Frederick Douglass memoir of being a slave

I recently read the memoir Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass (c. 1817-1895), who in 1838 escaped from slavery in Maryland to freedom in New York. This document’s account ends shortly after he got his freedom. While yet a slave, he had surreptitiously taught himself to read and write, an offense for which he could be severely whipped if discovered. His memoir is extremely well written, so much so that many people at that time did not believe that he could ever have been a slave.

After moving to New Bedford, Connecticut, he attended an anti-slavery convention in Nantucket in 1841 where he got up and spoke for the first time in a group consisting of both white and Black people. He was discovered to be a powerful orator with a compelling life story and became one of the most prominent voices for abolition. His memoir can be downloaded at Project Gutenberg and other locations.

His story of his days in slavery are harrowing. The unremitting cruelty of that institution is a reminder of how low human beings can sink once they decide that some group of people are so inferior to them that they do not deserve even the most basic of humane treatment.

He also seeks to correct some misconceptions, such as the role of singing among slaves. We know that that there is a rich tradition of Black music that came out of slavery. Apologists for slavery used the singing of slaves as an indicator that they were happy with their lot but Douglass says in Chapter II that the opposite is true, that the singing indicates deep sorrow.

I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. At least, such is my experience. I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness. Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery. The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion.

In Chapter X, he says that while he had many masters, the ones who were the most religious and pious were the worst.

I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes,—a justifier of the most appalling barbarity,—a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds,—and a dark shelter under, which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection. Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others. It was my unhappy lot not only to belong to a religious slaveholder, but to live in a community of such religionists. Very near Mr. Freeland lived the Rev. Daniel Weeden, and in the same neighborhood lived the Rev. Rigby Hopkins. These were members and ministers in the Reformed Methodist Church. Mr. Weeden owned, among others, a woman slave, whose name I have forgotten. This woman’s back, for weeks, was kept literally raw, made so by the lash of this merciless, religious wretch. He used to hire hands. His maxim was, Behave well or behave ill, it is the duty of a master occasionally to whip a slave, to remind him of his master’s authority. Such was his theory, and such his practice.

The firm conviction that one is righteous in the eyes of God can lead one to the most horrible behavior.

In an Appendix to his narrative, Douglass says that he wants to correct the impression in the main text that he was against religion entirely and clarify that he was targeting those who practiced the wrong type of religion. But his correction is an even harsher criticism of religion in America than in the main text.

 I FIND, since reading over the foregoing Narrative that I have, in several instances, spoken in such a tone and manner, respecting religion, as may possibly lead those unacquainted with my religious views to suppose me an opponent of all religion. To remove the liability of such misapprehension, I deem it proper to append the following brief explanation. What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest, possible difference–so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. Never was there a clearer case of “stealing the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil in.” I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me. We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. The man who robs me of my earnings at the end of each week meets me as a class-leader on Sunday morning, to show me the way of life, and the path of salvation. He who sells my sister, for purposes of prostitution, stands forth as the pious advocate of purity. He who proclaims it a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read the name of the God who made me. He who is the religious advocate of marriage robs whole millions of its sacred influence, and leaves them to the ravages of wholesale pollution. The warm defender of the sacredness of the family relation is the same that scatters whole families,– sundering husbands and wives, parents and children, sisters and brothers, leaving the hut vacant, and the hearth desolate. We see the thief preaching against theft, and the adulterer against adultery. We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the Poor Heathen! All For The Glory of God And The Good Of Souls! The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealers in the bodies and souls of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity. Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other–devils dressed in angels’ robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.

Dark and terrible as is this picture, I hold it to be strictly true of the overwhelming mass of professed Christians in America. They strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. Could any thing be more true of our churches? They would be shocked at the proposition of fellowshipping a sheep-stealer ; and at the same time they hug to their communion a man-stealer, and brand me with being an infidel, if I find fault with them for it. They attend with Pharisaical strictness to the outward forms of religion, and at the same time neglect the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith. They are always ready to sacrifice, but seldom to show mercy. They are they who are represented as professing to love God whom they have not seen, whilst they hate their brother whom they have seen. They love the heathen on the other side of the globe. They can pray for him, pay money to have the Bible put into his hand, and missionaries to instruct him; while they despise and totally neglect the heathen at their own doors.
Such is, very briefly, my view of the religion of this land; and to avoid any misunderstanding, growing out of the use of general terms, I mean, by the religion of this land, that which is revealed in the words, deeds, and actions, of those bodies, north and south, calling themselves Christian churches, and yet in union with slaveholders. It is against religion, as presented by these bodies, that I have felt it my duty to testify.

Douglass went on to become one of the most recognizable figures in American history, a leader of the abolitionist movement and someone who had the ear of Abraham Lincoln.


  1. moonslicer says

    It’s been some time since I first read this. About time for a re-read, I think. Thanks for the reminder.

    If our right-wing friends would read this book, it would shut their mouths about a lot of things. Maybe. It’s hard to get a right-winger to shut his/her mouth.

  2. Bruce says

    We can never again think of Fredrick Douglass without thinking also of President Trump, who told everyone that he is now hearing great things about Douglass. News travels slowly in some circles.

  3. Steve Morrison says

    As I recall, Douglass refused to say how he had escaped on the grounds that others might still have to use the same way. However, after the Civil War, he did describe his escape in his autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.

  4. Silentbob says

    I ask myself why there is no biopic of this guy.

    Not that I’ve got anything against books, lol, but I know of five different biopics of Churchill, for example, off the top of my head -- Young Winston, Darkest Hour, Gathering Storm, Into the Storm. Plus there was a miniseries!

    Douglass’ story seems far more interesting and inspirational.

  5. Silentbob says

    On the subject of the slaves singing, this wasn’t just to express sorrow. The singing set a pace for the work to make it slightly more bearable, and also to create a sense of community. There was a call-and-response style where a leader would sing a phrase and the other workers answer. You worked to the rhythm and felt part of a group who were all in this together.

    This recording is from long after slavery of course; from deep south penitentiaries that had work gangs, but it gives you a feel of what slavery work songs would have sounded like:

  6. Mano Singham says

    Steve Morrison@#4,

    You are right, he gives no details his escape for the reason you cite and that part of his memoir is just one sentence:

    But I remained firm, and, according to my resolution, on the third day of September, 1838, I left my chains, and succeeded in reaching New York without the slightest interruption of any kind. How I did so,-- what means I adopted,--what direction I travelled, and by what mode of conveyance,--I must leave unexplained, for the reasons before mentioned.


  7. John Morales says

    Steve is also right about this [from the citation given]:

    IN the first narrative of my experience in slavery, written nearly forty years ago, and in various writings since, I have given the public what I considered very good reasons for withholding the manner of my escape. In substance these reasons were, first, that such publication at any time during the existence of slavery might be used by the master against the slave, and prevent the future escape of any who might adopt the same means that I did. The second reason was, if possible, still more binding to silence--for publication of details would certainly, have put in peril the persons and property of those who assisted. Murder itself was not more sternly and certainly punished in the State of Maryland, than that of aiding and abetting the escape of a slave. Many colored men for no other crime than that of giving aid to a fugitive slave, have, like Charles T. Torrey, perished in prison. The abolition of slavery in my native State and throughout the country, and the lapse of time, render the caution hitherto observed no longer necessary. But even since the abolition of slavery, I have sometimes thought it well enough to baffle curiosity by saying that while slavery existed there were good reasons for not telling the manner of my escape, and since slavery had ceased to exist there was no reason for telling it. I shall now, however, cease to avail myself of this formula, and, as far as I can, endeavor to satisfy this very natural curiosity.

    Old-timey, dense but succinct, convoluted but quite clear.
    I kinda like that style.

    (Smart guy)

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    Douglass wrote three autobiographies (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass [1845], My Bondage and My Freedom [1855], and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass [1881, revised 1892]) -- and, per William S. McFeely’s Frederick Douglass and other histories, each differed on important points.

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