How horrible it is that man can so easily enslave his brother and that one people can force another into bondage to bear the yoke of slavery. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass depicts the struggle of a slave as his mind, body, and spirit endure the indignity of subjugation. Throughout the story the nature of the Southern slaveholder is revealed. It is most hideous. Of all the atrocities the South commits, the dehumanization of their slaves is the most deplorable. Frederick Douglass and his fellow slaves are dehumanized by their fear of their masters, the hypocrisy of their masters, and by their master’s use of religion to inflict abuse.
Slaveholders use fear as a weapon to manipulate and debase their slaves. The cruelest of overseers is Mr. Severe. “Mr. Severe [is] a [violent and] cruel man”(Douglass 27). “He [takes] pleasure in manifesting his fiendish barbarity” (27). All the more violent, Mr. Gore is aptly named. At one point he whips a slave, Denby, to the brink of death and when Denby seeks to cool his wounds in a river, Mr. Gore shoots him for not getting out (37). Masters and overseers as violent as these are enough to terrify the strongest of slaves. A life lived in fear is a poor excuse for a life, but their masters never gave their slaves anything else. The unruly, or difficult slaves, that do not live in fear of physical pain, like Douglass are given to slave breakers. The slave holders break the will of slaves (68). They drive the man out of them and make them nothing more than shells that do work. The cruelty of slave breakers is unparalleled. Douglass is sent to Mr. Covey, “His reputation as a “nigger breaker” was considerable (68).” Covey is beyond cruel. He controls and breaks his slaves by working them nonstop, from sunrise to beyond sunset with less than a ten minute allowance to eat a meal (69). His methods reduce a group of slaves to a quavering pack of ferocious dogs, obedient to the letter. Although Douglass resists Covey’s ways, many slaves are broken by him. The fear of punishment and punishment itself controls the slaves and keeps them in check. The weapon of fear is powerful, but at times, lying and double standards are all that are necessary to bend the will of a slave.
By the time Douglass succors himself away from the whip he comes to the conclusion that the South is a nation of hypocrites. His introduction to hypocrisy comes from Colonel Lloyd, his first master. During Douglass’ time on the Plantation he acquaints himself with Old Barney and Young Barney, the two slaves in charge of the stables and horses. The violent Colonel Lloyd determines the welfare of these two slaves entirely on the performance and appearance of his horses (33). “The slightest inattendnce to [the horses] was unpardonable, and was visited upon those…with the severest punishment” (33). If a horse does not run fast enough the Colonel blames Old Barney, not the horse, giving the old man a beating, the horse a warm caress (34). Any man who can hold the life of a beast higher than that of a man or woman does not deserve the respect that the title Colonel demands but more fittingly should wear the brand hypocrite. The greatest source of a double standard Douglass witnesses is in his master, Hugh Auld (105). As Douglass serves Master Auld in Baltimore, he hires himself out as a caulker. At the end of each week Douglass gives his earnings to his master (105). “The fact that he gave me any part of my wages was proof, to my mind, that he believed me the entitled to the whole of them.” (105) To take a man’s wages and mock him by repaying him a trifle is hypocritical. Ironically, Master Hugh gives Douglass a few pennies more as an incentive to make Douglass work harder (105). A disgusted Douglass comes to fully understand the double standard of his master. Additionally, Slave Christmas is a prime example of the barbarity of the slaveholder’s double standard. For the several days following Christmas, the slaves are given “mock” freedom (82). For a week the masters allow their slaves to drink and party into frenzy. The hangover and sickness in the aftermath causes the participants to detest this kind of “freedom”(82). The mock freedom is a cruel form of hypocrisy, giving the slaves a sip of what they think is sweet wine, but what really is vinegar. In the South, the Masters venerate religion highly, but when Douglass holds a Sabbath School in order to share the word of God with the slaves, the Masters disband the school and drive its members away (95). Even the most important virtue, “God,” the Masters take away from the slaves They grind them into the dust with their heels making them lower than the dirt they work, stripping them of dignity. The masters have their own code, that all men deserve and are entitled to freedom, but this foremost hypocritical principle does not extend to the slaves.What Douglass calls the Religion of the South is an institution that allows the masters to heap more cruelty upon their slaves.
The Bible preaches unity and brotherhood for all of God’s children and says nothing about the pigmentation of the skin. Christian values give good moral character and a compass of goodness for the believer to follow. Upon examining the Religion of the South, and Master Auld’s Conversion to this perversion of Christianity, Douglass sees that “it [makes] him more cruel and hateful in all his ways; for I believe him to [be] a much worse man after his conversion” (65). The Bible teaches to give the hungry food, yet the slaves never know a full stomach. Their masters invite preachers to their place and “while
starve (the slaves), [they] stuff them (the preachers)” (66). Master Auld’s conversion brings the hope of less beatings to his slaves, but contrarily delivers more violence(65). The Bible supplies ammunition for the master to whip his slave (66). Often the master would tie a slave up and whip them while reciting bible verse in order to justify their action in hopes of “teaching the slave something.” (67) Douglass’ masters seek to make their homes houses of pious prayer where singing echoes through the halls (66). The cruelest masters sometimes force their slaves to sing because they cannot(72). The true gruesomeness of the Religion of the South is that it shows just how little the South thought of slaves. They firmly believe that all men were God’s chosen ones, and that they were of the firmest moral character. However, they see fit to reduced some of God’s Children to a non-human state. The God of the Southern Religion is hated by the slaves, not because they knew God, but because in the eyes of their masters and their master’s God , they were beheld less than men They were beasts.
Douglass witnesses the dehumanization of his people through his masters’ lash, his masters’ perverted hypocritical talk, and his masters’ twisted religious interpretations. Douglass sees a proud strong race of men and women controlled like puppets made to be no more than flesh automatons. He observed animals being treated better than slaves. He witnessed the dehumanization of his people. The slave masters sought the abolition of a slave’s free thought and denial of his soul. Dehumanization transcends cruelty. The masters thought it was their divine right to own these men and women. God made man. But man made slaves.
Douglas, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New York:
New American Library, 1968.