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Owen Daugherty
Miss Burke
21 December, 2017

Most Effective Form of Oppression of Frederick Douglass

Throughout his life as a slave, Frederick Douglass, probably the most famous American

slave ever, was able to accomplish many things which were deemed impeccable for his time.

With many accomplishments, from learning how to read as a slave to eventually escaping

slavery and becoming an active abolitionist, he was a well-respected man who seemed like he

could not be stopped. However, slaveholders were very close to inhibiting his accomplishments

through the physical beatings that he both witnessed and received. The harsh physicality he was

shown throughout his life was almost enough to break him down before he could escape slavery

and tell of his story in his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. In this

book, he gives many examples of how this physicality hindered him at a young age, how this

physicality continued to affect him in all aspects of life, and how physical oppression was the

most effective form of oppression that slaveholders put onto him.

One reason that physical oppression had the greatest effect on limiting Douglass’s self-

empowerment was because it was introduced him at an extremely young age. From the earliest

memories that Douglass ever recalls throughout the book, almost all of them have a relation to

excessive physical abuse. At a young age, he recalls is first master’s overseer, Mr. Plummer,

being violent and profane. Douglass says, “I have most often been awakened at the dawn of day

by the most heartrending shrieks of an own aunt of mine…I remember the first time I ever

witnessed this horrible exhibition. I was quite a child, but I will remember it. I never shall forget

it whilst I remember anything. It was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was

doomed to be a witness and a participant” (23). His strong memory of this scenario and many
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scenarios like this show how the physicality he saw a such a young age affected him, and it left a

serious scar on him for the rest of his life. He also goes on to later say, “It was the blood-stained

gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass” (23). This quote

shows how the image of the brutal beatings he witnessed left a serious impression on his mind.

These extreme sights and stories most likely hindered Frederick’s ideas of freedom and of being

his own person by forcing him to focus on doing his job properly. This would force him to be a

“good slave” in order to avoid any serious whippings or other forms of punishment. Introduction

to these physical pains early on led him to have no thoughts of yearning for freedom until he

learned to read around the age of 12, and he would wait to officially make a plan for many years

until he worked under Mr. Covey. If these dangerous outrages of violence had not occurred,

Douglass may have started looking for a chance of freedom at a younger age without fright of

extreme physical beatings.

Another reason that physical punishment was the most effective form of oppression in

keeping Douglass’s self-empowerment down is because it could literally have an affect on any

point of his life, and it could cause slaves like Douglass to become paranoid every minute of

everyday. A slave could be punished for anything and everything that they did. Obviously they

would be punished for disobeying orders, which while immoral was still expected for the day

and age that the slaves were in. However, slaves were often punished with no reason at all other

than their masters wanted to hurt them. One situation where their was no aggravation to cause

violence occurred when Master Andrew and Mrs. Lucretia were splitting their father’s property.

While Douglass was at this event, Master Andrew “took my (Douglass’s) little brother by the

throat, threw him on the ground, and with the heel of a boot stamped on his head till the blood

gushed from his nose and ears… [this] was well calculated to make me anxious as to my fate”
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(Douglass 60). This quote shows both how violent slaveholders could be, even when Douglass’s

brother did nothing to bring this punishment to him, as well as how much violent instances like

this made Douglass think about his future. His entire future would have drastically changed if he

went with Master Andrew instead of Aunt Lucretia, and this would have likely limited

Douglass’s self-empowerment by a significant amount. For slaves like Douglass, “To be accused

was to be convicted, and to be convicted was to be punished; the one always following the other

with immutable certainty” (Douglass 37-38). Because of circumstances like this, slaves needed

to always be on lookout for their masters just looking for the opportunity to beat them. This was

especially true for one of Douglass’s masters Mr. Covey, who was commonly called by his

nickname, “the snake.” He was called this because he would always have an eye on the slaves,

even when he was not supposed to. At times, he would act like he was leaving only to stay

around and catch slaves slacking at their jobs and then seriously punish them. “There was no

deceiving him. His work went on in his absence almost as well as in his presence; and he had the

faculty of making us feel that he was ever present with us” (Douglass 72). This shows how the

fact that they could be beaten at any time affected how they worked, and the more time they put

into work the less time they could put into trying to escape slavery. This was very true for

Douglass, who eventually left the field for one day because Master Covey had beaten him so


There are multiple reasons that physical oppression was the most effective form of

oppression used on Douglass throughout the book, and there are also many examples that prove

why other forms of oppression did not have as much of an effect on him. Some of these forms of

oppressions include economic, legal, and intellectual oppression. Economic pains for slaves

were, although extremely difficult, able to be coped with. Douglass was able to deal with these
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fairly easily, as it only affected their clothes and food supply. If he did not have proper shoes or

proper clothing items for a specific job, it would at first be tough but over time calluses would

form and the job would become gradually easier. The only other affect limited clothes had on

Frederick was the little amount of body warmth during the winter, but Douglass only ever

mentions this problem once throughout his book. None of this was a large factor limiting his

self-empowerment at all. Legal issues were a huge problem for slaves at the time, but they did

not have much of a direct affect on Frederick Douglass. For most slaves, whenever they were

dealt with in an extremely harmful and disgraceful way, they could not “testify against [a white

man who committed a crime,]… [and it was like] killing a slave, or any colored person, in Talbot

County, Maryland, is not treated by a crime, either by the courts or the community” (Douglass

39-40). These legal issues mostly dealt with the unjust death of a slave, which Douglass did not

have to worry about, at least for his own well-being, while alive. This was never a problem for

Douglass, and the only time he ran into big trouble with the law was when he was caught before

trying to escape slavery from Mr. Freeland, and this legal issue was soon not a problem as he

was wanted elsewhere. As for intellectual oppression, this did not have a negative effect on

Douglass at all and may have even helped him eventually achieve freedom from slavery. When

Master Auld started to prohibit Mrs. Auld from teaching Douglass to read, Douglass was injected

with a passion to further his intelligence on the subject and would persevere after it, as he said,

“…I set out with a high hope , a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read”

(48-49). This intellectual oppression led to him learning even more about reading and writing

and showed him that this could lead to his eventual freedom, which he would one day achieve.

These examples show how extreme physical treatment had a much more immense effect on

Douglass’s self-empowerment than any of the other forms of oppression he experienced.

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Physical pain has an affect on all aspects of a slave’s life. When being beaten with the

same brutality that slaves like Frederick Douglass endured, an immediate feeling of intense fear

is imbibed into his minds and it prohibits him from forming any ideas of what life would be like

if he was not a slave, as he was too focused on avoiding any possibility of future pain. Douglass

was luckier than other slaves though, and his mind continued to be enlightened by the idea of

freedom. Throughout the book, the physical beatings that he as well as other slaves endured is

the most stressed and most conversed form of oppression. The amount of time and detail put into

these scenes as well as the effect it had on Douglass as an early child and throughout his entire

life as a slave prove that this had the largest effect in holding back Douglass as person.