The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Hannah McCann

Critical Essay


The Power of an Autobiography

            Fredrick Douglass writes his autobiography, “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”, in hopes to critique the culture of slave holding and construct a story of American selfhood. In a country where life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are the foundations of how people are supposedly living their lives. Douglass disputes this concept with his own story as a slave. He asks his “Christian” audience to look at slavery from a first person perspective in order to contribute to the abolitionist movement of slave holding. The idea is this: slavery exists and Americans created it. While many people use there Christian beliefs to support this life style, Douglass writes to prove them otherwise.  

Douglass forces his readers to face the reality of the cruelty he has endured as a slave. America, having been independent for nearly 70 years, built a foundation that was said to constitute freedom. Douglass uses his stories to expose the irony behind this claim. “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” (Douglass, Kindle Edition. Ch1). The first we hear of Fredrick Douglass’ family life is how he essentially didn’t have one, apart from knowing his mother was black and his father was white, he has few interactions with his own mother before she passes. He never knew the motherly love like most readers in the 1800s would have. He even mentions not having feelings “of that more than a stranger” when he hears of her death. While white men and women were privileged with the ability to raise their children from birth and watch them grow into adults, they took this necessity away from their slaves. Families were separated without hesitation. Why slave holders assume their lives are more important or justified than African American’s, is a question the readers should be contemplating. Douglass wants us to see how unethical this is. A culture who prides themselves on freedom has then taken the freedom of their own people. 

Family being an essential to any living entity, this automatically sets Douglass up for a life of struggle. As an author telling his own story, Douglass strategically shares his experiences which brings out emotions for the readers sharing, “I often found myself regretting my own existence, and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself, or done something for which I should have been killed” (Douglass, Kindle Edition. Ch 7). The mental trauma Douglass dealt with pushed him to a state of depression; to the point where he wished he would have taken his own life. The likely audience of this narrative being white Christian readers, Douglass hopes to make them feel guilty from their actions and maybe see the default in the selfhood America prides themselves on. The use of Douglass’ autobiography doesn’t leave room for his readers to deny him a right to his own life considering he never gives a reason for mistreatment or oppression.

Having knowledge of one’s self is something Douglass is stripped of, “I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it” (Douglass, Kindle Edition ch 1). His age and date of birth are merely a guess. While the white readers of the mid 1800s have the privilege of celebrating their birthdays and knowing who, when, and where they were born is a component slaves rarely see in their lives. Slave holders give no logical reason to with-hold or remove this information from their slaves. It is important to notice how Douglass was born into a life that lack the essentials of family, healthy environments, and self-awareness. 

 Douglass’ narrative breaks the stereotypes of slaves. Releasing this autobiography showed slave holders that their slaves were capable of being well spoken, educated citizens. If given the opportunity, which would be up to the slave-holders, they could enter the real world and reach their full potential. During his life as a slave, Douglass thought this skill was a negative ability for him to have. “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” (Douglass, Kindle Edition ch 7). Douglass was lucky enough to come across a “kind” mistress, Mrs. Hugh, who taught him his alphabet. Most slaves didn’t have this liberty, and Mr. Hugh shortly put an end to Fredericks learning. The “norm” of a slave was to be illiterate, if you were anything else, you were to be punished. Douglass shares about the ability as if it is a burden while every white man and woman thought highly of their education. 

Throughout all the examples and scenarios where Douglass alludes to not having these rights or common necessities in life. The analysis by Vince Brewton called “Bold defiance took its place“ – “Respect” and Self Making in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, says, “The autobiography of a slave here represents a claim to “respect” where according to law, custom, and the ideology of honor there should be no claim”(Brewton 711). Brewton sparks the argument that using life being an unalienable right is not rational, because these rights didn’t account for African Americans. But… just because they were not protected by the constitution, still doesn’t explain why they would have “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as foundations of their country and still treat slaves unfair. If they believe in their country and what it stands for, then why are they still oppressing other Americans?

            Simple liberties such as clothing were taken from slaves. Douglass directly shared his experience of not being provided with sufficient clothing. He says, “Children from seven to ten years old, of both sexes, almost naked, might be seen at all seasons of the year” (Douglass, Kindle Edition ch2). Children were not yet working strenuous jobs, so they involuntarily sacrificed clothing. Food, clothing, and shelter are the basic needs to survive as a human and to hear about children not having this need is a heart-wrenching reality. White Christian women have to read about their own selves depriving these children knowing they could never let their own offspring go without clothing and Douglass knows this will be effective when trying to convince them slavery should be abolished. 

Douglass’s narrative doesn’t just explain the horrors of slavery at the time, he acknowledges the long term effect which remains with slaves for the entirety of their lives. The liberty of closure is taken from them because one does not recover from scenes, events, and memories they lived. “Those songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery, and quicken my sympathies for my brethren in bonds” (Douglass, Kindle Edition.ch2). Frederick Douglass still remember the songs he sang as he work and walked, these were not songs of joy; but songs of sorrow. This is something he has to live with even after being free. The trauma slave-holders put them through ruin their mental well-being forever. Using his autobiography, Douglass articulates this idea to his readers so they know how the author of the book they are reading is still being followed by his past. He also wants to bring awareness to the idea there are still people being enslaved and the white audience are the only ones who can change it. 

Douglass uses graphic scenes to express the horrific punishments slaves went through and grew up watching.“I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending Longershrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood” (Douglass, Kindle Edition. Ch 1). At the age of 7, before Douglass had even been put to work himself, he had to witness this brutal act against his own aunt. Watching through a closet, he comes to terms with what his life will look like. Not feeling sympathy towards the young boy when reading this would be undeniably inhumane, which is exactly what Douglass wants his readers to feel. These vulnerable moments are what will work within the audiences minds and hearts the most and are most effective when written in the autobiographical format.

As the author of his own story, Douglass has the ability to emphasize the truth. His desired outcome is abolishment of slavery and to make it so you can’t deny what happened in history (or what was happening at the time). The gory details he witnessed make the largest impression on the audience. “Upon this he rushed at me with the fierceness of a tiger, tore off my clothes, and lashed me till he had worn out his switches, cutting me so savagely as to leave the marks visible for a long time after” (Douglass, Kindle Edition ch10). When Douglass intentionally chose to not abide by the demands of Master Covey after a misunderstanding with the ox, he reacted with unnecessary anger and aggression. Covey as an owner is an example of the slave holders Douglass wants the public to frown upon; with him as an owner, happiness isn’t attainable.  

Douglass paints a disturbing picture of the harsh whippings slaves endured. He watched his aunt get beat by Mr. Plummer. “The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest” (Douglass, Kindle Edition ch1). If America wants everyone to be on a “Pursuit of Happiness”, how could they justify this claim when meanwhile they are beating humans, sometimes to the point of death? How could white men and women think a child watching his own aunt be whipped repeatedly on her naked back be happy? 

A black man’s happiness was taken the minute he or she was born. While they may come across a decent owner or moments during their life as a slave, like learning how to read and write in Douglass’s case, there was always an opportunity and likeliness for the situation to worsen. “I suffered more anxiety than most of my fellow slaves. I had known what it was to be kindly treated; they had known nothing of the kind (Douglass, Kindle Edition ch8). Because Douglass had experience with a positive relationship between him and his slave-holder, he was even more miserable when we had to endure the punishments and treatments from Plummer, Covey, and the Auld’s (apart from Sophia for a while). He is a real person experiencing real things, and he wants America to see they shouldn’t be proud of the selfhood they have created in slavery because they have taken away everything they claim to provide.

Although we never actually know how Douglass escaped, we do know he does reach freedom. “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 “(Douglass, Kindle 11). Knowing that he could be captured, Douglass still writes his narrative to help his brothers still suffering in slavery. This shows us how bold and brave he is and also critiques the slave holders for putting so much fear into someone when they never had the right to do so in the first place. He is free, yet he is still adjusting the way he lives because slavery still existed, there is something morbidly wrong with this picture. Hopefully the audience realizes how unfair the issue of slavery truly must be if Douglas is willing to share his past with the same people who are committing these acts against other people. In the autobiographical format, Douglass was able to allude to this freedom in his final chapter by naming his last slave-holder, “Mr. Freeland”. Being an autobiography, Douglass can strategically make the decision to alter names to benefit the story and it’s effectiveness.    

The 1stperson experiences Douglass provides us with allow his readers to connect with him on a personal level. When the stories are coming directly from the person who lived through these moments, the reader cannot simply “deny” what is being said. Douglass will take moments while sharing his life as a slave to directly address the readers and making a comment to make us feel like we are in conversation with him; something you can’t just ignore. In a critical analysis by Vince Brewton, he includes information which proposes a possible dispute about the authenticity of the autobiography, “Douglass’s biographer William S. McFeely has raised serious questions about the accuracy of some of Douglass’s claims, but scholarship on the issue of Douglass’s factual accounts remains divided. Stepto contends that in one place in the Narrative “Douglass is reproducing his language from memory and there is no reason to doubt a single jot of his recollection”” (Brewton 706). The two stances raise an interesting question, but denying someone’s testimony isn’t a probable reason to ignore the moral, political, and historical impact of Douglass’ narrative. 

“I am glad the time has come when the “lions write history.” We have been left long enough to gather the character of slavery from the involuntary evidence of the masters” (Letter from Phillips, Douglass, Kindle Edition). This letter comes with the publishing of Douglass’ narrative, Phillips felt as if this would be a breakthrough and they would be able to contribute to the abolishment of slavery. Douglass hopes to critique the culture of slave holding and construct a story of American selfhood. Using an autobiography, he takes his own story and targets his free, white, Christian audience in order to be most effective. The Revolution happened and the American identity was “free”, but the irony of the situation was the large percentage of Americans who were still being oppressed, which is exactly what Douglass wants the readers to come to terms with.  


Brewton, Vince. “‘Bold Defiance Took Its Place‘ – ‘Respect’ and Self Making in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.” Jstor, University of North Alabama, 1932.

Douglass, Frederick. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: an American Slave. Kindle ed., Anti-Slavery Office, 1845.