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The Southern apologists used the fallacious justifications that slavery was a desirable thing and that black people were well suited to serve as slaves to support their continued ownership of black slaves. This idea was put forth by the likes of George Fitzhugh in Cannibals All and Calhoun in his address, but it was refuted by Frederick Douglass in his autobiography. After it was established that the South's economy relied on the ownership of slaves, John C. Calhoun penned a speech in defense of slavery. He argued that the slaves were fairly treated in the South compared to other lower members of society because they had access to food, shelter, clothes and work, even if it was not compensated. He argued that the slaves were better than the sick, poor and the mentally ill and without slavery; they could easily have become the lowest members in society with a poor quality of life. This essay will look into the evidence provided in the autobiography of Fredrick Douglas that dispels this notion that slavery did serve the black any good.
In the Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglas, an American Slave, details of the oppression that Fredrick Douglass experienced before he made the escape to freedom. Through his narratives, the readers are offered the original accounts of the pain, suffering, brutality and inhumane treatment of the slaves. Douglass details how being born of a wrong color would land one into brutality and harsh treatment by fellow human beings. Douglass is considered to be among the few heroes that survived slavery and go on to impact the US and the world. After receiving an education and escaping slavery, Douglass became renowned for his impeccable oratory and antislavery writing. He joined the abolitionist movement and became a crucial leader and his ability astonished the North who could not believe that he was once a slave. Douglass's life in itself dispels the notion that blacks were suited to being slaves because he exemplified that if they were given the opportunity like the other citizens, they would surely make astounding contributions to the nation, not as slaves.
Douglass was born to a black woman and a white father who was not known to him. Just like many other children of the slaves, he did not spend much time with his mother and when she died, he was not emotional. Douglass notes that the children that were born from slave mothers and white fathers, commonly referred to as mulattos, endured more suffering and pain. It would serve these children well if they were sold to another slaveholder. The presence of so many such children in the country refutes the belief that Ham was cursed by God and slavery was right. It was not right that children born of the same father with different mothers could receive differential treatment. In this first chapter, Douglass refers to the Old Testament where God curses Canaan, the son of Ham, for an offense that Ham committed against his father. Africans were regarded as the sons of Ham and therefore, the justification of slavery. The orators that promoted slavery provoked this narrative. However, Douglass dispels this claim, because of the presence of mulattos, since not all slaves were descendants of Ham and the Bible, does not, therefore, condone slavery.
Douglass writes that slaves attached to the 'Great Farm House' could be heard singing melodies when they traveled the forests and during their work in the fields. While the common belief among the slave-owners was that they were happy and content because of what they were provided with. On the contrary, Douglass writes that the singing was a form of mourning and anguishing for the pains they underwent. He argues that "each tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains." Indeed, most slaves lied when questioned about the working conditions and the masters saying that they were happy and contented. The slaves could not say any single negative word about their working conditions and mistreatment especially to the people they did not know. Douglass gives the example of a slave that was owned by Lloyd who has to be sold to a Georgia trader because he had spoken ill of the master without knowing that the person questioning was indeed, Lloyd. Telling the truth that they did not have enough food and they worked long and hard would land one into trouble. As a result, the slaves repressed the truth and spoke positively of the masters and mistresses. The slaves of one master could sometimes fight with the slaves of another. Indeed, Douglass writes that while it was bad to be a slave, being a slave of a poor man was considered a disgrace. The suppression of the rights to voice a negative opinion about the slaves seemed to give the masters the opinion that the slaves were happy. However, Douglass dispels this notion by indicating that the slaves feared the consequences of telling the truth.
Upon his relocation to Baltimore, the true religious beliefs of Douglass are expressed explicitly. He believes that God has destined him to escape someday escape from slavery. Douglass holds that there was some God to be chosen to move to Baltimore, a place that he had fondly heard of. It is at Baltimore that the true Fredrick Douglass was discovered. He received an education from the kind wife of his master before she turned violent after being rebuked by his husband, Hugh Auld. Douglass's Christian religious beliefs become clear and he is contrasted to the false slaveholders who pretended to be Christians and yet brutally whipped and mistreated fellow human beings. Christian holds that one cannot be a slaveholder and a Christian at the same time. He claims that slave-owners who are religious are harsher than the non-religious ones. Once Thomas Auld becomes religious, his brutality increases. Even as a young boy, Douglass bribed white boys to teach him how to read and write and when he moved to Baltimore, he gained some literacy from Sophia and met Whites that were against slavery. This desire for an education and subsequent success is an indicator that blacks were not best suited to be slaves.
Education, Douglass came to learn, could make the slaves unmanageable. He learned that the slaveholders were no more than robbers that had successfully robbed them from Africa. He felt discontented and wondered if learning to read had proven more of a curse than a blessing. This discovery of the enslavement greatly tormented him. He began to take great interest in information regarding the abolitionist movement. The idea of escaping to the North came from two Irish men that he had helped lift some load. This narration shows how the desire to gain an understanding of the abolition and education is critical in demonstrating how all men can be equal.
The harsh conditions that came upon him while working with Covey, where he was worked to near death took out the spark that he had developed towards life. His intellect suffered and at one time, while at the shore of Chesapeake Bay, he lamented that the ships in the waters were free than he was. After 6 months of working for Covey, he had come to a resolution that the man who had been a slave will see the same slave turned to a man. Finally Douglass stood up and fought back with a fight with Covey. This fight reignited the lost embers of freedom and the desire to be free again. He planned to escape with a couple of betrayals.
The narratives by Douglass paint an image of a resolute young man who refuses to believe that slavery is a positive thing for the blacks and that it served them. He refused to believe that black men were inferior to the whites and that the slaves were privileged to work for the slave-holders because other poor, mentally ill and sick lived low-quality lives than the slaves. His struggle is proof that if men stand up for their rights, they will surely achieve what they desire.
Bradley, Bert E., and Jerry L. Tarver. "John C. Calhoun's argumentation in defense of slavery." Southern Journal of Communication 35, no. 2 (1969): 163-175.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave. Modern Library Classics (Paper, 2000.
Fitzhugh, George. Cannibals all! Or, slaves without masters. Vol. 61. Harvard University Press, 1960.
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