Narrative of The Life of An American Slave

by Frederick Douglass


Essay Question:


How does power operate in the American society that Douglass represents in his narrative?



In this essay, I will tackle the issue of power in mid nineteenth century pre civil war America, as represented by Douglass, from different angles. I will compare and contrast how power was exercised differently in North America and how it was abused in the south. Douglass enacts his resistance to this power by shedding light on its dark, evil ways. I will expose the role violence and force played in the power system of the slavery-ridden South. Other subtle means and stratagems of social control will also be described. Finally, I read between Douglass’s lines and portray his own recognition of the way Power ought to be exercised and the character elements that are desirable in a fair Power system and/or ruler.


Southern America was ridden by slavery for many centuries. Black African people were taken by force form their home lands and sold into slavery in the South. The slaves did all the hand labor, all the farming, building, cleaning, and were compensated scraps of food and clothing and treated like animals. And to be able to keep control of this vital labor force, the devious slave owners of the South employed some of the lowliest schemes and stratagems of Power control… They used force, fear and fraud. To avoid rebellion, the southerners knew that they had to kill a slaves spirit. They had to reduce him to an animal… to dehumanize him… to cripple his mind and soul and his power of reason… They had to darken his moral and mental vision. And for that evil goal, the slave owners and their “overseers” employed some of the most unforgivable, barbaric means. To kill the family bond in the slaves, the masters parted children from their mothers at an early age. This they did to hinder the development of a child’s affection to his mom and a mom’s deepest affection for her children. Douglass, for example, never saw his mother more than four or five times in his life. He was not even allowed to visit her at her death bed… The masters succeeded… Frederick sadly confesses that, as a kid, he felt no emotions at the death of his own mother! A slave’s age was never revealed to him in order to make him unhappy. The “pious” people of the south even desecrated The Holy Bible and used it to achieve their evil goals, justify their means and sanction their cruelty. They convinced themselves that since God cursed Ham and made him slave to his brothers, then American slavery is justified. Douglass quotes an incident of which he was a witness: A lame young woman was tied up and whipped till the red blood dripped, and in justification of the bloody deed, the master quoted this passage from Scripture - “He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.” Thus, the masters planted fear and terror in the slaves’ hearts and minds. For example, Rev. Hopkins, one of the members and ministers in the Reformed Methodist Church, and a slave-holder at the same time, used to whip slaves in advance of deserving it. He did this to alarm their fears and strike terror into those who escaped his whipping. And to cover all these horrid crimes, the South used religion. It was “the dark shelter under which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slave-holders find the strongest protection.”