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Frederick Douglass’s Arguments Against Slavery

PIED 1601- Freedom, Power and Resistance: An Introduction to Political Ideas

TITLE – How successful is the argument against slavery that Douglass makes in the Narrative, and what (if any) its implications for society today?

In this essay I will analyse Douglass’ arguments against slavery, beginning with his argument that slavery is cruel and therefore wrong. I will then look at points that suggest that this argument is unconvincing. Next, I will consider an implication that Douglass’ arguments have on modern day society. Finally, I will discuss the suggestion that slavery is unamerican.

One argument Douglass puts forward against slavery is that slavery is cruel. He attempts to demonstrate this in the Narrative by describing some of the horrific experiences he witnessed. He gives an account of an event in which his master brings another slave home, strips her to the waist, ties her up, and whips her. He describes how “the louder she screamed the harder he whipped; and where the blood run fastest there he whipped longest.” (Douglass 1845, p.6) Here Douglass is attempting to display the cruelty of slavery and therefore how it is wrong. He further shows this cruelty describing how “children from seven to ten years old […] almost naked, might be seen at all season of the year,” (Douglass 1845, p.10) as well as speaking of how slaves were sleep and food deprived, meaning that even without the physical abuse they lived an extremely cruel life, treated as sub-humans.

Douglass also attempts to illustrate the cruelty of slavery in the Inhumanity of Slavery in which he argues that it is clear that slavery is cruel due to the fact that there were laws in the slave towns prohibiting slaveowners from abusing their slaves. This indicated the cruelty of slavery because if slavery was not cruel in its nature such laws would not be necessary. He spoke in this lecture about how slaves would choose “rather to encounter hunger and thirst, and to roam with the wild beasts of the forest, running the hazard of being hunted and shot down, than to submit to the authority of kind masters,” (Douglass 1855, p.346) showing that slavery was so cruel that a life lived in fear of death was a better life than one of slavery.

An issue with this argument is the fact that advocates of slavery would have claimed that if the laws against the abuse towards slaves were enforced there would no longer be an issue with slavery as it would no longer be cruel. Douglass however, would disagree with this claim, saying that it is not just the treatment of the slaves but that “slavery is itself an abuse,” (Douglass 1855, p.344) and that “slavery is wicked – wicked, in that it violates the great laws of liberty written on every human heart.” (Douglass 1855, p.344). Here he is saying that it is the lack of freedom that makes slavery cruel, not the physical abuse. This would therefore suggest that any attempts to make slavery less cruel would fail, as the slaves would still not be free.

This has implications in modern day society because it could suggest that any system in which people lose their liberty is slavery. For instance, in a society such as North Korea, people are told what jobs they will do and are unable to opt out of having that occupation; therefore, meaning that they lack the liberty to decide the way in which they would like to work. This lack of freedom may therefore be considered to be cruelty and hence should be outlawed, in accordance with Douglass’ arguments. His points may therefore be used for groups fighting for change in countries like North Korea.

This sentimental argument is however only effective for people that do not need to be convinced that slavery is wrong. For people that saw the slaves as inferior humans, slavery was not seen as cruel because they believed slaves did not have the same liberties as they were entitled to. This argument therefore falls sort for such individuals, as they do not see the idea of slavery as cruel.

However, throughout the Narrative Douglass describes moments which may indicate that the slaveowners did not actually hold the belief that the slaves were naturally inferior. One event that demonstrates this is when Douglass became the slave of Mr Auld. His wife began to educate Douglass by teaching him how to read. However, Mr Auld quickly stopped this education saying that “if you teach that n***** […] how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.” (Douglass 1845, p.33)This indicates that slaveowners feared educated slaves. This demonstrates that they did not feel that this order was natural and instead had to be enforced. Douglass is a good example of this fear being realised as it was his education that aided in his understanding of the brutality of his situation and gave him the motivation to gain his freedom. Douglass accredited not only Mrs Auld for inspiring his education and drive for freedom but also Mr Auld, because learning of the white man’s fear for the educated slave drove Douglass to become educated.

This account presented another side of the cruelty of slavery, and that was the effect that it had on the slaveowners rather than on the slaves themselves. Douglass speaks about how slavery corrupted Mrs Auld, describing how her “tender heart [became] stone.” (Douglass 1845, p.37) This therefore further underpins the argument against slavery which is effective even for those people that believe that it is the natural structure to society because they can see the damaging effects to themselves as well as to the slaves.

Douglass describes another event which exposed that slaveowners may not have seen slavery as the natural structure to society. He describes an event in which anoverseer shoots a slave for not following a command and when asked to defend his actions “[h]e argued that if one slave refused to be corrected, and escaped with his life, the other slaves would soon copy the example; the result of which would be, the freedom of the slaves, and the enslavement of the whites.” (Douglass 1845, p.23) This defence was considered to be satisfactory by the slave owner which suggests that they believe that their current structure of society could easily be broken. This would therefore suggest that they did not actually see it as a natural structure to society and therefore this sentimental argument may be effective.

Another point against the sentimental is the debate over the idea of the contented slave. This suggests that the slaves did not understand that what was happening to them was cruel because they lacked the education to understand. It was only after becoming educated that Douglass learnt of the true injustice of his existence, he “now understood what had been to [him] a most perplexing difficulty [..] the white man’s power to enslave the black man.” (Douglass 1845, p.33) This leads one to question, if a slave lacks this knowledge, are they free, and if so, then is slavery all that cruel? There is clear evidence to show the existence of the contented slave. Douglass recalls how slaves would often ‘quarrel amongst themselves about the relative goodness of their masters, each contenting for the superior goodness of his owner over that of the other (Douglass 1845, p.20). This indicates how the slaves did not understand that this mistreatment was wrong and instead attempted to show that their owner was the best. Douglass even says how he did “not remember ever to have given a negative answer; nor consider [himself] as uttering what was absolutely false,” (Douglass 1845, p.19) when asked about his masters. However, in contrast he also spoke of how the slaves would ‘mutually execrate their masters when viewed separately,” (Douglass 1845, p.20) presenting that while they may not have understood why what their slaveowners were doing was wrong, they understood that they did not like this treatment. So, while they did not understand that they were unfree, they still felt that they were being treated with cruelty, hence meaning that Douglass’ argument would still stand.

Another key argument against slavery is that it is unamerican. This addresses one of the core foundations of the United States, liberty. He argues that because slavery removes liberty from individuals, it is therefore incompatible with being American. The key evidence for this argument can be found in the Declaration of Independence, in which it states; “[w]e hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” (Jefferson 1776, p.1) This shows how the United States was formed on the understanding that all individuals, should have the right to liberty. However, with the practice of slavery, this passage was not upheld as the slaves did not have their liberty. The argument that Douglass is putting forward here is the fact that slavery does not belong in the United States because it is not a liberal concept and the United States as a country is liberal. Douglass speaks intently upon this subject in What to the slave is the fourth of July? In this he argues that the fourth of July is a mockery of a celebration of independence, while slaves are still lacking their freedom. Douglass questions whether “the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in the Declaration of Independence, extended to [the slaves] us?” (Douglass 1852, p.4) and speaks of how their celebrations of independence only further reveals the difference between the freeman and the slaves. Ultimately Douglass argues that “slavery is alike the sin and shame of the American people; it is a blot upon the American name.” (Douglass 1855p.346)

Another argument against Douglass’ claim that slavery is unamerican is the fact that within the Constitution, black people are called “three-fifths” (U.S Constitution, Section I) of a person. This has been used to argue that because the slaves were only “three-fifths” of a person, they do not have those rights which are set out under the Declaration of Independence, and hence slavery is not unamerican. The use of this idea that slaves were sub-human can be seen in the Supreme Court case of Dred Scot vs Stanford, in which a slave attempted to sue, however, the Chief Justice ruled that the slave was not a full man and therefore did not possess the rights granted under the Constitution, and hence  had no right to sue anyone. Further evidence that slaves were considered to be lesser humans can be seen in the fact that the killing of a slave or any coloured person in Maryland was not treated as a crime. Douglass describes an example of this in action; he describes an incident in which an overseer murders a slave, Demby, and gets away with it, with no punishment, due to the fact that Demby was a slave and the only other witnesses were slaves (Douglass 1845, p.22).

However, I would argue that using the “three-fifths” idea is a weak argument against Douglass’ point as the clause has been taken out of context from the Constitution. The Constitution actually reads “three-fifths of all other persons” referring to the voting rights of black people within the United States. Therefore, while this clause does limit the power of the votes of the black population of the United States, it does not actually suggest that they are less human than any other American and nor does it allow for their other rights to be compromised. I would therefore suggest that this clause has been used in order to attempt to justify slavery, rather than it actually being a valid point against Douglass’ argument.

In this essay I have discussed two of the key arguments against slavery that Douglass puts forward in the Narrative. In addition, I have looked at some of the arguments put forward in favour of slavery and considered whether Douglass’ points contradict them. I have concluded that Douglass’ arguments against slavery are effective even when the counterpoints have been considered.



  • Douglass, F. (1855). My Bondage and My Freedom. [online] Available at: [Accessed 23 Dec. 2018].
  • Douglass, F. (1845). Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, and American slave. [online] The Making Of The Modern World [Accessed 20 Dec. 2018]
  • Douglass, F. (1852). “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”. [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 Dec. 2018].
  • The Founding Fathers (1788). The US Constitution. Philadelphia. [online] [Accessed 23 Dec. 2018]
  • Jefferson, T et al. (1776). The Declaration of Independence. Philadelphia. [online] [Accessed 23 Dec. 2018]

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