Frederick Douglass was a slave born around the year 1818, never knowing his when he was born, and died in 1895. Douglass was born into slavery, but his determination proved to overcome his situation, as he persistently resisted the peculiar Institution. He favored resistance through the mind mostly, writing his first work called A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave in the year 1853, which would only contribute to his fight against slavery in the Americas. Frederick Douglass wrote about the treatment of slaves and himself in his narrative.
As a result of studying Frederick Douglass’s writings, it is revealed that slaves were oppressed throughout their daily lives by restricting their education, implementing a social hierarchy, and limiting any outside influence from reaching them. Douglass was well known for being a big advocate for education, as he considered it very important to most importantly can read. Despite the challenges that Douglass was face with, he was determined to learn how to read as “I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read” (Frederick Douglass 38).
Frederick Douglass would even go as far as to hold secret lessons to educate other slaves on how to read because he and the masters both knew that “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master'” (Frederick Douglass 37). The slave owners acknowledge that by keeping slaves uneducated they are easily controlled, and it is easier to keep them as slaves, whereas educated slaves will resist because they are more aware of what is truly taking place.
Frederick Douglass understands all of this and serves as the main driving force behind a lot of his efforts as teaching the slaves will lead to their permanent freedom that no one will be able to take away. Along with literacy, also came knowledge and written communication as well, which meant slaves could communicate with much more ease. This was a site of fear for the slave owners as it facilitates possible slave rebellions, and gives way to organized slave revolts. Especially when “70 percent in South Carolina” (Sin of Slaveholding), are slaves, it is in best interest to keep them from rebelling.
The slave owning societies also kept their slaves oppressed by constantly demonstrating their authority and power over the slaves. For instance, while the masters had full wardrobe of clothes to decide between, their slaves were given a yearly clothe allowance of “two coarse linen shirts, one pair of linen trousers” (Frederick Douglass 11). The clothes often times did not last, especially for the slaves that performed manual labor in the cotton fields or other places.
Often this would leave the slaves in tattered clothes for a large portion of the year, and children were often nude until they hit puberty (Honeycutt Lecture). This served as a physical reminder of their low social status, but this was one of the lesser reminders, as the slaves were also often whipped, as Frederick Douglass recalls to “have seen him whip a woman, causing the blood to run half an hour at the time; and this, too, amid her crying children, pleading for their mother’s release” (Frederick Douglass 12).
Actions like this were often performed in public to stand as a reminder for other slaves what would await them if they misbehaved. In the extreme cases, the master or another white would kill a slave and would receive barely any punishments if any at all. To the government, slaves were just property after all, so they did not receive the same rights as the white citizens did. There are even a few examples of formal mass executions done to African Americans like in the year 1712 when a group of African Americans “set fire to a building and ambushed and murdered about nine whites” (Fear of Slave Revolts).
It is easiest to keep people under control when you limit their encounters with exterior factors. That is what the prison system uses along with slavery. The slave owners in the south often tried to limit their slaves’ interactions with others to avoid them learning about inalienable right, education, news, and the abolitionist movement. If their slaves do not know about any of these things, then they cannot support or replicate any of them.
Especially since the television and radio were not readily available, news often came to people from word of mouth or written style. This was one of the main reasons the slave owners also denied their slaves education so that they could not find out about things happening in different areas. For instance, if all the slaves of the south knew about, “the first slave revolt in the New World erupted in Hispaniola in 1522” (Fear of Slave Revolts), then a lot more slaves would resist their masters and cause problems for the institution.
Also, their slaves being ignorant of abolition movements would mean a lot fewer runaway slaves to the north, but rumors spread among the slaves about abolitionists and the Underground Railroad, which Douglass did not agree with because it was too risky. The slaves spreading the news of the abolitionists and Underground Railroad often resulted in punishments for any slaves or some whites advocating for runaway slaves or the abolition movement. Virginia even had a law that, “prohibited masters from freeing slaves unless the freedmen were deported from the colony” (Virginia State Laws).
This may not seem like a big factor, but when the law’s effect is considered, it practically bans freed slaves in Virginia, meaning that freed slaves must leave behind their families, friends, and residence. This itself demotivated some slaves as they may suffer as they work, but they can still be with their loved ones. One large reason freed slaves were prohibited in Virginia was also that they could tell the other slaves what it is like up north, where Douglass described it as being a slave in the north is the closest thing to being free.