Frederick Douglass 2 Essay, Research Paper
Sincerely and earnestly hoping that this little book may do something toward throwing light on the American slave system, and hastening the glad day of deliverance to the millions of my brethren in bonds relying upon the power of truth, love, and justice, for success in my efforts and solemnly pledging myself anew to the sacred cause, I subscribe myself. (76)
With these words, Frederick Douglass ended one of the greatest pieces of propaganda of the 19th century. Douglass wrote his autobiography as an abolitionist tool to shape his northern audience s view of southern slaveholders. Through personal anecdotes, Douglass drew an accurate picture of the life of a slave. At the same time, these events were chosen for how they would affect the northern audience s opinion of southern slaveholders. By using the written word, Douglass and fellow abolitionists targeted educated northern whites because they were the only group who could change the status quo. Illiterate northern whites and free northern blacks could not vote while white southerners would not vote because they did not want change. Therefore, Douglass used his life story as a tool to promote abolition among literate northern whites.
Frederick Douglass used family relationships, starting with his birth to tug at the heartstrings of his targeted audience. He never knew the true identity of his father, but it was whispered (2) that it was his master. Douglass mentioned this to show how the slave holder in (many) cases, sustains to his slaves the double relation of master and father. (2) This was so commonplace that it was by law established that the children of women shall in all cases follow the condition of their mother. (2) This meant that these bastard children were to be slaves despite their paternal heritage because their mother was a slave. The effect was to shock and offend the morals of the conservative northern whites. People involved in adulteress and interracial relationships were scorned by northern society. By portraying these southerners as immoral and adulteress, Douglass wanted his audience to have an unfavorable opinion of southern slaveholders.
Keeping with the theme of family values, Douglass touched on the topic of the basic family unit. Their master separated Douglass and his mother when he was an infant, for what reason (Douglass) does not know. (2) No reason was ever given to Douglass because this was the accepted way of life on plantations. Douglass wanted his northern white readers to be horrified that slave families were regularly torn apart for no apparent reason. Northerners would be upset by this because the family was the basis for their close-knit communities. Multiple generations and extended families lived together or within close proximity to each other. It would be unimaginable to the readers that a society existed that took children away from their mothers without a reason. Anyone who was part of such a society would be thought of as a heartless monster. Douglass wanted the northern whites to lash out against these heartless monsters and abolish slavery, thereby ending the callous practices associated with slavery.
Another example of how Douglass used family values as propaganda against southern slaveholders was in the treatment of his grandmother. When Douglass s master decided that his grandmother was too old and no longer useful, they took her to the woods, built her a little hut and then made her welcome to the privilege of supporting herself in perfect loneliness; thus virtually turning her out to die. (28) This showed the lack of decency or gratitude on the part of slave holders toward slaves that had faithfully, their entire lives, served their masters. The mistreatment of elders in this manner would enrage the readers, especially those with close-knit families, because the aged were to be taken care of and respected until death. The usefulness of older people went beyond physical attributes because they had a wealth of knowledge and experience to share. The fact that slave masters could show so little regard and respect for Douglass s grandmother would be loathsome and despicable, and Douglass hoped this would help influence the northern whites against the institution of slavery.
Furthermore, Douglass wanted to show the hypocrisy in the behavior of these masters. They considered their slaves to be less than human, yet they still desired and slept with their female slaves. This would prove to northern whites the invalidity of southern claims that horses and men, cattle and women, and pigs and children all (held) the same rank in the scale of being. (27) If slaves were truly of less rank than animals, why would a slaveholder want to sleep with one? Surely he would not sleep with one of his farm animals. Northern whites would be appalled at the thought of desiring or sleeping with anything they considered to be on a lower level of existence than animals. Therefore, Douglass s northern audience would be revolted by southern slave owners.
As mentioned earlier, slaves were considered to be on the same level of existence as animals. Douglass focused on this aspect of slave treatment by their masters to show how slaves were not considered to be human beings. Slaveholders considered the entire race of enslaved people to have less worth than any white person. One way the slaves were treated as animals was how they were fed. Their food was put into a large wooden tray or trough and the children were then called like so many pigs to devour the mush; some with naked hands, and none with spoons. (16) Slave owners described slave children as pigs because like pigs, the children were dirty, smelly, and they would push each other out of the way to get as much food as possible. The children were dirty and smelly because they were not cared for adequately by their masters, and they pushed each other out of the way to get to the food because they were never fed enough food. What the slaves were fed was coarse corn meal boiled called mush (16) which is similar to what farm animals were fed. The difference between the farm animals and the slaves was that the animals were taken care of better and always given enough to eat. Douglass repeatedly mentions how often he (felt) the gnawing pains of hunger. (31) His masters had more than an adequate supply of food but would rather it lay moldering (31) than give it to the slaves. Not only is this more evidence as to the cruel and selfish nature of slaveholders, but it shows how animals were treated better than slaves. To know that animals were treated better than certain human beings in the south would hit a nerve with Douglass s targeted audience. Imaging themselves to be treated so worthlessly by another human being, literate northern whites would feel divided from southern slave owners.
To force his audience to feel further alienated, Douglass elaborates on the treatment of slaves as animals in his description of the slaves sleeping conditions. Masters did not give the slaves a bed to sleep on, only a coarse blanket. (6) So at the end of the day, slaves old and young, male and female, married and single (would) drop down side by side, on one common bed- the cold damp floor. (6) Douglass was aware that some of his northern readers could relate to the slaves situation because they too had once endured similar circumstances of poor living conditions or even homelessness. But, northern society made it possible for a person to overcome such hardships while the slave masters denied their slaves a better existence. The institution of slavery held each successive generation in poverty, which is an affront to the dream that many northerners held of prosperity in the new world. Douglass hoped that the Northerners would sympathize with the slaves oppression while becoming enraged with the slaveholders who held them there.
Douglass also wanted his northern audience to be enraged by how slaveholders punished slaves. A northerner with any sense of justice would be furious that it was not considered wrong to whip a slave till (they were) literally covered with blood (4) nor was it considered a crime to kill a slave. Masters and overseers justified severely whipping their slaves because it (was) the duty of a master to whip a slave, to remind him of his master s authority. (46) Slaves were whipped for the smallest offences to prevent the commission of larger ones. (46) If a slave became unmanageable (14). He was killed to avert other slaves from copying the example. (14) Douglass detailed these horrific examples of punishment to infuriate the northern white reader that a person was punished in advance of any wrongdoing, was whipped almost to the brink of death, and was murdered without it being treated as a crime by the courts or community. (14) Treatment of one person by another in these ways was not tolerated in the north. This fiendish barbarity (46) would appall the northern reader and would lead them to share Douglass s opinion that southern slave holders were truly the most wicked of men. (24)
To further demonstrate the wickedness of southern slave masters, Douglass wanted his readers to know how religion was used as a mere covering for the most horrid crimes a dark shelter under which the darkest, foulest, grossest and most infernal deeds of slave holders (found) the strongest protection. (46) Masters would beat their slaves and then defend their actions with quotes from the bible such as He that knoweth his master s will and doeth it not shall be beaten with many stripes. (33) Northerners with any religious background would know that this quote and others like it did not translate into justification for inflicting physical harm on a slave when they did not obey their master. Douglass wanted to show his readers how slave owners misused the teachings of the bible to strengthen their own power and how they basically saw themselves as God to their slaves. The reader would know the later was blasphemy, one of the seven deadly sins. As a result, the readers would detest their southern brethren because religious slave holders (were) the worst meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly of all others. (46)
Combining all the ways that Douglass sought to affect his northern audience s opinion of southern slaveholders, he hoped to give his readers a glimpse into the true character of southern slaveholders and the institution of slavery itself. Douglass realized that racism was also prevalent in the north and so his intent was not trying to achieve equal rights but basic human rights. Douglass hoped to gain compassion for those still held in slavery by relating experiences such as being separated from his mother when he was an infant and not knowing whom his father was, how slaves were treated as if they had less value than an animal, and the fact that slaves were brutally beaten and sometimes killed without it being considered a crime. Douglass also hoped to tarnish his northern white readers view of southern slave holders and their practices by illustrating how they had adulterous and interracial affairs with their salves whom they considered to be less than human, how they abhorrently and unjustly mistreated and punished their slaves, and how they used religion as a crutch for legitimizing their actions.
Slavery was a most painful situation; and, to understand it, one must experience it, or imagine himself in similar circumstances then, and not till then, will he fully appreciate the hardships of, and know how to sympathize with, the toil worn and whipped-scarred slave. (64)
These are Douglass s own words that are meant as a plea for his readers to imagine themselves in his situation to better understand the hardships he and other slaves endured. Through the use of propaganda disguised as The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, this man sought to alter the relationship between two groups of people. Family values, basic human rights, and religion were topics used to persuade the northern white audience toward the cause of abolition. Douglass hoped that his readers would in some way share his hate (for) the corrupt, slave holding, woman-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of (the southern slave holders). (71). Slavery does not exist in today s society so obviously Douglass s effort was able to help advance the cause of abolition.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Dover Publications
Inc. New York: 1995.