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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
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Chapter 6

My new mistress proved to be all she appeared
when I first met her at the door,—a woman of the
kindest heart and finest feelings. She had never had
a slave under her control previously to myself, and
prior to her marriage she had been dependent upon
her own industry for a living. She was by trade a
weaver; and by constant application to her business,
she had been in a good degree preserved from the
blighting and dehumanizing effects of slavery. I was
utterly astonished at her goodness. I scarcely knew
how to behave towards her. She was entirely unlike
any other white woman I had ever seen. I could not
approach her as I was accustomed to approach other
white ladies. My early instruction was all out of
place. The crouching servility, usually so acceptable
a quality in a slave, did not answer when manifested
toward her. Her favor was not gained by it; she
seemed to be disturbed by it. She did not deem it
impudent or unmannerly for a slave to look her in
the face. The meanest slave was put fully at ease
in her presence, and none left without feeling bet-
ter for having seen her. Her face was made of heav-
enly smiles, and her voice of tranquil music.
But, alas! this kind heart had but a short time to
remain such. The fatal poison of irresponsible power
was already in her hands, and soon commenced its
infernal work. That cheerful eye, under the influ-
ence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that
voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of
harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave
place to that of a demon.
Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs.
Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the
A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in
learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just
at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out
what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld
to instruct me further, telling her, among other
things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to
teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further,
he said, "If you give a nigger an inch, he will take
an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey
his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would
~spoil~ the best nigger in the world. Now," said he, "if
you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to
read, there would be no keeping him. It would for-
ever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once be-
come unmanageable, and of no value to his master.
As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great
deal of harm. It would make him discontented and
unhappy." These words sank deep into my heart,
stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering,
and called into existence an entirely new train of
thought. It was a new and special revelation, ex-
plaining dark and mysterious things, with which my
youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled
in vain. I now understood what had been to me a
most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man's
power to enslave the black man. It was a grand
achievement, and I prized it highly. From that mo-
ment, I understood the pathway from slavery to free-
dom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a
time when I the least expected it. Whilst I was sad-
dened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind
mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruc-
tion which, by the merest accident, I had gained
from my master. Though conscious of the difficulty
of learning without a teacher, I set out with high
hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trou-
ble, to learn how to read. The very decided manner
with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife
with the evil consequences of giving me instruction,
served to convince me that he was deeply sensible
of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best
assurance that I might rely with the utmost confi-
dence on the results which, he said, would flow from
teaching me to read. What he most dreaded, that
I most desired. What he most loved, that I most
hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be
carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be
diligently sought; and the argument which he so
warmly urged, against my learning to read, only
served to inspire me with a desire and determina-
tion to learn. In learning to read, I owe almost as
much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to
the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the
benefit of both.
I had resided but a short time in Baltimore before
I observed a marked difference, in the treatment of
slaves, from that which I had witnessed in the coun-
try. A city slave is almost a freeman, compared with
a slave on the plantation. He is much better fed and
clothed, and enjoys privileges altogether unknown
to the slave on the plantation. There is a vestige of
decency, a sense of shame, that does much to curb
and check those outbreaks of atrocious cruelty so
commonly enacted upon the plantation. He is a des-
perate slaveholder, who will shock the humanity of
his non-slaveholding neighbors with the cries of his
lacerated slave. Few are willing to incur the odium
attaching to the reputation of being a cruel master;
and above all things, they would not be known as
not giving a slave enough to eat. Every city slave-
holder is anxious to have it known of him, that he
feeds his slaves well; and it is due to them to say,
that most of them do give their slaves enough to eat.
There are, however, some painful exceptions to this
rule. Directly opposite to us, on Philpot Street, lived
Mr. Thomas Hamilton. He owned two slaves. Their
names were Henrietta and Mary. Henrietta was
about twenty-two years of age, Mary was about four-
teen; and of all the mangled and emaciated creatures
I ever looked upon, these two were the most so. His
heart must be harder than stone, that could look
upon these unmoved. The head, neck, and shoulders
of Mary were literally cut to pieces. I have fre-
quently felt her head, and found it nearly covered
with festering sores, caused by the lash of her cruel
mistress. I do not know that her master ever whipped
her, but I have been an eye-witness to the cruelty of
Mrs. Hamilton. I used to be in Mr. Hamilton's house
nearly every day. Mrs. Hamilton used to sit in a large
chair in the middle of the room, with a heavy cow-
skin always by her side, and scarce an hour passed
during the day but was marked by the blood of one
of these slaves. The girls seldom passed her without
her saying, "Move faster, you ~black gip!~" at the same
time giving them a blow with the cowskin over the
head or shoulders, often drawing the blood. She
would then say, "Take that, you ~black gip!~" con-
tinuing, "If you don't move faster, I'll move you!"
Added to the cruel lashings to which these slaves
were subjected, they were kept nearly half-starved.
They seldom knew what it was to eat a full meal.
I have seen Mary contending with the pigs for the
offal thrown into the street. So much was Mary
kicked and cut to pieces, that she was oftener called
"~pecked~" than by her name.
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