The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave was written by Frederick
Douglass himself. He was born into slavery in Tuckahoe, Maryland in approximately 1817. He has,
“?no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it” (47). He
became known as an eloquent speaker for the cause of the abolitionists. Having himself been kept as a
slave until he escaped from Maryland in 1838, he was able to deliver very impassioned speeches about
the role of the slave holders and the slaves. Many Northerners tried to discredit his tales, but no one was
ever able to disprove his statements.
Frederick Douglass does offer a biased review of slavery, as he was born into it, yet even in his
bias he is able to detect and detail the differences in the slave holders cruelty and that to which he was
subjected. From being whipped and humiliated daily, “a very severe whipping? for being awkward”
(101), to being able to find his own work and save some money, “I was able to command the highest
wages given to the most experienced calkers” (134), he is able to give the reader a more true picture of
slavery. His poignant speeches raised the ire of many Northerners, yet many still felt the slaves deserved
their position in life. Douglass, for his own safety, was urged to travel to England where he stayed and
spoke until 1847 when he returned to the U.S. to buy his freedom. At that point, he began to write and
distribute an anti-slavery newspaper called “The North Star”. Not only did he present news to the slaves,
but it was also highly regarded as a good source of information for those opposed to slavery.
During the Civil war, Douglass organized two regiments of black soldiers in Massachusetts to
fight for the North. Before, during and after the war he continued his quest to free all the slaves. He
became known as a fair and righteous man and was appointed as the U.S. Minister of Haiti after holding
several government offices.
Frederick Douglass has woven many themes into his narrative, all being tied with a common
thread of man’s inhumanity towards man. Children were uprooted from the arms of their mothers,
“before the child has reached it’s twelfth month, it’s mother is taken from it” (48) and sold to other slave
holders. Brutal whippings occurred for even the smallest imagined offense, “a mere look, word, or
motion” (118), women were treated as no better than common concubines and the slaves were forced into
living quarters, “on one common bed? cold, damp floor” (55) worse than some of the farm animals. The
slaves were not allowed even the most meager portion of food, “eight pounds of pork and one bushel of
corn meal” (54) to last a month. Clothes were scarce and illness was never tolerated. It was unthinkable
for the slaves to practice any type of religion, hold any gatherings, become literate to any degree,
“unlawful? unsafe, to teach a slave to read” (78) or even make the simple decision of when to eat and
One of the themes that the book dealt with is society and it’s handling of slavery under the guise
of Christianity. Those who professed to being the most Christian i.e., the minister who lived next door,
was actually the most cruel. Douglass stated adamantly that religion was, “a mere covering for the most
horrid of crimes, — justifier of? barbarity — sanctifier of? hateful fraud, — ?protection for the slave
holder” (117).”Religious slave holders are the worst” (117) because they thought it was their duty to
“whip his slaves” (118). While being in the community of religious leaders, Douglass was subjected to the
“meanest? most cruel” (117) of acts of one human being towards another. The slaves were kept down,
belittled and whipped into submission all under the tenets of Christianity. The Rev. Weeden, Rev.
Hopkins and Mr. Freeland felt it was not only their right to own slaves, but also their God-given right to
take these ?human beings’ and turn them into hard workers. The imagined acts of transgression and the
punishments mettled out smacked of Puritanism of the 1600’s. If they, as religious leaders, were the ideal
citizens of society, then the slaves, who were the chaff of the wheat, must be treated as such. If the slaves
were not whipped daily, how could they ever be saved from all their imagined sins?
Not only are we allowed a chronological view of Frederick Douglass’ life, we are also privy to the
growth of his emotional maturity as he explores the value of becoming a free man, “looked forward? safe
to escape? too young to go immediately? consoled myself with hope” (86). It is the gradual realization
that the more Douglass is treated fairly, “deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me
in its foul embrace” (75), the more he wants to be free and the more inhumanly he is treated, “raised his
musket? aim at his standing victim? Demby [a slave shot unjustly] was no more? horror flashed
through every soul upon the plantation” (67) the more he accepts his plight as a slave that opens up his
major theme. He comes to realize that the slaves lose their personality and identity the more submissive
and down trodden they become. Unable to think of only protecting their survival, they begin to believe
they are unworthy of being saved.
As they are awarded more freedoms, the slaves begin to realize that what has been taken from
them is actually their right to have, “a city slave is almost a freeman” (79). Freedom looks more and more
precious the closer they are to achieving it until it becomes an obsession and they will fight to the death to
The literary work the Narrative expresses two main views of women, neither of which are to be
taken as positive values even in the 1800’s. In a very unfavorable light, Douglass tells the reader that
slave women were expected to work alongside the men doing the same hard, dirty labor or they were used
to watch the children when they become, “too old for field labor” (48).
In Narrative, Mr. Covey, “buys one slave? for a breeder” (105). The men in Narrative believe
women are only good for sex and they do not hesitate to use them as such. Another example is that
Frederick’s father was, “whispered? my master was my father [Captain Anthony]” (49). The slave
holder was not above satisfying his sexual urges by the usage of black slaves.
The book was easily digested and powerful yet Douglass softened the tone by not becoming
graphic when he had every right to do so. This was the first publication of the book and it would be
interesting to see how much “gentler” he was by the third rewrite. Published by the Anti Slavery
Committee, it was definitely biased against the slave holder but Douglass seemed to write fairly of his
experiences especially since he was able to relate both good and bad experiences with his slave owners.
Douglass’ words sum it up the best, “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a
slave was made a man.” (107)