The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass


To the general public slavery is known as a wicked and pitiless practice that has long since been abolished. However, to many other poor souls, slavery has had a much deeper impact on them. There are many accounts having to deal with slavery and its evils, yet The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself is by far the most powerful account in illustrating the evils of slavery through the eyes of the enslaved.


Frederick Douglass is best known for his speeches and essays devoted to the abolitionist movement. The abolitionist movement in the United States began long before the Civil War started in 1861. As an escaped slave, Douglass traveled all over the northern part of the United States to speak out against the horrors of slavery. Although human slavery is an ancient institution, the system of slavery practiced in North and South America, called "chattel slavery" because slaves were considered personal, disposable property, took on a distinct character. The two most important distinguishing factors in chattel slavery are: 1) its cruelty, made possible by the relative alienation of plantations where the slaves were subject to brutality and force to keep them from rebelling, a practice allowed by the government, and 2) the complex economic relationship between the slave system and the industrial cities of the north. American slaves experienced many kinds of brutality, including rape, castration, and other kinds of mutilation, and families were often sold away from each other. Sometimes plantation masters sold away their illegitimate children by slave mothers. Any attempt on the slave\'s part to assert his or her rights, and escape brutality, was met with more brutality. A slave could not even defend himself, by law. There were very few successful slave uprisings because most slaves never left the plantations and had little idea what the surrounding country was like, and also because slave catchers would use dogs and wanted posters to bring you back to slavery. It was extremely difficult for a slave to escape to the North, and, even if you made it to the free states, the Fugitive Slave Bill meant you could be sent back to slavery if you were caught. The system of chattel slavery existed in America for well over 100 years. The slave system in the United States did not only benefit the southern states. The main export crop from the South was cotton, which was shipped to textile industries in the North who would use it to make cloth and other items for sale. Slavery was a deeply embedded part of economic life in the United States, and people north and south benefited from the blood, sweat, and tears of millions of slave mothers, fathers, and children. Abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, who had experienced the degradation of slavery firsthand, bravely fought to end the slave system, even though it was a cornerstone of American industry. It was against the law for a person to teach a slave how to read and write, but against all odds Douglass taught himself to read and write and became a very skilled speaker. (Andrews)


Perhaps it seems strange to see Frederick Douglass, whose character and thought were formed in the furnace of slavery, associated with the Transcendentalists, yet indeed he was. Like the transcendentalists, Douglass believed in self-development and self-reliance, and few others could show as vividly the value of this philosophy. As a writer, he understood the value of the first-person voice, and he had such a remarkable and inspiring story to tell. Like them, he had great reason to believe in self-education and was certain that he had a message the world must hear. He was the most eloquent supporter of the cause of abolition. He believed that the moral individual was responsible to articulate his view of truth until others could hear it. (Deacon)


The foremost African American abolitionist in antebellum America, Frederick Douglass was the first African American leader of national stature in United States history. He was born, as can best be determined, in February 1817 (he took the 14th as his birthday) on the eastern shore of Maryland. His mother, from whom he was separated at an early age, was a slave named Harriet Bailey.