The Beav according to Beav

Still crazy after all these years.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Frederick Douglass and the Harms of Slavery

    Frederick Douglass was very firm in his belief that the institution of slavery harmed the slaveholder in addition to the slave. This damage affected not just the individuals involved, but their communities and society as a whole as well. In his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Douglass provides many examples that support those beliefs and illustrate these effects for the reader.

    On no level can the deleterious effects be seen so dramatically as on the personal one. One has an ingrained understanding of individual behavior and interpersonal relations that is in direct opposition to what Douglass describes. Most of the slave owners and overseers he labors under are cruel, vicious, sometimes vile men. Mr. Covey was “devoted to planning and perpetrating the grossest deceptions.” (p. 61) He implies that Capt. Anthony punished Hester, one of his slaves, in a fit of jealousy. (p. 7) Mr. Severe, apart from being cruel, swore “enough to chill the blood and stiffen the hair of an ordinary man”. (p. 11) In fact, Mr. Severe was so deserving of his name that the slaves considered his death “the result of a merciful providence.” (p. 12) Douglass considered Capt. Anthony to be “hardened by a long life of slaveholding. He would at times seem to take great pleasure in whipping a slave.” (p. 6) The traits of none of these men illustrate Douglass’s contention near so well as the example of Mrs. Sophia Auld, however. Sophia Auld is Douglass’s quintessential example of the deleterious effects of slavery upon the slaveholder. He meets her having never had a slave. “A woman of the kindest heart and finest feelings” having “been in a good degree preserved from the blighting and dehumanizing effects of slavery.” (p. 32) He describes her as “a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which she had not shed a tear. She had bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and comfort for every mourner that came within her reach.” (p. 37) She did not expect servility from him. Quite the contrary, she disliked it. Her treatment of him at the outset was “as she supposed one human being ought to treat another.” (p. 37) “Under [slavery’s] influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness.” After being dissuaded from the reading lessons she had begun giving him, she “became even more violent in her opposition than her husband himself.” (p. 37) Slavery had so deteriorated her character that when he is finally shipped from Baltimore to St. Michaels to serve Master Thomas, he felt that as far as masters were concerned he “had little to lose by the change.” (p. 50)

    Change in individuals percolate out and feed change in the communities of which they are a part. He takes the community to task specifically for its lack of concern when Mr. Gore shoots and kills Demby, one of Col Lloyd’s slaves, for disobedience. More generally, “killing a slave, or any colored person, in Talbot county, Maryland, is not treated as a crime, either by the courts or the community.” (pp. 23-24) The whole of the community is compelled to lie (whether affirmatively or by omission) or be decried as an abolitionist. (p. 98) In a slaveholding community, even non-slaveholders are diminished by slavery’s effect. The close exposure to slavery motivated the shipbuilders in Baltimore - carpenters and apprentices - to abandon all feelings of equality or solidarity even with the free black carpenters working there. They refused to work with the black carpenters, and violently attacked Douglass. (pp. 95-96)

    As individual change affects the community, so does community change affect society at large. Free New Bedford seems more wealthy and prosperous on the whole than the slaveholding South: “I saw few or no dilapidated houses, with poverty-stricken inmates; no half-naked children and barefooted women”. (p. 114) Prior to seeing a free city, Douglass considered wealth impossible there - “I had been accustomed to regard their poverty as the necessary consequence of their being non-slaveholders.” (p. 113) When slavery is the means of procuring and displaying wealth, the slave society soon begins to consider it the only means of procuring it. “…In the absence of slaves there could be no wealth, and very little refinement.” (p. 113) More striking than monetary concerns, however, is the difference in psyche. When labor is purchased rather than compelled, it is not emotionally crushing. The wharves in New Bedford, where there is no slavery, are starkly contrasted to those of Baltimore, where there is. “There were no loud songs heard from those engaged in loading and unloading ships. I heard no deep oaths or horrid curses on the laborer….Every man appeared to understand his work, and went at it with a sober, yet cheerful earnestness”. (p. 114) He subtly hints at the damage to society at large, even in the North, in that white people don’t realize the profound sorrow and suffering inherent in slave singing. He compares those songs to tears relieving, but not purging, an aching heart. (pp. 14-15) Douglass feels very strongly about the corrupting influence of slavery on Christianity. So much so that he considers calling the Southern religion Christian “the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels.” (p. 118) His love for Christianity proper - “the Christianity of Christ” stands in firm opposition to his loathing of “the slaveholding religion of this land”. (p. 118)

    In his narrative, Douglass paints a very clear picture of the horrors that the institution of slavery delivers onto its victims. But equally clear, if not equally horrific, is the damage - sometimes subtle and insidious, sometimes obvious and undeniable - done to slaveholders, their communities, and the society in which they exist.



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