Literary Analysis of My Bondage and My Freedom

In My Bondage and My Freedom by Frederick Douglass, the setting plays a monumental role in the development of the story, elucidating how an individual’s environment can be nurturing or detrimental to his or her moral development. Douglass describes details of the places he lived throughout his life and the things he experienced both as a slave and as a free man. Not only did setting influence Douglass’ moral development, it also affected his unique outlook on life, which led him to achieve amazing things against the odds for his time and place.

In the beginning of the autobiography, Douglass depicts his early childhood living with his grandparents. He describes how he is a slave, although he did not know it at the time, and how his grandmother is one as well. Despite their bondage, they live in a dwelling that is luxurious compared to most slaves at the time. The setting during the early parts of Douglass’ life is mainly beneficial to his growth (both figuratively and literally), but a constant undertone of anxiety taints his memory of this time. The setting is figuratively beneficial to Douglass because his grandparent’s house aided the growth of his morality. Literally, it was beneficial because a steady diet and exercise gave him a healthy body. “The dwelling of my grandmother and grandfather had few pretensions. It was a log hut, or cabin, built of clay, wood, and straw. At a distance it resembled- though it was much smaller, less commodious and less substantial- the cabins erected in the western states by the first settlers. To my child’s eye, however, it was a noble structure, admirably adapted to promote the comforts and conveniences of its inmates” (Douglass 42). This quotation highlights the relatively nice setting of Douglass’ early childhood. This is significant, because when he becomes older, he has to endure awful circumstances as a slave. Had he been born into that desolate setting, however, he may never have realized how happy he could be if he were no longer a slave. Despite the kind and comfortable life that Douglass enjoyed at his grandparent’s house, there was a dark cloud over his head, even at a young age. “Thus early did clouds and shadows begin to fall upon my path. Once on the track- troubles never come singly- I was not long in finding out another facet, still more grievous to my childish heart. I was told that this ‘old master,’ whose name seemed ever to be mentioned with fear and shuddering, only allowed the children to live with grandmother for a limited time, and that in fact as soon as they were big enough, they were promptly taken away, to live with the ‘old master’” (Douglass 43). This foreboding makes Douglass hate growing older, because he knows that the older he gets, the sooner he has to leave to go live with “old master.”

Soon, Douglass comes of age and has to leave his grandparent’s house to go to work for the infamous “old master.” Initially, he is frightened when he gets to the “oild master’s” house, but he soon finds comfort with his cousins who live there. “I had not seen so many children before. Great houses loomed up in different directions, and a great many men and women were at work in the fields. All this hurry, noise, and singing was very different from the stillness of Tuckahoe. As a new comer, I was an object of special interest, and, after laughing and yelling around me, and playing all sorts of wild tricks, they (the children) asked me to go out and play with them. This is refused to do, preferring to stay with my grandmamma” (Douglass 50). This quotation shows Douglass’ fears in his new environment; he prefers what is comfortable and familiar in contrast to this new, unfamiliar setting. On page 61, Douglass reflects that though he is sad to leave Tuckahoe, he is adapted and making the best of things at Col. Lloyd’s plantation. “Keen as was my regret and great as was my sorrow at leaving the latter [Tuckahoe], I was not long in adapting myself to this, my new home. A man’s troubles are always half disposed of, when he finds endurance his only remedy. I found myself here; there was no getting away’ and what remained for me, but to make the best of it?” (Douglass 61). This quotation illustrates Douglass’ adaptive nature and ability to make the best of his situation. In 1838, after suffering under the brutal ownership of numerous masters, Douglass escapes and eventually buys his freedom.

After securing his freedom, Frederick Douglass did not settle down right away; he travelled, making speeches that advocated abolition. These years taught him that some people did want change for African-Americans and it was achievable. When he did settle down, it was in Rochester, New York. The city is beneficial to him and encourages his determination to elucidate the prosperity of the abolition of slavery because it was the first place he could pursue his writing without major hindrances. Thus making Rochester an environment where it would be advantageous for him to work on his writing, in both his newspaper writing and his autobiography. “…I came to Rochester, Western New York, among strangers, where the circulation of my paper could not interfere with the local circulation of the Liberator and the Standard; for at that time I was, on the anti-slavery question, a faithful disciple of William Lloyd Garrison, and fully committed to his doctrine touching the pro-slavery character of the constitution of the United States, and the non-voting principle, of which he is the known and distinguished advocate. With Mr. Garrison, I held it to be the first duty of the non-slaveholding states to dissolve the union with the slaveholding states; and hence my cry, like his, was, ‘No union with slaveholders.’ With these views, I came into Western New York; and during the first four years of my labor here, I advocated them with pen and tongue, according to the best of my ability” (Douglass 294). This quotation illustrates the constructive environment can have on an individual’s life. Douglass is no longer a slave and he no longer has to fear being persecuted for running away. He is completely free to work on his writing.

The setting in My Bondage and My Freedom exemplifies the factors contributing to Douglass’ moral development throughout his life. He portrays himself in prosperous and nurturing environments, as well as harsh and dangerous ones. These varying settings provide a detailed contrast of his environment and an explanation on how they impacted his moral development.

The Legitimization of Slavery and Frederick Douglass

Slavery’s roots extend back more than two thousand years. With such a lengthy past, many arguments have arisen regarding the definition of slavery. Frederick Douglass, being a former slave in the American south, offered one definition of the term “slave” while giving a lecture. He stated, “The slave is a human being, divested of all rights – reduced to the level of a brute… In law, a slave has no wife, no children, no country, and no home…” (“The Nature of Slavery”). One may question how the treatment of a person, in such a manner, could be condoned. In order to successfully convince a society that it is acceptable to enslave an innocent group of people, they needed to justify its legitimacy. Their excuses, however, are immaterial when raised to oppress a strong abolitionist leader. In his book, Inhuman Bondage, David Brion Davis examines the methods of beastialization, dehumanization, and racism as steps toward the legitimization of slavery. As Frederick Douglass rose to prominence in the abolitionist movement, he discounted each of the rationalizations. His actions, rebelling against his “master,” starting a family, and becoming a leader, contradict the justification of slavery. Upon examining the steps taken by the American people to legitimize the enslavement of African Americans, it becomes apparent that Frederick Douglass conflicts with their explanations (Davis).A first step in the legitimization of slavery is the bestialization of the individuals to be enslaved. The society aligns the domestication of wild animals with the “domestication” of African American slaves. David Brion Davis examines this topic via quotations from Aristotle, as he discusses the value of a tame animal. This leads into the discussion of African Americans. He says, “these people are slaves by nature, and it is better for them to be subject to this kind of control” (Davis 33-34). Aristotle literally discusses these people in terms of agricultural labor animals. He goes on to assert the difference between the body of a slave and of a free man. Aristotle says, “Nature must therefore have intended to make the bodies of free men and of slaves different also; slaves’ bodies strong for the services they have to do…” (Davis 33-34). Aristotle’s words express racism toward people of African descent. He groups together cattle, oxen, horses, and slaves, saying all should be treated as wild animals. They must be tamed and utilized, by the white man for their physical abilities. As a slave, Douglass was categorized among the livestock. He writes, “I now saw, in my situation, several points of similarity with that of the oxen. They were property, so was I; they were to be broken, so was I” (Douglass 212). At times he may have felt himself to be reduced to the property of another man, but he utilizes the fire of his emotions. He rebels against his “owner” and refuses the position he is given. He says, “I remembered my pledge to stand up in my own defense… I was resolved to fight” (Douglass 242). He is not broken as he uses his fury to defend himself; he says, “The fighting madness had come upon me, and I found my strong fingers firmly attached to the throat of my cowardly tormentor” (Douglass 242). While initially he rejects his life as a slave and fights back against his oppressors, he meets many setbacks along the way. His ultimate rise from his life as an animal is accomplished through his education. By learning to read, write and speak, he breaks away from his bestialization and fights the system of slavery.The dehumanization of African Americans also aided in the legitimization of slavery. Indeed, slaves were “deprived of precisely those traits and faculties that are prerequisites for human dignity, respect, and honor” (Davis 29). Many slaves were given little clothing and no hygienic facilities; this robbed them of their pride. Even the most basic human relationship, of mother to child, was taken from them. Douglass was torn away from his mother after birth so that she could return to work; he was left with his grandmother to be raised alongside his biological siblings. In the beginning of the book, there are often mentions of his relations being beaten. As the story progresses, however, there are no longer any allusions to his family. He is sent to different plantations alone, with no social attachments or home. Davis asserts, “This absence of a past and a future, of a place in history and society from which to grow in small increments, made each slave totally vulnerable. This may be the very essence of dehumanization” (Davis 37). Douglass had no past, no history, no permanent group to connect with, and no home. He, however, overcame this. While he was living in Baltimore, he met a woman; after he escaped, he was reunited with her. He says, “my intended wife, Anna, came on from Baltimore and, in the presence of Mrs. Mitchell and Mr. Ruggles, we were married by Rev. James W. C. Pennington” (Douglass 341). With nothing to hold onto, he created his own past, present, and future. Douglass and Anna later had two children. He rejected the dehumanization that held him down, as he became the leader of his family. Thus, he took back his “human dignity, respect, and honor” (Douglass).Racism, of course, was another facet of the legitimization of slavery. Through a strongly racist ideology, slaves were believed to be part of a lower class of human. On an academic level, prominent figures publicly announced their negative opinions of African Americans. Philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote, “The Negroes of Africa have received from nature no intelligence that rises above the foolish” (Kant). Through this quote, one can deduce that society thought slaves to be mentally insufficient, and unable to rise above this. This is ironic, considering that Douglass recounts Mr. Auld’s fear of the slaves becoming educated. As he scolds his wife for teaching Douglass how to read, he expresses the fear of the slaves learning enough to realize that they can rebel. It is evident that they were concerned of the power of the slaves, and the extent of their abilities. Indeed, Kant’s contemporary, David Hume, held similar racist beliefs. He stated, “I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men, to be naturally inferior to the whites” (Hume). The belief that African Americans were physically and psychologically inferior to whites was a generally accepted belief. As Frederick Douglass attempted to obtain employment after escaping slavery, for example, he was denied work as a calker due to the color of his skin. The white men threatened to leave if he worked beside him. Yet Douglass did not let this mentality stand. Although he worked as a laborer, making fractions of the white men’s wages, he did not settle. He joined the abolitionist movement, and wrote in the papers against slavery. After joining up with Mr. Garrison, Douglass spent a great deal of time speaking out against slavery. By doing so, he proved to the world that he was equal to any man who heard him. Utilizing his skills as an orator, he worked to break down the racism that held him back; in this Douglass worked to undo the legitimization of slavery. As a public figure, and a leader, he stands on display to de-rationalize slavery (Douglass 304-359).John Locke, in his work Two Treatises of Government, argues that, theoretically, slavery cannot exist. Locke says, “This freedom from absolute, arbitrary power is so necessary to… a man’ preservation, that he cannot part with it but by what forfeits his preservation and life together” (Locke). No man can be a slave, for each man has power over himself. In giving up control of one’s own life, they are forfeiting their own lives, which as part of survival cannot be done. Douglass proved this in his own actions. As stated in the aforementioned speech, he said, “In law, a slave has no wife, no children, no country, and no home” (“The Nature of Slavery”). He had control over his own life; therefore, he escaped and lived his life according to his own wishes. Overall, Douglass may have agreed with Locke. Locke asserts that one cannot be a slave unless one consents to enslavement. Douglass states that one cannot be a slave if they have a family. Therefore, Douglass chose not to be a slave. His liberation from slavery, in a technical manner, was through his family. If slaves have no family, then he was not a slave.Frederick Douglass’s life is a testament against the legitimization of slavery. He stands as evidence against every reason that a man claimed for slavery. They claimed that African Americans were animals. Yet even as Douglass was defending himself from his “master,” he was polite to him. Even while holding the man’s neck, he answered, “Yes, sir” (Douglass 243). Society claimed that they were less than human. Few aspects are more human than fighting for what one believes in. Douglass more than proved his competence and equality to any man. As one looks at the rationalizations attached to slavery, it is clear that Frederick Douglass contests every word.