Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself

“Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself” is a memoir published by Frederick Douglass in 1845. The book tells the story of Douglass’s early life as a slave in Maryland. His memoir begins with his birth as the son of a slave woman, and probably, the master of the plantation. The story follows the cruel and brutal treatments of him and his fellow slaves. As a young boy, Douglass is sent to Baltimore to be a house slave and companion for the little boy of the family.

While he was in Baltimore, the first time, Sophia Auld, the wife of the master he was serving, began to tutor him in reading, until she was ordered to stop and treat him like a slave instead of a little boy. She became quite cruel and dehumanizing. Douglass kept learning, and bribed the poor, starving boys in the neighborhood to tutor him, and copied writing from the ship carpenters at the docks. After being returned to the plantation, Douglass tried to escape. He had written passes for him and four other men but was caught and sent to a rehabilitation farm. There he was brutally beaten for every small infraction and then almost beaten to death and went back to his plantation, where he was given the chance to heal before being sent back. That time when the master tried to beat him again, Douglass fought back and was never beaten again.

Two years later, he had been returned to Baltimore where he managed to escape to New York and then was helped to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he was living when he was taken into the Antislavery Abolitionist Society and became active in Equal Rights.

Book Summary

Preface by William Lloyd Garrison

This preface is the founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society. He is describing the first time he met Frederick Douglass. In 1841 they met at an antislavery convention in Nantucket, Massachusetts. Garrison was so taken with the speech given by Douglass that he helped him with the publication of his narrative. He goes on to iterate the evil of slavery. Garrison states that the commonly held belief that slaves are ignorant is because of the stations they were forced into, not because of their race. He points out a story of a white man that was held as a slave in an African tribe for three years, that had forgotten how to speak his native tongue.

Garrison also brings up the fact of white men killing slaves without any dangers of prosecution since black people aren’t allowed to testify against whites. Then he adds that Douglass questions the Christianity of the slave owners. He ends his preface with “Come what may – cost what it may – inscribe on the banner which you unfurl to the breeze, as your religious and political motto – No Compromise with Slavery! No Union with Slaveholders!”

Letter from Wendell Phillips, Esq.

This is a letter from Wendell Phillips to his friend, Frederick Douglass. He writes about how glad he is that the truth is finally being written about the history of slavery. The information until this time was written by the slaveholders and skewed towards them. Since Douglass’s experience with slavery came from a part of the United States that is well known for it’s more humane treatment of slaves, he thinks the slaves in the Deep South must be treated horribly.

Douglass’s story is not sensationalism but true. Douglass is a personal witness to the atrocities he writes about. Phillips fears for the safety of Douglass and his master since he gave their names. He knows that Douglass will be protected by abolitionists, but the state of Massachusetts must declare itself an “asylum for the oppressed, proclaim our welcome to the slave so loudly, that the tones shall reach every hut in the Carolinas, and make the broken – hearted bondman leap up at the thought of old Massachusetts”.

The story starts with the birth of Frederick Douglass in Talbot County, Maryland. He is unsure what year he was born because slaves aren’t allowed to know how old they are. As a child, he remembers being confused but unhappy that white children know their ages, but he can’t ask what his is. At one time he overheard a comment that makes him assume he was born near 1818.

Douglass’s mother was Harriet Bailey, her parents were Isaac and Betsey Bailey. As is common among slave owners, Frederick is separated from his mother shortly after birth. “It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age. Frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is taken from is, and hired out on some farm a considerable distance off, and the child is placed under the care of an old woman, too old for field labor”. He thinks this practice may be to use to “blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child”. He has vague memories of his mother who would walk twelve miles to see him. His mother died when he was about seven. Later when he was told about it, he was barely affected by the news.

As for his father, Douglass knows he is a white man, and many people tell his that his master is his father. Many masters impregnate their female slaves in order to build their numbers. According to the laws, if a female slave is a child, her children are as well. This practice makes rape very profitable. Douglass points out that a mixed-race slave has a harder fate than other slaves. The slaveholder’s wife will hate them and want them sold. When he thinks of the abundance of mixed-race slaves, Douglass argues that that negates the currently held belief of the inferiority of the African race.

His first master was Captain Anthony. He and his overseer, Mr. Plummer are both cruel. Plummer is a drunk who carries a whip and a cudgel and uses them liberally on the slaves. He has memories of the Captain whipping his Aunt Hester and his feelings of almost being a participant because he had to watch it. Even now he can’t seem to analyze his feelings of his first remembered introduction to the world of slavery. His biggest fear when watching her being whipped is that he will be the next victim.

Captain Anthony has his two sons Andrew and Richard living with him as well as his daughter, Lucretia and her husband Captain Thomas Auld. The house they live in is on the central plantation owned by a Colonel Lloyd. Anthony supervises all of the overseers. Tobacco, corn, and wheat are the major crops and Anthony and his son in law both take the goods by ship to sell in Baltimore. Mr. Lloyd is the owner of three to four hundred slaves. Once a month they all report to the center plantation for their allocation of food, which includes pork or fish and corn meal. They are given one change of linen clothing each year, and the adults are given one blanket. The blanket is used for sleeping on the floor, but they don’t notice how uncomfortable it is because of the exhaustion.

The aptly named Mr. Severe is Anthony’s first overseer in Douglass’s life, and when he dies he is replaced with Mr. Hopkins who is less cruel and profane. The slaves all call the central plantation the “Great House Farm” because it is a small village. When they are sent to the Great House, they seem to feel it as a privilege. “A representative could not be prouder of his election to a seat in the American Congress, than a slave on one of our farms would be of his election to do errands at the Great House Farm. They regarded it as evidence of great confidence reposed in them by their overseers”. “The competitors for this office sought as diligently to please their overseers, as the office-seekers in the political parties seek to please and deceive the people.”

The gardens on the plantation are showplaces and Colonel Lloyd’s stable of horses and his carriages are extensive and well cared for. They are run by two slaves, a father and son named Old Barney and Young Barney. They are often whipped for whatever infractions the horses commit. The slaves must always accept their punishments stoically.

The wealth of Col. Lloyd was so great that he hasn’t even met all his slaves. One day, while traveling on one of the roads of his plantation, Col. Lloyd stopped a slave walking on the road. Without identifying himself, Lloyd asks his slave how well he is treated. The slave answers truthfully about his unfair treatment and is chained and sold to Georgia a few weeks later. The message from this is the dangers of telling the truth.

Mr. Hopkins is replaced with an even more cruel overseer, Mr. Gore. He demands total dominion and his punishments are brutal. He whips a slave named Demby who retreats into a creek to soothe his pain. When Gore gives him to the count of three to leave the creek and the slave doesn’t, he shoots him. Gore is praised instead of punished for murdering a man in cold blood. Douglass gives more examples of the same kind of cruelty throughout the country.

Children don’t work in the fields because they are too weak. They are only given long shirts to wear and are fed from communal troughs of corn mush. Only the most aggressive children get enough to eat. He is given as a playmate to the Colonel’s grandson, Daniel. He accompanies him on hunting trips, but his lack of clothing leads to damage caused by the cold.

When he is seven years old, Douglass is sent to Baltimore to Daniel. He is given his first pair of trousers. He is thrilled to leave the plantation and hopes to never return. In Baltimore, he is met by the Auld’s. Mrs. Sophia Auld is kind to him. She, her husband, Hugh, and son Thomas are his masters now. Douglass considers his move to Baltimore to be a gift from God.

Although Mrs. Auld starts out kind she soon becomes accustomed to being a slaveholder and becomes crueler. When he first arrived Mrs. Auld began to teach him the alphabet and to read a few words, but her husband tells her to stop because too much education would make him unfit to be a slave. He told her it would make him “unmanageable”, “discontented and unhappy”. When Douglass overhears this he sees it as part of the strategies used to enslave blacks. He understands that the path to freedom is through education.

In the city, most slaves are treated better than in the country because the slaveholders don’t want to look bad to the non-slaveholders. But, Douglass remembers two young girls in the neighborhood that were brutally mistreated to the point of looking starved and crippled.

For the next seven years, Douglass lives in the Auld household. During that time he learns to read and write. Although slavery has taken more and more of Mrs. Auld’s kindness, Douglass is able to continue his studies by paying the poor neighborhood boys in bread and food to teach him to read. In this book, he will not reveal the names of the boys who helped him because it would be too dangerous for them still.

One day, at the age of twelve, Douglass finds and reads a book with a philosophical debate between a master and a slave. The slave convinces the master to release him. With knowledge comes more and more discontent with his condition and at one time Douglass considers suicide. During this time Douglass first learns about abolitionist and that the word means antislavery. During this time Douglass helps a couple of Irish sailors unload their boat. The men encourage Douglass to escape to the North, but he doesn’t trust them. He is aware that some men will encourage a slave to escape so they can recapture him and get the reward. But, the idea sticks in his head.

Douglass works to learn to write. He watches ships’ carpenter’s writing single letters on lumber and learns the basics of writing. Douglass practices his letters on fences and walls and even on the ground throughout the city. He has writing contests with other boys in the city. He learns from the boys, and copies from the dictionary. Whenever his masters leave him alone in the house, he writes in Thomas’s old discarded copybooks. With lots of work, he eventually learns to write.

When Douglass is around ten or eleven, he is returned to the plantation due to the death of Captain Anthony. He is appraised along with the other slaves and livestock so they can be divided among the Captain’s surviving children, Lucretia Auld and Andrew Anthony. Because of his drunkenness and cruelty, everyone hopes to avoid going with Andrew. Douglass has already seen some of that cruelty when Andrew kicks Douglass’s little brother until his head bleeds. Then he threatens to do the same to Douglass.

Luckily for Douglass, he is returned to Baltimore. Soon, Lucretia and Andrew both die, leaving all their property to strangers. Although some slaveholders free their slaves with their deaths, neither Lucretia or Andrew do it. Andrew didn’t even provide for Douglass’s grandmother, who took care of Andrew from the time he was an infant. Because she is too old to work the fields, the new owners abandon her in a small hut in the woods.

A few years after the death of Lucretia, Thomas remarries and soon has a disagreement with his brother, Hugh. Because of this Thomas reclaims Douglass. Although Douglass is not sad to leave the Aulds, since Sophia has become cruel and Hugh has become a drunk, he is sorry to leave the local boys. They have become his friends and teachers. While he is traveling back on the ship, Douglass pays attention to the route so he can map his escape.

At the plantation, Douglass works in the kitchen but never has enough to eat. None of the slaves do. They must beg and steal to get food while they know there is food wasting in the warehouse. Douglass says that slaveholders like Auld make worse masters because they weren’t born to it. A few years later Auld becomes more religious after a Methodist Camp Meeting and becomes even crueler. Some religious owners are kind. One man, Mr. Wilson runs a small school for his slave’s children, but he is made to shut it down.

Douglass starts to let Auld’s horse run away to a nearby farm, so he can chase it there and have a hearty meal. Auld figures it out and decides to rent Douglass to Edward Covey for a year who is notoriously famous for taming problem slaves. Although Douglass knows about Covey’s reputation he is hoping for steady meals. The first day Douglass is sent out to the fields for the first time. He is given some unbroken oxen to handle, and when they are too much for him, he is brutally whipped by Covey. From that time on he is whipped weekly for “awkwardness”.

Throughout the daylight hours, the slaves are working in the field. Covey works with them, which is unusual for masters, but he crawls around the stalks with hopes of catching the slaves resting. For this, he is known as “the snake”. Although Covey professes to be religious he commits sins blatantly, especially adultery. One of his own slaves is a woman named Caroline, who is known as a breeder. He has one of his hired men sleep with her every night in hopes she will get pregnant and give him more slaves. For the first six months of his time with Covey, Douglass begins to lose his humanity. He doesn’t care about learning or anything else. On Sundays, the slaves have the day off, and Douglass just rests in the shade in a stupor.

One day Douglass collapses from exhaustion and is cruelly beaten with a plank. Afterward, Douglass painfully makes his way back to Auld, with hopes that he will not send him back. But he does. When he sees Covey running towards him with a whip, he runs and hides in the cornstalks. Covey gives up searching and Douglass makes his way through the woods to a neighboring farm. He sees Sandy, another slave, who is traveling to see his free wife. He advises Douglass to take a “magical root” that is found in the woods. Douglass is skeptical but decides to try it anyway.

When he goes back to Covey, the root seems to work and Covey is kinder. But, the next morning Covey falls on Douglass in the stable and tries to tie his legs. Douglass fights back and is winning when Covey calls for help from another slave, Hughes. When he tries, Douglass kicks him down. Covey calls for another slave, Bill, who refuses to help him. Douglass and Covey fight for two hours, afterward Covey brags that he whipped Douglass, but it is a lie, and he never touches Douglass again.

Douglass isn’t whipped for the next four years. On Christmas, Day Douglass is finished with his time with Covey. Douglass says that the slaves are given time off work for the holiday between Christmas and New Years. The masters encourage the slaves to spend the time drunk instead of working on their own projects or resting. This system makes freedom seem less appealing.

The next year, 1834, Douglass is sent to live with Mr. Freeland, who is harsh but fair. Douglass makes friends with other slaves and begins to give reading and writing lessons on Sunday. Even though the slaves know how dangerous getting an education is, they still attend. Even though Douglass is happier than ever before, he still plans his escape. He offers to take others with him, but the dangers are very high. If they attempt the escape and fail, they know they will be killed.

The escape party consists of Douglass and four other men. The plan is to canoe up the Chesapeake Bay on the Saturday before Easter. Douglass forges travel passes for each of them and signs his master’s name. As the day grows closer, Douglass senses they were betrayed. He is right, because he and his group are apprehended before they even leave. They are taken to Auld’s house and along the way they agree to destroy the passes so there is no evidence. They are jailed and fear being sold. At the end of the Easter holiday, the other men are taken back to the plantation, but Douglass is still held in jail as the leader and instigator.

At first Auld threatens to sell him to Alabama, but instead sends him back to Baltimore with Hugh Auld. He plans to have Douglass work as an apprentice to a ship’s carpenter, but they are so shorthanded that he works at so many different places he never learns anything concrete. The white workers go on strike to protest the shipbuilder, William Gardner paying free blacks to do the work. He fires them, but since Douglass isn’t paid for his work, he stays on and is abused by the whites he works with. One day he is jumped by four men, who almost destroy his eye. He wants to fight back but knows better since he would be hung for hitting a white man. He tells Hugh, who takes him to a lawyer with plans to press charges. But a white man cannot be charged by a black man without the testimony of a white man.

After healing, Douglass is sent to Hugh’s own shipyard and apprentices under Walter Price. Quickly he is earning the highest wage possible for caulking. He turns the wages over to Hugh Auld and thinks of him as a pirate who can take what he didn’t earn.

His final chapter is about the time of his life that involves his escape, but he won’t tell how he did it because he doesn’t want other slaveholders to know how he did it and stop other slaves from achieving the same result. First, he begins to get portions of his wage from Hugh. When he asks Thomas if he can work on his own, he is refused because Thomas Auld thinks he will try to escape. When he asks Hugh Auld, he agrees but insists Douglass pay him a huge portion of his pay for room, board, and tools.

For the next four months, Douglass works all week and pays Hugh on Saturday. But, when he is unable to give him his pay one Saturday, Hugh takes away Douglass’s freedom to work. So, he spends the next week not working in protest. Then Douglass chooses September third as the day he will escape, and works diligently until then so Hugh won’t be expecting it.

When he reaches New York City on September 3rd, he is terrified. He has no food, shelter, money or friends and is afraid to speak to anyone because he is afraid they will turn him in. He meets David Ruggles, an abolitionist, and journalist, who advises him to go to New Bedford, Massachusetts to find work as a caulker. Douglass sends a letter to his fiancee, Anna Murray, a free black woman from Baltimore who joins him in New York and Ruggles witnesses their marriage. Then he gives Douglass five dollars and a letter of recommendation.

They finally reach New Bedford where they meet Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Johnson. They pay for Douglass and Anna’s travel debts and help him choose a new name. Johnson suggests “Douglass” because it is the name of a knight in Sir Walter Scott’s “Lady of the Lake”.

Because he had always believed the northern states were filled with poverty because they don’t own slaves, he is surprised to see the wealth. Even the black people in the city live well. The blacks in the city are better educated and politically aware than many southern white men. And the black people in the north help each other out and help escaped slaves. After three years of working at various jobs, Douglass earns enough money to subscribe to the Liberator, an abolitionist magazine. Then in August of 1841, he attends an antislavery convention and is asked to speak of his years of slavery. Since that day Douglass has continued his fight against slavery.

In the Appendix, Douglass furthers his arguments against the corruption of the churches in the south and the hypocrisy of the supposed Christians who are slaveholders.

Character Analysis

Frederick Douglass  – born into slavery before the Civil War, Douglass was able to escape to freedom in the Northern States. He wrote his autobiography in order to show to the country that the slaves are able to achieve the same intelligence as the white people. Throughout the story, Douglass articulates the brutality committed against himself and other slaves. He shows that with just a little bit of help anyone can make their life better and that all men are equal. At the beginning, he is separated from his mother, and never told who his father is, although everyone assumes it is his master as is that is a common practice. He becomes a companion to the master’s little boy and then is sent to Baltimore to work for the household of the married son of the master and his wife and son. There he begins to learn to read. He continues learning even though his mistress stops teaching him and becomes more like the other slaveholders. He shows how the act of owning slaves takes a nice woman and makes her cruel. When he was twenty, Douglass escaped his slavery then he and his fiancee relocated to Massachusetts where he attended an antislavery convention where he was asked to speak. Afterward he wrote his autobiography to open the eyes of the American people to the evil of slavery.

Captain Anthony – he was the first master of Frederick Douglass and was probably his natural father. He was a cruel caretaker of all the plantations owned by Colonel Lloyd. He seems to enjoy whipping his slaves. He whips men, women, and children with equal cruelty. His title of Captain is because of the once piloted ships on the Chesapeake Bay.

Colonel Edward Lloyd – the first owner of Douglass. He is the owner of all the plantations that are run by Captain Anthony. He is an extremely rich man and when he dies his property is divided between his children, including the slaves and livestock he owns. Lloyd demands extreme subservience and often metes out punishments that are quick and cruel almost to the point of killing his slaves. He punishes his stablemen whenever the horses anger him.

Captain Thomas Auld – the second owner of Douglass. This is his first foray into being a slaveholder and in finding his ground he is uncommonly cruel. Especially after he becomes religious and takes the “Christianity” he is taught to become self-righteously brutal to his slaves.

Hugh Auld – he is the brother of Thomas and is given Douglass when he is a child to use in his family. Douglass is to be a personal slave to Hugh’s son, Thomas. He understands that one of the ways the white people maintain their power over the blacks is by withholding their education, which he inadvertently allows Douglass to discover, which opens his eyes to how to gain the power to escape. He allows Douglass to train as a ship’s caulker so he can take the wages Douglass earns.

Frederick Douglass Biography

Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, in 1817 in Tuckahoe, Maryland. Since his mother was a slave, Douglass was also a slave. Largely self-educated, he used that education to escape slavery. He tried to escape in 1841, but then succeeded two years later when he escaped to New Bedford, Massachusetts. There he assumed the name of Douglass.

During an antislavery convention in 1841 Douglass gave an impromptu address that revealed him to be an orator of passionate eloquence. He was quickly engaged as an agent of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. His speeches in the following years in the northern states and his work for the Underground Railroad did much to further the cause of he abolitionist and made his name an emblem of freedom among both whites and blacks.

In 1845 his friends encouraged him to relocate to Europe to escape the danger of seizure under the fugitive slave laws. He gave lectures in the British Isles the aroused sympathy for the cause of the abolitionist. His admirers raised the funds necessary to buy his freedom, so he returned to the United States in 1847. He became a Station Master of the Underground Railroad in Rochester, New York. There he also established the abolitionist newspaper, North Star.

In the late 1850’s Douglass became friendly with the American abolitionist, John Brown. He helped Brown develop the Underground Railroad. Brown wanted to destroy the financial value of slaves by training a force of men to help large numbers of slaves escape to the North via the Underground Railroad. But, on the eve of the raid on Harper’s Ferry, Douglass learned that it was Brown’s intention to seize the federal arsenal. He was against it and warned Brown that the raid would be an attack on the U. S. government and would prove to be a disaster. He refused to participate but still left for Europe in fear of reprisal. After six months he returned in time for the election.

Douglass campaigned for Abraham Lincoln and helped raise two regiments of black men for the Union Army. After the war, he fought for the enactment of the 13th , 14th, and 15th amendments. He became U.S. marshal for Washington, D.C., a recorder of deeds, and a U. S. minister to Haiti. He died in Washington, D.C. On February 20, 1895.

So impressive were Douglass’s oratorical and intellectual abilities that opponents refused to believe he had been a slave and alleged that he was an impostor foisted on the public by the abolitionist. He wrote several autobiographies to describe his life as a slave. In 1845 he wrote “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave”. His second book was “My Bondage and My Freedom” published in 1855. He wrote his last autobiography after the Civil War, “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass”. The last book covered the years during and after the war. He was an active supporter of Women’s Suffrage. Even though he didn’t ask for the privilege, Douglass was the first black man to be nominated for Vice President nominee of Victoria Woodhull, on the Equal Rights Party ticket in 1872.

As a proponent of equal rights for all no matter the race or sex, Douglass was active in speaking for the Native Americans, and recent immigrants. When he was criticized for his willingness to speak to slaveholders, Douglass replied, “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong”.