A newly formed United States of America had recently won its independence from the tyranny of Great Britain; however, Americans continued to use a labor system that could be deemed unconstitutional. Americans all over the country, especially the South, had started to rely on slave labor for a cheap workforce that would become the backbone of American society. Many African Americans had to endure grueling conditions as they were dehumanized by white Americans. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” is the autobiography of Frederick Douglass, a slave who was brought up in the American South and eventually escaped to become one of the leading abolitionist figures. In his life he experienced two different types of slavery, rural and urban. Both types of slavery had their advantages and disadvantages; Frederick Douglass’ life as a rural slave differs from his life as an urban slave because as an urban slave he experienced less encounters with the master and his family, less susceptibility to violence, and less grueling labor; on the other hand, Douglass’ life as a rural slave included more relations with the master, a greater susceptibility to violence, and more grueling labor.
As an urban slave Douglass experienced more interactions with the master and his family than he did as a rural slave. The reason for this is that on the rural plantations there are many more slaves than in urban areas. This is because of the available space for farming in the rural areas which require even more labor. Douglass says that “[The Colonel] was said to own a thousand slaves… Colonel Lloyd owned so many that he did not know them when he saw them” (Douglass 61). The lesser amount of interactions could serve as both a positive and negative for the slaves as when he was a rural slave the possibility to receive an education was much smaller. “It is possible, and even quite probable, that but for the mere circumstance of being removed from that plantation to Baltimore, I should have to-day, instead of being here seated by my own table, in the enjoyment of freedom and the happiness of home, writing this narrative” (Douglass 75). In this quote Douglass is reflecting upon his good fortune in being the chosen one to move to an urban setting from the rural plantation, and he reflects that it is because of that, that he was able to receive his education. His education was made possible due to the increased encounters that he had with the master and his family. However, even though Douglass was able to receive his education due to more interactions with his master, the greater amount of interactions also had its negative aspects for urban slaves as it meant that there were more possibilities to be whipped by the masters. If there are more times a day when the masters see the slaves than there are more chances for the masters to see something wrong with the slaves and forcefully correct them. For example, two house slaves who lived in an urban area, Henrietta and Mary, were the only slaves that the owner, Thomas Hamilton, owned. This increased amount of interactions caused Thomas’ wife to release all of her cruelties onto these two slaves. Douglass says that “The head, neck, and shoulders of Mary were literally cut to pieces. I have frequently felt her head, and found it nearly covered with festering sores, caused by the lash of her cruel mistress” (Douglass 80). Though one can see here that there were more opportunities for violence in an urban setting one can see that in fact there is less susceptibility to violence in general for urban slaves.
Urban slaves had less susceptibility to violence than rural slaves which is a big advantage to being an urban slave. The main reason for less susceptibility to violence as a rural slave is that in rural areas the slave owners have neighbors who live nearby. This means that the master “will shock the humanity of the nonslaveholding owners with the cries of his lacerated slaves” (Douglass 80). Slave owners had to keep up a positive image in front of their neighbors. Because of this positive appearance that they had to keep up the slaves had less susceptibility to violence. This is a very big advantage for the urban slaves as they don’t have to worry as much about receiving beatings from their masters. The situation of Mary and Henrietta aforementioned serves as an outlier as most urban slaves received less beatings. Douglass says that “few are willing to incur the odium attaching to the reputation of being a cruel master; and above all things, they would not be known as not giving a slave enough to eat” (Douglass 79). On the contrary to urban slavery, rRural slavery involved a much larger susceptibility to beatings due to the isolation of the plantations and the crueler mindset of the masters. For example in chapter one Douglass talks about his life as a rural slave and his cruel overseer Mr.Plummer. He says that “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”(Douglass 50). This type of cruelty existed more on the larger rural plantations because there were no neighbors to judge the slave owners and overseers.
Another main difference between slaves lives as rural and urban slaves is the type of work that they have to do for their masters. Rural slaves had to do much harder work since they usually lived on large plantations that required around the clock care to cultivate the soil and harvest the crop. This is much different from the work that Douglass had to do as an urban slave in Baltimore. Their he worked around the house helping out the family instead of doing all the work. After he moved away from Baltimore he was forced into the country once again to do more grueling labor. He said that “it was tenfold harder after living in Master Hugh’s family”(Douglass 95). This harder labor was a big difference between the two types of slavery, and it was a large advantage to urban slavery. It is needless to say that if a slave has easier labor they are happier. Not only this, but they can do the work more efficiently and will be less likely to screw up and in turn less likely to be beaten.
Through the life of Frederick Douglass as a slave we are able to see the main differences between urban and rural slavery, Urban slavery has more interactions with the master, less susceptibility to violence, and easier labor than rural slavery.