In Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, one of the major themes is how the institution of slavery has an effect on the moral health of the slaveholder. The power slaveholders have over their slaves is great, as well as corrupting. Douglass uses this theme to point out that the institution
is bad for everyone involved, not just the slaves. Throughout the narrative, Douglass uses several of his former slaveholders as examples. Sophia Auld, once such a kind and caring woman, is transformed into a cruel and oppressive slave owner over the course of the narrative. Thomas Auld, also. Douglass ties this theme back to the main concern of authorial control. Although this is a personal account
, it is also a tool of propaganda, and is used as such. Douglass’s intent is to convince readers that the system of slavery is horrible and damaging to all included, and thus should be abolished completely. Douglass makes it very clear in his examples how exactly the transformation occurs and how kind and moral people can become those who beat their slaves and pervert Christianity in an attempt to justify it.
When Douglass moves to Baltimore, he becomes the property of Hugh Auld. There he is cared for by Hugh’s wife, Sophia. The reader’s first impressions of Sophia are favorable; she is a warm, gentle woman who wishes to teach Douglass to read and write. Douglass himself is surprised at how kind she is at first, and he mentions that Sophia Auld has never owned slaves before, and therefore has not been affected by the evils of slavery. Douglass notes that she does not wish to punish him just to keep him subservient like his former masters did, and she does not beat him or even mind at all when Douglass looks her in the eyes. Sophia also teaches Douglass the alphabet and several words. However, her husband Hugh, who has already undergone the transformation that slavery causes, immediately orders her to stop when he hears of this. Here, we see the contrast of two distinctly different people with regards to the institution of slavery. Sophia Auld is pure, innocent, untouched by the evils of slavery. Hugh Auld, on the other hand, has experience with the system of slavery and knows that in order to keep slaves obedient, they must also be kept ignorant and fearful. Douglass mentions how slaveholders who have owned slaves for long enough learn this fact, and must turn into cruel people or else risk losing the obedience of their slaves. Although Sophia has not experienced this at this point, she soon becomes corrupted by the power that comes with being a slave owner. Douglass describes her transformation towards an inhuman person by portraying her as the victim. Douglass faults the system as a whole rather than the individual slaveholders, who he believes have no choice but to become corrupted by the immoral institution.
Another example Douglass uses is one of his masters after he lives Hugh and Sophia Auld. Douglass becomes the property of Thomas Auld, the former husband of Captain Anthony’s daughter, Lucretia. Although Thomas does not undergo a transformation from kind to cruel, as Sophia did, Douglass still points out that his cruel and inconsistent treatment of his slaves is due to the fact that he was not born into the system of slavery. Thomas acquired his slaves in his marriage, and therefore does not truly know how to be an effectively ruthless slaveholder. Douglass notes this fact, saying that adoptive slaveholders have a reputation for being extremely cruel and severe. Douglass states that Thomas Auld’s punishments are inconsistent and extremely arbitrary. This makes the slaves fear him less, however, because his inconsistency is a sign of weakness. Because Thomas was not born into the system, he cannot act naturally in his position of slave owner. Instead, he struggles to imitate what he thinks is the proper technique for treating slaves. Although Thomas is never presented as anything other than a cruel man, the institution of slavery affects him just as much as it affects Sophia Auld. Thomas attempts to play the part of the cruel slave master but cannot do it. Douglass points out that that is the only way whites can effectively control black slaves is to act in that manner, and Thomas Auld fails at it. However, he is clearly affected by owning slaves, as he shows by attempting to act in a ruthless manner but ultimately failing.
Many of the slaveholders in the narrative were born owning slaves, but Douglass uses two examples of masters who weren’t to illustrate his point that slavery is unnatural and its evil corrupts people. People like Colonel Lloyd, Covey, and Captain Anthony were consistently cruel throughout the narrative, as they were products of the system. But the two converts the narrative discusses, Sophia and Thomas Auld, are Douglass’s two most important examples that the institution of white dominance is evil, damaging, and corrupting. With Sophia Auld, we see a case of a kind, gentle woman turned into someone cruel and inhumane, just because she became the owner of a slave. Thomas Auld, on the other hand, was never a kind person, but he too struggles with adjusting to owning slaves. His attempt to imitate the traditional cruel slave master ends up failing, as he does not command the respect and fear that masters such as Colonel Lloyd or Covey do. Ultimately, the narrative is a tool of propaganda as well as a biography, and Douglass’s accounts of both Sophia and Thomas Auld effectively show what a damaging institution slavery is to all involved.