Frederick Douglass’s Loyal Slaves

Frederick Douglass

Tomorrow my American Studies classes will begin to discuss Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read it, but I still look forward to every opportunity to revisit this book.  At some point I would like to teach an elective on the history of the nineteenth-century through a close examination of Douglass’s life.  As I was making my way through chapter 3 [pp. 20-21] I came across one of my favorite passages in which Douglass explores the complexity of the master-slave relationship.  In it he explains what appears to be the language of the loyal and contented slave.

It is partly in consequence of such facts, that slaves, when inquired of as to their condition and the character of their masters, almost universally say they are contented, and that their masters are kind. The slaveholders have been known to send in spies among their slaves, to ascertain their views and feelings in regard to their condition. The frequency of this has had the effect to establish among the slaves the maxim, that a still tongue makes a wise head.  They suppress the truth rather than take the consequences of telling it, and in so doing prove themselves a part of the human family. If they have anything to say of their masters, it is generally in their masters’ favor, especially when speaking to an untried man. I have been frequently asked, when a slave, if I had a kind master, and do not remember ever to have given a negative answer; nor did I, in pursuing this course, consider myself as uttering what was absolutely false; for I always measured the kindness of my master by the standard of kindness set up among slaveholders around us. Moreover, slaves are like other people, and imbibe prejudices quite common to others. They think their own better than that of others. Many, under the influence of this prejudice, think their own masters are better than masters of other slaves; and this, too, in some cases, when the very reverse is true. Indeed, it is not uncommon for slaves even to fall out and quarrel among themselves about the relative goodness of their masters, each contending for the superior goodness of his own over that of the others. At the very same time, they mutually execrate their masters when viewed separately. It was so on our plantation. When Colonel Lloyd’s slaves met the slaves of Jacob Jepson, they seldom parted without a quarrel about their masters; Colonel Lloyd’s slaves contending that he was the richest, and Mr. Jepson’s slaves that he was the smartest, and most of a man. Colonel Lloyd’s slaves would boast his ability to buy and sell Jacob Jepson. Mr. Jepson’s slaves would boast his ability to whip Colonel Lloyd. These quarrels would almost always end in a fight between the parties, and those that whipped were supposed to have gained the point at issue. They seemed to think that the greatness of their masters was transferable to themselves. It was considered as being bad enough to be a slave; but to be a poor man’s slave was deemed a disgrace indeed!

16 comments… add one
  • frederick strickland Feb 8, 2011 @ 17:26

    Frederick Douglass was what America could have been without slavery. But, in reality, it was slavery, and we were fortunate enough to have had Mr. Douglass at that point in time of American history that fought and ended it in America. If mortality is leaving this earth for heaven because of your good work on earth then let me see him when I die, and those who have fought like Mr. Douglass to enlarge our democracy. Charles Foster Kane said if he had been born a poor he might have been a great man. Studying the life of a genius as Douglass I can see why Kane said that.

  • Arleigh Birchler Jan 11, 2011 @ 8:40

    Is there anything on Douglass’ thoughts about Garrisonians, or Garrison’s thoughts about Douglass? What was Garrison’s denominational affiliation?

  • Braden Paynter Jan 11, 2011 @ 7:40

    Hi, thanks to other folks for sharing some documents and quotes. Good stuff. Here are a few more sources (in this case articles) that touch on the subject:
    Jay Rubin, “Black Nativism: The European Immigrant in Negro Thought, 1830-1860” Phylon, Vol. 39, No. 3 (3rd Qtr., 1978), 193-202.
    Arnold Shankman, “Black on Green: Afro-American Editors on Irish Independence, 1840-1921” Phylon, Vol. 41, No. 3 (3rd Qtr., 1980) 284-299
    Both have a number of references to and quotes from Douglass.
    Also interesting for comparison is,
    Gilbert Osofsky, “Abolitionists, Irish Immigrants, and the Dilemmas of Romantic Nationalism” The American Historical Review, Vol. 80, No. 4 (Oct., 1975) 889-912. Osofsky only briefly mentions Douglass in the article instead focusing on Garrison and the “Garrisonians” as a group and their attempts (and subsequent failures) to build a coalition with Irish immigrants. He makes brief mention of an attempt to use a class argument to unite the two groups (p. 899), but says it seems to miss.

    There is also interest in, and memory of, this topic in Ireland, one manifestation of which is a recent documentary on the subject entitled “Frederick Douglass and the White Negro” (Camel Productions). Also, folks have mentioned that Cork (in Ireland) is planing a Douglass celebration in 2016.

    Thanks again to the other folks who left citations, and to Bob for asking such a good question.

  • Bob Jan 10, 2011 @ 15:21

    Thanks for all the info everyone…

  • Arleigh Birchler Jan 10, 2011 @ 10:53

    Good discussion. I am glad I posted something, if only because I then get other folk’s comments.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 10, 2011 @ 13:21

      That’s the idea, Arleigh. 🙂

  • Bob Jan 10, 2011 @ 4:31

    What was Douglass’ opinion of the Irish immigrant workers in New England who were free, but were held hostage to the company store and the company in general with little or no wages, and living in sometimes worse conditions than some slaves. I have most of Douglass’ written material, but have not read anything along those lines. This is not a slave apologetic stance, just a true question on his feelings on the lower working class in the North and how slaves would be incorporated into the same workplace as these immigrant workers and how these conditions could be improved….I am sure he had a stance, I am just not aware of it….

    • Kevin Levin Jan 10, 2011 @ 6:15

      Keep in mind that Douglass spent time in Ireland during his time overseas. I don’t know what he thought of Irish immigrants, but he rejected the comparison of their condition during the Potato Famine with the condition of slavery. Perhaps someone else can add more.

    • EarthTone Jan 10, 2011 @ 9:23


      During the antebellum era, free negroes and Irish immigrants sometimes competed for low-wage jobs. This competition sometimes became violent, and at least a handful of fights or even small scale riots, took place between the two groups. Douglass’ comments regarding Irish immigrants, and negro-Irish relations, reflect that conflict.

      For example, consider this source:

      This has several references to Douglass’ comments on the conflict between negroes and Irish immigrants. As noted therein,
      “Frederick Douglass, the Black abolitionist whose own quest for freedom had been substantially aided by the advice of a ‘good Irishman’ on Baltimore wharves in the 1830s, could only wonder ‘why a people who so nobly loved and cherished the thought of liberty at home in Ireland could become, willingly, the oppressors of another race here.”

      More research would need to be done to establish exactly how Douglass conceived of the Irish immigrant, of the immigrant’s status as a so-called “wage slave”, and of the comparative status of negroes and the Irish. But this one source suggests that his views of the Irish may have been shaped and dominated by the conflict between the two groups.

      Also, it’s not clear that Douglass would have accepted the idea that Irish immigrants and blacks were comparable in experience because, as you put it, the Irish “living in sometimes worse conditions than some slaves.” Even in extreme poverty, slavery had distinct disadvantages over free status. For example, slaves had no marriage rights and were subject to losing family members at the whim of the master; free people had no correspondingly negative experience.

      This does not mean that he would have conceived that the Irish immigrant was somehow living well. It’s just to say that, Douglass might not have perceived an equivalence between the conditions of slaves and Irish immigrants in the way that you have here.

      I would note that Douglass was in favor of woman’s suffrage, and that may have been as bold as stance as abolitionism.

      • Kevin Levin Jan 10, 2011 @ 9:25

        Thanks for the additional references. Of course, if you are looking for examples of racial tension between these two groups you may want to look at the New York City Draft Riots of 1863.

    • Andy Hall Jan 10, 2011 @ 9:31

      Others have responded, but I’d only add that regardless of the exploitation leveled against them, Douglas nonetheless saw the Irish (and other white European) immigrants’ experience as being fundamentally different from the start than than that of enslaved African Americans:

      Mr. Lincoln further knows or ought to know at least that Negro hatred and prejudice of color are neither original nor invincible vices, but merely the offshoots of that root of all crimes and evils — slavery. If the colored people instead of having been stolen and forcibly brought to the United States had come as free immigrants, like the German and the Irish, never thought of as suitable objects of property, they never would have become the objects of aversion and bitter persecution, nor would there ever have been divulged and propagated the arrogant and malignant nonsense about natural repellancy and the incompatibility of races.

      From Douglass’ Monthly, September 1862, via the University of Rochester’s Frederick Douglass Project

      • Kevin Levin Jan 10, 2011 @ 9:55

        Thanks Andy

  • Arleigh Birchler Jan 9, 2011 @ 16:41

    A lot of food for thought here. Frederick Douglass was a very intelligent and educated man. There are many things I admire about him. His participation in the Seneca Falls Convention is one of the things that I admire most. I am less impressed by his advocacy of War as a way to solve a social problem.

    While there is a lot in this paper that is worthy of discussion, I am most drawn to the last statement about the slave of a poor man. I think that the main image we have of slavery is that of the large 100+ slave plantations. What may have been more common is the farm containing one free family and one slave family. No doubt terrible abuses occurred in these small farms, but I think that over all they provided an opportunity for interaction between the free family and the slave family.

    In my opinion the problem with slavery is not the abuses, torture, maiming, murdering and rape. One could hypothetically imagine a slave society in which those things did not occur. The basic problem is that the free folks operate in the capitalist free market society. They are able to acquire wealth. The slaves are not. (I realize there are some exceptions to that, but they are exceptions and not the rule.)

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