Summary: Chapter X (Continued)

From Douglass's fight with Covey to the end of Chapter X

In coming to a fixed determination to run away, we did more than Patrick Henry, when he resolved upon liberty or death.

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The fight with Covey causes Douglass to regain his spirit and defiance, as well as his resolve to be free. He never receives a whipping from anyone during his remaining four years enslaved. Douglass’s year with Covey ends on Christmas Day, 1833. It is customary for enslaved people to enjoy a holiday from Christmas to New Year’s. Slaveholders typically encourage enslaved people to spend the holiday drinking, rather than resting or working industriously for themselves. Douglass explains that this strategy helps keep Black people enslaved. By giving enslaved people a brief span of time each year to release their rebellious spirit, slaveholders keep them manageable for the rest of the year. By encouraging them to spend the holiday riotously drunk, slaveholders ensure that freedom comes to seem unappealing.

On January 1, 1834, Douglass is sent to live with Mr. William Freeland. Mr. Freeland, though quick‑tempered, is more consistently fair than Covey. Douglass is grateful that Mr. Freeland is not a hypocritically religious man. Many men in the community profess to be religious, but merely use their religion as justification for their cruelty to those they've enslaved.

Freeland forces the men and women he enslaves to work hard. Douglass meets and befriends other ensalved people on Freeland’s property, including the intelligent brothers Henry and John Harris. Sandy Jenkins also lives at Freeland’s at this time, and Douglass reminds readers about Sandy’s root and reports that Sandy’s superstition is common.

Douglass soon succeeds in getting some of his fellow enslaved people interested in learning how to read. Word soon spreads, and Douglass surreptitiously begins to hold a Sabbath school in the cabin of a free Black man. This is a dangerous undertaking, as educating enslaved people is forbidden; the community violently shuts down a similar school run by a white man. Yet, the enslaved people value their education so highly that they attend Douglass’s school despite the threat of punishment.

Douglass’s first year with Freeland passes smoothly. Douglass remembers Freeland as the best master he ever had. Douglass also attributes the comfort of the year to his solidarity with the other enslaved people. Douglass recalls that he loved them and that they operated together as a single community.

Though Douglass remains with Freeland for another year in 1835, by this time he desires his freedom more strongly than ever. Here Douglass puns on the comfort of living with “Freeland” as his master and his stronger desire to live on “free land.” Douglass, resolving to attempt an escape sometime during the year, sets about offering his fellow enslaved people the chance to join him. Douglass recalls how daunting the odds were for them. He describes their position as facing the bloody figure of slavery and glimpsing the doubtful, beckoning figure of freedom in the distance, with the intervening path full of hardship and death. Douglass points out that their decision was far more difficult than that of Patrick Henry, whose choice between death and an oppressed life—“Give me liberty or give me death”—was merely rhetorical. As enslaved people, Douglass and his companions had to choose doubtful liberty over nearly certain death.

The escape party consists of Douglass, Henry and John Harris, Henry Bailey, and Charles Roberts. Sandy Jenkins initially intends to accompany them, but eventually decides to remain. They plan to canoe up the Chesapeake Bay on the Saturday before Easter. Douglass writes travel passes, signed by their master, for each of them.

On the morning of their planned escape, Douglass works in the fields as usual. He soon feels overcome by a sense that their plan has been betrayed. Douglass tells Sandy Jenkins of his fear, and Sandy feels the same way. During breakfast, William Hamilton and several other men arrive at the house. They seize and tie Douglass and the rest of the escape party. The men transport their prisoners to Thomas Auld’s house. On the way, Douglass and the others speak together, agreeing to destroy their written passes and admit nothing.

At Thomas Auld’s, Douglass and the others learn that someone has betrayed them. Douglass writes that they immediately knew who the betrayer was, but he does not reveal who they suspected. The men are placed in jail. Slave traders arrive to taunt them and size them up as though to sell them. At the end of the Easter holidays, all the enslaved people but Douglass are taken home. Douglass remains in jail because he is identified as the leader and instigator. He begins to despair. At first, Thomas Auld announces his intent to send Douglass to Alabama. Then Auld suddenly changes his mind and sends Douglass back to Baltimore with Hugh Auld.

In Baltimore, Hugh Auld apprentices Douglass to a shipbuilder named William Gardner. Douglass is to learn the trade of ship caulking. Because Gardner’s shipyard is struggling to meet a deadline, however, Douglass becomes a helping hand for seventy-five different carpenters and learns no new skill. The carpenters constantly summon and yell at Douglass, who cannot help them all at once. Tensions at the shipyard increase when the white carpenters suddenly strike to protest the free Black carpenters who Gardner has hired. Gardner agrees to fire the free Black carpenters. As an apprentice who is not free, Douglass continues working at Gardner’s, but he endures severe physical intimidation from the white apprentices.

One day, four white apprentices attack Douglass at the shipyard and nearly destroy his left eye. He starts to fight back but decides against it, as lynch law dictates that any Black man who hits a white man may be killed. Instead, Douglass complains to Hugh Auld, who becomes surprisingly indignant on Douglass’s behalf. Auld takes Douglass with him to see a lawyer, but the lawyer informs them that no warrant may be issued without the testimony of a white man.

Douglass spends time at home recovering, and later he becomes an apprentice at Hugh Auld’s own shipyard. Douglass quickly learns caulking under Walter Price and soon earns the highest possible wage. Each week, Douglass turns over all his wages to Hugh Auld. Douglass compares Auld to a pirate who has a “right” to Douglass’s wages only because he has the power to compel Douglass to hand them over.


The second half of Chapter X continues to shift between personal accounts and public arguments against slavery. Douglass moves from the personal account of the rest of the year under Covey to a general analysis of the “holiday” that slave owners give enslaved people between Christmas and New Year’s. Generally, the public, or persuasive—sections of the Narrative generally either disprove pro-slavery arguments, present antislavery arguments, or disabuse readers of misinformation or misinterpretation about the practices of slave owners. Douglass’s analysis of the holiday time falls in this last category. To the uninformed observer, it would appear a positive thing that slave owners grant a holiday to enslaved people. Douglass explains, however, that this seeming benevolence is part of the larger power structure of slavery. Slaveholders use holiday time to make enslaved people disaffected with “freedom” and to keep them from revolting.

Read more about the narrative structure of this book.

The figure of William Freeland stands in direct contrast to the rest of the slave owners in Douglass’s Narrative. Douglass’s previous masters have all shared one or both of two traits: hypocritical piety or inconsistent brutality. Douglass presents Freeland as a good slave owner because he lacks both of these vices. Freeland has no pretensions about religion and is consistent and fair in his treatment of enslaved people. However, though Freeland is a good model for a slave owner, Douglass remains clear that slaveholding in any form is still unjust. He points to his dissatisfaction with Freeland in a pun on Freeland’s name. Instead of equating “Freeland” with “free land,” Douglass uses the pun to point out that belonging to “Freeland” is not as good a guarantee as living on “free land.”

Read more about slaveholding as a perversion of Christianity.

Douglass’s experience under Freeland is also positive because he develops a social network of others who have been enslaved during this time. Except for his friendship with the local boys in Baltimore, Douglass has been a figure of isolation and alienation in the Narrative. As an isolated figure, he appropriately resembles the protagonist of a traditional coming‑of‑age story. These autobiographical stories tend to privilege a model of heroic individualism over social interaction and support. In Chapter X, however, Douglass reveals the close friendships he develops at Freeland’s and shows that he relies on friends’ support. This model of social support competes with the model of heroic individualism through the end of Douglass’s Narrative. For example, Douglass’s first escape attempt involves several people and fails, whereas he presents his successful escape as the act of an individual.

Read more details about Douglass’s life.

In their prefaces to Douglass’s Narrative, Garrison and Phillips place Douglass in the context of the American Revolutionaries’ battle for rights and freedom. Douglass himself uses this context in Chapter X when he specifies that escaping enslaved people act more bravely than Patrick Henry did. Douglass alludes to Henry’s famous declaration, “Give me liberty or give me death.” While Henry faces a choice between political independence and oppression, escaping enslaved people must choose between two unattractive options—the familiar ills of slavery and the unknown dangers of escape. While Garrison and Phillips make a direct connection between Douglass and the Revolutionaries, Douglass uses a reference to the Revolutionaries to highlight the differences between the plight of enslaved people and the glamour of the Revolutionaries’ battle for rights.

Read more about the reference to Patrick Henry and what it means.

For Douglass, the difference between the Revolutionaries and enslaved people is widened by the fact that enslaved people do not benefit from the citizen’s rights for which the Revolutionaries fought. When four of Gardner’s white apprentices attack Douglass, Douglass enjoys neither the right to defend himself nor the right see his attackers punished for their crime. Douglass ironically portrays his master Hugh Auld as naïvely surprised and indignant upon hearing the lawyer say that slaves has no right to stand witness against a white. The irony with which Douglass writes of American “human rights” in theory and in practice also seems present in the Narrative’s subtitle, An American Slave. The Narrative goes on to show that the words “American” and “slave” are contradictory: the rights afforded by the designation “American” are nonexistent for enslaved people.

In Chapter X we see Douglass working for wages for the first time. Previously, his labor translated into invisible profit for his masters, but when he begins apprenticing at shipyards, he begins to receive the monetary value of his labor. Douglass must turn over these wages to Hugh Auld each week, however. The physical presence of the money Douglass earns with his labor reinforces his sense of the injustice of slavery. Hugh Auld comes to resemble a thief who steals what is not his, rather than an owner of property by which he profits.

Read more about the motif of enslaved people as property.