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By Charles Chesnutt
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications
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If it be no small task for a man of the most favored antecedents and the most fortunate surroundings to rise above mediocrity in a great nation, it is surely a more remarkable achievement for a man of the very humblest origin possible to humanity in any country in any age of the world, in the face of obstacles seemingly insurmountable, to win high honors and rewards, to retain for more than a generation the respect of good men in many lands, and to be deemed worthy of enrolment among his country's great men. Such a man was Frederick Douglass, and the example of one who thus rose to eminence by sheer force of character and talents that neither slavery nor caste proscription could crush must ever remain as a shining illustration of the essential superiority of manhood to environment. Circumstances made Frederick Douglass a slave, but they could not prevent him from becoming a freeman and a leader among mankind.
The early life of Douglass, as detailed by himself from the platform in vigorous and eloquent speech, and as recorded in the three volumes written by himself at different periods of his career, is perhaps the completest indictment of the slave system ever presented at the bar of public opinion. Fanny Kemble's Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, kept by her in the very year of Douglass's escape from bondage, but not published until 1863, too late to contribute anything to the downfall of slavery, is a singularly clear revelation of plantation life from the standpoint of an outsider entirely unbiased by American prejudice. Frederick Douglass's Narrative is the same story told from the inside. They coincide in the main facts; and in the matter of detail, like the two slightly differing views of a stereoscopic picture, they bring out into bold relief the real character of the peculiar institution. Uncle Tom's Cabin lent to the structure of fact the decorations of humor, a dramatic plot, and characters to whose fate the touch of creative genius gave a living interest. But, after all, it was not Uncle Tom, nor Topsy, nor Miss Ophelia, nor Eliza, nor little Eva that made the book the power it proved to stir the hearts of men, but the great underlying tragedy then already rapidly approaching a bloody climax.
Frederick Douglass was born in February, 1817,—as nearly as the date could be determined in after years, when it became a matter of public interest,—at Tuckahoe, near Easton, Talbot County, on the eastern shore of Maryland, a barren and poverty-stricken district, which possesses in the birth of Douglass its sole title to distinction. His mother was a negro slave, tall, erect, and well-proportioned, of a deep black and glossy complexion, with regular features, and manners of a natural dignity and sedateness. Though a field hand and compelled to toil many hours a day, she had in some mysterious way learned to read, being the only person of color in Tuckahoe, slave or free, who possessed that accomplishment. His father was a white man. It was in the nature of things that in after years attempts should be made to analyze the sources of Douglass's talent, and that the question should be raised whether he owed it to the black or the white half of his mixed ancestry. But Douglass himself, who knew his own mother and grandmother, ascribed such powers as he possessed to the negro half of his blood; and, as to it certainly he owed the experience which gave his anti-slavery work its peculiar distinction and value, he doubtless believed it only fair that the credit for what he accomplished should go to those who needed it most and could justly be proud of it. He never knew with certainty who his white father was, for the exigencies of slavery separated the boy from his mother before the subject of his paternity became of interest to him; and in after years his white father never claimed the honor, which might have given him a place in history.
Douglass's earliest recollections centered around the cabin of his grandmother, Betsey Bailey, who seems to have been something of a privileged character on the plantation, being permitted to live with her husband, Isaac, in a cabin of their own, charged with only the relatively light duty of looking after a number of young children, mostly the offspring of her own five daughters, and providing for her own support.
It is impossible in a work of the scope of this to go into very elaborate detail with reference to this period of Douglass's life, however interesting it might be. The real importance of his life to us of another generation lies in what he accomplished toward the world's progress, which he only began to influence several years after his escape from slavery. Enough ought to be stated, however, to trace his development from slave to freeman, and his preparation for the platform where he secured his hearing and earned his fame.
Douglass was born the slave of one Captain Aaron Anthony, a man of some consequence in eastern Maryland, the manager or chief clerk of one Colonel Lloyd, the head for that generation of an old, exceedingly wealthy, and highly honored family in Maryland, the possessor of a stately mansion and one of the largest and most fertile plantations in the State. Captain Anthony, though only the satellite of this great man, himself owned several farms and a number of slaves. At the age of seven Douglass was taken from the cabin of his grandmother at Tuckahoe to his master's residence on Colonel Lloyd's plantation.
Up to this time he had never, to his recollection, seen his mother. All his impressions of her were derived from a few brief visits made to him at Colonel Lloyd's plantation, most of them at night. These fleeting visits of the mother were important events in the life of the child, now no longer under the care of his grandmother, but turned over to the tender mercies of his master's cook, with whom he does not seem to have been a favorite. His mother died when he was eight or nine years old. Her son did not see her during her illness, nor learn of it until after her death. It was always a matter of grief to him that he did not know her better, and that he could not was one of the sins of slavery that he never forgave.
On Colonel Lloyd's plantation Douglass spent four years of the slave life of which his graphic description on the platform stirred humane hearts to righteous judgment of an unrighteous institution. It is enough to say that this lad, with keen eyes and susceptible feelings, was an eye-witness of all the evils to which slavery gave birth. Its extremes of luxury and misery could be found within the limits of one estate. He saw the field hand driven forth at dawn to labor until dark. He beheld every natural affection crushed when inconsistent with slavery, or warped and distorted to fit the necessities and promote the interests of the institution. He heard the unmerited strokes of the lash on the backs of others, and felt them on his own. In the wild songs of the slaves he read, beneath their senseless jargon or their fulsome praise of "old master," the often unconscious note of grief and despair. He perceived, too, the debasing effects of slavery upon master and slave alike, crushing all semblance of manhood in the one, and in the other substituting passion for judgment, caprice for justice, and indolence and effeminacy for the more virile virtues of freemen. Doubtless the gentle hand of time will some time spread the veil of silence over this painful past; but, while we are still gathering its evil aftermath, it is well enough that we do not forget the origin of so many of our civic problems.
When Douglass was ten years old, he was sent from the Lloyd plantation to Baltimore, to live with one Hugh Auld, a relative of his master. Here he enjoyed the high privilege, for a slave, of living in the house with his master's family. In the capacity of house boy it was his duty to run errands and take care of a little white boy, Tommy Auld, the son of his mistress for the time being, Mrs. Sophia Auld. Mrs. Auld was of a religious turn of mind; and, from hearing her reading the Bible aloud frequently, curiosity prompted the boy to ask her to teach him to read. She complied, and found him an apt pupil, until her husband learned of her unlawful and dangerous conduct, and put an end to the instruction. But the evil was already done, and the seed thus sown brought forth fruit in the after career of the orator and leader of men. The mere fact that his master wished to prevent his learning made him all the more eager to acquire knowledge. In after years, even when most bitter in his denunciation of the palpable evils of slavery, Douglass always acknowledged the debt he owed to this good lady who innocently broke the laws and at the same time broke the chains that held a mind in bondage.
Douglass lived in the family of Hugh Auld at Baltimore for seven years. During this time the achievement that had the greatest influence upon his future was his learning to read and write. His mistress had given him a start. His own efforts gained the rest. He carried in his pocket a blue-backed Webster's Spelling Book, and, as occasion offered, induced his young white playmates, by the bribes of childhood, to give him lessons in spelling. When he was about thirteen, he began to feel deeply the moral yoke of slavery and to seek for knowledge of the means to escape it. One book seems to have had a marked influence upon his life at this epoch. He obtained, somehow, a copy of The Columbian Orator, containing some of the choicest masterpieces of English oratory, in which he saw liberty praised and oppression condemned; and the glowing periods of Pitt and Fox and Sheridan and our own Patrick Henry stirred to life in the heart of this slave boy the genius for oratory which did not burst forth until years afterward. The worldly wisdom of denying to slaves the key to knowledge is apparent when it is said that Douglass first learned from a newspaper that there were such people as abolitionists, who were opposed to human bondage and sought to make all men free. At about this same period Douglass's mind fell under religious influences. He was converted, professed faith in Jesus Christ, and began to read the Bible. He had dreamed of liberty before: he now prayed for it, and trusted in God. But, with the shrewd common sense which marked his whole life and saved it from shipwreck in more than one instance, he never forgot that God helps them that help themselves, and so never missed an opportunity to acquire the knowledge that would prepare him for freedom and give him the means of escape from slavery.
Douglass had learned to read, partly from childish curiosity and the desire to be able to do what others around him did; but it was with a definite end in view that he learned to write. By the slave code it was unlawful for a slave to go beyond the limits of his own neighborhood without the written permission of his master. Douglass's desire to write grew mainly out of the fact that in order to escape from bondage, which he had early determined to do, he would probably need such a "pass," as this written permission was termed, and could write it himself if he but knew how. His master for the time being kept a ship-yard, and in this and neighboring establishments of the same kind the boy spent much of his time. He noticed that the carpenters, after dressing pieces of timber, marked them with certain letters to indicate their positions in the vessel. By asking questions of the workmen he learned the names of these letters and their significance. He got up writing matches with sticks upon the ground with the little white boys, copied the italics in his spelling-book, and in the secrecy of the attic filled up all the blank spaces of his young master's old copybooks. In time he learned to write, and thus again demonstrated the power of the mind to overleap the bounds that men set for it and work out the destiny to which God designs it.CHAPTER 2
It was the curious fate of Douglass to pass through almost every phase of slavery, as though to prepare him the more thoroughly for his future career. Shortly after he went to Baltimore, his master, Captain Anthony, died intestate, and his property was divided between his two children. Douglass, with the other slaves, was part of the personal estate, and was sent for to be appraised and disposed of in the division. He fell to the share of Mrs. Lucretia Auld, his master's daughter, who sent him back to Baltimore, where, after a month's absence, he resumed his life in the household of Mrs. Hugh Auld, the sister-in-law of his legal mistress. Owing to a family misunderstanding, he was taken, in March, 1833, from Baltimore back to St. Michael's.
His mistress, Lucretia Auld, had died in the mean time; and the new household in which he found himself, with Thomas Auld and his second wife, Rowena, at its head, was distinctly less favorable to the slave boy's comfort than the home where he had lived in Baltimore. Here he saw hardships of the life in bondage that had been less apparent in a large city. It is to be feared that Douglass was not the ideal slave, governed by the meek and lowly spirit of Uncle Tom. He seems, by his own showing, to have manifested but little appreciation of the wise oversight, the thoughtful care, and the freedom from responsibility with which slavery claimed to hedge round its victims, and he was inclined to spurn the rod rather than to kiss it. A tendency to insubordination, due partly to the freer life he had led in Baltimore, got him into disfavor with a master easily displeased; and, not proving sufficiently amenable to the discipline of the home plantation, he was sent to a certain celebrated negro-breaker by the name of Edward Covey, one of the poorer whites who, as overseers and slave-catchers, and in similar unsavory capacities, earned a living as parasites on the system of slavery. Douglass spent a year under Covey's ministrations, and his life there may be summed up in his own words: "I had neither sufficient time in which to eat nor to sleep, except on Sundays. The overwork and the brutal chastisements of which I was the victim, combined with that ever-gnawing and soul-destroying thought, 'I am a slave,—a slave for life,' rendered me a living embodiment of mental and physical wretchedness."
But even all this did not entirely crush the indomitable spirit of a man destined to achieve his own freedom and thereafter to help win freedom for a race. In August, 1834, after a particularly atrocious beating, which left him wounded and weak from loss of blood, Douglass escaped the vigilance of the slave-breaker and made his way back to his own master to seek protection. The master, who would have lost his slave's wages for a year if he had broken the contract with Covey before the year's end, sent Douglass back to his taskmaster. Anticipating the most direful consequences, Douglass made the desperate resolution to resist any further punishment at Covey's hands. After a fight of two hours Covey gave up his attempt to whip Frederick, and thenceforth laid hands on him no more. That Covey did not invoke the law, which made death the punishment of the slave who resisted his master, was probably due to shame at having been worsted by a negro boy, or to the prudent consideration that there was no profit to be derived from a dead negro. Strength of character, reenforced by strength of muscle, thus won a victory over brute force that secured for Douglass comparative immunity from abuse during the remaining months of his year's service with Covey.
The next year, 1835, Douglass was hired out to a Mr. William Freeland, who lived near St. Michael's, a gentleman who did not forget justice or humanity, so far as they were consistent with slavery, even in dealing with bond-servants. Here Douglass led a comparatively comfortable life. He had enough to eat, was not overworked, and found the time to conduct a surreptitious Sunday-school, where he tried to help others by teaching his fellow-slaves to read the Bible.
Excerpted from Frederick Douglass by Charles Chesnutt. Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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