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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass | Chapter 11 | Summary

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Summary

"I now come to that part of my life," Douglass writes, "during which I planned, and finally succeeded in making, my escape from slavery." He cannot state all the facts because he will expose those who helped him. He expresses disapproval of those who speak openly of the Underground Railroad, which he thinks of as the "upper-ground railroad." Those who discuss it make masters more vigilant.

In the early part of 1838, Douglass grows restless. Hugh Auld sometimes gives Douglass a small fraction of the money Douglass has earned. Auld thinks he is encouraging Douglass, but Douglass believes it has the opposite effect. Douglass says receiving part of the money "was proof, in my mind, that he believed me entitled to the whole."

When Thomas Auld visits, Douglass asks him if he can hire himself out, but Thomas Auld declines and warns Douglass about trying to escape again. Two months later, Douglass makes the same request of Hugh Auld, who, after some thought and consideration, agrees. He and Douglass work out a deal. While Douglass knows the deal favors Hugh Auld, he agrees to it because "it was a step towards freedom to be allowed to bear the responsibilities of a freeman."

For four months, the agreement works. Douglass finds his own work as a caulker and pays Hugh Auld the agreed-upon portion of his wages every Saturday. But one Saturday night, Douglass attends a camp meeting (a religious revival) and is unable to pay Hugh Auld until the next day. When Douglass arrives on Sunday, Hugh Auld angrily forbids him from hiring himself out. In retaliation, Douglass spends the next week not working. Hugh Auld is furious. The next Monday morning, Douglass goes back to work. He is determined to do so because he has decided to make another break for freedom on September 3. That day is three weeks away, and Douglass needs to save money for the trip. The three weeks go smoothly, and Hugh Auld does not suspect anything.

As the day draws near, Douglass fears getting caught, which would seal his fate as a slave forever. He also notes the difficulty of leaving friends behind. It is Douglass's belief that many slaves would attempt to escape "but for the strong cords of affection that bind them to their friends."

Douglass intentionally provides no details of his escape route, for the reasons stated at the chapter's beginning of the chapter. He reaches New York, a free state, "without the slightest interruption." After his initial exhilaration, he feels lonely and is afraid of being discovered and taken back to slavery. He meets David Ruggles, who runs a boarding house and helps former slaves. David Ruggles advises Douglass to go to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he can practice his trade. Anna, Douglass's intended wife, comes to New York from Baltimore (she is a free woman), and the two are married. They leave for New Bedford with their marriage certificate and five dollars from David Ruggles.

When they arrive in New Bedford, Douglass and his wife go to see an abolitionist couple, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson. The husband and wife are very helpful. Douglass, who was born with the last name of Bailey, had changed his surname to Johnson upon his arrival in New York. He now decides to change it again, as Johnson is a common name in New Bedford. Mr. Johnson suggests the surname of Douglass, inspired by a character in a book he is reading.

Douglass is surprised at the apparent wealth in New Bedford. The people appear to be in good health and seem stronger than the people in Maryland. Douglass notes that even black people live well in New Bedford; they live comfortably and look out for one another. Douglass is unable to find work as a caulker—too many whites refuse to work with black men—but he is able to find a job loading oil on a ship.

Four months after arriving in New Bedford, Douglass begins reading the newspaper the Liberator, which he very much enjoys. He attends antislavery meetings, including one in Nantucket in 1841, where he is encouraged to speak. He does so reluctantly, as it is his first time speaking in front of white people, but his brief speech is well received. From that point forward, Douglass is engaged in "pleading the cause of my brethren."

In an appendix to the narrative, Douglass explains his religious beliefs. His criticisms apply only to the "slaveholding religion" of the land, not to Christianity proper. One is as "good, pure, and holy" as the other is "bad, corrupt, and wicked." He abhors the hypocrites who hold a whip during the week and attend church on Sunday and who preach against theft and adultery while dealing in the sale of slaves.

Analysis

The system of slavery in the American South was an economic issue as well as a moral one. Southern plantation owners utilized blacks as an unpaid workforce, which enabled the owners to increase profits. As seen with Mr. Covey earlier in the narrative, slaves are a commodity used for economic gain. How appropriate, then, that economics is what incites Douglass to enact his escape plan. Douglass makes a sound and profitable economic decision when he escapes the chains of slavery.

When Hugh Auld gives Douglass money, Douglass prefers not to keep it; he does not want to assuage Hugh Auld's guilt. Unlike many other slaves and former slaves, Douglass shows himself equally adept at the mind games that slaveholders play with their slaves. He cannot be bought off with a weeklong drunken bender. Douglass has a sense of his own value.

Money and economics continue to motivate Douglass on his arrival in New Bedford. He is surprised at the wealth that exists in the town. Even the home of Mr. Johnson, a laborer, is better than those of "nine tenths of the slaveholders in Talbot County Maryland," and the black residents also live well. But just as in Baltimore, whites in New Bedford refuse to work with blacks. While Douglass spends little time on this fact, it leaves the reader wondering just how different the North is from the South. In the South, there is slavery, and in the North, prejudice.

Douglass does not provide the details of his escape, and for good reason. He hopes slaveholders will be confused and uncertain about whether or not their slaves might escape. He does not want to give away any information about escape routes or how slaves might escape. He also wants to protect those who help slaves escape.

Douglass mentions that it is hard to leave Baltimore because of all his wonderful friends. This may come as a surprise to the reader, as Douglass rarely discusses having friends earlier in the narrative. In fact, the first time the reader is informed about Anna Murray, Douglass's fiancé, is when she comes to New York to marry him. The reason that he does not mention her earlier is unclear. The union eventually resulted in the birth of four children, which he also declines to mention.

While Douglass appreciates community, he thrives when he is on his own. The key events depicted in the narrative all occur when Douglass is self-reliant. These events include his learning how to read, standing up to Mr. Covey, and escaping slavery. Perhaps there is a subtle message here: while friends and community are important, each individual is responsible for securing his or her own freedom and happiness.

Douglass's appendix drives home the recurring theme of the hypocrisy of Christian slaveholders, who profess to love God but show no mercy to slaves.

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