Frederick Douglass knew firsthand the horrors of slavery. As a slave, he endured more than his share of lashings, cruelty, and inhumane treatment. But Douglass was different from most of his fellows. He fought back. His goal in life was to end slavery and ensure equal treatment for all. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and The Meaning of July Fourth for a Negro are only two examples of how he went about his mission.
The cruel realities of slavery are clearly on display in the Narrative. Douglass encountered them from a tender age; one of the most vivid and horrifying examples of the tyranny of overseers is Aunt Hester’s beating in chapter one, at the hands of Captain Anthony: “Before he commenced whipping Aunt Hester, he took her into the kitchen, and stripped her from neck to waist…and after rolling up his sleeves, he commenced to lay on the heavy cowskin, and soon the warm, red blood…came dripping to the floor.” (24) Another way that slaves could be subjugated was economically: Douglass speaks in the Narrative of Hugh Auld’s control over his wages.
” I was now getting…one dollar and fifty cents per day. I contracted for it; I earned it; it was rightfully my own; yet…I was compelled to deliver every cent of that money to Master Hugh. And why? Not because he earned it…but solely because he had the power to compel me to give it up.” (105)
This passage emphasizes the unfairness of the slavery system. Douglass earned the money through hard labor calking ships, and Auld took it from him simply because he had the false jurisdiction to do so. But Douglass did more than simply recount his experiences. He used them to expose the hypocrisy and blatant self-deception that were the hallmarks of the slavery system. In his speech The Meaning of July Fourth for a Negro , he takes aim at all those who would own another human while rejoicing in their own freedom. “What, to the American slave, is your 4 th of July?” Douglass asks. “To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity…There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.” (paragraph 13) He goes on to say, in paragraph 14, “…that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival…” Douglass unabashedly shames his readers and listeners into hearing what he has to say, and thinking deeply about his topics. He ignited the compassion and righteous outrage of his audience. Using his rhetorical skill, he rallied citizens to the cause of the abolitionists.
Another important way Douglass worked for the equality of all people was advocating education. The Narrative in particular is a great example of how tirelessly and repeatedly he drilled into his readers: Education enlightens! Education is a path out of slavery! His illumination on the matter came shortly after he moved to Baltimore to live with Hugh and Sophia Auld. Sophia had begun to teach him how to read. When her husband caught her, he ordered her to cease and desist, saying, “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should no nothing but to obey his master-to do as he is told to do.” Auld goes on to say that “if you teach that nigger…how to read, there would be no keeping him. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master.” (48) This statement, Douglass wrote, sparked something in him. It showed him that education might be the answer to his problems-that it might be his ticket to freedom. From then on, he resolved to learn how to read and write properly. Although he was persecuted by his master if found reading, Douglass snatched time to read whenever he could. (52) He also had help in his endeavors from the neighborhood boys, no matter how unwittingly: “…when I met with any boy who I knew could write, I would tell him I could write as well as he. The next word would be ‘I don’t believe you’…I would then make the letters that I had been so fortunate as to learn, and ask him to beat that.” (57) In this way, Douglass eventually mastered his craft, and became one of the most effective persuaders of the abolitionists.
Both these means-promoting education and exposing the barbarity of slavery-had a clear end. Douglass’s overriding mission in life was to see the end of slavery. He spoke often of this goal, in both the Narrative and the July Fourth speech. “I will…dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery, the great sin and shame of America!” (July Fourth paragraph 6) This quote sums up the methods of his fight. Douglass took no prisoners. He used harsh, severe language and blistering irony to achieve his ends. Fiery rhetoric was his dearest ally; when he spoke, he did so with command and control. He wanted his audience to fully see the grievous realities and crimes of slavery. Too many back then sought comfort in lies. They convinced themselves that blacks were subhuman and carefree, lacking the ability and desire to look to the future. They told themselves that blacks really were happy as slaves, and pointed to the songs they sang as proof. (30) Douglass exploded these myths. His body of work paid testimony to the fact that he was intelligent and articulate, and he cared about more than the immediate present. He felt deeply for the plight of his race and did all he could to end it. “The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed…” (July Fourth paragraph 12) Happily, Douglass succeeded in his efforts, and lived to see the end of slavery in the United States.
Without Douglass and many others like him, we would still be trapped in the vicious cycle of slavery. We owe him a great debt. While we are still far from being able to confidently say “with liberty and justice for all,” Frederick Douglass, through his work, helped bring us one precious step closer.