Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass | Study Guide

Frederick Douglass

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass | Chapter 10 | Summary



Douglass arrives at Mr. Covey's on January 1, 1833, to work as a field hand. Within a week, Mr. Covey whips him severely. He continues to do so regularly for the next six months. Ostensibly, the reason for the whippings is Douglass's struggles to do field work. He relates an episode when Mr. Covey sends him to the forest to retrieve a load of wood and transport it using unbroken oxen. Mr. Covey briefly explains how to drive oxen, but Douglass is nearly killed by the animals and takes too long to complete the task. Mr. Covey orders Douglass to return to the woods with him. Mr. Covey repeatedly orders Douglass to strip, but Douglass refuses. Finally, Covey makes a rush toward Douglass "with the fierceness of a tiger," tearing off his clothes and lashing him.

Mr. Covey works the slaves hard. He has the slaves in the field from sunrise to sunset and often works by their sides—except in the afternoons, which he spends in bed. In the evenings, Mr. Covey returns to the fields and harasses the slaves with his words and his whip. He has a sadistic manner of operating and is nicknamed "the snake." Even when Mr. Covey is not in the fields, his slaves cannot rest, because they know he will occasionally surprise them. He slithers through the fields on his belly so as not to be detected, until he comes upon the slaves and gets up and screams out, "Ha, ha! Come, come! Dash on, dash on!"

Mr. Covey's deceitful ways extend to his religious life. "He seemed to think himself equal to deceiving the Almighty," Douglass says with a rare flash of humor. Mr. Covey ultimately deceives himself into believing that he is sincere in his worship of God. Douglass highlights the extent of Mr. Covey's hypocrisy by relating the story of how he once compelled a female slave to have sex repeatedly with a married man. Mr. Covey forced the woman to do this so she would become pregnant, thus providing him with more slaves.

Douglass sees the time spent with Mr. Covey as the most difficult of his life. The work is relentless and leaves him exhausted. Within a few months, Douglass says, "I was broken in body, soul, and spirit." Douglass spends his Sundays, which are his only leisure time, lying under a large tree in an exhausted state. He considers killing himself—or Mr. Covey. The Chesapeake Bay is visible from where Douglass lies. He sees the white sails of ships moving off to the ocean and is jealous of them because they "are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave!" Douglass questions God and the existence of a God, then promises himself there is "a better day coming."

One hot August day, Douglass collapses from exhaustion. Mr. Covey comes to Douglass and orders him to get back to work. Douglass tries but collapses again, so Mr. Covey beats him on the head. When Mr. Covey is not looking, Douglass escapes to the woods, walks to his master's store, and asks him to intercede with Mr. Covey. Thomas Auld hesitates but eventually orders Douglass back to Mr. Covey.

Douglass heads back to Mr. Covey's place on Saturday morning. When he arrives, Mr. Covey runs toward him with the intention of whipping him again. Douglass escapes into the cornfield. Later, while in the woods, Douglass sees an acquaintance, Sandy Jenkins, who is a slave but is married to a free woman. While spending the day with Sandy, Douglass tells him about his situation. Sandy gives Douglass advice and insists that he carry a certain root on his right side. Douglass says that carrying the root is supposed to "render it impossible for Mr. Covey, or any other white man, to whip me." Douglass is reluctant to take the root but ultimately does so to please Sandy.

Douglass returns to Mr. Covey on Sunday morning. Mr. Covey greets him kindly, as he is on his way to church, which causes Douglass to reconsider the power of the root. Things change on Monday morning. While working with the horses, Mr. Covey ropes Douglass's legs and pulls him down. Mr. Covey thinks he has Douglass, but Douglass has another idea: "At this moment—from whence came the spirit I don't know—I resolved to fight." Mr. Covey is surprised at Douglass's reaction. The fight drags on, and though Douglass is probably the winner, Mr. Covey does not acknowledge this.

Douglass describes the battle as "the turning-point in my career as a slave." For the next six months, Mr. Covey does not touch him, and Douglass regains his confidence and sense of manhood.

Slaves have the week off between Christmas and New Year's Day. The slave masters encourage their slaves to get drunk. Douglass believes that this is yet another strategy to keep the slaves bound, its purpose being "to disgust [the] slaves with freedom, by plunging them into the lowest depths of dissipation."

At the end of his one-year lease to Mr. Covey, Douglass is sent to serve Mr. Freeland, who treats his slaves with dignity and kindness. Mr. Freeland owns only two slaves, and the rest of his hands are hired help. Douglass writes of Mr. Freeland: "He, like Mr. Covey, gave us enough to eat, but unlike Mr. Covey, gave us sufficient time to take our meals. He worked us hard, but always between sunrise and sunset. He required a good deal of work to be done but gave us good tools with which to work." Douglass describes Mr. Freeland as a Southern gentleman and "the best master I ever had, till I became my own master." Mr. Freeland does not pretend to be religious. Douglass believes that "the religion of the [South] is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes." This, according to Douglass, is because the worst of the slaveholders are the religious slaveholders.

While working for Mr. Freeland, Douglass starts a Sabbath school at the home of a free black man. At one point, there are as many as 40 people attending the Sunday school. Douglass describes teaching his fellow slaves as "the sweetest engagement with which I was ever blessed." Douglass also teaches some of his fellow slaves at Mr. Freeland's place a few evenings a week. He feels indebted to his fellow slaves, favored by the opportunities bestowed on him due to divine providence, but never superior to them.

Mr. Freeland hires Douglass out for a second year. While the first year passed as smoothly as a year in enslavement can, during the second year, he begins to want to "live upon free land as well as with Freeland." Douglass is determined to escape that year, and he and the other slaves encourage one another about the prospect of acquiring freedom. Along with four other slaves, Douglass hatches an escape plan. The plan is to get a large canoe and paddle directly up the Chesapeake Bay. At the head of the bay, "it was our purpose to turn our canoe adrift, and follow the guidance of the north star till we got beyond the limits of Maryland." It is believed that taking the water route will make the escapees less liable to be suspected as runaways.

Douglass is anxious, scared, and excited as the day draws near. When the day arrives, Douglass correctly senses that they have been betrayed, for he is seized and beaten.

The men stick together and admit nothing. They are concerned that they might be sold to other owners and speculate about who betrayed them. After spending some time in jail, the four other slaves are taken back where they came from. Being left alone hurts Douglass deeply. A week later, Thomas Auld removes Douglass from jail with the intention of sending him to Alabama. However, he changes his mind and sends him back to his brother, Hugh Auld, in Baltimore.

A few weeks after returning to Baltimore, Douglass is hired out to Mr. Gardner, a shipbuilder, to learn a trade. However, Mr. Gardner has no time to teach him, and Douglass learns only simple tasks and is given no responsibilities.

Douglass describes how, in Baltimore, freedmen work side by side with white carpenters until the whites demand that the blacks be let go, fearing they will take their jobs. Later, the white apprentices feel it is degrading for them to work with Douglass, and four of them attack him. He tries to fight back, but there are too many of them, and he is forced to find a way to escape.

Douglass tells Hugh Auld what occurred. The decency of the Aulds returns, and they nurse Douglass. Douglass explains that "the heart of my once overkind mistress was once again melted into pity." Hugh Auld tries to get justice, but no one will testify on behalf of a black man.

Hugh Auld finds Douglass a job in another shipyard, where he learns caulking. Douglass is a fast learner and commands the wages of the most experienced caulkers, bringing the money home to his master. Though Douglass's overall situation is now more comfortable, he is angry that he can't keep his earnings. Once again, Douglass's thoughts turn to freedom.


This chapter is by far the longest in the book and includes a turning point in Douglass's life. While working with Mr. Covey, his feelings swing between suicide, murder, and determination. The slaves' reference to Mr. Covey as a "snake" calls to mind the biblical story of Adam and Eve. In that story, the snake's conniving ways bring about its own downfall, along with that of Adam and Eve. Like the snake, Mr. Covey brings down Douglass but later fears him.

In times of trouble, there is no recourse for Douglass. His master, Thomas Auld, takes the side of his fellow slaveholder, Mr. Covey. It is not just slaves on the plantation who have no advocates. Slaves in the city also have no recourse. When Douglass is nearly beaten to death by the white apprentices, there are 50 white carpenters nearby and not one helps or even says a kind word. When a witness is needed to press charges, no one is willing to step up. Although Hugh and Sophia Auld nurse Douglass back to health, they soon send him off to work again so he can bring them more money. For them, Douglass is an investment, not a person.

Despite his claims of being religious, Mr. Covey is interested only in money. While he considers himself pious, he forces his slave to commit adultery. Either Mr. Covey does not believe the slaves are people, and therefore not subject to God's commands, or he does not care about God's commands.

It is, however, religion that lifts Douglass when he is at his lowest point. He contemplates a world without God, yet he asks for help. At that moment, Douglass draws strength from the boats that can lead him to freedom. Instead of suicide, he declares, "There is a better day coming." However, Douglass sees religion in the South not as a means to better days but as a way to cover up for one's crimes. According to Douglass, too many people in the South claim to be pious while in church or with their neighbors but act barbarically toward slaves. As Douglass sees it, many people use religion to condone their own duplicitous ways.

Duplicity is also the reason why the slaves are given the week off between Christmas and New Year's Day. Slaveholders give their slaves time off as another way of entrapping them in slavery. Without a break, the slaves might rebel. Thus, slaveholders give them a week off but encourage them to get drunk during that break. It is the slaveholders' hope that, when drunk and unable to care for themselves, the slaves will appreciate that their owners take care of them. They will "disgust the slave with freedom, by allowing him to see only the abuse of it." Douglass believes that if slaves were allowed to use their time more wisely, they might be able to better their situation.

Douglass believes in education and feels it is a key to abolishing slavery. When he learns how to read, the world opens up to him, and he is filled with ideas and thoughts he was previously unable to express. The tremendous joy and fulfillment Douglass gets from teaching his fellow slaves is not surprising.

Douglass mentions repeatedly how much he loves his fellow slaves at the school. This is the first time in the book that he is so unabashed with his emotions. When his mother dies earlier in the narrative, he is indifferent. For the schoolboys who help him learn to read in Baltimore, he feels "affection." While he is livid over the treatment his grandmother receives at the hands of Thomas Auld, love is never mentioned. Other relatives, including siblings, are also referred to in his narrative, but no emotion is ever expressed.

A person without the ability to express emotions is not complete. Slaveholders deliberately strive to keep slaves from developing bonds of love and emotion toward their fellow slaves. The love that Douglass and his fellow slaves feel for one another shows that slaves long for the bonds of brotherhood and community, as do all people. If slaves are not fully realized, emotional beings, it is because of the dehumanization of slavery.

Planning and making an escape attempt is heroic, but the forces lined up against the slaves are unforgiving. Douglass worries most about the prospects of success "because I was, by common consent, at the head of the whole affair." As the day for the escape nears, Douglass alludes to American politician Patrick Henry's famous speech about liberty and death: "With us it was a doubtful liberty at most, and almost certain death if we failed." However, he does survive, and he summons his incredible resources of focus and hope so that he can make the most of his return to Baltimore and his former master there.

It is clear that Douglass is more comfortable in a city, and in his improved situation, he can dream of freedom. An important step in this direction occurs when Douglass is hired by Gardner, the shipbuilder. Though he must put up with the insults and attacks from white workers, he can earn a wage. As he did with Mr. Covey, he boldly and heroically fights back despite the risks of striking white men.

While the fruits of a slave's labor are always strictly for the benefit of the master, this situation is different. Douglass has earned the money himself. The money comes to him directly, but he gets no benefit from it. Though money has been described as coined freedom, in this case it simply serves to make Douglass a more useful slave.

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