One of Douglass's goals in his autobiography is to illustrate beyond doubt that slavery had an insidious, spirit-killing effect on the slaveholder as well as the slave. In other words, in the master-slave relationship both parties suffered, whether it was spiritual corruption, physical pain, or both. Douglass asks his readers to consider the effects of this "peculiar institution" on humanity.
In the process of completing this curriculum unit, students will be able to:
In Chapter Six, Douglass uses the example of his new master and mistress, Mr. Hugh and Sophy Auld, to reveal how slavery dehumanizes the slave owner as well as the slave. Students should focus on the first three paragraphs in particular. Have them underline or note any words that they think help shape Douglass's argument and then have them answer the following questions. Students can use this interactive assessment tool to explore these issues in Chapter Six.
This passage offers both a portrait in comparison between Mr. Auld and his wife, as well as serves as a turning point in Douglass's life.
In Chapter 7, paragraph 2, Douglass provides more evidence and conviction that slavery corrupts the slave owner or in this case, Mrs. Auld, the slave owner's wife. Keep in mind that 19th century America was also known for its cult of domesticity and sentimentality—the belief that women were the moral standard bearers in American society. What does it say about society if a woman can behave as Mrs. Auld does?
My mistress was, as I have said, a kind and tender-hearted woman; and in the simplicity of her soul she commenced, when I first went to live with her, to treat me as she supposed one human being ought to treat another. In entering upon the duties of a slaveholder, she did not seem to perceive that I sustained to her the relation of a mere chattel, and that for her to treat me as a human being was not only wrong, but dangerously so. Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me. When I went there, she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which she had not a tear. She had bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and comfort for every mourner that came within her reach. Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness. The first step in her downward course was in her ceasing to instruct me. She now commenced to practise her husband's precepts. She finally became even more violent in her opposition than her husband himself. She was not satisfied with simply doing as well as he had commanded; she seemed anxious to do better. Nothing seemed to make her more angry than to see me with a newspaper. She seemed to think that here lay the danger. I have had her rush at me with a face made all up of fury, and snatch from me a newspaper, in a manner that fully revealed her apprehension. She was an apt woman; and a little experience soon demonstrated, to her satisfaction, that education and slavery were incompatible with each other.
Despite Mrs. Auld's best efforts to shut Frederick up in "mental darkness," he perseveres and learns to read. Have students focus on the following passage and answer the questions:
Students might consider, for example, Douglass' juxtaposition of the childrens' hunger next to the description of the "unpardonable offense" of teaching slaves to read in this "Christian country." How does the hypocrisy inherent in slavery bleed over in other aspects of daily life?
Have students re-examine these passages and write a short response paper exploring one example of Douglass effectively showing how an opponents' rhetoric is faulty. Possible examples include the misuse of Christianity, Mr. Auld's explanation for the problem with teaching slaves to read, or another situation contained in these two chapters. How does Douglass effectively dispute these claims? What rhetorical devices aid him in this task?
1-2 class periods