A Short Biography of Frederick Douglass
A brief description of his life.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave
One of his major works.


Frederick Douglass

A major theme in the philosophical tradition is the investigation into the workings of human nature. Some hold, for instance, that human nature is basically selfish - we all ultimately act to maximize our own gain. Others argue that cooperation is the central human instinct, self-interest being a condition imposed by society. One way of examining human nature is through the experiences of individuals who have lived at the extremes of human interaction.

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland in about 1818. It is plain to all who read his work that this is a man possessed of exceptional intelligence and perception. Yet he was raised in a condition that denied any intelligence in him and punished his attempts to explore it's potential.

Douglass wrote several autobiographical works. In them we may find clues to the workings of the human character. Especially since Douglas does far more than merely describe his experiences. He comments on those experiences in ways that underscore the major ethical and epistemological points that he is making. All along it is crucial to remember that Douglass has a single overriding purpose in his work; to expose the evils of slavery to the end of abolishing it.

In the passage excerpted below from Chapter VI of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, two strong points emerge:

1) Douglass details a process of change in the life and character of a woman, Mrs. Auld, the woman he served as a house slave for. Initially Douglass describes her as a smart, joyful, and kind person. Not long after becoming a slave-owner, however, she transforms into a cruel and angry tyrant. Throughout his works, Douglass observes other such transformations and explains the phenomenon as the inevitable result of "irresponsible power." When a human being holds power over another without any moral responsibility to that other, the result is a degradation of the spirit, a loss of humanity. The same effect can be found in the literature of the Nazi holocaust, where ordinary people are transformed into extraordinary sadists when made to serve as concentration camp guards. Some will say that this shift in character is simply the negative side of human nature arising when given the opportunity. Douglass provides the foundation of a different analysis: that human nature strives towards equity and shared responsibility. When circumstances block that direction, the human character becomes deformed and dangerous.

2) Throughout all of Douglass' writing is the emphasis on language as a key to freedom. In one part the Narrative he describes how he taught himself to read and write. That ability enabled him to manipulate the documents needed for his escape. He got his first clue about the power of language from Mrs. Auld, before her transformation. Language is connected to human freedom because it is the medium of social connection among individuals. When a person is denied the expressions of language, such as reading and writing, they are cut off from one other in significant ways. Douglass recognizes this isolation as the basis of slavery. The slave owner, Thomas Auld, understood this was well. He notes that if a slave were permitted to read, s/he will become "unfit to be slave." Douglass describes how the idea of freedom took root in his mind as a result of his striving for knowledge. This presents a picture of the human character that is ever expandable through gaining knowledge and sharing that knowledge with others. The lesson is strong: even for those of us who read quite well, there are texts and areas of knowledge that are difficult to grasp. A common reaction is to turn away from a difficult text because it is not immediately accessible (i.e. easy). If Douglass is correct, then the rejection of new learning is the acceptance of a limit. Institutional slavery is no longer legal in most of the world, but we humans face a more constant struggle - the self-maintenance of our own bondage by an unwillingness to accept the challenges of new knowledge. The alternative is to treat oneself as a truly free and worthy being. Perhaps one of the gains that philosophy has to offer is the surmounting of self-imposed boundaries.

Please read the following excerpt from Douglass and consider reading more of this fine work (see the link at left).

"My new mistress proved to be all she appeared when I first met her at the door,--a woman of the kindest heart and finest feelings. She had never had a slave under her control previously to myself, and prior to her marriage she had been dependent upon her own industry for a living. She was by trade a weaver; and by constant application to her business, she had been in a good degree preserved from the blighting and dehumanizing effects of slavery. I was utterly astonished at her goodness. I scarcely knew how to behave towards her. She was entirely unlike any other white woman I had ever seen. I could not approach her as I was accustomed to approach other white ladies. My early instruction was all out of place. The crouching servility, usually so acceptable a quality in a slave, did not answer when manifested toward her. Her favor was not gained by it; she seemed to be disturbed by it. She did not deem it impudent or unmannerly for a slave to look her in the face. The meanest slave was put fully at ease in her presence, and none left without feeling better for having seen her. Her face was made of heavenly smiles, and her voice of tranquil music."

"But, alas! this kind heart had but a short time to remain such. The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work. That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon."

"Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, "If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master--to do as he is told to do. Learning would ~spoil~ the best nigger in the world. Now," said he, "if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy." These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty--to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it. Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master. Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read. The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both....."

"....My mistress was, as I have said, a kind and tender- hearted woman; and in the simplicity of her soul she commenced, when I first went to live with her, to treat me as she supposed one human being ought to treat another. In entering upon the duties of a slaveholder, she did not seem to perceive that I sustained to her the relation of a mere chattel, and that for her to treat me as a human being was not only wrong, but dangerously so. Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me. When I went there, she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which she had not a tear. She had bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and comfort for every mourner that came within her reach. Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness. The first step in her downward course was in her ceasing to instruct me. She now commenced to practise her husband's precepts. She finally became even more violent in her opposition than her husband himself. She was not satisfied with simply doing as well as he had commanded; she seemed anxious to do better. Nothing seemed to make her more angry than to see me with a newspaper. She seemed to think that here lay the danger. I have had her rush at me with a face made all up of fury, and snatch from me a newspaper, in a manner that fully revealed her apprehension. She was an apt woman; and a little experience soon demonstrated, to her satisfaction, that education and slavery were incompatible with each other."


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