to, saying that:

“[t]here were horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children, all holding the same rank in the scale of being”

The slaves have no control over their fates, as they had no say in which master they would be given to, they “had no more voice in that decision than the brutes among whom [they] were ranked”.

The masters’ insistence to keep their slaves in a state of total ignorance is a form of dehumanization. Throughout the narrative, Douglass places great emphasis on the importance of education. He believed that knowledge was“the pathway from slavery to freedom”. After he discovers that Douglass had been taught the alphabet through the instruction of his wife, Mr. Auld (Douglass’s master at the time) unintentionally reveals the secret behind “the white man’s power to enslave the black man”. He berates Mrs.Auld for giving Douglass any sort of education because “if [she teaches] that nigger . . .  how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master”. This is a pivotal moment in the narrative because it explains the purpose of keeping the slaves ignorant. In fact, the very first paragraph of Douglass’s narrative is primarily related to this same idea. The second sentence starts with “I have no accurate knowledge of my age” which immediately stresses this ignorance and his dissatisfaction with his situation. He is, at the time, unable to understand why he knows nothing about his origins or date of birth: “A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege.” He is not the only slave to have encountered this problem, as he explains: “I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday”, which shows the extent to which the slaves were deprived of any sort of knowledge regarding their identities. He is even kept oblivious to the identity of his own father: “The opinion was also whispered that my master was my father; but of the correctness of this opinion, I know nothing; the means of knowing was withheld from me”

Another form of dehumanization which Douglass describes is caused by the slaves’ separation from their families. He states: “My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant—before I knew her as my mother”. Douglass then explains that a common act practiced by the white masters was to take the mothers away from their children before they were even a year old, and to keep them instead in the care of an old woman who had gotten too old to work in the fields. He believes the reason behind it was “to hinder the development of the child’s affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child.” Douglass recounts that he had only met his mother about four or five times in the course of his life and that he was “not allowed to be present during her illness, at her death, or burial”. The emotional effect of this separation becomes visible later on. He expresses the total distortion of familial relationships that the division had caused; “[n]ever having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, [he] received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions [he] should have probably felt at the death of a stranger”. The separation of slave children from their mothers dehumanizes them because it prevents the formation of an essential, emotional human bond and they are thus deprived of creating any sense of community.

Mr. Covey’s cruel treatment of Douglass, which causes him to become “broken in body, soul, and spirit”, is an additional instance of the debasement which a slave might be subjected to. Douglass describes how the slaves were treated by Mr.Covey: “We were worked in all weathers. It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail, or snow, too hard for us to work in the field”. Here, it becomes apparent that they were regarded much like farm animals that were expected to work through any circumstances.As Douglass becomes increasingly overworked, his will to educate and free himself subsides, and he finds himself degenerating into “a sort of beast-like stupor”. His feelings of desperation become so intense that he eventually comes to regard his humanity as a burden, and at one point he exclaims “O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute!”

The case of the slave Caroline is a horrifying instance of the dehumanization of female slaves. She was the first slave to be owned by Mr. Covey, and he buys her with the purpose of increasing his stock of slaves. He refers to her, in a very telling term, as a “breeder”. Each night he would force her to sleep with a married man whom he had hired in order to impregnate her. When she eventually gave birth to twins, Mr. Covey regarded the children as “an addition to his wealth”. This example shows how the masters reduced female slaves to the status of breeding animals and exploited them to increase their material gains.

Even such mundane details such as the manner of feeding the slaves betray the debasement they were subjected to. At the plantations, the masters would feed the slave children by placing the food in a trough and the children “were then called, like so many pigs, and like so many pigs they would come and devour the mush”. The use of animal imagery here is expressive of the debasement they were subjected to. Instead of being provided with eating utensils, they are treated like any other farm animal that the masters own.

As the narrative illustrates, the effects of this institution are harmful not only to the slaves, but also to the slaveholders. Douglass believes that slaveholders’ humanity and sense of morality becomes twisted as they carry out increasingly brutalizing acts toward their slaves. The transformation that Douglass’s mistress, Sophia Auld, experiences is one example of slavery’s corrosive effects on the slaveholders. What Douglass first encounters is a “woman of the kindest heart and finest feelings”. As she had never owned a slave before, she had been “preserved from the blighting and dehumanizing effects of slavery”, and even teaches Douglass the alphabet. However, when her husband warns her of the dangers of giving a slave an education, her sympathetic nature undergoes a great change and becomes distorted, her “angelic face gave place to that of a demon”. Seeing Douglass reading a newspaper becomes an infuriating and hated sight to her. Douglass believes that slavery “proved as injurious to her as it did to [him]” because it transformed her into something monstrous, it “proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities” which she had.

Instances of the inhumane treatment that the slaves are exposed to pervade Frederick Douglass’s narrative. The degradation that accompanies their ignorance and state of deprivation, along with the fact that the law does not acknowledge them as individuals shows the extent to which they are dehumanized by the white community. The unrestrained power in the hands of the slaveholders proves damaging to them as well. As they become crueler in order to preserve their authority, they lose all sense of morality and ultimately become as dehumanized as the slaves.


Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

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