Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass | Study Guide

Frederick Douglass

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass | Chapter 9 | Summary

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Summary

Douglass is now permanently back on the plantation after more than seven years in Baltimore. The biggest challenge is the lack of food. While not feeding slaves sufficiently "is regarded as the most aggravated development of meanness even among slaveholders," there are plenty who do not abide by the code. The new master, Thomas Auld, is one such slaveholder, and Douglass and the other slaves, which include his sister and aunt, are forced to beg or steal for food.

Douglass finds nothing redeeming about Thomas Auld and his wife. They are "destitute of every element of character commanding respect," and the trait that Thomas Auld most consistently exhibits is meanness. As a new slaveholder, Thomas Auld does not know how to deal with slaves, and his inconsistency causes contempt "even by slaves." He is considered a weak man with no presence. After Thomas Auld attends a Methodist camp meeting, Douglass hopes his master will become more humane or even emancipate the slaves. Instead, Thomas Auld becomes crueler, as "he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty."

Outwardly, Thomas Auld acts piously. He prays regularly and often has preachers at his home. A few of the preachers act kindly toward the slaves, particularly Mr. Cookman, who has successfully encouraged one slaveholder to emancipate his slaves.

Douglass details some of Thomas Auld's cruel doings. Henny, a slave who fell into a fire as a child and is nearly helpless, suffers terrible treatment and severe whippings. Thomas Auld finally emancipates her and tells her "to take care of herself," which she cannot do. Douglass says bleakly, "She was to master a bill of expense."

Douglass frequently clashes with Thomas Auld and is severely whipped. At one point, Douglass lets Thomas Auld's horse run away because it gives him a reason to visit his master's father-in-law, who feeds his slaves sufficiently. As a result of their differences, Thomas Auld sends Douglass to Mr. Covey, a poor man who has a reputation for breaking slaves.

Analysis

In previous chapters, Douglass introduces characters who are cruel despite their ties to Christianity. Thomas Auld embodies the hypocrisy of the religious slaveholder. Auld prays regularly, is esteemed by his community, and hosts preachers, yet he is a terribly cruel man with no redeeming qualities. "After his conversion," Douglass writes, "he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty." The use of religion to justify inhumane behavior was an issue in Douglass's time and can resonate with a modern audience.

Douglass does not believe religion is synonymous with cruelty. There are multiple examples in this chapter of preachers who are kind and decent. Mr. Cookman, in particular, advocates for the slaves and contributes toward the emancipation of several. Figures such as Mr. Cookman recognize the tenets of religion and act in a divinely inspired manner, in sharp contrast to Thomas Auld.

Thomas Auld has become a slaveholder later in life. Because of this late start, he is unclear about how a person should properly manage slaves. Douglass notes that this is common: "Adopted slaveholders are the worst." Thomas Auld's uncertainty and attempts to imitate a born slaveholder are noticed by the slaves, and they do not show him the respect he craves.

Mr. Covey embodies the character of an evil slaveholder. Due to his reputation as a slave breaker, he is able to acquire cheap labor. Slaves come to him with fear, and slaveholders respect him. Douglass shows that Mr. Covey and Thomas Auld, like all slaveholders, are part of an evil system that forces them into roles whether they are comfortable with them or not.

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