Former U.S. President and principal author of the nations Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson says, “experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny” (Jefferson).
One particular governing society that also abused its state of power was the old southern environment.
Frederick Douglass’s text, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, depicts the epitome of tyranny in the south during 19th century.
In the narrative Douglass recollects his experience as a born slave and his various challenges and adversities endured at the cruel hands of slavery.
Throughout the piece the slave owner’s brutal and sometimes fatal acts of punishment show their power and overall superiority to the inferior black slaves.
However, could the white master’s sense of power present a false depiction of their true weakness?
Although, the image of supremacy seems to be portrayed solely by the white population throughout Douglass’s text, the black slaves truly withhold a sense of power and control.
The white characters let the presence of slaves control their racist thoughts, beliefs, and overall pitiless actions, making them slaves to the blacks subconsciously.
Also, the blacks become a source of power that the white slave owners go to, illustrating their corrupt actions and behavior in order to establish their authority.
Ultimately, without the presence of slaves the owners would not have anyone to strictly govern and force their control upon.
Ultimately, this circumstance and various others occurrences prove that the black slaves truly withhold a sense of power not only throughout the course of Douglass’s narrative, but throughout the overall period of slavery.
In his analytical article, writer and professor, Jeannine DeLombard says, “Some of the most vivid and enduring images of Southern violence appear in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative: Aunt Hester’s whipping by Colonel Lloyd, the slave Demby’s shooting by Mr. Gore, and Frederick Bailey’s own beating by white shipyard workers.
Like the naked, scarred backs his fellow fugitives exposed to horrified, fascinated gatherings of white Northerners, Douglass’s Narrative marshals the visual power of the injured black body to convey the brutality of the South’s peculiar institution” (DeLombard 1).
Although these “vivid and enduring images of Southern violence” upon the slaves appear to show the weakness of the blacks and the power of the whites it fails to do so.
Instead the gruesome beatings the blacks endure ultimately show their state of power.
For example, in the beginning of the text, Douglass details his Aunt Hester’s harsh beating by Mr. Plummer when he says, “I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose” (Douglass 6).
While Mr. Plummer appears to be the overriding character in this scene, Aunt Hester maintains a state of power.
Furthermore, the fact that she’s able to endure such a brutal beating, especially as a woman at the hands of a man, makes her appear as a strong and tough individual.
Mr. Plummer however shows weakness, falling into the trap of racially prejudiced standards throughout the South by whipping a slave in order to inject a sense of fear and intimidation within the black population.
Another example of how the whites depict weakness is through their efforts to keep the slaves ignorant.
One main way the white owners continue slavery for such a long period of time is by assuring the blacks have little knowledge.
Furthermore, they prevent the slaves form learning how to read and write which helps keep them inferior to the white population.
In the text Mr. Auld states, “A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master — to do as he is told to do. Learning would SPOIL the best nigger in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him.
It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master” (Douglass 37.)
The fact that the owners can only manage ignorant individuals shows that they are not truly powerful as they appear.
Moreover, the slave masters are unable to face the challenge of governing people that have the same level of knowledge and skills as them, which shows a sense of weakness.
Ultimately, various acts that the slaveholders commit in order to show their power truly demonstrate their weakness.
In the narrative the master’s way of feeling powerful is through intimidating the slaves which lessens their overall power.
For example, when an unruly Douglass is sent to live with the extremely cruel Mr. Covey, he is severely beaten in order to break his confidence.
Covey feels the only way to destroy Douglass’s prideful and yet disorderly conduct is through intimidation. In the text he narrates, “I lived with Mr. Covey one year.
During the first six months, of that year, scarce a week passed without his whipping me. I was seldom free from a sore back” (Douglass 64).
This quotation shows the extreme measures Covey takes in order to tame Douglass.
Eventually, Covey’s plan to emotionally, physically, and mentally break the narrator succeeds.
Douglass writes, “Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit.
My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed the cheerful spirit that lingered about my eye died” (67).
Furthermore, the only way Covey can truly gain control of the protagonist is by breaking his spirits and developing fear within his heart.
This again goes back to my earlier argument: whites can only withhold power by maintaining the slave’s ignorance.
Covey’s intense and harming treatment turns Douglass into the typical slave. Moreover, he becomes the vulnerable, fearful, and ignorant slave instead of the confident, ambitious, and knowledgeable slave he once was.
Covey’s success in breaking Douglass seems to show power.
However, this occurrence truly shows the slaveholder’s weakness because he fears the challenge of a maintaining a slave with equal knowledge and confidence.
Although the white slave owners show various signs of weakness, what evidence shows the slaves overall sense of power?
One example is presented when Douglass finally gains enough confidence and courage to defend himself against the punishment of Mr. Covey.
Despite his original portrayal of weakness, he ultimately demonstrates power by conquering his cruel overseer. In the text Douglass exclaims, “I seized Covey hard by the throat; and as I did so, I rose.
He held on to me, and I to him. My resistance was so entirely unexpected that Covey seemed taken all aback.
He trembled like a leaf. This gave me assurance, and I held him uneasy, causing the blood to run where I touched him with the ends of my fingers” (Douglass 74).
This quotation shows the strength and bravery the narrator portrays while defeating and overcoming the power of Covey.
The fact that Douglass can successfully protect himself against Covey as a slave shows his power and overall control.
Additionally, the slave’s aspect of power is depicted when the protagonist bravely decides to go against the traditional standards of the ignorant slave.
In the text he risks his life to learn how to read and write.
The speaker says, “The first step had been taken. Mistress, in teaching me the alphabet, had given me the INCH, and no precaution could prevent me from taking the ELL” (Douglass 41).
Ultimately, this not only shows how Douglass evades the rules established by the whites, but it also shows his state of ambition and power.
The character’s determination to gain knowledge ignites throughout the community of slaves, motivating some individuals to learn as well.
Douglass’s motivation leads to him and several other slaves attempt to escape slavery.
Despite their failure to escape together during their first effort, a sense of power is still shown through this occurrence.
Furthermore, the fact that the slaves jeopardize their survival in order to become free shows the state of power they maintain in comparison to the white owners who portray no true bravery and courage throughout the text.
Douglass’s insightful narrative provides a clear description of the adversities and hardships endured throughout slavery.
From decades to centuries the process of Southern slavery has always been presented with the white individuals in power in comparison to the seemingly inferior and powerless black slaves.
However, Douglass’s text goes against this perception about slavery by society. Furthermore, Douglass’s narrative shows how power during this challenging time period is misrepresented.
Throughout slavery power was defined by abuse, intimidation, and the ignorance of slaves.
Nevertheless, the author questions this observation by acknowledging the sense of power the slaves maintain.
In the text Douglass depicts the qualities of bravery, confidence, and strength he and the other slaves depict despite the extremely harsh conditions of slavery.
As stated earlier in my thesis, Jefferson says, “those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny”.
Ultimately, this relates to the practice of slavery.
Moreover, the white owners were given power and took advantage of their control, developing a tyranny and dictatorship within the South.
The white owner’s domination fails to prove their state of power but instead shows weakness and vulnerability within their characters.
The whites weaken their power by continuing to commit the corrupt acts of slavery.
They subscribe to the tenets of a pre-established lifestyle of racism in which they are raised to dislike, abuse, and imprison these innocent individuals.
Ultimately, the white masters truly become enslaved by their society.
This racially prejudiced society symbolizes the master or governing power, and the white’s portray the slaves by following every command and order required to show hatred towards blacks.
Furthermore, the owners obedience to follow the typical standards of their civilization shows that it is not the white master’s who truly have control all along, but instead it is the predetermined customs of a discriminative environment that withholds the power throughout the South.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, 1845.
Slave Narratives. Ed. William L. Andrews and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Lib. Of Amer., 2000. 267-368.
Jeannine DeLombard. “”Eye-witness to the cruelty”: Southern violence and northern testimony in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative. ” American Literature 73.2 (2001): 245 – 75.
Research Library, ProQuest. Web. 23 Sep. 2010.