The Idea Of Anti-slavery In The Life And Time Of Frederick Douglass

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This research is to explain the myth of anti-slavery is reflected in Frederick Douglass’s narrative “The life and time of Frederick Douglass”. Since there are many myths in America, yet the researcher only focuses on American myth of anti-slavery. The old way of Americans’ thinking thatthe black people is in lower class than white people made them become slave and their individual freedom is restricted. Along with the evolving issue of anti-slavery, there are many ways to talk about it. One way to discuss the issue is through medium of autobiography. Frederick Douglass is not just a common narrative, but it was influential narrative. From the narrative the reader could have imaged of the slavery system in America at that time. From it’s also seen how Douglass struggle for his individual freedom, from an educated slave to educated and free people.


Myth is a particular process whereby historically determined circumstances were presented as somehow ‘natural’, and that it allowed for the uncovering of ‘the ideological abuse’ hidden ’in the display of what goes without saying’ (Barthes, 1999:11). Myth is a value, truth is no guarantee for it; nothing prevents it from being a perpetual alibi: it is enough that its signifier has two sides for it always to have an ‘elsewhere’ at its disposal (Barthes, 1999:123). Myth of anti-slavery is one ofseveral myths which entrenched in Americans social life for many decades. The old way of Americans’ thinking that the black people is in lower class than white people made them become slave and their individual freedom is restricted. Along with the evolving issue of anti-slavery, there are many ways to talk about it. One way to discuss the issue is through medium of autobiography.

“The life and time of Frederick Douglass” is autobiography wrote by Frederick Douglass, the black slave, that tell about the life of the slaves in America. Then the myth of anti-slavery is chosen in order to have a wider knowledge about the myth reflected in the autobiography. Although there are many issues, the researcher takes this subject (the myth of anti-slavery) since the portion of issue around the myth is more prominent than others. Moreover this narrative gives strong satires to Americans culture elevating the myth of anti-slavery which most Americans embrace. The curiosity about how the myth anti-slavery reflected in Frederick Douglass’s narrative “The life and time of Frederick Douglass” make it interesting to analyze.

To explain the myth of anti-slavery is reflected in Frederick Douglass’s narrative “The life and time of Frederick Douglass”. Since there are many myths in America, yet the researcher only focuses on American myth of anti-slavery to avoid deviation with the research question. As the primary source of data the researcher takes the autobiography of Douglass (the researcher takes several sentences, quotations, dialogues, and the other elements).


A. Biographical sketch of the author

Frederick Douglas is one of the abolitionist or anti-slavery figure. He was born 1817 or 1818. Like many slaves, he is unsure of his exact date of birth. He was born as Frederick Bailey circa in Maryland. Douglass served as a slave on farms on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and in Baltimore. Especially in Baltimore, Douglas enjoyed relatively more freedom than slaves usually did in the South. In the city, Douglass first learned how to read and began making contacts with educated free blacks.

At the age of about twenty Douglass escaped to New York. Here he meets with and married Anna Murray, a free black woman from Baltimore. They lived in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and Frederick changed his last name from Bailey to Douglass. Douglass worked for the next three years as a laborer and continued his self education. Douglass started his own abolitionist newspaper in 1847 in Rochester, New York, under the name North Star. He also found time to publish the third volume of his autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, in 1881 (the second volume, My Bondage and My Freedom, was published in 1855). Douglass died of a heart attack in 1895. .His Narrative emerged in a popular tradition of slave narratives and slavery fictions. He writes the bad effects of slavery system not just for the salve but also to the slave owner. Douglass’s work is read today as one of the finest examples of the slave-narrative genre. Douglass narrative styles and forms from the spiritual conversion narrative, the sentimental novel, oratorical rhetoric, and heroic fiction. Finally, in its somewhat unique depiction of slavery as an assault on selfhood and in its attention to the tensions of becoming an individual, Douglass’s Narrative can be read as a contribution to the literary tradition of American Romantic individualism.

A. Historical and social background

The first African slaves were brought to the North American colony of Jamestown, Virginia in 1619, to aid in the production of such lucrative crops as tobacco. Since that the need of slave become higher and higher equal with the grown of the plantation in America. Slave was used because they were cheaper and easy to be controlled. To keep them in control, the slave owner did not give them an education; they break all individual freedom of the slave. Slave is just a pet for their master.

In the early 1840s, the abolitionist, or anti-slavery, movement was gaining momentum, especially in the far Northeast. Many people believe that the slavery system is not humanly it must be erased; slaves are people so they also have their human right. When the Civil War happened in 1861, the abolitionist campaigned to allow black men to fight for the Union. Then, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on December 31, 1862, and Congress authorized the enlistment of black men in 1863, though they were paid only half what white soldiers made. The Union won the Civil War on April 9, 1865.

The old way American’s thinking that the white is in higher class than the black, made them think about superiority toward black people, as subdue class they must serve them. The slavery system not just bring suffered for the black but also bring the bad effect to the white. They are become cruel people and antipathy to the humanity. Even people who have many slaves will be called as noble people, but many slave-owning men have trapped to adultery and rape, have children with their female slaves.

Important part of narrative reflected the Black people individual freedom

In this narrative, Frederick Douglass tried to give image of slavery system that happen in America during his life time. Some sentences used as the key to understand the aim and point of view of Frederick Douglass about slavery and the myth of freedom toward black people. Genealogical trees did not flourish among slave. A person of same consequence in civilized society, sometimes designed as father, was literally unknown to salve law and slave practice. I never met with a slave in that part of the country who could tell me with any certainty how old he was. Few at that time knew anything of the months of the years or of the days of the month. They measures he ages of their children by spring time, winter time, harvest time, planting time, and the like. Master allowed no questions to be put to them by salves concerning their ages. (Page 25)

In this passage, which appears in Chapter I of the Narrative, Douglass explains that his master and other slave master would keep the birth as a secret to keep them unknown about their family tree. Their family is created by the master. Douglass demonstrating how a slave is “made,” so beginning at birth. He explains the means by which slave owners distort social bonds and the natural processes of life in order to turn men into slaves. Almost slaves didn’t know their age, when they born, from what family. What they know are that they were owned by their master. All of their life is to serve the master. The slaveholder erased their sense of personal history. Nineteenth-century readers placed great value on the family structure, viewing families as a haven of virtue. The destruction of family structure would have saddened readers and appeared to be a signal of the larger moral illnesses of the culture. Like many nineteenth-century authors, Douglass shows how social injustice can be expressed through the breakdown of a family structure. Douglass use “sometime” in chase to show that “father” for the slaves is totally different with the concept of “father” as the head of the family. Father for them is someone that they didn’t know, and an absurd person, it could be the older slaves or maybe the slaveholder itself.

I was with the children there, left to the tender mercies of Aunt Katy, a slave women……She was a woman who never allowed herself to act greatly within the limit of delegated power, no matter how broad that authority might be. Ambitious old master’s favor, ill-tempered and cruel by nature, she found in her present position an ample field for the exercise of her ill- omened qualities. (Page 33)

This passage is part of Douglass’s long discussion at the beginning of Chapter III. From here Douglass give image about how cruel the slavery system for the black people. Even between the slaves itself, the classes and size are exist. To get attention from their master, they subjected the weak, not just serve the master, but also to serve them. This behavior not just destroyed personal freedom but also build the corrupt mentality. They were tech to become lick boots, all is about self, no intention with the other as long as profitable. Cruelty is not longer as immoral behavior but it’s seem become naturally. No one will pay attention what the master done to their slaves. The women who should have good intention, act as a mother to their child, in this phrase changed to the cool blood women, has no pity and very ambitious. This pattern of women that created by Douglass is to attract the women reader to gain their emotional feeling.

The slave holder, as well as the slaves, was the victim of the slave system. Under the whole heavens tierce could be no relation more unfavorable to the development of honorable character than that sustained by the slaveholder to the slave. Reason is imprisoned here, and passions run wild….but the pleasant moods of a slaveholder are transient and fitful. They neither come often nor remain long. The temper of the old man was subject to special trial; but since these trials were never borne patiently, they added little to his natural stock of patience….he made the impression upon me of being unhappy man. Even to my child’s eye he wore a trouble and at times a haggard aspect. (Page 44)

In the narrative, Douglass shows slaveholding to be damaging not only to the slaves themselves, but to slave owners as well. The corrupt and irresponsible power that slaves owner enjoy over their slaves has a detrimental effect on the slave owners’ own moral health. Slave owner value slave only to that they can perform productive labor, they threat slaves like livestock or mere animals. Douglass showing the fact that the slave owners treat them as property. Even the slave owner has power among their slave and has them to serve their daily life but, seem that there were become unhappy people. They must maintenance a lot of people, and they must always look powerful in front of their slaves, this made them could not control their emotion and more likely to be cruel.

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Why am I a slave? Why are some people slaves and other masters? These were perplexingquestions and very troublesome to my childhood. I was told by someone very early that “God up in the sky” had made all things, and had made black people to be slaves and white people to be masters. I was told too that God was good, and that He knew what was best for everybody. (Page 55)

In this passage, Douglass told clearly how about the concept of higher class and lower class existing in religion. Since childhood he was learned that black people are chosen to be slaves for the white people. This propaganda is to keep the black people believe that if they want to be a good people as their God want, they must be a slave. Even there were questions about their fate, but since it is came from God so they must obey it and accept that. The slave owners’ show of piety increases his confidence in his “God-given” right to hold and mistreat slaves. The “God” reason is use not only by the slave owners but also the church to earned money and uses slaves as an economic commodity.

Up to this time I had known nothing whatever of this wonderful art, and my ignorance and inexperience of what it could do for me, as well as my confidence in my mistress, emboldened me to ask her to teach me to read. With an unconsciousness and inexperience equal to my own, she readily consented, and in an incredibly short time, by her kind assistance, I had mastered the alphabet and could spell words of three or four letters. (Page 92)

This is the starting point that made Douglass curiosity about the literary. Even at the first he just know that text is kind of art, but then he braves himself to ask his mistress teach him alphabet so he can read. This kind is like the enlightenment for Douglass, he desire to learn more and more since he could read. Douglass then read the bible and found that the doctrine was false. No one part of bible tells that black and white people are created different. No part tells that black should be slaves and white become their master. Realized this matter Douglass started think the equality between the black and white people. There should be something wrong in the society that should make a correction so slavery system no longer exists in the society. Though Douglass himself gains his freedom by virtue of his self-education, he realized that knowledge is not automatically renders slaves free. Knowledge help then understanding their position and injustice of slavery and this awakened consciousness brings suffering. Douglass finally realizes that whites hold blacks in their power through a series of strategies that of depriving blacks of education and literacy.

The differences between the north states and south states in the slavery system could be found in chapter XI. When he escapes to the north and reaches New York City, he becomes free worker not longer as slave anymore. The North that is industrialized country is non slavery states. Almost people over there are abolitionist, the black people also consider as worker and human so they will get payment just the other worker. The north is the dream land for the slaves. Many slaves are run away from their master in the South’s and go to North. They get their individual freedom as human in the south states. The journey from the south goes to north not just a physical journey but also spiritual. The idea of spiritualism freedom is well done imaged by Douglass using the White-Sailed ships symbolizing. Their white sailed is associates with angels that bring them from suffering world to the heaven.

In the North, Douglass meets many people that inspired him to fight for black people individual freedom and erased the slavery system. One of them is William Lloyd Garrison, founder of the American anti-slavery Society. Together with Garrison, Douglass learns how good spectator becomes and wrote about his history as slaves and used it as narrative to influenced people to refused the slavery system. His fight from slaves becomes educated people is not as easy as open a hand, there are many tears and dangers he should faced. In the narrative itself, Douglass tried to give an image about how hard his life was when he was slave and uneducated people. Douglass, pick the historical background as one of the climax points in his narrative. The civil war in 1861, this was historical point to the slavery system, in which for the first time the black people are allowed to fight for the union. ….in history as one of the first steps. What was said on that occasions brought the whole question virtually before the American People. Until that interview the country was not fully aware of the intentions and policy of President Johnson on the subject of reconstruction.

Especially in respect of the newly emancipated class of the south. Since the North use slaves as their army they gained victory in the war. The slaves no longer called as slaves but rather then called as Negro. They are free people, but still they are not in same class with the white people. Their existence is recognized, but they still faced discriminated act from the society. Not just in economic life, but also in religion, the black people is not accepted well by the society, there still shock culture among the white people. “what!” said they, “baptize a negro? preposterous!” nevertheless the negro was baptized and admitted to church fellowship; and thought for long time his soul belonged to God, his body to his master, and he, poor fellow, had nothing left for himself, he is at last not only baptized, but emancipated and enfranchised.

From the quotations, Douglass tried to express the amazed of white people about idea of Baptized the black people. It’s sound strange to their ear. Baptized seems that the society should accept the black people as a part of their community, equal and noble as they are. Baptized is the start point to emancipated and enfranchised, an important point to maintenance existence. The other point that should be underline from the narrative is the point of view of Frederick Douglass about education. Education becomes something that very important in this narrative, education changes a slave become a free people. Education brings new virtue of life and the perspective of world. Douglass did not realize that there was wrong with the slavery system in the south until he learn to read. The power of word opened his mind and gives him inspiration to know more about the life, the life that he never imagined before. Education enlightened Douglass to question his individual freedom right as human being. Not merely give him answer to what happen in his life, but give him clue to fight for his life and his freedom.

When he started to read he know the position of black people on the society, especially in the south states, then he could make comparison with the condition in the north states. He believes that if all slaves could read and write they will get better life such as in the north states. They will be no longer as slaves but they become freeman.

The individual freedoms that Frederick Douglass tried to reach in this narrative are to get equality with the white people in every aspect of life. He gives image trough his narrative how cruel the slavery system and how he feel suffer being one of the slaves. No one will not feel sympathy to what happen of the Douglass childhood. This kind emotional feeling that Douglass tried to connect with the reader, made them accept the idea of anti-slavery and at the last they will support it.

Discrimination that Douglass tried to explore and made correction is not just the discrimination among races but also discrimination among gender. In many part of this narrative, he shows that men in the society at that time have superior power than women. Not only the white man to women slave, but also to white women.

Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master. This passage occurs in Chapter VI, after Hugh Auld orders Sophia Auld to stop Douglass’s reading lessons because he feels education ruins a slave for slavery. From the passage, the reader take perspective that who control the home and the slaves is man, not the wife. Wife (white women) is a formal status to fulfill the common law of society, but behind that many wife feel desperate and under pressure about their marriage situation. At the time, many men are fall in to raped and abused their slaves even have a child with them. That the women appear as images of abuse body, seems that women just a tool to satisfactory men’s desire.

Again and again Douglass point out the individual right of black people that have been break by slavery system to resuscitate the reader and the society how worse the system. Reconstruction of the society is needed not just physically but also mentally. To change the mind of American people (the white) that they are in same class with the black and other colored people. No one is in higher class nor in lower class, is all equal.


Frederick Douglass is not just a common narrative, but it was influential narrative. From the narrative the reader could have imaged of the slavery system in America at that time. From it’s also seen how Douglass struggle for his individual freedom, from an educated slave to educated and free people.

This narrative reflected the situation of the American society at that time. The old way of thinking that the white is superior than the black was very influenced the behavior of the white toward the black. The discrimination was rises and the rights are broke. Actually, Douglass critics this situation using his narrative, he tries to make correction to the society. Then he found the one way is using education. Right education will raise the question toward the situation, make people tries to find the impact of the situation, right and wrong, and then made correction to get better future then why right education? Because education at that time was the white doctrine that used for keep the black unliterary. Education that known by the black people is not formal education that learn how to read and write, but a knowledge that created by the white people. Knowledge that makes themselves thinking, that they are “made” as slave, whose serve the white one.

The narrative gives a new point of view about the slavery system toward the society. The cruelty that shown in its made people think twice about slavery, between its inhumanities or not. At the end Douglass success gain support for anti-slavery and reach his individual right as educated and freeman.


  1. Barthes, Roland. Mythologies,Translated by Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang. 1999. Cincotta, Howard. An Outline of American History. United states Information Agency. 1994
  2. Douglass, Frederick. The life and times of Frederick Douglass. Massachusetts. American anti- slavery Society. 1881.
  3. Hawthorn, Jeremy. A Concise Glossary of Contemporary literary Theory. London.1994
  4. Kuntowijoyo. Pengantar Ilmu Sejarah Cetakan ke-4. Jogjakarta: Yayasan Bentang Budaya. 2001.
  5. Sutopo, HB. Metodologi Penelitian Kualitatif. Surakarta: Sebelas Maret University Press. 2002.
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