Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave

by Frederick Douglass


An autobiography set mainly in Maryland from 1818 to 1838: published in Massachusetts in 1845.


Douglass’s story is a firsthand account of the brutal treatment and continual oppression of slavery that takes place in a border state in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Events in History at the Time the Autobiography Takes Place

The Autobiography in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Autobiography Was Written

For More Information

Frederick Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in the cabin of his grandmother, Betsey Bailey, on Tuckahoe Creek in Talbot County, Maryland, sometime around February of 1818. Born of a slave mother and white father (who was probably his master), Douglass tells a powerful tale of the beatings and mistreatment that he observed and endured. The story spans Douglass’s twenty years in slavery, his success in escaping it, and his initial involvement in the abolitionist movement.

Events in History at the Time the Autobiography Takes Place

Slavery in Maryland

Maryland, where Frederick Douglass was born and where he spent his years in slavery, was one of the so-called border states that marked the boundary between North and South prior to the Civil War. Though a slaveholding state, it contained an unusually large number of free blacks prior to the Civil War.

As Douglass grew up, he witnessed a reversal of sorts in voting rights in Maryland. By 1810 the state had abandoned racial barriers to voting; to qualify for this right, however, people had to own property, an impossibility for the majority of blacks. Twenty years later these property qualifications had largely disappeared, but there was a return of racial restrictions on the right to vote.

A divided state

Maryland is a geographically divided state with the large water mass of Chesapeake Bay nearly cutting the state into two parts. In the second quarter of the 1800s, the time Douglass writes of jn his autobiography, the state had a population of fewer than half a million people. Nearly one-fourth of the population was centered in and around Baltimore at the northern end of the Bay. Baltimore, a prosperous and congested city of eighty thousand, was the base of the state’s commerce. Other, less prosperous parts of the state were largely dependent on the city. Slaveholding was legal throughout the state, but conditions faced by slaves were significantly different depending on whether they lived in Baltimore or on rural plantations.

Most slaves in the city were either domestic servants or were hired out by their master to work as artisans, craftsmen, or laborers—with all their earnings going to their masters. Slaves on the plantations were frequently involved in agricultural work. Furthermore, the treatment slaves received from their owners tended to be different depending on the location where they lived. Though slavery existed in Baltimore, there was considerable opposition to the practice among some residents of the city. In view of this opposition, a slaveholder in Baltimore might be less inclined to administer brutal punishment to his slaves for fear of upsetting his neighbors. While a slave, Frederick Douglass experienced both the harsh conditions of rural slavery and the somewhat milder urban variety. He served as a houseboy and a hired-out worker in Baltimore, but lived on an eastern Maryland plantation for the first years of his life, as well as some of his teenage years.

East-shore plantations

The eastern shore between Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean was the poorest part of Maryland and the most isolated. Douglass was born a slave on one of the small-scale plantations in eastern Maryland and served under a master who owned three small farms and about thirty slaves. The land in this part of the state was flat and broken by offshoots of the Chesapeake Bay, and roads in the region were poor; only a small number of surfaced thoroughfares existed in the early 1800s. The area was comprised mostly of small plantations that supplied Baltimore with raw materials and produce. A slave in this less populated area could encounter harsh treatment from masters undeterred by the judgment of a neighbor with anti-slavery sentiments. Nor could the slave easily attempt to escape from the isolated region.

Life for slaves on the small-scale plantations of the eastern shore was insecure. The failure of the farm or the death of the owner could and usually did lead to the selling of slaves and consequent breakup of some slave families. Those sold were usually destined for Georgia and other areas of the Deep South, where they often faced harsher treatment.

Physical conditions on the plantation

Away from the city, a slave’s monthly allowance of food typically amounted to about eight pounds of pork, or the equivalent in fish, and one bushel of corn meal. Adults were issued two coarse linen shirts, one pair of linen trousers, one jacket, one pair of winter trousers, one pair of socks, and one pair of shoes annually; this all amounted to about seven dollars’ worth of clothing per year. Children received only two linen shirts per year. If their clothes wore out, as often happened, they would go naked. Children were fed as a group— slopped like hogs, as Douglass describes it. Both the children and the adults slept on floors with only blankets; no mattresses were provided. But the slaves were so physically exhausted by laboring from dawn to dusk that lack of proper bedding was less of a problem for them than lack of enough sleep.


I had resided but a short time in Baltimore before I observed a marked difference, in the treatment of slaves, from that which I had witnessed in the plantation. A city slave is almost a freeman, compared with a slave on the plantation.... There is a vestige of decency, a sense of shame, that does much to curb and check those outbreaks of atrocious cruelty so commonly enacted upon the plantation. He is a desperate slaveholder, who will shock the humanity of his nonsiaveholding neighbors with the cries of his lacerated slave,

(Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, p. 38).

The slave family

The conditions faced by slaves often threatened their family structure. When captured in Africa, many family members were separated from one another; the Middle Passage, the voyage on slave ships to an initial port of entry in the Americas, saw huge numbers of slaves die in transport; at the auction block, families that had remained intact were sometimes arbitrarily broken apart and sold to different slaveowners. Many first-generation slaves saw their family lives disintegrate, and those born into slavery in this country lived with the constant threat of forcible separation. About one third of all Southern slave families were torn apart by a husband’s sale away from a wife—or worse, when a child was separated from a parent—and the fear of this eventuality was constant.

Families also experienced disunion even when living on the same plantation. As soon as they were able to work, mothers were frequently parted from their infants and made to resume their labor in the fields. Elderly women usually nursed the children, who, if they were fortunate, could see their exhausted mothers at night. Douglass


 Total PopulationSlavesFree Blacks

only saw his mother four or five times in his life since she had been hired out to a master who lived twelve miles from the plantation where Douglass was raised. She died when Douglass was around seven years old. He knew little about his father beyond the fact that he was a white man. There were rumors that his father was the slaveowner on the plantation where Douglass lived. At least fifteen of Douglass’s surviving relatives were sold and sent farther south into other states during his boyhood.

At age seven or eight, Douglass was transferred from his plantation to a houseboy position in Baltimore. In the Narrative, he sums up his feelings about his move to the city:

The ties that ordinarily bind children to their homes were all suspended in my case. I found no severe trial in my departure. My home was charmless; it was not home to me.... My mother was dead, my grandmother lived far off.... I had two sisters and one brother that lived in the same house with me; but the early separation of us from our mother had well nigh blotted the fact of our relationship from our memories.

(Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, p. 34)

Slaves and free blacks

The social conditions of the slave’s life in cities like Baltimore were a source of discontent. The urban slave lived side-by-side with freed blacks, a condition unknown in the countryside. When manumitted (freed), ex-slaves were required to leave the state, but frequently they did not. Their presence served as a constant reminder to the enslaved like Douglass that there was a possibility of freedom. The fact that freed blacks vastly outnumbered slaves in Baltimore further emphasized the disparity in conditions, becoming both an irritant and an inspiration to those in bondage.

The intellectual atmosphere for city slaves was more stimulating than the countryside. Here they were inadvertently exposed to discussions about those politically organized against slavery and the drive in the North to abolish it. Douglass describes the mixture of despair and hope that such talk evoked in him:

I often found myself regretting my own existence, and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself, or done something for which I should have been killed. While in this state of mind, I was eager to hear any one speak of slavery.... Every little while I could hear something about the abolitionists.

(Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, p. 43)

The abolitionists

There were abolitionists in every state of the Union. Some of them were secretly organized into an escape network known as the Underground Railroad, in which homes and other buildings served as stations that sheltered fugitive slaves as they fled to the North. Although the Railroad was more active for those slaves from Southern states crossing the Ohio River into Ohio, activists were willing to help farther east in Maryland. Douglass, however, mistrusted the Underground Railroad workers. He found them well-meaning but too vocal. His autobiography does not indicate that there was any formal help in his escape. Indeed, he writes little of the actual route, since at the time of its publication in 1845 there were still slaves trying to escape bondage. To protect them and those who helped them, Douglass does not elaborate on the route or mechanism of his own flight.


1818:Born on eastern Maryland farm of Aaron Anthony
1824:Sent twelve miles away to farm of Anthony’s daughter, Lucretia Anthony Auld, whose husband is Thomas Auld.
1826:Sent to Thomas Auld’s brother, Hugh Auld, in Baltimore
1833:Sent back to Thomas Auld
1834:Rented out as field hand to slave breaker Edward Covey
1835:Rented out as a field hand to William Freeland
1836:Makes failed attempt to escape slavery; jailed, then returned to Hugh Auld in Baltimore; trained as ship’s caulker
1838:Agrees with Hugh Auld to hire out his own labor, paying Auld $3 a week; saves money and escapes to New York; marries; moves to Massachusetts

The Autobiography in Focus

The contents

Frederick Douglass taught himself to read and write with a little help from one of his kinder owners. When approached to write his story, he insisted on doing it alone and in his own words. The autobiography delivers a straightforward account of Douglass’s own experiences as a child and young man under slavery.

Beginning with a brief description of his family, Douglass quickly launches into the first powerful account of mistreatment he witnesses, the beating of the slave “Aunt Hester.” Aunt Hester had been warned by Master Anthony not to go out in the evening and not to associate with Mr. Lloyd’s servant, Ned. Upon finding her out one evening in the company of Ned, Anthony ties her hands to a rafter of the roof, stands her on tiptoe atop a stool, and whips her mercilessly while cursing her. Douglass describes the punishment:

He then said to her, “Now, you d——d b——h, I’ll learn you how to disobey my orders!” and… he commenced to lay on the heavy cowskin [whip], and soon the warm, red blood (amid heart-rending shrieks from her, and horrid oaths from him) came dripping to the floor. I was so terrified and horror-stricken at the sight, that I hid myself in a closet.

(Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, p. 19)

In another case, one of the overseers, the aptly named Mr. Gore, whips a slave named Demby, who runs to a creek to relieve the pain of the whipping. Ordered to come out of the creek, Demby refuses, and Mr. Gore pursues him, finally shooting him in the face with his musket as he stands in the water. Even Master Anthony is surprised at the severity of this punishment. When asked by Anthony why he had resorted to such violence, Gore replies that Demby has become unmanageable and is setting a bad example for other slaves.

Along with such incidents, Douglass describes the evil effect that slavery has on the personality of even a kind owner. When sent to live with Hugh Auld in Baltimore, Douglass sees his first friendly white face, that of his new master’s wife, Sophia Auld; she begins to teach Douglass to read but is later chastised by her husband for doing so. Teaching slaves to read and write, he reminds her, is illegal in Maryland. In the end, she becomes more violently opposed to Douglass’s reading than her husband. Douglass, however, who has already learned the alphabet from her, resolves to read regardless of her and her husband’s opposition. He gets white boys to teach him, trading bread for reading lessons while on errands for his mistress.

Having been sent to Baltimore at age seven, Douglass is returned to the eastern shore plantation at age fifteen. He tries teaching other slaves to read at a Sabbath school, a Sunday school where students learned religion as well as basic skills, but some white men quickly put an end to it. His master, who concludes that city life has ruined Douglass, sends him to Edward Covey, a

slave breaker who beats recalcitrant slaves into docility. After countless whippings and an attempt to leave the farm, Douglass fights back and Covey backs down.

Douglass’s first attempt to escape slavery is foiled, though it helps indirectly in his later success. Upon being captured, he is briefly imprisoned, then released to his former owner, Master Hugh. Back in Baltimore, Douglass is hired out to a shipbuilder and learns the trade of a ship-caulker. After a time Master Hugh is persuaded to let Douglass hire out his own time. This allows him to save money for another attempt to escape slavery, which succeeds.

Because of his desire to protect those active in assisting runaways, Douglass provides virtually no details about his escape. Upon arriving in New York, he is all alone: he knows and trusts no one. He is soon taken in by David Ruggles, a man known for helping fugitive slaves. Ruggles suggests that Douglass relocate to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he can ply his trade as a ship-caulker and enjoy greater safety from being seized as a fugitive. First, however, Douglass sends for his fiancée, Anna Murray, and marries her on September 15, 1838. By the story’s end, they have established themselves in New Bedford, and Douglass has begun to subscribe to the abolitionist journal The Liberator. He has been persuaded to speak at an 1841 antislavery meeting and begins his important work in the movement.

Breaking the spirit

As his autobiography describes, Douglass’s life took a turn for the worse at fifteen, when deaths in his owner’s family resulted in his return to the plantation. Douglass came to know his first real physical suffering as a slave. His new master, Thomas Auld, did not feed his slaves adequately and was exceptionally cruel. Douglass rebelled and was sent to the nearby farmer Mr. Covey, to be “broke,” or made submissive. Covey’s strict rules and cruel punishments finally began to break Douglass’s spirit. As Douglass expresses it, “a few months of his discipline tamed me. Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me, and behold a man transformed into a brute!” (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, p. 58).

Douglass did not give in completely, though. Running away after having been beaten senseless, Douglass returned determined that his next beating would be resisted to the death. In his next encounter with Covey, the men fought for two hours, hand-to-hand. After that, Covey did not bother him for the six months remaining of his servitude. Douglass maintains that when a male slave resisted a flogging, an overseer rarely ever tried to beat that slave again. The historian John Blassingame agrees. “The relationship of the planters and overseers to the recalcitrant slave was a strange one. Generally, they feared him, particularly if he were noted for his strength” (Blassingame, p. 212). Generally, the owners and overseers refrained from punishing such a slave unless they could take him by surprise, get him drunk, or coerce other slaves or whites to help. The only other alternative was to shoot such a slave, but owners often considered their slaves too valuable to exact this type of punishment. Aware of this dilemma, many slaves threatened to fight, flee, or stop working if they were beaten, and the power they derived from standing up to the planter or overseer heightened their own self-esteem. As Douglass puts it,

I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me.

(Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, p. 65)


Around the age of twelve Douglass encountered a copy of The Columbian Orator, a collection of speeches ranging from the classical era to Douglass’s time. Of particular interest to the young slave was the “Dialogue between a Master and Slave.” The incident in the narrative apparently transpired upon a slave’s being recaptured after having attempted to flee for the third time. In the dialogue, the slave convinces his master, through reasoned argument, to free him. Douglass at this time had begun to reflect upon the whole concept of his enslavement, and The Columbian Orator provided him with much encouragement and food for thought. Among the other items it included were “Dialogue between a White Man and an Indian,” “Oration on the Manumission of Slaves,” and “Slaves in Barbary, a Drama in Two Acts.” Beside stimulating thoughts about human relations and mistreatment, the collection provided Douglass with models for speaking and writing.

When he reached freedom and had settled in New Bedford, Douglass was introduced to William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. The paper and its cause kindled a fire in Douglass. He attended abolitionist meetings and was urged to speak on slavery. On the Massachusetts island of Nantucket on August 11, 1841, Douglass spoke so vigorously at a meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society that he was hired by the organization as a lecturer. His fame as an impassioned orator spread quickly, and his speeches helped him shape the material that is included in the autobiography.

The Christian Bible was another rich source for Douglass’s writing. His work is infused with the rolling cadences of the American Protestant sermon. He quotes from the Bible and in an appendix to the autobiography, condemns slave-holding America for hypocrisy in religion. His appendix ends with a contemporary source, a parody by a Northern preacher who visited the South. The first stanza reads:

Come, saints and sinners, hear me tell
How pious priests whip Jack and Nell,
And women buy and children sell,
And preach all sinners down to hell,
And Sing of Heavenly union.
          (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, p. 100)

Events in History at the Time the Autobiography Was Written

The slavery debate

By 1845 William Lloyd Garrison’s journal, The Liberator, had been the public voice of the most radical American abolitionists for fourteen years; Theodore D. Weld’s more reasoned but equally effective Slavery As It Is had been circulating for six years. Antislavery sentiments were growing, and the issue demanded more attention as the United States expanded westward. In 1843 a new member of Congress, Stephen A. Douglas, became deeply involved in trying to keep a balance between slavery and antislavery factions in the Union. Douglas led the congressional Committee on Territories for two years and then assumed the same position in the Senate. During this period, the United States was nearing war with Mexico and the subsequent acquisition of Texas. These prospects fanned the competition in Congress between slave-state and free-state advocates. It was during this period of bitter jockeying for dominance by the states that Frederick Douglass wrote and published his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

Personal and public life

When Frederick Douglass and his new wife first settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Douglass adopted a new name. He had been born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, by which name he was known in the countryside of Maryland; in Baltimore he had adopted the last name “Stanley”; during his brief stay in New York he had used the name “Johnson.” Settling into his new life of freedom, he took the name of Douglass, since there were so many Johnsons in New Bedford.

Douglass was surprised that the nonslaveholding North was more prosperous than he had imagined; he thought that the Northerners must be much poorer since they did not have the economic advantages provided by slavery. He got hired as a ship-caulker, a job normally reserved for whites, and he found plenty of work doing odd jobs. In 1839 Douglass joined an antislavery society in New Bedford. He began speaking at meetings, arguing against plans to colonize American blacks outside the United States. Douglass was an impressive figure, six feet in height, and he spoke in a smooth, flowing style. He became a regular speaker on the antislavery circuit. The job took him away from his wife and children for long periods and it exposed him to hostile audiences. By becoming a public figure, he was also at greater risk of being captured, sent back to his former master, and re-enslaved.

Despite these dangers, Douglass continued his work. When some critics expressed doubts that a man possessing his intelligence and speaking ability could have ever actually been a slave, Douglass began the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass as an answer. His abolitionist friends were mindful of the fact that Douglass was still legally a slave. They feared that publishing his autobiography would result in his capture by Southern slave catchers. With their help, Douglass fled to England, where he would remain for two years and where English admirers raised the money to buy his freedom legally.


Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave was an instant success, selling five thousand copies in its first four months of publication. It especially appealed to both Americans and Europeans opposed to slavery. They found in Douglass’s descriptions of the slave’s life and the conditions of enforced servitude more reason for their opposition. Douglass was now famous and had formed his own views about how to attack slavery. Upon his return from Europe, he broke with Garrison and his extremely radical approach; for instance, Garrison frowned on political action, or negotiating with slave states, and called for disunion. Douglass pursued a different route, supporting political action, and in 1847 he started his own newspaper, The North Star. In subsequent years, he wrote two more autobiographies: My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881).

For More Information

Blassingame, John W. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Davis, Charles T., and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., eds. The Slave’s Narrative. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. In Frederick Douglass: Autobiographies. New York: Penguin, 1994.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. In Frederick Douglass: Autobiographies. New York: Library of America, 1994.

Fields, Barbara Jeanne. Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland during the Nineteenth Century. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985.

Sundquist, Eric J., ed. Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave

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