Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

The Lesson


Frederick Douglass.

Frederick Douglass.

Credit: Portrait courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

Frederick Douglass's 1845 narrative of his life is a profile in both moral and physical courage. In the narrative Douglass openly illustrates and attacks the misuse of Christianity as a defense of slavery. He also reveals the turning point of his life: his spirited physical defense of himself against the blows of a white "slave-breaker."

Guiding Questions

  • How does Frederick Douglass's skilled use of language paint a convincing portrait of slavery's horrors?
  • What behaviors and actions did slaveholders use Christianity to justify and how does Douglass effectively point out their hypocrisy?

Learning Objectives

In the process of completing this curriculum unit, students will be able to:

  • Analyzing and understand a specific type of historical and literary primary document, the slave narrative/autobiography.
  • Recognize and explain the use and effectiveness of precise word choice, imagery, irony, and rhetorical appeals.
  • Learn to look for and contrast instances of reality and romanticized myth by using the slave narrative as a source for historical study.
  • Explore Douglass' courageous refutation of false arguments used to uphold slavery

Preparation Instructions

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Chapter Nine—The Courage to Criticize the Misuse of Christianity in Upholding Slavery

In this chapter, Douglass uses the example of two men, Captain Thomas Auld and Mr. Covey, both recently converted to Christianity, to point out the misuse and abuse of Christianity for the good of the slave owner and overseer. Students will explore Douglass's rhetorical strategies as he examines the slave owners' use of Christianity as justification for slavery.

  1. Douglass states of Captain Thomas Auld, "after his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty."
    • How does Captain Auld demonstrate that he reads the Bible in order to find support for his own needs and desires-in this case, upholding slavery? Consider his treatment of the slave girl, Henny.
    • Moreover, what scriptural passage does Auld quote to justify his inhumane behavior?

      "I have said my master found religious sanction for his cruelty. As an example, I will state one of many facts going to prove the charge. I have seen him tie up a lame young woman, and whip her with a heavy cowskin upon her naked shoulders, causing the warm red blood to drip; and, in justification of the bloody deed, he would quote this passage of Scripture -- "He that knoweth his master's will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes."

      Master would keep this lacerated young woman tied up in this horrid situation four or five hours at a time. I have known him to tie her up early in the morning, and whip her before breakfast; leave her, go to his store, return at dinner, and whip her again, cutting her in the places already made raw with his cruel lash. The secret of master's cruelty toward 'Henny" is found in the fact of her being almost helpless. When quite a child, she fell into the fire, and burned herself horribly. Her hands were so burnt that she never got the use of them. She could do very little but bear heavy burdens. She was to master a bill of expense; and as he was a mean man, she was a constant offence to him. He seemed desirous of getting the poor girl out of existence. He gave her away once to his sister; but, being a poor gift, she was not disposed to keep her. Finally, my benevolent master, to use his own words, "set her adrift to take care of herself" Here was a recently-converted man, holding on upon the mother, and at the same time turning out her helpless child, to starve and die! Master Thomas was one of the many pious slaveholders who hold slaves for the very charitable purpose of taking care of them".
  2. Ask students to comment upon the effectiveness of Douglass's ironic description of Capt. Auld: "Here was a recently converted man, holding on upon the mother, and at the same time turning out her helpless child, to starve and die! Master Thomas was one of the many pious slaveholders who hold slaves for the very charitable purpose of taking care of them." Who might be the audience for Douglass's irony? According to the definition of irony, in what way is this statement ironic?
  3. Have students read the following description of Mr. Covey, a slave-breaker who oversaw Frederick Douglass. Have the students identify the irony and comment upon the tone. For example, have the students consider the phrase "high reputation" in the context of "breaking young slaves," i.e., breaking human beings? What does one usually break? An animal such as a horse. Later in the passage, why does Douglass use the word "professor" to describe Mr. Covey? Is the implication that Covey merely professes to be a Christian when, in fact, he is not? And what about the effectiveness of the phrases "pious soul," "class-leader," and "nigger-breaker"? Why might Mr. Covey's religious observance "add weight to his reputation"?

    "Mr. Covey had acquired a very high reputation for breaking young slaves, and this reputation was of immense value to him. It enabled him to get his farm tilled with much less expense to himself than he could have had it done without such a reputation. Some slaveholders thought it not much loss to allow Mr. Covey to have their slaves one year, for the sake of the training to which they were subjected, without any compensation. He could hire young help with great ease, in consequence of his reputation. Added to the natural good qualities of Mr. Covey, he was a professor of religion,--a pious soul—a member and class-leader in the Methodist church. All of this added weight to his reputation as a "nigger-breaker."
Activity 2. Chapter Ten—The Courage to Fight Back
  1. After six months of working under Mr. Covey, Douglass writes that "Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!"

    How does the above passage portray the psychological state of a slave? What image or images does the passage evoke? Is this passage a persuasive piece of rhetoric against slavery? How? Remind students of the rhetorical appeals—pathos, logos, and ethos—which is Douglass using? Is it effective?

    Remind students of the Persuasive Appeals overview available via EDSITEment-reviewed Silva Rhetoricae:
    • Logos: appeal to reason
    • Ethos: appeal to one's own character
    • Pathos: appeal to emotion
  2. Douglass prefaces his physical combat with Mr. Covey with the declaration: "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man." Why is fighting Mr. Covey—literally wrestling with him—an act of courage for Douglass? Why is it yet another turning point in his life?
  3. Characterize the language Douglass uses in describing how he felt after fighting with Mr. Covey: "I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day has passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me."

    How does this passage compare to his self-description above, when he had been "broken" by Mr. Covey? How does Douglass use religious references to bolster his claims, such as in the phrase "from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom"?
  4. In the remainder of Chapter Ten, Douglass gives numerous examples of his courage: intellectual, emotional, spiritual and physical. Identify at least one example of each of these types of courage (one example may, in fact, embody each of these types of courage). Explain how each of these examples further enhances his humanity and consequently might encourage his reading audience to acknowledge his humanity, too. What rhetorical devices does Douglass draw on to accomplish this? (Students might, for example, point out that Douglass's amazing story and courageous acts increase his ethos for his audience. Students should give specific examples.)

Students might consider the following questions as they examine Douglass's acts of courage:

  • How does Douglass's story embody the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness—the right which the Declaration of Independence granted to all but slaves and women?
  • In what ways does Douglass demonstrate his courage? Is courage a defining element of the human spirit?


Students should write a brief essay using as a starting point William Andrews' assertion that the purpose of the slave narrative was "to enlighten white readers about both the realities of slavery as an institution and the humanity of black people as individuals deserving of full human rights." Does Douglass successfully achieve this purpose? Explain and give specific examples as to why Douglass's Narrative is successful.

Extending The Lesson

  • Students might consider reading an autobiography of a female slave such as Harriet Jacobs in order to compare the male and female slave experience. How were these experiences similar? How did they differ?
  • Students might consider further study of the spiritual as a form of communication amongst the slaves, especially those hoping to "catch" the Underground Railroad north to freedom.
  • Students might also be interested in hearing oral narratives of slave times collected by John and Ruby Lomax of the WPA during the Great Depression. These interviews include personal histories and songs and can be found at the American Memory Project website. The interviews provide a unique and interesting auditory experience.

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

1-2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Common Core
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Biography
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Essay
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Online research
  • Writing skills
  • Mary Edmonds (AL)