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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
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READ STUDY GUIDE: Preface by William Lloyd Garrison & Letter from Wendell Phillips

 

PREFACE

In the month of August, 1841, I attended an anti-
slavery convention in Nantucket, at which it was
my happiness to become acquainted with FREDERICK
DOUGLASS, the writer of the following Narrative. He
was a stranger to nearly every member of that body;
but, having recently made his escape from the south-
ern prison-house of bondage, and feeling his curiosity
excited to ascertain the principles and measures of
the abolitionists,—of whom he had heard a somewhat
vague description while he was a slave,—he was in-
duced to give his attendance, on the occasion al-
luded to, though at that time a resident in New
Bedford.
Fortunate, most fortunate occurrence!—fortunate
for the millions of his manacled brethren, yet pant-
ing for deliverance from their awful thraldom!—for-
tunate for the cause of negro emancipation, and of
universal liberty!—fortunate for the land of his birth,
which he has already done so much to save and bless!
—fortunate for a large circle of friends and acquaint-
ances, whose sympathy and affection he has strongly
secured by the many sufferings he has endured, by
his virtuous traits of character, by his ever-abiding
remembrance of those who are in bonds, as being
bound with them!—fortunate for the multitudes, in
various parts of our republic, whose minds he has
enlightened on the subject of slavery, and who have
been melted to tears by his pathos, or roused to
virtuous indignation by his stirring eloquence against
the enslavers of men!—fortunate for himself, as
it at once brought him into the field of public use-
fulness, "gave the world assurance of a MAN," quick-
ened the slumbering energies of his soul, and con-
secrated him to the great work of breaking the rod
of the oppressor, and letting the oppressed go free!
I shall never forget his first speech at the conven-
tion—the extraordinary emotion it excited in my own
mind—the powerful impression it created upon a
crowded auditory, completely taken by surprise—the
applause which followed from the beginning to the
end of his felicitous remarks. I think I never hated
slavery so intensely as at that moment; certainly, my
perception of the enormous outrage which is in-
flicted by it, on the godlike nature of its victims, was
rendered far more clear than ever. There stood one,
in physical proportion and stature commanding and
exact—in intellect richly endowed—in natural elo-
quence a prodigy—in soul manifestly "created but a
little lower than the angels"—yet a slave, ay, a fugi-
tive slave,—trembling for his safety, hardly daring to
believe that on the American soil, a single white
person could be found who would befriend him at
all hazards, for the love of God and humanity! Ca-
pable of high attainments as an intellectual and
moral being—needing nothing but a comparatively
small amount of cultivation to make him an orna-
ment to society and a blessing to his race—by the law
of the land, by the voice of the people, by the terms
of the slave code, he was only a piece of property, a
beast of burden, a chattel personal, nevertheless!
A beloved friend from New Bedford prevailed on
Mr. DOUGLASS to address the convention: He came
forward to the platform with a hesitancy and embar-
rassment, necessarily the attendants of a sensitive
mind in such a novel position. After apologizing for
his ignorance, and reminding the audience that slav-
ery was a poor school for the human intellect and
heart, he proceeded to narrate some of the facts in
his own history as a slave, and in the course of his
speech gave utterance to many noble thoughts and
thrilling reflections. As soon as he had taken his
seat, filled with hope and admiration, I rose, and
declared that PATRICK HENRY, of revolutionary fame,
never made a speech more eloquent in the cause of
liberty, than the one we had just listened to from
the lips of that hunted fugitive. So I believed at
that time—such is my belief now. I reminded the
audience of the peril which surrounded this self-
emancipated young man at the North,—even in Mas-
sachusetts, on the soil of the Pilgrim Fathers, among
the descendants of revolutionary sires; and I ap-
pealed to them, whether they would ever allow him
to be carried back into slavery,—law or no law, con-
stitution or no constitution. The response was unani-
mous and in thunder-tones—"NO!" "Will you succor
and protect him as a brother-man—a resident of the
old Bay State?" "YES!" shouted the whole mass,
with an energy so startling, that the ruthless tyrants
south of Mason and Dixon's line might almost have
heard the mighty burst of feeling, and recognized
it as the pledge of an invincible determination, on
the part of those who gave it, never to betray him
that wanders, but to hide the outcast, and firmly to
abide the consequences.
It was at once deeply impressed upon my mind,
that, if Mr. DOUGLASS could be persuaded to conse-
crate his time and talents to the promotion of the
anti-slavery enterprise, a powerful impetus would
be given to it, and a stunning blow at the same time
inflicted on northern prejudice against a colored
complexion. I therefore endeavored to instil hope
and courage into his mind, in order that he might
dare to engage in a vocation so anomalous and re-
sponsible for a person in his situation; and I was
seconded in this effort by warm-hearted friends, es-
pecially by the late General Agent of the Massa-
chusetts Anti-Slavery Society, Mr. JOHN A. COLLINS,
whose judgment in this instance entirely coincided
with my own. At first, he could give no encourage-
ment; with unfeigned diffidence, he expressed his
conviction that he was not adequate to the perform-
ance of so great a task; the path marked out was
wholly an untrodden one; he was sincerely appre-
hensive that he should do more harm than good.
After much deliberation, however, he consented to
make a trial; and ever since that period, he has acted
as a lecturing agent, under the auspices either of the
American or the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society.
In labors he has been most abundant; and his success
in combating prejudice, in gaining proselytes, in agi-
tating the public mind, has far surpassed the most
sanguine expectations that were raised at the com-
mencement of his brilliant career. He has borne him-
self with gentleness and meekness, yet with true
manliness of character. As a public speaker, he excels
in pathos, wit, comparison, imitation, strength of
reasoning, and fluency of language. There is in him
that union of head and heart, which is indispensable
to an enlightenment of the heads and a winning of
the hearts of others. May his strength continue to
be equal to his day! May he continue to "grow in
grace, and in the knowledge of God," that he may
be increasingly serviceable in the cause of bleeding
humanity, whether at home or abroad!
It is certainly a very remarkable fact, that one of
the most efficient advocates of the slave population,
now before the public, is a fugitive slave, in the
person of FREDERICK DOUGLASS; and that the free
colored population of the United States are as ably
represented by one of their own number, in the per-
son of CHARLES LENOX REMOND, whose eloquent
appeals have extorted the highest applause of multi-
tudes on both sides of the Atlantic. Let the calum-
niators of the colored race despise themselves for
their baseness and illiberality of spirit, and hence-
forth cease to talk of the natural inferiority of those
who require nothing but time and opportunity to
attain to the highest point of human excellence.
It may, perhaps, be fairly questioned, whether any
other portion of the population of the earth could
have endured the privations, sufferings and horrors
of slavery, without having become more degraded
in the scale of humanity than the slaves of African
descent. Nothing has been left undone to cripple
their intellects, darken their minds, debase their
moral nature, obliterate all traces of their relation-
ship to mankind; and yet how wonderfully they have
sustained the mighty load of a most frightful bond-
age, under which they have been groaning for cen-
turies! To illustrate the effect of slavery on the white
man,—to show that he has no powers of endurance,
in such a condition, superior to those of his black
brother,—DANIEL O'CONNELL, the distinguished
advocate of universal emancipation, and the mighti-
est champion of prostrate but not conquered Ireland,
relates the following anecdote in a speech delivered
by him in the Conciliation Hall, Dublin, before the
Loyal National Repeal Association, March 31, 1845.
"No matter," said Mr. O'CONNELL, "under what
specious term it may disguise itself, slavery is still
hideous. ~It has a natural, an inevitable tendency to
brutalize every noble faculty of man.~ An American
sailor, who was cast away on the shore of Africa,
where he was kept in slavery for three years, was, at
the expiration of that period, found to be imbruted
and stultified—he had lost all reasoning power; and
having forgotten his native language, could only ut-
ter some savage gibberish between Arabic and Eng-
lish, which nobody could understand, and which
even he himself found difficulty in pronouncing. So
much for the humanizing influence of THE DOMESTIC
INSTITUTION!" Admitting this to have been an ex-
traordinary case of mental deterioration, it proves at
least that the white slave can sink as low in the
scale of humanity as the black one.
Mr. DOUGLASS has very properly chosen to write
his own Narrative, in his own style, and according
to the best of his ability, rather than to employ some
one else. It is, therefore, entirely his own produc-
tion; and, considering how long and dark was the ca-
reer he had to run as a slave,—how few have been his
opportunities to improve his mind since he broke his
iron fetters,—it is, in my judgment, highly creditable
to his head and heart. He who can peruse it without
a tearful eye, a heaving breast, an afflicted spirit,—
without being filled with an unutterable abhorrence
of slavery and all its abettors, and animated with a
determination to seek the immediate overthrow of
that execrable system,—without trembling for the
fate of this country in the hands of a righteous God,
who is ever on the side of the oppressed, and whose
arm is not shortened that it cannot save,—must have
a flinty heart, and be qualified to act the part of a
trafficker "in slaves and the souls of men." I am con-
fident that it is essentially true in all its statements;
that nothing has been set down in malice, nothing
exaggerated, nothing drawn from the imagination;
that it comes short of the reality, rather than over-
states a single fact in regard to SLAVERY AS IT IS.
The experience of FREDERICK DOUGLASS, as a slave,
was not a peculiar one; his lot was not especially
a hard one; his case may be regarded as a very fair
specimen of the treatment of slaves in Maryland, in
which State it is conceded that they are better fed
and less cruelly treated than in Georgia, Alabama,
or Louisiana. Many have suffered incomparably
more, while very few on the plantations have suf-
fered less, than himself. Yet how deplorable was his
situation! what terrible chastisements were inflicted
upon his person! what still more shocking outrages
were perpetrated upon his mind! with all his noble
powers and sublime aspirations, how like a brute
was he treated, even by those professing to have the
same mind in them that was in Christ Jesus! to what
dreadful liabilities was he continually subjected! how
destitute of friendly counsel and aid, even in his
greatest extremities! how heavy was the midnight of
woe which shrouded in blackness the last ray of hope,
and filled the future with terror and gloom! what
longings after freedom took possession of his breast,
and how his misery augmented, in proportion as he
grew reflective and intelligent,—thus demonstrating
that a happy slave is an extinct man! how he
thought, reasoned, felt, under the lash of the driver,
with the chains upon his limbs! what perils he en-
countered in his endeavors to escape from his hor-
rible doom! and how signal have been his deliverance
and preservation in the midst of a nation of pitiless
enemies!
This Narrative contains many affecting incidents,
many passages of great eloquence and power; but I
think the most thrilling one of them all is the de-
scription DOUGLASS gives of his feelings, as he stood
soliloquizing respecting his fate, and the chances of
his one day being a freeman, on the banks of the
Chesapeake Bay—viewing the receding vessels as they
flew with their white wings before the breeze, and
apostrophizing them as animated by the living spirit
of freedom. Who can read that passage, and be in-
sensible to its pathos and sublimity? Compressed
into it is a whole Alexandrian library of thought,
feeling, and sentiment—all that can, all that need be
urged, in the form of expostulation, entreaty, rebuke,
against that crime of crimes,—making man the prop-
erty of his fellow-man! O, how accursed is that
system, which entombs the godlike mind of man,
defaces the divine image, reduces those who by crea-
tion were crowned with glory and honor to a level
with four-footed beasts, and exalts the dealer in hu-
man flesh above all that is called God! Why should
its existence be prolonged one hour? Is it not evil,
only evil, and that continually? What does its pres-
ence imply but the absence of all fear of God, all
regard for man, on the part of the people of the
United States? Heaven speed its eternal overthrow!
So profoundly ignorant of the nature of slavery
are many persons, that they are stubbornly incredu-
lous whenever they read or listen to any recital of
the cruelties which are daily inflicted on its victims.
They do not deny that the slaves are held as prop-
erty; but that terrible fact seems to convey to their
minds no idea of injustice, exposure to outrage, or
savage barbarity. Tell them of cruel scourgings, of
mutilations and brandings, of scenes of pollution
and blood, of the banishment of all light and knowl-
edge, and they affect to be greatly indignant at such
enormous exaggerations, such wholesale misstate-
ments, such abominable libels on the character of
the southern planters! As if all these direful outrages
were not the natural results of slavery! As if it were
less cruel to reduce a human being to the condition
of a thing, than to give him a severe flagellation,
or to deprive him of necessary food and clothing!
As if whips, chains, thumb-screws, paddles, blood-
hounds, overseers, drivers, patrols, were not all in-
dispensable to keep the slaves down, and to give
protection to their ruthless oppressors! As if, when
the marriage institution is abolished, concubinage,
adultery, and incest, must not necessarily abound;
when all the rights of humanity are annihilated, any
barrier remains to protect the victim from the fury
of the spoiler; when absolute power is assumed over
life and liberty, it will not be wielded with destruc-
tive sway! Skeptics of this character abound in so-
ciety. In some few instances, their incredulity arises
from a want of reflection; but, generally, it indicates
a hatred of the light, a desire to shield slavery from
the assaults of its foes, a contempt of the colored
race, whether bond or free. Such will try to discredit
the shocking tales of slaveholding cruelty which are
recorded in this truthful Narrative; but they will
labor in vain. Mr. DOUGLASS has frankly disclosed
the place of his birth, the names of those who
claimed ownership in his body and soul, and the
names also of those who committed the crimes which
he has alleged against them. His statements, there-
fore, may easily be disproved, if they are untrue.
In the course of his Narrative, he relates two in-
stances of murderous cruelty,—in one of which a
planter deliberately shot a slave belonging to a neigh-
boring plantation, who had unintentionally gotten
within his lordly domain in quest of fish; and in the
other, an overseer blew out the brains of a slave who
had fled to a stream of water to escape a bloody
scourging. Mr. DOUGLASS states that in neither of
these instances was any thing done by way of legal
arrest or judicial investigation. The Baltimore Amer-
ican, of March 17, 1845, relates a similar case of
atrocity, perpetrated with similar impunity—as fol-
lows:—"~Shooting a slave.~—We learn, upon the au-
thority of a letter from Charles county, Maryland,
received by a gentleman of this city, that a young
man, named Matthews, a nephew of General Mat-
thews, and whose father, it is believed, holds an of-
fice at Washington, killed one of the slaves upon his
father's farm by shooting him. The letter states that
young Matthews had been left in charge of the farm;
that he gave an order to the servant, which was dis-
obeyed, when he proceeded to the house, ~obtained
a gun, and, returning, shot the servant.~ He immedi-
ately, the letter continues, fled to his father's resi-
dence, where he still remains unmolested."—Let it
never be forgotten, that no slaveholder or overseer
can be convicted of any outrage perpetrated on the
person of a slave, however diabolical it may be, on
the testimony of colored witnesses, whether bond
or free. By the slave code, they are adjudged to be
as incompetent to testify against a white man, as
though they were indeed a part of the brute creation.
Hence, there is no legal protection in fact, whatever
there may be in form, for the slave population; and
any amount of cruelty may be inflicted on them
with impunity. Is it possible for the human mind
to conceive of a more horrible state of society?
The effect of a religious profession on the conduct
of southern masters is vividly described in the fol-
lowing Narrative, and shown to be any thing but
salutary. In the nature of the case, it must be in
the highest degree pernicious. The testimony of Mr.
DOUGLASS, on this point, is sustained by a cloud of
witnesses, whose veracity is unimpeachable. "A slave-
holder's profession of Christianity is a palpable im-
posture. He is a felon of the highest grade. He is a
man-stealer. It is of no importance what you put in
the other scale."
Reader! are you with the man-stealers in sympathy
and purpose, or on the side of their down-trodden
victims? If with the former, then are you the foe of
God and man. If with the latter, what are you pre-
pared to do and dare in their behalf? Be faithful,
be vigilant, be untiring in your efforts to break every
yoke, and let the oppressed go free. Come what may
—cost what it may—inscribe on the banner which
you unfurl to the breeze, as your religious and po-
litical motto—"NO COMPROMISE WITH SLAVERY! NO
UNION WITH SLAVEHOLDERS!"
WM. LLOYD GARRISON
BOSTON, ~May~ 1, 1845.
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