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coming to a fixed determination to run away, we did more than Patrick
Henry, when he resolved upon liberty or death.
This passage appears in Chapter X of
the Narrative, in which Douglass relates his plans
to escape with several fellow slaves from William Freeland’s. Several
times in the Narrative, Douglass describes in detail
the explicit dangers that slaves face in attempting escape. Slaves
must confront natural enemies, such as the weather or dangerous
animals, as well as human enemies in the form of their owners or
slave hunters. Slaves are never sure of making it to free land and
are not assured freedom even if they do escape and survive. Douglass
focuses on the incredible dangers of escape to suggest that Northerners
cannot simply rely on slaves fleeing injustice by themselves. Instead,
Northerners must take political action against the institution of
slavery to ensure that further escapees are not harmed.
In this quotation, Douglass alludes to patriot Patrick
Henry’s declaration “Give me liberty or give me death,” which was
made during the American fight for independence. Douglass suggests
that his own bravery and that of his fellow slaves is more impressive
than Henry’s. Whereas Henry chose between a desirable option and
an undesirable option, escaping slaves must try to guess at the
lesser of two evils. Douglass also implies that slavery often can
be worse than death. Slaves suffer inordinately through either their
escape or their continued existence as slaves.
Douglass uses the reference to Henry to compare the slaves’ quest
for freedom and rights to the American Revolutionaries’ crusade
for rights. On the one hand, this cultural context would make the
abolitionist cause seem more recognizable and familiar as a fight for
fundamental rights. On the other hand, Douglass’s use of Revolutionary
references in the Narrative also ironically points
to the hypocrisy of Americans. Americans take great pride in their
historical establishment of a system of rights, yet they still deprive
a large section of the population—slaves—of those very same rights.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass!