Debunking the Southern Secret
Sincerely and earnestly hoping that this little book may do something toward throwing light on the American slave system, and hastening the glad day of deliverance to the millions of my brethren in bonds relying upon the power of truth, love, and justice, for success in my efforts and solemnly pledging myself anew to the sacred cause, I subscribe myself (Douglass 76). With these words, Frederick Douglass (c. 1817-1895), an emancipated slave with no formal education, ends one of the greatest pieces of propaganda of the 19th century America: that slavery is good for the slave. He writes his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, as an abolitionist tool to shape his northern audiences view of southern slaveholders. Through personal anecdotes, Douglass draws an accurate picture of slave life. Simultaneously, he chooses these events for how they will affect the northern audiences opinion of southern slaveholders (Quarles ii). By using the written word, Douglass targets educated northern whites because they were the only group capable of changing the status quo. Illiterate northern whites and free northern blacks could not vote, while white Southerners would not vote because they did not want change. For that reason, Douglass used his life story as an instrument to promote abolition among literate northern whites (vi).
Douglass uses family relationships, starting with his own birth, to gain the compassion of his target audience. He never knew the identity of his father, but it was whispered (Douglass 2) that it was his master. Douglass mentions this to demonstrate how the master in many cases, sustains to his slaves the double relation of master and father (2). This was so commonplace that it was by law established that the children of women shall in all cases follow the condition of their mother (2). This meant that these bastard children were slaves despite their paternal heritage because their mother was a slave. The effect of this revelation was to shock and offend the morals of the conservative northern whites. Northern society scorned people in adulterous and interracial relationships. By portraying these Southerners as immoral and adulterous, Douglass wanted to cultivate in his audience a damaging opinion of southern slaveholders (Quarles ix).
Continuing with the theme of family values, Douglass shifts to the basic family unit. Their master separated Douglass and his mother when he was an infant, for what reason he does not know (Douglass 2). No one gave Douglass an explanation because this situation was customary on plantations. Douglass wanted to horrify his northern white readers by informing them that slaveholders regularly split slave families for no apparent reason. This obviously would upset Northerners because the family unit was the foundation for their close-knit communities. Multiple generations and extended families lived together or near each other. It was unimaginable to the readers that a society existed that took children away from their mothers without reason. Northerners would think of anyone who was part of such a society as a heartless monster (Quarles ix). Douglass wanted the northern whites to lash out against these heartless monsters and abolish slavery, thereby ending the cruel practices associated with the institution.
Another example of how Douglass used family values against southern slaveholders was in the treatment of his grandmother. When Douglasss master decided his grandmother was too old and no longer useful, they took her to the woods, built her a little hut and then made her welcome to the privilege of supporting herself in perfect loneliness; thus virtually turning her out to die (Douglass 28). This shows the lack of decency or gratitude on the part of slaveholders toward slaves that had faithfully, their entire lives, served their masters. This mistreatment enrages the readers, especially those with close-knit families, because people should take care of and respect their elders until death. The usefulness of older people goes beyond physical attributes because they have a wealth of knowledge and experience to share. Showing that slaveholders are loathsome and despicable, with little regard and respect for Douglasss grandmother, he hoped to influence northern whites against the institution of slavery.
Additionally, Douglass wants to show the hypocrisy of slaveholders behavior. They considered their slaves to be less than human, yet they still desired sexual relations with their female slaves. Douglass puts forth this argument to prove to northern whites the invalidity of southern claims that horses and men, cattle and women, and pigs and children all held the same rank in the scale of being (27). If slaves were truly of lesser rank than animals, why would a master want to sleep with one? Indeed, masters would not sleep with one of their farm animals. Northern whites would be appalled at the thought of desiring or sleeping with anything they considered to be on a lower level of existence than animals. Therefore, southern slaveholders would disgust Douglasss northern audience.
Douglass focuses on the southern slaveholders claim that slaves were not human beings; that they have less worth than any white person does. He illustrates this attitude by reporting that slaveholders feed slaves much like farm animals. Slaves food was put into a large wooden tray or trough and the children were then called like so many pigs to devour the mush; some with naked hands, and none with spoons (16). Slaveholders described slave children as pigs because, like pigs, the children were dirty, smelly, and would push each other out of the way to get as much food as possible. From their masters neglect, the children became filthy and ate aggressively from malnourishment. Slaveholders fed their slaves coarse corn meal boiled called mush (16) similar to what they fed farm animals. The distinction between farm animals and slaves was that the animals were properly rationed food and shelter. Douglass frequently mentions how often he felt the gnawing pains of hunger (31). His masters had more than an adequate supply of food, he claims, but would rather it lay moldering (31) than give it to the slaves. Not only is this more evidence of the cruel and selfish nature of slaveholders, but it also shows how they treated animals better than they did slaves. To know southern slaveholders treated beasts of burden better than slaves would rile Douglasss target audience. Imaging themselves as treated so worthlessly by another individual, literate northern whites would feel even more divided from southern slaveholders (Quarles x).
To force his audience to feel further alienated, Douglass elaborates on the treatment of slaves as animals in his description of slave sleeping conditions. Masters did not give the slaves a bed to sleep on, only a coarse blanket (Douglass 6). So at the end of the day, slaves old and young, male and female, married and single would drop down side by side, on one common bedthe cold damp floor (6). Douglass knew that some of his northern readers could associate to the slaves situation because they too had once endured similar poor living conditions or even homelessness. However, northern society made it possible for an individual to overcome such hardships while the masters denied their slaves a better existence. The institution of slavery held each successive generation in poverty, which is an indignity to the dream that many Northerners held of prosperity in the new world (Quarles x). Douglass hoped that northern society would sympathize with the slaves oppression while becoming enraged with the slaveholders who held them there.
Douglass also wanted to infuriate his northern audience by relating how slaveholders punished slaves. A Northerner with any sense of justice would be furious that it was not considered wrong to whip a slave till they were literally covered with blood (Douglass 4) nor was it considered a crime to kill a slave. Holders and overseers justified severely whipping their slaves because it was the duty of a master to whip a slave, to remind him of his masters authority (46). Master whipped slaves for the smallest offenses to prevent the commission of larger ones (46). Slaveholders would kill a slave that became unmanageable, (14) to avert other slaves from copying the example (14). Douglass detailed these horrific examples of punishment to incense the northern white reader with the knowledge that slaveholders punished slaves in advance of any wrongdoing, whipped them almost to the brink of death, and murdered without it being considered treated as a crime by the courts or community (14). In the north, society would not tolerate such treatment of one individual by another in these ways. This fiendish barbarity (46) would appall the northern readers and would lead them to share Douglasss opinion that southern slaveholders were truly the most wicked of men (24).
To further demonstrate the wickedness of southern slaveholders, Douglass wanted his readers to know how they used religion as a mere covering for the most horrid crimes a dark shelter under which the darkest, foulest, grossest and most infernal deeds of masters found the strongest protection (46). Slaveholders would beat their slaves and then defend their actions with quotes from the Bible such as He that knoweth his masters will and doeth it not shall be beaten with many stripes (33). Northerners with any religious background would know that this quote and others like it did not translate into justification for inflicting physical harm on a slave if they disobeyed their master. Douglass wanted to show his readers how slaveholders misused the teachings of the Bible to strengthen their own power and how they saw themselves as God to their slaves (Quarles xii). The reader would know the latter claim was blasphemy, one of the seven deadly sins. As a result, the readers would detest their southern brethren because religious slaveholders were the worst meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly of all others (Douglass 46).
Combining all the ways that Douglass sought to affect his northern audiences opinion of southern slaveholders, he hoped to give his readers a glimpse into the true character of southern slaveholders and the institution of slavery itself. Douglass understood that racism was also prevalent in the north, so his intent was not trying to achieve equal rights but basic human rights. Douglass hoped to gain compassion for those still held in slavery by relating his own experiences: being separated from his mother as an infant and not knowing his fathers identity; being held in lesser value than animals; and being brutally beaten and possibly killed without it being thought a crime.
Douglass also hoped to tarnish his northern white readers view of southern slaveholders and their practices by illustrating how they had adulterous and interracial affairs with their slaves whom they considered to be less than human, how they atrociously and unfairly mistreated and punished their slaves, and how they used religion as an excuse to legitimize their immoral actions. Slavery was a most painful situation; and, to understand it, one must experience it, or imagine himself in similar circumstances then, and not till then, will he fully appreciate the hardships of, and know how to sympathize with, the toil worn and whipped-scarred slave (64). Douglasss own words are meant as a plea for his readers to imagine themselves in his situation he and other slaves endured to better understand the hardships he and other slaves endured (Quarles xi).
Frederick Douglass used family values, basic human rights, and religion to persuade the northern white audience toward the cause of abolition. He expects his readers will share his hate for the corrupt, slaveholding, woman whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of southern slaveholders (Douglass 71). American slavery does not exist in today due partly to Douglasss effort to help advance the cause of abolition.
Quarles, Benjamin, ed. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. By Frederick Douglass. Cambridge: Harvard Press, 1988.