Slavery In American History: Frederick Douglass Escape From Slavery
Slavery in American history dates as far back as the late 17th century when twenty African slaves landed in Virginia carried by a Dutch ship. Since then, the practice of slavery dramatically increased with over 3.8 million slaves being transported to the New World between 1700 and 1800. As one of the 1.5 million estimated slaves during the early 19th century, Frederick Douglass makes his feelings of disgust and hatred towards slavery evident in his memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, in which he critiques the dehumanizing nature of the act. Douglass accounts everyday cruel treatment, poor living conditions, denial of rights and education, beatings, and perils he both personally experiences and witnesses. In relation, education was a privilege that was not granted to slaves in America and it was against the law in the 1830s for slaves to be taught how to read or write. Despite this, Douglass teaches himself to read and write. Douglass also emphasizes the importance of freedom when he first gets sold to Baltimore as a slave and eventually succeeds in his relentless pursuit to be free in 1838.
In day-to-day life, Douglass recollects the barbarities and dangers he views and undergoes at the hands of slaveholders. This cruelty would be exemplified by Douglass’s first ever witness of his Aunt Hester being whipped until bloody by Master Anthony. The sight of this whipping left Douglass “terrified and horror-stricken”;such violence against slaves occurred regularly, proving to be one of the many hardships Douglass experienced. Living conditions were of poor quality and inhumane. No beds, regular whippings, a stingy allowance of food and clothing, loss of sleep, and little protection from heat and cold were daily adversities. It was very common according to Douglass in Maryland for slave children to be separated from their mothers at very young age and raised without proper maternal care. Some of the women suffered being raped by their masters and bearing their children; their “mulatto children” were both at an advantage, receiving favors withheld from other black slaves, and disadvantage, being sold, whipped, and tied up by their white sibling or father. For slaves throughout America, safety and protection was never granted in their daily lives.
In like manner, slaveholders would strip away the individuality of men and women, which in turn intensifies Douglass’s hatred of slavery. In the time of Master Anthony’s death, Douglass describes how he felt degraded as he becomes valued as property for Mrs. Lucretia and Master Andrew. According to Douglass, slaves were ranked and traded as property with no more of a say in that decision than the animals. As a result from the slaveholders’ rankings and trade, slaves were dehumanized to the state of property. Further evidence of how slaveholders imbrute slaves was when Douglass witnesses slave children devouring mush out of a wooden trough “like so many pigs”. Despite Douglass’s strong spirited beliefs in himself, he ends up broken down in his spirit, body and soul because of the six months of labor at Mr.Covey’s, as Douglass states, “transformed” him “into a brute”. Given this comparison to animals and property, Douglass struggles with the hardship of being regarded as less than a human being, having his individuality destroyed, and being sold against his will-all of which illustrate atrocities of slavery.
Significant factors contributing to the adversities in slaves’ lives are the slaveholders’ manipulation and abuse of power, particularly when coinciding with religion. While controversial to note, the worst slaveholders were the religious masters who would justify their oppressive behavior with the perversion of Christianity, as in the case of Reverend Rigby Hopkins. Instilling fear through whippings over made-up excuses and minor offenses were actions committed by Hopkins, a man whose “most infernal deeds” would be protected with religious involvement. In one similar instance, Douglass details when Master Auld whips a young woman and quotes from the Scripture: “He hath knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.” In this quotation, a section from the Bible was not only taken out of context, but manipulated for the purpose of maintaining Master Auld’s status, control over the slaves, and to justify further cruelty.
By the time Douglass arrives to Baltimore, his desire for freedom sparks a quest to escape slavery. After his first six months living with Edward Covey, Douglass shows resistance and gets into a fight with Covey. This fight signifies his first steps in gaining his freedom, seeing that a new self-confidence, sense of manhood, and willpower to be free have risen in his act of resistance.
Later on in 1835, with the goal to escape slavery, Douglass devises a plan to travel in canoe up to the Chesapeake Bay. Throughout this process, Douglass experiences determination, doubtful of freedom, eagerness to pursue his plan, joy, and anxiety considering that he is responsible over the escape attempt. To Douglass and his fellow slaves, their escape plan would either result in a near certain death or a doubtful liberty. Unfortunately, his plan backfires when he is caught and sent to jail, now facing the feelings of despair over the lost possibility of freedom. Eventually, Douglass becomes free on September 3rd, 1838 in New York after finding employment and working to buy his own freedom. Douglass’s plan to escape consists of working for Mr. Butler at a ship-yard where he earns $8 weekly for Master Hugh, who is unaware of Douglass’s intentions. By September 3rd, he purchases his freedom and travels to New York. Now a free man, Douglass is conflicted with the insecurity, lonesomeness, and mistrust as an outsider in a new environment vulnerable to being kidnapped and sold away. At this point, Douglass adjusts to the unexpected costs of liberty.
It is important to note, however, that Douglass’s desire for freedom goes hand-in-hand with learning. To begin with, education was a privilege masters preferred to withhold from their slaves. Such is the case with Master Auld, who states that learning would make a slave unmanageable to their master, thus a slave should not learn anything but to obey their master. Knowledge was a tool for the slaveholders used to maintain and enslave. As a matter of fact, education was so powerful of a tool that it was illegal for slaves to be taught to read or write in America. Generally speaking, black education was not prioritized in most of America until the creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1865, which helped finance activities promoting education for blacks. Despite the limitations given, Douglass strives to learn how to read, write, and teach others. When he first starts living in Baltimore, Douglass’s mistress, Sophia Auld, teaches him the alphabet which he values as the beginning of his fixed goal to learn to read and use his education to achieve freedom. Soon, when out running errands on the streets, Douglass befriends young white boys who teach him to read in exchange for bread. When Douglass reads The Columbian Orator he finds himself immersed in the discussions of human rights, his new knowledge begins to “torment and sting” his soul, anguished by his own thoughts but nonetheless dedicates to escaping his life as an ignorant slave. Years later, Douglass teaches himself to write from copying from his master Thomas’s books after observing ship carpenters writing letters on timber.
After a while, Douglass holds a Sabbath school and teaches a group of slaves to read the will of God. While it was blessed and important for Douglass to help the condition of his fellow slaves, it was a risk worth 39 lashes by the masters who wished to keep their slaves in an ignorant “starved” state of mind. As previously stated, masters purposely kept slaves uneducated to better manipulate and keep their power over the slaves. With this understood, the students had a wish to learn, much like Douglass, that came from a deprived mind.
Due to the day-to-day perils and atrocities of slavery, Frederick Douglass chooses to escape his enslaved life by means of education and determination to become free. Douglass’s memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass captures the awful effects of slavery he experiences and witnesses, as well as illustrate the process of Douglass becoming a free man. This account of Douglass’s life is of importance to American history due to it deconstructing the idea of blacks’ inferiority in society in addition to persuading Americans to support emancipation.
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