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The growth of domestic slave trade in the United States was induced after the official end of the African slave trade in 1808. Slaves were considered a piece of property and a source of labor, especially in the Southern cotton fields. The slave could be bought and sold like an animal. He or she was allowed no stable family life and little privacy. Law prohibited the slave from learning to read or write. Frederick Douglass was one slave who successively escaped the institution of slavery, and fought for freedom and equality for blacks. “Frederick Douglass wrote his narrative, hoping that it may do something toward throwing light on the American slave system, and hasten the day when his brethren in bonds may be free” (Douglass 162).
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave portrays many values of the south during the nineteenth century. In reflecting democratic and egalitarian values, the slave had no voice as to the way they were governed or the way they were treated socially. Equality was not a word used in the south. “There was no answering back to a white person; no explanation was allowed a slave, showing himself to have been wrongfully accused. ‘It was better that a dozen slaves suffer under the lash, than that the overseer should be convicted, in the presence of the slaves, of having been at fault.’” (Douglass 45). The slaves were not given nearly enough provisions. They were given a monthly allowance of food; a yearly supply of clothing which consisted of two shirts, two pair of trousers, one jacket, and a pair of shoes; and no bed, but a coarse blanket. Slaves were worked till exhaustion. The thought of the south was that the slave was put there for their disposal.
Douglass’s Narrative illustrates his views on evangelical Protestantism. “Evangelicalism grew into the religion of ‘respectable’ slaveholders as well as the faith of their slaves and poor neighbors” (Ayers 28). To Douglass, religion of the south was concealment for the most appalling crimes. It was a shelter under which the deeds of slaveholders found protection (Douglass 110). However, he is not opposed to all religion. Douglass is strictly against slaveholding religion, which has no reference to Christianity. “Frederick writes, ‘The man who robs me of my earnings at the end of each week meets me as a class-leader on Sunday morning, to show me the way of life and the path of salvation. He who sells my sister stands forth as the pious advocate of purity. He who proclaims it a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read the name of God who made me. The warm defender of the sacredness of the family relation is the same that scatters whole families leaving the hut vacant, and the hearth desolate”’ (Douglass 156). Douglass could think of no one worse to be a slave of, than a religious master.
Southern honor was recognized as a system of values within which you have as much worth as others confer upon you. Women, children, and slaves had no honor; only adult white males had the right to honor. Southern men responded passionately when their honor was questioned” (Ayers 13). They would rather suffer physical loss, and often did, rather than for public opinion of them to be negative. “The style of the American colonial slaveholding gentry is best understood in relation to the concept of honor—the proving of prowess” (Ayers 21). “Slavery generated honor. Slavery by its very nature dishonored all members of one class and bestowed honor on another. It
seems certain that honor would have died in the South without the hothouse atmosphere provided for that culture by slavery” (Ayers 26).
For a few decades, Northerners as well as Southerners fought on the field of honor, but by 1830, dueling and the South had become virtually synonymous (Ayers 15). “By the mid-nineteenth century, the Northern United States had generated the core of a culture antagonistic to honor. This Northern culture celebrated dignity—the conviction that each individual at birth possessed an intrinsic value at least theoretically equal to that of every other person” (Ayers 19). However, the white man did not treat women, slaves, and other minorities as equals. In a culture of dignity, people were to turn their heads to the same things Southerners would wage fights for. “The extension of dignity to previously outcast groups provided the impetus behind much of the reform impulse of the antebellum North. To many, the deepest horror of slavery was that it violated the slaves’ selfhood, destroyed their capacity for moral choices, made them less than human” (Ayers 24). Douglass was tired of Southern honor waging its violence against him, and escaped to the dignity of the North to become a free man.
Free blacks were only technically free. In the South, where they posed a threat to the institution of slavery, they suffered both in law and by custom many of the restrictions imposed on slaves. In the North, free blacks were discriminated against in such rights as voting, property ownership, and freedom of movement, though they had some access to education and could organize. Free blacks also faced the danger of being kidnapped and enslaved. When Douglass first escaped to New York, he knew he was
liable to be taken back and subjected to all the tortures of slavery. He adopted the thought ‘Trust no man’ (Douglass 143-44).
Douglass was seeking to influence those who were blind as to the establishment of slavery. He meant to bring to light the wrongdoings of slaveholders of the south. “To Douglass the problems of social adjustment if the slaves were freed were nothing, the property rights of the masters were nothing, states’ rights were nothing. He simply refused to discuss these matters. As he viewed it, his function was to shake people out of their lethargy and goad them into action, not to discover reasons for sitting on the fence” (Douglass xxi).
Ayers, Edward L. Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the 19th-Century
American South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave.
Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960.
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