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Douglass -- The Narrative

Powerful Essays
Debunking the Southern Secret

“Sincerely and earnestly hoping that this little book may do something toward throwing light on the American slave system, and hastening the glad day of deliverance to the millions of my brethren in bonds … relying upon the power of truth, love, and justice, for success in my … efforts and solemnly pledging myself anew to the sacred cause, I subscribe myself” (Douglass 76). With these words, Frederick Douglass (c. 1817-1895), an emancipated slave with no formal education, ends one of the greatest pieces of propaganda of the 19th century America: that slavery is good for the slave. He writes his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, as an abolitionist tool to shape his northern audience’s view of southern slaveholders. Through personal anecdotes, Douglass draws an accurate picture of slave life. Simultaneously, he chooses these events for how they will affect the northern audience’s opinion of southern slaveholders (Quarles ii). By using the written word, Douglass targets educated northern whites because they were the only group capable of changing the status quo. Illiterate northern whites and free northern blacks could not vote, while white Southerners would not vote because they did not want change. For that reason, Douglass used his life story as an instrument to promote abolition among literate northern whites (vi).
Douglass uses family relationships, starting with his own birth, to gain the compassion of his target audience. He never knew the identity of his father, but it was “whispered” (Douglass 2) that it was his master. Douglass mentions this to demonstrate how the “master in [many] cases, sustains to his slaves the double relation of master and father” (2). This was so commonplace that it was “by law established that the children of women shall in all cases follow the condition of their mother” (2). This meant that these bastard children were slaves despite their paternal heritage because their mother was a slave. The effect of this revelation was to shock and offend the morals of the conservative northern whites. Northern society scorned people in adulterous and interracial relationships. By portraying these Southerners as immoral and adulterous, Douglass wanted to cultivate in his audience a damaging opinion of southern slaveholders (Quarles ix).
Continuing with the theme o...

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...streated and punished their slaves, and how they used religion as an excuse to legitimize their immoral actions. “Slavery was a most painful situation; and, to understand it, one must experience it, or imagine himself in similar circumstances … then, and not till then, will he fully appreciate the hardships of, and know how to sympathize with, the toil worn and whipped-scarred … slave” (64). Douglass’s own words are meant as a plea for his readers to imagine themselves in his situation he and other slaves endured to better understand the hardships he and other slaves endured (Quarles xi).
Frederick Douglass used family values, basic human rights, and religion to persuade the northern white audience toward the cause of abolition. He expects his readers will share his “hate [for] the corrupt, slaveholding, woman whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of [southern slaveholders]” (Douglass 71). American slavery does not exist in today due partly to Douglass’s effort to help advance the cause of abolition.

Works Cited
Quarles, Benjamin, ed. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. By Frederick Douglass. Cambridge: Harvard Press, 1988.
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