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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass | Study Guide

Frederick Douglass

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass | Chapter 4 | Summary



Kind Mr. Hopkins is released by Colonel Lloyd, and Mr. Gore takes over as the overseer at the Great House Farm. Douglass says he possesses "all those traits of character indispensable to what is called a first-rate overseer." According to Douglass, "Mr. Gore was proud, ambitious, and persevering. He was artful, cruel, and obdurate. He was just the man for such a place, and it was just the place for such a man." Gore tortures slaves for the smallest of reasons. "To be accused [by Gore] was to be convicted, and to be convicted was to be punished." Gore insists that there is no talking back. He is always serious and displays "inflexible firmness and stone-like coolness."

Douglass provides this example: Demby, a slave, is whipped so harshly by Mr. Gore that he runs into a creek to ease his pain and refuses to come out. Mr. Gore warns Demby that he must come out by the time he counts to three. When Demby does not respond after the third call, Mr. Gore shoots and kills him. Later on, Colonel Lloyd asks Mr. Gore why he killed Demby. Mr. Gore explains that Demby was "setting a dangerous example to the other slaves." Mr. Gore claims that if Demby had not been made to pay a price, the other slaves would have copied his example. Ultimately, Mr. Gore asserts, the slaves would be freed and the whites enslaved. This explanation is satisfactory to Colonel Lloyd, and Mr. Gore gains respect as an overseer.

Douglass notes that in Talbot County, Maryland, murdering slaves and black people "is not treated as a crime, either by the courts or the community." Douglass shares stories of other slaves being murdered and their murderers suffering no punishment. A man named Thomas Lanman gruesomely murders two slaves, knocking one's brains out with a hatchet and joking about it later. The wife of Mr. Giles Hick commits the murder of a teenaged female slave and is not even charged. Mr. Beal Bondly murders an elderly slave in plain sight of other eyewitnesses and the case is "hushed."

Douglass concludes by pointing out a saying among white children: "It was worth a half-cent to kill a 'nigger,' and a half-cent to bury one."


Douglass makes the point that even children in the South know that a slave's life has no value. This indoctrination reveals the attitude toward slaves that was prevalent in the South. Under this perverted system, a murderer like Mr. Gore is admired for keeping the slaves in line and doing his job.

The cruelest overseers and masters live in a state of paranoia that they use to justify their heinous actions—they claim they are simply protecting themselves. This fear serves to enable overseers such as Mr. Gore. Their cruelty toward slaves is regarded as preserving the way of life of in the South.

As in Chapter 3, Douglass makes his case by relating stories. "Whilst I am detailing bloody deeds which took place during my stay on Colonel Lloyd's plantation, I will briefly narrate another," he tells readers. His passionate anger is evident in his choice of words and the specificity of his details. Mr. Gore's "presence was painful; his eye flashed confusion; and seldom was his sharp, shrill voice heard, without producing horror and trembling." His "savage barbarity" is equalled only by his "consummate coolness."

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