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Meg Strauss
Nancy Henke
American Literature 270
April 18, 2016
Prompt Number 2

I have not given, received, or used any unauthorized assistance on my paper.

For a nation that was initially based almost entirely upon personal liberties, Americans

have ironically been subject to a severe limitation of freedom. This idea is seen not only seen

with the United States historical tolerance of slavery, but also within the industrial workforce.

Two major literary works, Frederick Douglass Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An

American Slave, Written by Himself and Rebecca Harding Davis Life in the Iron Mills, express

the idea that American slavery can be viewed in multiple ways. By comparing Douglass birth

into slavery to Davis depiction of the Industrial Age, a reader can gain a fuller understanding as

to how slavery is a central theme in United States society. At the same time, one recognizes

the irony of thinking that the United States is a nation that represents freedom.

The United States Declaration of Independence famously states, We hold these truths to

be self-evident, that all men are created equal (The Declaration of Independence). In other

words, all men should have an equal opportunity to the benefits of freedom. Douglass narrative

shows the pure irony within that sentence. Douglass provides readers with a comprehensive

account of Americas most original form of inequality and oppression: race-based slavery.

Douglass clearly displays the harshness of this oppression by explaining in great detail what life

as a slave involved. He recounts a time in which he saw his aunt being whipped until she was

literally covered with blood (Douglass 948). He describes this scene as, the first of a long
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series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant (948).

Douglass goes on to explain that the reason his aunt was punished was simply because she went

out one night and happened to be absent when [the] master desired her presence (948).

Clearly, this instance is an example of a limitation of freedom; for slaves were almost killed

when they attempted to establish their own freedom. Slaves were not viewed as human. Instead,

they were viewed purely as a farm implement, used to help a plantation owner increase their

profitability.

Another instance in which Douglass narrative displays the irony of American freedom

revolves around Douglass desire for an education. The signers of the Declaration of

Independence seemingly believed that all men, regardless of race, should have an equal

opportunity for gaining knowledge. Equal opportunity is hardly the case as Douglass describes

his disappointment that he had no chance for an education simply because he was a slave.

Douglass states that his masters wife tried to teach him the alphabet, but his master quickly

stopped her by telling her that, If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should

know nothing but to obey his master to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best

nigger in the world (Douglass 960). Slavery is an obvious contradiction to the grounds upon

which the United States was founded as outlined in the Declaration of Independence. Men,

during the time of recently-gained independence, still were not equal because slavery established

a culture in which a certain race was considered to be the dominant race. Slavery made it so

white males could take away another persons freedom, even their freedom to learn the alphabet.

Douglass overall narrative vividly represents the irony in regards to the misconception

that every person within the United States has the right to be free. Slavery is a clear example of

the limitations of liberty. Various historians agree that learning about history is the most efficient
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way of ensuring a nation does not repeatedly make the same mistakes. At first glance, it seems as

though the United States has properly studied their history considering the nation has not

reverted back into slavery since its abolition in 1865. However, when one truly analyzes

oppression within the United States, it becomes clear that even though institutional slavery no

longer exists, the limitations placed on freedom after the Civil War were still just as evident.

Life in the Iron Mills illustrates a more modern view of slavery, which in turn points to

the irony in thinking the United States is based upon freedom. In Davis text, people are

essentially slaves to their bosses and work. Life in the Iron Mills is a story that highlights the

lack of independence that paralleled the Industrial Age. In this technological era, workers

worked over fourteen hours a day, six days a week, consequently resulting in few hours spent

completely free (Economic Growth and the Early Industrial Revolution). In essence, these

workers were seen by society as not being human, in the same way slaves were traditionally

viewed. Factory workers were basically deemed to be machines. Davis describes a worker by

stating, He has already lost the strength and instinct vigor of a man, his muscles were thin, his

nerves weak, his facehaggard, yellow with consumption (Davis 1127). Davis also mentions

that the same man feels he has worked there for ages and feels there is no hope that it will

ever end (1127). These quotes stress the impact these harsh work conditions had on factory

workers. Factory jobs took away all things that made a person a human-most importantly, a

humans freedom. This lack of independence made men, specifically the man in Davis text, feel

almost lifeless. These workers were so completely used to the idea of constantly being confined

to work that they eventually lost all hope for the free life that the United States seemed to

promise.
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In comparing Douglass and Davis work, one notices the lack of freedom and the reality

of American society versus its ideals. These two forms of oppression are vastly different;

however, in both texts, the characters have had their independence stripped away from them.

This is extremely ironic, considering the United States is supposed to be, as the National Anthem

states, the land of the free. The importance of noticing this irony displayed when comparing

traditional American misconceptions and Douglass and Davis text is fundamentally important.

A reader can truly understand the many forms of slavery still evident in United States society,

and notice the irony in thinking that liberty was the foundation upon which the United States

society was based. When analyzing these texts, one begins to understand that the lack of freedom

presented in American history directly opposes the notion that this nation was founded upon

freedom and that all men are created equal. If this delusion proved to, in fact, be true, the

institution of slavery would have never been established within the United States and workers in

the Industrial Age would never been viewed only as robots. If this delusion were true, both

slaves presented in the two texts would have still exhibited a hope for what the great nation of

the United States essentially stood for: freedom.


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Works Cited

Davis, Rebecca Harding. Life in the Iron Mills. 8th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton. 2013. 1221-46.

Print.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written

by Himself. 8th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton. 2013. 946-65. Print.

Economic Growth and the Early Industrial Revolution, U.S. History Pre-Columbian to the

New Millennium. U.S. History. 18 Apr 2016. Web.

Independence Hall Association. The Declaration of Independence. Ushistory.org. 18 Apr

2016. Web.