Frederick Douglass Describes Enslavers

Frederick Douglass escaped slavery and became one of America’s most famous abolitionist speakers. This passage comes from his autobiography, published in 1846. This book, in which Douglass described his experience in and escape from enslavement, reached a mass audience in the United States and abroad.
Frederick Douglass
Grade Level

This text is part of the Teaching Hard History Text Library and aligns with Key Concepts 4, 5, 6 and 8.

I have had two masters. My first master's name was Anthony. I do not remember his first name. He was generally called Captain Anthony--a title which, I presume, he acquired by sailing a craft on the Chesapeake Bay. He was not considered a rich slaveholder. He owned two or three farms, and about thirty slaves. His farms and slaves were under the care of an overseer. The overseer's name was Plummer. Mr. Plummer was a miserable drunkard, a profane swearer, and a savage monster. He always went armed with a cowskin and a heavy cudgel. I have known him to cut and slash the women's heads so horribly, that even master would be enraged at his cruelty, and would threaten to whip him if he did not mind himself. Master, however, was not a humane slaveholder.

It required extraordinary barbarity on the part of an overseer to affect him. He was a cruel man, hardened by a long life of slaveholding. He would at times seem to take great pleasure in whipping a slave. 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. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood-clotted cowskin. I remember the first time I ever witnessed this horrible exhibition. I was quite a child, but I well remember it. I never shall forget it whilst I remember any thing. It was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant. It struck me with awful force. It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was a most terrible spectacle. I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it. 

This occurrence took place very soon after I went to live with my old master, and under the following circumstances. Aunt Hester went out one night,--where or for what I do not know,--and happened to be absent when my master desired her presence. He had ordered her not to go out evenings, and warned her that she must never let him catch her in company with a young man, who was paying attention to her, belonging to Colonel Lloyd. The young man's name was Ned Roberts, generally called Lloyd's Ned. Why master was so careful of her, may be safely left to conjecture. She was a woman of noble form, and of graceful proportions, having very few equals, and fewer superiors, in personal appearance, among the colored or white women of our neighborhood. 

Aunt Hester had not only disobeyed his orders in going out, but had been found in company with Lloyd's Ned; which circumstance, I found, from what he said while whipping her, was the chief offence. Had he been a man of pure morals himself, he might have been thought interested in protecting the innocence of my aunt; but those who knew him will not suspect him of any such virtue. Before he commenced whipping Aunt Hester, he took her into the kitchen, and stripped her from neck to waist, leaving her neck, shoulders, and back, entirely naked. He then told her to cross her hands, calling her at the same time a d--d b--h. After crossing her hands, he tied them with a strong rope, and led her to a stool under a large hook in the joist, put in for the purpose. He made her get upon the stool, and tied her hands to the hook. She now stood fair for his infernal purpose. Her arms were stretched up at their full length, so that she stood upon the ends of her toes. He then said to her, "Now, you d--d b--h, I'll learn you how to disobey my orders!" and after rolling up his sleeves, be commenced to lay on the heavy cowskin, and soon the warm, red blood (amid heart-rending shrieks from her, and horrid oaths from him) came dripping to the floor. I was so terrified and horror-stricken at the sight, that I hid myself in a closet, and dared not venture out till long after the bloody transaction was over. I expected it would be my turn next. It was all new to me. I had never seen any thing like it before. I had always lived with my grandmother on the outskirts of the plantation, where she was put to raise the children of the younger women. I had therefore been, until now, out of the way of the bloody scenes that often occurred on the plantation. 

This text is in the public domain. Retrieved from http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/douglass/douglass.html.
Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    How does this passage demonstrate the brutality of slavery for the enslaved persons? What tactics did enslavers use to punish enslaved persons?
    Douglass describes a number of instances of physical torture, most prominently whipping. But he describes this process in detail that brings it powerfully to life—“the warm, red blood… [that] came dripping on to the floor,” the “blood-clotted cowskin.” Yet Douglass also touches on the verbal abuse and torture to which the enslaver subjected his aunt, calling her a “damned bitch” in addition to other “horrid oaths.” Douglass also describes the enslavers’ use of shame and embarrassment as a tool of punishment and torture, such as when the enslaver “stripped her from neck to waist.”
  2. Question
    Discussing how his enslaver was “so careful of” Aunt Hester, Douglass remarks that the reason “may be safely left to conjecture.” Why does Douglass imply that his enslaver cared for Aunt Hester in such a “careful” way? What are the implications of this? Where else in the passage does Douglass allude to this?
    Douglass implies that his enslaver was so “careful” with Aunt Hester because he was sexually attracted to her. Douglass describes Aunt Hester as “a woman of noble form, and of graceful proportions, having very few equals, and fewer superiors, in personal appearance, among the colored or white women of our neighborhood.” And the enslaver “desired her presence.” The scene that Douglass describes occurred as a result of the enslaver discovering that Aunt Hester had been “in company with a young man.” In this way, Douglass recognizes the prevalence of sexual assault and rape and their impact on the lived experience of many enslaved women. He further alludes to this aspect of life in enslavement when he writes about his enslaver: “Had he been a man of pure morals himself, he might have been thought interested in protecting the innocence of my aunt; but those who knew him will not suspect him of any such virtue.”
  3. Question
    According to Douglass, what effect did enslaving have on white enslavers?
    In order to numb themselves to the horrors of their actions, Douglass points out that the overseer turned to alcohol and drunkenness. Douglass describes the chief enslaver as “a cruel man, hardened by a long life of slaveholding.”
  4. Question
    How does Douglass’s use of language communicate his opinion of the enslavers and the enslaved?
    Douglass uses language to emphasize the enslavers as inhuman victimizers and the enslaved as innocent victims. He uses the following to describe the overseer and chief enslaver: “savage monster,” “miserable drunkard,” “profane swearer,” “iron heart,” etc. He uses the following to describe his aunt: “gory victim,” “noble,” “graceful,” etc. He describes the whole scene as “barbarity” and as a “bloody transaction.” The line that most captures this use of language through contrast might be his description of “heart-rending shrieks from her” compared to “horrid oaths from him.”
Reveal Answers
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