Historical Document Analysis: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

(Excerpt 1)

Death soon ended what little we could have while she lived, and with it her hardships and suffering. She died when I was about seven years old, on one of my master’s farms, near Lee’s Mill. I was not allowed to be present during her illness, at her death, or burial. She was gone long before I knew anything about it. Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, I received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger (Pg.10-11, Chapter I).

In this excerpt, Douglass has brought out the way through which slave owners are managing the slaves on their plantations. They use ways like whipping and killing the slaves in their defense. On the other hand, the slaves have also employed weapons for defending themselves though proven futile. These include having a good relationship with their masters; they are relieved when a prediction is made about the end of slavery. In addition, the smell of mullets is better than being harassed by their step brothers. Through the weapon of the mind, Douglass’ mother always sneaked to check on his son, soother him all night, and get back to the plantation unnoticed. When Douglass learnt the death of his mother, despite being young and also told that his father was one of the masters, he always played the game of the mind by not asking about it publicly because it would earn him a punishment. Furthermore, he maintained respect despite the harsh treatment he witnessed other going through, especially the torture and the bloody whipping. For instance, when he witnessed his aunt Hester being whipped by Mr. Plummer yet he suppressed his feelings of wanting to shout at the slave overseer, but instead he kept silent. This earned him long life and peace of not in public support of his fellow slaves. Thus, this is the greatest weapon he used.

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(Excerpt 2)

“Children from seven to ten years old, of both sexes, almost naked, might be seen at all seasons of the year. There were no beds given the slaves, unless one coarse blanket is considered such, and none but the men and women had these. This, however, is not considered a very great privation. At the sound of this, all must rise, and be off to the field.” (Pg.13, chapter II)

Slaves were denied better clothing historically, as this aided in showing the slaves by their masters that they were nowhere equal. For instance slaves were put in seclusion by poor shelter thus being exposed to the cold. This meant that slaves were to continue serving under their slavery masters and being dependent to the masters. This occurred at the time Douglass was young and his mother had passed on, she had what to eat but sleeping and motherly care was nowhere any close to him (Douglass 16). He resorted to using at night a bag where he could cover himself so that he could have the warm. The power of being creative amid multitude hustles of trying to battle with life in the absence of his mother who could ensure he has all the basic needs. In addition to that, because of his age, eating was not a problem because he developed good relationship where he looked after the animals and finding the birds in the evening and this power of submissiveness earned him trust and care from Master Daniel Lloyd (Douglass 18). This was the greatest tool Douglass used to ensure his growth is sustained and he has what to eat at the end of the day. In addition to that, he was shielded against the anger and the ruthless actions of the slave overseers. So he was safe and not touched at during that time of good and wise submission to Daniel Lloyd.

(Excerpt 3)

Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,” (pg.18, chapter IV)

Here, the excerpt shows the weapons and strategies employed by both the slave owners and Douglass to ensure their survival. Initially when Douglass joined Mr. and Mrs. Auld family as a slave, Mrs. Auld was nice and welcoming. She opted to use a strategy of teaching Douglass how to read and write so that their work and communication becomes simple as a slave and a master. This was a weapon used by Mrs. Auld to enslave Douglass according to her. However, according to Mr. Auld, this weapon would backfire and harm them instead, he confronted his wire for offering training to a slave because he felt it would enlighten him and realize the power of education as the only weapon that could save Douglass from ignorance. Therefore, the loved all slaves to be in total darkness of the mind.

Douglass realized that this was the only weapon that would be a deliverance to him. In this regard, he now ventured and developed a strong crave to know how to read and learn for it was the only source of his freedom. He gained from his master the insight for freedom and this sharpened his wit. Therefore, the road towards freedom was opened to him and it was the weapon that he employed in achieving the dream and the desire of his heart. In addition to that, he humbled to her mistress, Mrs. Auld so that he gains more knowledge on the, however she turned out to be worse. The quest to learn the alphabet and reading pushed Douglass to an extend he befriended the young white boys (Douglass 20). The main objective of making friends was to gain the knowledge which was the only tool for his freedom.

(Excerpt 4)

First, was 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. This statement would most undoubtedly induce greater vigilance on the part of slaveholders than has existed heretofore among them which could of course be the means of guarding a door where by some dear brother bondman might escape his galling chains. I deeply regret the necessity that impels me to suppress anything of importance connected with my experience in slavery. (pg.44, chapter XI)

Here Douglass has been caught in the upheaval of revealing how he escaped from slavery and he chooses not to as this would be an avenue for locking his friends from escaping. This would help the slaveholders to learn the tricks used by slaves in running away. According to Douglass, this is a strong weapon in their side. In addition, the nativity of the slaveholders was a weapon on their side. However, it’s challenging for one to keep a secret especially concerning the tackling of these slave masters thus one could be tempted in letting the cat out of the sack. It was actually pleasing to show the prowess in challenging your sinners but for Douglass, he has learnt the need to confide the secret. This proves a strong weapon for the slaves of which the masters have not discovered. Douglass learnt to ensure that he is secretive in all his missions especially as he wanted to escape. The weapon of secrecy was the best to strike and surprise the slave owners. On the other hand, the slave owners were keen and watchful all the time, for instance they would not want any slave leave or associate with other. This would make them run away or escape.

(Excerpt 5)

I was now, for the first time during a space of more than seven years, made to feel the painful gnawing of hunger—a something which I had not experienced before since I left Colonel Lloyd’s plantation. It went hard enough with me then, when I could look back to no period at which I had enjoyed a sufficiency. It was tenfold harder after living in Master Hugh’s family, where I had always had enough to eat, and of that which was good. I have said Master Thomas was a mean man. He was so. Not to give a slave enough to eat, is regarded as the most aggravated development of meanness even among slaveholders. (pg.27, chapter 9)

Douglass has moved to a new environment where he encounters his slaveholder’s master whom they get along with very well. This is a weapon on the side of the slaves but is a weaker tool used to fight for freedom. In addition, Douglass laments of hunger and all results from meanness, the cruelty of his master and mistress brings him distress he never experienced. In his former residence, food was not a problem however, course it was but here there is null. It’s symbolic to the tricks that slaveholders have learning how to sabotage their subjects so that they remain loyal and serve under them. The slaveholders weapon of cruelty and meanness have proved to be stronger compared to the crude weapon of the slaves, making friendship for survival. In addition to that, the slave were denied other basic needs like enough rest, cloths, and proper beddings to keep them warm at night. All these were weapons used by the masters to instill fear and hence make the slaves submissive.

(Excerpt 6)

Mr. Covey was one of the few slaveholders who could and did work with his hands. He was a hard-working man. He knew by himself just what a man or a boy could do. There was no deceiving him. His work went on in his absence almost as well as in his presence; and he had the faculty of making us feel that he was ever present with us. This he did by surprising us. He seldom approached the spot where we were at work openly, if he could do it secretly (pg.30, chapter X).

Douglass was working for Mr. Covey as a slave in his farm. Mr. Covey was a cunning master in that he used a number of weapons to ensure all his slaves remain submissive to him and do the work in the plantation instead of just idling in the farm. The strategy ensured that the people work was done by keeping the slaves in check all the time. Also, Mr. Covey was full of deception as a weapon to subdue his subjects (Douglass 35). Douglass survived in the farm by leaning Mr. Covey’s tricks and blending with his character so that he is not caught off-guard. Learning his tricks for instance the crafty character was a weapon used by Douglass to survive the wrath of his master and plan properly the best way of escaping in search of his freedom.

In addition to that, he always wore the face of humility and hard work, this was a peculiar trait in sustaining his stay in the farm and in all activities he did as a slave.


Work Cited

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave. Random House Digital, Inc., 2000.