Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass written by Frederick Douglass in 1845 has been one of the most read accounts of slavery since it was written. Although it is undoubtedly a piece of abolitionist propaganda it also seems to be historically accurate. His arguments appealed to the Northern whites by showing them that all their ideals were opposite in the south. He used examples from his life and from others around him to stir the emotions of the Northerners and show them that blacks were people too.
The Narrative was an example of abolitionist propaganda in several ways. To appeal to his target audience of the Northern whites, Douglass showed how many things the Northerners thought were normal were not the same in the south. One of his main points was the topic of religion. It was used many times in the autobiography to show the cruelty of the slave owners. The fact that the slave owners would justify beating the slaves by quoting Bible verses, and ignoring others that went against their practices, did not sit well with those in the North. Douglass also used the fact that the slave owners would not allow the slaves to hold Sunday school meetings to prove his point. Many Northerners did not understand how the slave owners could refuse the slaves the right to practice religion. Instead, on Sundays and Holidays, slaves were expected to drink and have fights. Although through much of the work Douglass seems to talk badly about the Christian religion he clears up much misunderstanding in the appendix. He states that he does not have any hard feelings toward the Christian religion, but only against the ?slaveholding? religion of the south.
Douglass also used the corrupt legal system in slaveholding territories to gain attention. In the south, a slave owner was not responsible for anything he did to his slaves, even if he killed them. In fact, even if any white man killed a slave he was often not even questioned about it. This was all due to the fact that blacks were not allowed to testify and a white man would never testify against another white man. In the North, this was not the same. Although blacks were not equal to whites in the North, people were still held accountable for crimes against them. Many Northerners felt that the South was going against the legal system of the country, and did not like the fact that the South was going against the Constitution. Douglass also showed how the slaves had no rights at all. He talks about how slaves could not say anything negative about their owner when questioned by another white man without being sold farther south and separated from their family, ?This is the penalty of telling the truth, of telling the simple truth, in answer to a series of plain questions.?
Another way that Douglass gained the attention of the North was by showing the corrupted roles of women and children in slavery. Women slaves were often raped and used to populate a farm with more slaves. They were also not spared the violent punishment that men received. Douglass talks about women being whipped many times in the book, the most influential being the first, when his Aunt Hester was punished by Captain Anthony for going out at night and meeting with one of Colonel Lloyd?s slaves. He also talks about other women, such as the slaves in Baltimore and Henny, being brutally whipped by their masters. Children in slavery did not necessarily have a childhood to speak of. They were taken away from their mothers soon after they were born so that a strong attachment was not formed and instead raised by and old woman elsewhere on the farm or plantation. They slept on the floor like the other slaves, but were not given a blanket to sleep on until they were able to work. They were not given anything but two shirts to wear per year until they began to work in the fields, ?Children from seven to ten years old, of both sexes, almost naked, might be seen at all seasons of the year.?
Because Douglass used these things to gain the attention and support of the white Northerners this work was a piece of propaganda. It was used to help further the abolition movement and resentment of slavery in the North, and therefore put the South on the defensive. With the abolitionists gaining more support in the North because they were being informed of the cruelty of slavery the South was forced to defend their practices on a daily basis, which eventually led to their succession from the union.
However, despite the fact that the Narrative was both autobiographical and abolitionist propaganda, it still has value as a historical source. Douglass undoubtedly showed some bias in the work, as is true in any autobiography, but seemed to be very careful with the examples that he used in the book. All of the things he stated about the institution of slavery have been backed dup through other slaves? accounts.
One of the major things he showed in the work was how there were different classes of both slaves and masters. Slaves who were chosen to work at the ?Great House Farm? and in the cities were better off than those at the smaller plantations. There were also several types of masters. There were those that had grown up with slaves and therefore did not feel as if they were trying to prove their status through owning them, and often did not deal directly with the slaves, instead the larger plantations were often run by overseers, who were often portrayed as more cruel than slave owners in the work. This was shown through Mr. Severe who was, ?rightly named: he was a cruel man,? and other men such as Mr. Hopkins and Mr. Austin Gore, who varied in cruelty. He used Mr. Covey as an example of a man who was not used to having slaves. Mr. Covey had a reputation as a ?nigger-breaker? and he had earned it. He was very cruel to the slaves that he rented, therefore breaking them in for their masters. Thus, by showing examples from is own life Douglass portrayed the class system within slavery.
Douglass also used many other examples that have been shown to be historically accurate, such as the corrupt legal system talked about earlier, the way slaves were treated as property instead of people as was shown in the book when Douglass was sent back to the ?Great House Farm? to be appraised when his master died, and how the institution of slavery caused all the vices of the slaves, such as drinking, stealing, and fighting.
Therefore, I believe that although the Narrative is a piece of abolitionist propaganda it still has significant historical value. From Douglass we obtain a very detailed account about the institution of slavery, which we could never have received from a white man. The bias that Douglass had in writing this work was probably much less than a white slave holder would have had if he were going to write his account of slavery, in which he would be forced to defend himself.