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William Lloyd Garrison, a white abolitionist, prefaces Narrative by endorsing Douglass and his writings, and he describes his perceived role in championing Douglass and guiding him to success.
Wendell Phillips, another white abolitionist, describes his friendship with and admiration of Douglass and attests to the veracity of the accounts in the Narrative, emphasizing that the instances of cruelty aren’t exaggerations nor are they even uncommon, but rather part of the foundation of the institution of slavery.
Read a full Summary & Analysis of Preface by William Lloyd Garrison & Letter from Wendell Phillips
Douglass describes what little he knows of his birth and early years in Maryland, including that he was separated from his mother at a young age and that his father might have been his mother’s “master” who raped and impregnated her to increase his holdings. Douglass discusses his recollections of his first master, Captain Anthony, and the master’s overseer and how he remembers the first time he witnessed Anthony viciously whipping his Aunt Hester.
Douglass gives information about the layout and working arrangements at the plantation, including an explanation of Anthony’s working relationship with the plantation’s owner, Colonel Lloyd. He describes the meager food and provisions provided to the plantation’s slaves and the squalid living conditions. Douglass discusses the widespread but incorrect assumption that the slaves’ singing was supposedly uplifting, and how later in life he realized that their songs were, in fact, steeped in sorrow, lament, and protest.
Read a full Summary & Analysis of Chapters I & II
Douglass shares more about plantation owner Lloyd, including details about the enormous wealth he acquired by exploiting his slaves, the bizarre and impossible demands he made of his slaves, and the cruel punishments he inflicted when slaves failed to do exactly as he demanded. Slaves feared punishment for being truthful about their misery, and the suppression of truth was a core element of the institution of slavery.
Douglass describes the cruel actions of Gore, an overseer working for Lloyd, which included murdering a slave who went into a creek to soothe his pain. Douglass explains that this murder was not an isolated incident and describes several other unpunished instances of slaves being killed by overseers around the same time Douglass himself was enslaved.
Read a full Summary & Analysis of Chapters III & IV
Douglass received some preferential treatment as a child because Lloyd’s grandson formed an attachment to him, but he still suffered greatly. Douglass was eventually selected to leave the plantation and move to Baltimore with Anthony’s son-in-law’s brother, Hugh Auld. Years later, Douglass still believes that he was touched by providence in being selected to leave, and that had he not been, he would still be a slave rather than a man sitting in his home writing his autobiography.
Sophia Auld, Hugh’s wife, was initially kind to Douglass, and even taught him how to read. Her kindness turned to cruelty, however, as the corrupting effects of slaveholding changed her. Hugh rebuked Sophia for teaching Douglass the alphabet, and this gave Douglass insight into the minds of slaveholders. Douglass enjoyed the relatively greater freedom of the city and mentions that slaveholders in cities were careful to not appear outwardly cruel in the eyes of their white non-slaveholding neighbors.
Read a full Summary & Analysis of Chapters V & VI
During his years with the Aulds in Baltimore, Douglass found ways to learn how to read and eventually how to write, despite the many rules against slaves becoming literate. Douglass eventually read enough about slavery and abolition to enter a period of suicidal despair. Gradually, though, Douglass began to entertain thoughts of escaping from slavery.
After Anthony’s death, Douglass returned to the plantation to be “appraised” along with the rest of Anthony’s holdings and livestock, which was an experience that proved to be every bit as dehumanizing as it sounds. Douglass was relieved to learn he could return to the Aulds, but after returning, a series of deaths and disputes in the Auld family resulted in Douglass’s grandmother being abandoned in a hut in the woods and then Douglass himself being sent back to the country again, this time to the home of Thomas, Hugh’s brother.
Read a full Summary & Analysis of Chapters VII & VIII
Thomas proved to be a terrible person and an inept slaveowner who did not feed his slaves enough, was inconsistent in his discipline, and tried to mask his cruelty behind hypocritical religious piety. Douglass became rebellious and troublesome to the point that Thomas decided to rent him out to a man named Edward Covey who had a reputation for “breaking” slaves.
Douglass describes his descent from humanity when he arrived at Covey’s farm and felt objectified as a slave after being repeatedly beaten by Covey. Douglass details his return to humanity, which he achieved by fighting off one of Covey’s attacks, after which Covey never beat him again.
Read a full Summary & Analysis of Chapter IX & Chapter X, Part 1
Douglass, whose resolve to be free was revived by his fight with Covey, was sent to the farm of William Freeland, where he found that comradery, the pursuit of education, and the yearning for freedom existed within the slave community. After Douglass and some of the other slaves attempted to escape but were betrayed by someone, Thomas sent Douglass back to Hugh in Baltimore. There, Douglass learned skills and earned wages as a carpenter’s apprentice, which he was obliged to hand over to Hugh.
Read a full Summary & Analysis of Chapter X, Part 2
Douglass does not reveal any details of his escape lest he give slaveholders information that they could use to hold down other slaves. Incensed at having to turn over his wages to Hugh, Douglass worked out a deal in which he found his own work and gave Hugh a hefty weekly cut, which seemed to satisfy both men despite its unfairness to Douglass until Hugh abruptly canceled it. The loss of what little freedom he had pushed Douglass to put aside his anxieties about leaving, and he escaped Baltimore and slavery, arriving in New York City.
In New York where he had no shelter, food, money, or friends, Douglass was seized by fear of recapture, but he was befriended and taken in by a free Black man named David Ruggles who arranged for Douglass’s fiancée, Anna Murray, to join him in New York, where they were married. Ruggles also arranged their move to New Bedford, a community where Douglass found that Black people enjoyed good living conditions and were educated and politically aware. Douglass attended an antislavery convention where he was urged to speak about his experiences as a slave, thus setting the path to his present notoriety for pleading the case against slavery.
Douglass resumes and intensifies his criticisms of hypocritical Southern “Christians” and their corrupted churches who ignore the pure and peaceful Christianity of Jesus Christ, as they whip slaves, prostitute female slaves, and steal the wages of working slaves while professing Christian values of humility, purity, and virtue.
Read a full Summary & Analysis of Chapter XI & Appendix