A whipping is the penalty of not being in the field at sunrise

I’m re-reading Frederic Douglass’s Narrative. It’s available at Project Gutenberg, so it’s easy to share passages for discussion or admiration.

There’s the early paragraph about his relationship with his mother…

I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four or five times in my life; and each of these times was very short in duration, and at night. She was hired by a Mr. Stewart, who lived about twelve miles from my home. She made her journeys to see me in the night, travelling the whole distance on foot, after the performance of her day’s work.

She was a field hand, and a whipping is the penalty of not being in the field at sunrise, unless a slave has special permission from his or her master to the contrary—a permission which they seldom get, and one that gives to him that gives it the proud name of being a kind master. I do not recollect of ever seeing my mother by the light of day. She was with me in the night. She would lie down with me, and get me to sleep, but long before I waked she was gone. Very little communication ever took place between us. Death soon ended what little we could have while she lived, and with it her hardships and suffering. She died when I was about seven years old, on one of my master’s farms, near Lee’s Mill. I was not allowed to be present during her illness, at her death, or burial. She was gone long before I knew any thing about it. Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, I received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger.

Short, and heart-breaking. Imagine being that mother. Imagine those journeys to be with her little boy: twelve miles, over bad roads or rough ground, after a hard day of labor, and then twelve hours back having to start hours before dawn.

In chapter 7 there is a passage on his early reading and how it affected him.

I was now about twelve years old, and the thought of being a slave for life began to bear heavily upon my heart. Just about this time, I got hold of a book entitled “The Columbian Orator.” Every opportunity I got, I used to read this book. Among much of other interesting matter, I found in it a dialogue between a master and his slave. The slave was represented as having run away from his master three times. The dialogue represented the conversation which took place between them, when the slave was retaken the third time. In this dialogue, the whole argument in behalf of slavery was brought forward by the master, all of which was disposed of by the slave. The slave was made to say some very smart as well as impressive things in reply to his master—things which had the desired though unexpected effect; for the conversation resulted in the voluntary emancipation of the slave on the part of the master.

In the same book, I met with one of Sheridan’s mighty speeches on and in behalf of Catholic emancipation. These were choice documents to me. I read them over and over again with unabated interest. They gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance. The moral which I gained from the dialogue was the power of truth over the conscience of even a slaveholder. What I got from Sheridan was a bold denunciation of slavery, and a powerful vindication of human rights. The reading of these documents enabled me to utter my thoughts, and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery; but while they relieved me of one difficulty, they brought on another even more painful than the one of which I was relieved. The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery. I loathed them as being the meanest as well as the most wicked of men. As I read and contemplated the subject, behold! that very discontentment which Master Hugh had predicted would follow my learning to read had already come, to torment and sting my soul to unutterable anguish. As I writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. In moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity. I have often wished myself a beast. I preferred the condition of the meanest reptile to my own. Any thing, no matter what, to get rid of thinking! It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me. There was no getting rid of it. It was pressed upon me by every object within sight or hearing, animate or inanimate. The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness. Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever. It was heard in every sound, and seen in every thing. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.

He got out, but he was the exception, not the rule.


  1. quixote says

    What people forget about slavery is this part: the “argument in behalf of slavery was brought forward by the master.” What people forget is that not all decent people were against it at the time. So when some argue for treating others like chattel now, there are enough who nod along and say, “Problem? What problem?” If you insist there really is a problem, they object that nobody is chained at the ankles so it couldn’t possibly be the same thing.

  2. johnthedrunkard says

    A special cringe over the expression ‘she was hired.’ Don’t accept the term unless you recognize that it means ‘she was RENTED.’

    Part of the issue in the Dred Scott case, was the way Scott, inherited by a ‘poor relation’ of the family, was rented as unskilled labor, even though he was fairly old, and tubercular.

  3. says

    Yeah, I almost annotated “hired.” Douglass makes that clear but not in the bit I quoted. Owners would “hire out” slaves to other people, but of course it was the owner who collected the wages, not the slave.

  4. Chris Walker says

    I read “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass” for a MOOC on the slave south, and I was constantly horrified by the conditions of his life and amazed by his conviction and perseverance. One of the parts that stuck with me was the section of his life where he was sent by his owner to a man who was famous for “breaking” slaves. His description of his time there is heartbreaking.

    I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!

    Sunday was my only leisure time. I spent this in a sort of beast- like stupor, between sleep and wake, under some large tree. At times I would rise up, a flash of energetic freedom would dart through my soul, accompanied with a faint gleam of hope that flickered for a moment, and then vanished. I sank down again, mourning over my wretched condition. I was sometimes prompted to take my life and that of Covey, but was prevented by a combination of hope and fear….

    The fact that he was able to persist through this and go on to achieve so much is astounding. It’s sickening to think of the millions who never got the chance.

  5. ZGvFW says

    Thank you for mentioning it. I had never read it before and it is gripping book. It’s making me realize the depths of my ignorance, which is the best possible thing it could do for me.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *